Finally, the dust has settled. Amidst the most tumultuous offseason in this Patriot fan’s lifetime, we have arrived at the start of the 2020 season. For the first time since 2001, the New England Patriots will start a season without He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named on the roster.
Alas, we Patriots faithful have lamented the loss of what was but must look forward to what may be. On both sides of the ball, Belichick’s squad will look vastly different than the team that took the field against the Titans in January. With that change brings a lot of uncertainty, but there’s also a fair bit of hope.
COVID Opt-Outs Ravish New England
As NFL players made their way back to camp in July, the threat of COVID loomed large. Within a couple of weeks, the opt-outs piled up for New England:
- Dont’a Hightower, LB
- Patrick Chung, SS
- Marcus Cannon, RT
- Brandon Bolden, RB
- Danny Vitale, FB
- Marqise Lee, WR
- Matt LaCosse, TE
- Najee Toran, G
While some of these players were unlikely to make the roster (Najee who?), the losses of Hightower and Chung can’t be ignored. New England’s defensive general, and perhaps their best playmaker, will be sorely missed, particularly considering their young, unproven linebacking corps. After battling cancer earlier in his career, nobody can blame Cannon for opting out but his departure will have a major impact on what appears to be a run-heavy attack.
When all was said and done, the Patriots had 8 opt outs – more than any other team (and by a significant margin). But rather than focus on what could have been, let’s dive deeper on who we will see on the field in 2020.
In the late spring, the Jarrett Stidham hype train was charging full-steam ahead. But in early July, it came to a screeching halt when the Pats announced the signing of wayward-QB Cam Newton.
Newton made his presence known early and often in camp on his way to the starting job. He appears poised for a comeback season with the hopes of earning at least one more big contract before hanging ’em up. With a major chip on his shoulder, Pats fans are agree to see if he can bring some explosiveness back to this offense.
Because to be honest, there’s not a whole lot else new on that side of the ball. With a pair of 3rd round picks, Belichick filled out a position of need by drafting TEs Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi. Short of that, the Pats are banking on a bevy of backs and the growth of young WRs N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Myers, and Gunner Olszewski. If Harry can make a jump, he’ll provide a nice outside-the-numbers complement to Julian Edelman in the slot.
Breakout Candidate – RB Damien Harris
Last year, Damien Harris was essentially red-shirted, as is often the case in the Belichickian system. Fans wondered why The Hooded One wasted a 3rd-round pick on someone who would never see the field. But Harris has looked explosive in camp and could play a major role as Sony Michel‘s stock as lead RB drops. He provides the elusiveness Michel lacks and can be a factor in the passing game. Despite starting the year on IR, expect Harris to get some serious run when he returns, making Michel expendable.
While investments were lacking on the offensive side, the same can’t be said for one of 2019’s leading defenses. Outside of the COVID opt-outs, New England also saw the departure of key defensive cogs Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts. Losing 3 of your top 4 LBs in free agency is a tough pill to swallow. Combine that with Hightower opting out, and you have recipe for disaster in New England’s front-7.
But there’s reason for optimism, as a legion of young LBs look to contribute in a major way. After missing most of 2019 with a torn bicep, Ja’Whaun Bentley looks to fill some big shoes at MLB. With 2 of their top 3 picks, the Pats drafted Josh Uche out of Michigan and Anfernee Jennings out of Alabama. There will be a heavy load on these kid’s shoulder but for a LB corp that has recently been known for being slow and tough, it’ll interesting to see what some youth and athleticism can do.
On a positive note, the rumored retirements of the McCourty twins proved false and both will return for 2020. Following an unexpected raise for Stephon Gilmore, the backend of a dominant Patriots defense will return and look to wreak havoc on opposing QBs. Add the surprise drafting of DII standout/playmaker Kyle Duggar and there should be lots to look forward to.
Breakout Candidate – LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
In early 2019, the emergence of young stud Bentley seemed to potentially signal the end for an aging Hightower. Bentley’s a large-bodied LB that can put a hurting on anyone coming out of the backfield. With McCourty likely assuming the role of defensive general, Bentley can slowly assume his role as a leader. His intelligence and size position him to follow a list of storied Patriots MLBs of a similar mold, including Hightower, now LB coach Jerod Mayo, and ESPN analyst Tedi Bruschi. Expect big things from Bentley in 2020.
A weakness for the Patriots squad in 2019 looks set-up for a repeat performance in 2020. After cycling through four kickers in 2019, Belichick used a 5th-round draft pick on Justin Rohrwasser. Unfortunately, Rohrwasser brought a fair bit of controversy with him. On top of that, the kid doesn’t seem to be able to make a kick.
Surprisingly, the Pats cut both Rohrwasser and Folk before adding both back to their practice squad. While Folk was serviceable in 2020, the Patriots clearly weren’t confident in him when they drafted Rohrwasser.
On top of the kicking game, the KR/PR spot seems to be uncertain as ever. Gunner Olszewski seemed to have a hold on the job but will start the season on the IR. Safe to say, expectations will be low for specialists in New England.
What to Expect in 2020
This year, the Patriots have a pretty high ceiling and a low floor. While Buffalo may be the sexy pick to come out of the East, Vegas oddsmakers think differently. A resurgent Cam Newton could propel the Pats into another AFC East crown, but if he stumbles early with a thin receiving corps, the #tankforTrevor crew may grow loud.
But we must not forget – in the Hooded one we trust.
Despite all he’s accomplished, the debate rages over who deserves more credit for the Patriots dynasty. Bill will enter 2020 with something to prove and a motivated Belichick should strike fear into the hearts of opponents.
There will be some inevitable ups-and-downs for the Patriots this year. They face the league’s toughest schedule in 2020 and there will be a steep learning curve on both sides of the ball. But as Belichick teams always do, you can guarantee each and every man will be prepared to do his job and pounce on opponents’ mistakes.
And that, my fellow Pats fans, is a reason to maintain hope.
My Prediction: 10-6 record, Wild Card berth
- / 1 year ago
To me, Rachel Nichols is the personification of posting a black square on Instagram.