Patriots' Bill Belichick already identifying how young players could fit in 2021

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Identifying key pieces: There was a noticeable turn from coach Bill Belichick in his Q&As with reporters this past week. The Patriots are out of the playoffs, and they have their season finale Sunday against the visiting Jets (1 p.m. ET, CBS), but Belichick already seemed to be in 2021 mode in terms of his thinking.

He said of 2020 second-round draft pick Josh Uche, the linebacker from Michigan: "We'll be able to define his role much better next year, so I'm looking forward to that. He's definitely going to be an asset for us."

Of 2020 sixth-rounder Mike Onwenu, Belichick essentially said he's one of the team's best five offensive linemen, noting his emergence at tackle was a surprise because he was projected to be a depth option at guard. Because of that, "he's opened a lot of doors and opportunities for himself" in 2021.

Belichick said rookie running back J.J. Taylor, who has flashed promise in limited playing time, has a bright future if he can continue to improve in areas where he's less experienced -- pass protection and route running. Belichick noted his situation this season has been "different, but in some ways similar" to Damien Harris from 2019 (Harris hardly played as a rookie but seized his chance in his second season).

Promising 2020 top draft pick Kyle Dugger is another player Belichick addressed, saying he has had a wide range of responsibilities (deep safety, traditional safety, linebacker-type roles) as a rookie, which provides a solid foundation going forward.

And the coach said veteran safety Adrian Phillips was a "very valuable player" after signing as a free agent prior to the 2020 season, and Belichick is "excited to continue working with him."

Uche. Onwenu. Taylor. Harris. Dugger. Phillips.

For a Patriots team in need of an influx of young talent in a variety of areas, Belichick seemed to be identifying some of the high-upside players who are already in place as he transitions toward a crucial offseason to improve the talent base.

2. Long's insight: Former defensive end Chris Long, who was part of the Patriots' 2016 Super Bowl championship team, provides a unique perspective because of his recent history with the organization. On his "Green Light" podcast last week, while noting the "changing of the guard is complete" in the AFC East from New England to Buffalo, Long summed up the state of New England and quarterback Cam Newton this way:

"They are no longer the Patriots. It is a new football team. Yes, the bones are there. They have tremendous leadership, guys like Devin McCourty. They have a way of doing things. Bill Belichick is the GOAT. But you need players to win, and they don't have that right now, especially at the quarterback position and the wide receiver position, too, to be fair to Cam.

"Cam, as I suspected earlier this year, his body is just not there. And I don't know if it comes back. I made a comment Monday night on Twitter, I said, 'Hitting Cam is different.' ... When you hit Cam Newton, it's a different kind of thud. It's not forgiving at all; he's a 250-pound dude that is made of concrete. ... He's the toughest quarterback I ever faced.

"I'm looking at him now, I'm seeing what he's been through, I'm seeing the beating that he's been through, what he's subjected himself to this year and then throughout his career behind bad O-lines, running the football fearlessly [for] quarterback run to be a real part of what you do and scaring the s--- out of people; that dude is tough ... I really believe the attrition has caught up to him."

3. When 12 and 10 doesn't equal 11: It seems as though the Patriots have had more substitution errors on defense this season, resulting in either 12-men-on-the-field penalties (two), a timeout to get the right personnel on the field, or an embarrassing situation like Monday night's loss when they had 10 defenders on fourth-and-1 against the Bills. What made that situation even more disappointing Monday was that the umpire was standing over the football -- giving the Patriots extended time to match the Bills' substitution -- and no one noticed they were minus one defender. Human error will always be part of the game, but when Belichick said on sports radio WEEI that he looks forward "to hopefully returning to a higher level of coaching and playing performance for the Patriots," plays like that stand out on the coaching side.

4. Cam highlights value of offseason: The contrast of Newton saying how much he missed organized team activities and minicamp in transitioning to the Patriots, and NFL Players Association president J.C. Tretter saying it's time to end OTAs and minicamps, was hard to miss. Count me in favor of the spring practices and minicamps, as they contribute to a higher-quality product come the regular season.

5. From the suggestion box: If the Patriots didn't select wide receiver N'Keal Harry with the final pick of the first round in the 2019 NFL draft (No. 32), the Cardinals would have strongly considered Harry with the top pick of the second round (33). Or at least that's the theory of one close follower of the Cardinals. With that in mind, here's a friendly suggestion for Patriots director of pro personnel Dave Ziegler and Belichick: Explore the Cardinals' potential interest in Harry -- whose development has been slower than expected and who might benefit from a fresh start -- and see what the potential return might be. I'd propose a Harry-for-Christian Kirk swap as one in which a change of scenery might bring out the best in both players and prove to be a win-win scenario.

6. Future planning on hold: Belichick's final segment of his weekly radio interview on WEEI had a forward-thinking theme, as he noted "next season is not that far away." At the same time, Belichick acknowledged how many things are in limbo with 2021:

  • Players who opted out coming back: "I don't know that any of us know a lot about what next month is going to look like, what next year is going to look like ... it might be hard for them [to decide] or honestly somebody else [to decide]; somebody's circumstances might have changed to make a decision on something like that until we all know more or have more information. The league will have to set up some kind of [COVID-19] system next year -- whether it reverts back to what it was, whether it gets modified, whether it's similar to this year. There's a lot of unanswered questions there."

  • Contract extensions: "There's a lot of unanswered questions on what the salary cap is going to be next year and how that's going to be treated. There have been very few teams that re-signed players this year during the season. We'll see what happens after the season when teams sign reserve/future players off the practice squad -- maybe that will be the same as what it has been historically, maybe it won't, I don't know. There's really a lot of things up in the air in terms of team-building, roster-building and decision-making. Until those things get clarified, and the policies and cap get established, there isn't too much you can do without taking a big risk."

7. Bills' win comes at a cost: The Bills are hot, as evidenced by their 38-9 thrashing of the Patriots -- a game that came at a cost as valuable slot receiver Cole Beasley was knocked out with a leg injury that led him to the X-ray room, and which coach Sean McDermott described as a "week-to-week" situation. Coupled with how quickly the Bills moved to bring free-agent wide receiver Kenny Stills to town for a visit, it naturally sparks a question as to the severity of what Beasley is managing and if it could linger into the playoffs. As for the Patriots, with the 2021 theme in mind, cornerback Jonathan Jones' work against the dangerous Beasley on Monday (three catches, 17 yards) was a reminder he is a valuable piece for them moving forward.

8. Thank-you note for Murray: If the undrafted Taylor becomes a bigger part of the Patriots' plans at running back in 2021 -- and things are heading in that direction after Belichick identified him and undrafted defensive back Myles Bryant as "two guys that stood out in camp and made an impact from where they were at the start to where they were at the start of the season" -- a thank-you note might be due to former NFL running back DeMarco Murray. Taylor said it was the advice of Murray, who was his running backs coach at the University of Arizona in 2019, that led him to sign with the Patriots after the draft.

9. Final '21 schedule pieces: With much of the discussion surrounding the Patriots now trending toward 2021, here are two things to watch in Week 17: Who finishes in third place in the AFC North between the Ravens (10-5) and Browns (10-5), and who finishes in third in the AFC West among the Raiders (7-8), Chargers (6-9) and Broncos (5-9)? The Patriots will host the AFC North third-place finisher, and visit the AFC West third-place team.

10. Did You Know: Veteran Justin Bethel has totaled a team-high 14 special-teams tackles, ensuring he has totaled 10 or more special-teams tackles in each of his nine NFL seasons. The 14 tackles are the most by a Patriot since Nate Ebner had 16 in 2016. Perennial Pro Bowler Matthew Slater had 20 in 2012 and 21 in 2010.