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2020 Team Report: New England Patriots

Last updated: Sat, Sep 5

Offensive Philosophy

Head coach Bill Belichick is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history. He doesn't get his due as one of the greatest offensive minds, but he deserves to be recognized as such. No other coach has changed offensive systems so many times (and so successfully) during his career, not just keeping pace with league trends but anticipating them and presaging them. As the Patriots move on from Tom Brady, it's no exaggeration to say that their offense could go in a number of directions. Belichick presided over a run-heavy offense with timing passes to the outside (through 2006), quickly transitioned to a college-style spread with deep outside passing over lots of crossing routes (2007-2009), then slowly transitioned to a 2-tight end offense that showed more pass/run looks (2010-2013 or so), then slowly pushed those tight ends deeper and deeper down the field to attack the deep middle (2014 and on) before bringing things back in in recent years as Rob Gronkowski played through injuries and Tom Brady's arm declined. The Patriots will likely attempt to ease new starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham's transition with simpler route concepts, less passes over the middle, and more runs. But the only certainty is that the team will match its scheme to the strengths of its personnel.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham
Backup(s): Brian Hoyer

Starting QB: This is a New England Patriots team that looks as unrecognizable as we've seen in years, and nowhere is that more evident than at quarterback. Jarrett Stidham and Cam Newton will compete to be the starter. The pair of Auburn quarterbacks are very different. The main question for Newton is health after suffering a broken foot last year and throwing shoulder injuries in the previous years. Newton does have to overcome being new to Josh McDaniels offense, but the longtime offensive coordinator should adjust the offense to Newton's strengths if he is healthy and pulls away from Stidham. After building some hype as a potential future NFL starter in 2017, Stidham's 2018 year at Auburn scuttled that and he dropped to the fourth round. Stidham's final year showed a bad awareness in the pocket, poor accuracy and an orfccasional impersonation of a deer in the headlights during an intense pass rush, but a year behind Tom Brady while working with Josh McDaniels could have helped a lot. He has some weapons to work with at receiver and in the backfield, but he's a massive downgrade from Brady, and will be a challenge for the coaching staff to replicate their success with if Newton proves to be unable to be the starter this year.

Backup QB: Hoyer is a solid fallback if the Stidham/Newton experiment goes sideways. He knows the system and can help the second year quarterback learn the ropes. If he has to step in, Hoyer can be serviceable and keep the offense moving. It's possible Hoyer is released at the end of camp if Newton is healthy and wins the starting job.

Running Backs

Starter: Sony Michel, James White
Backup(s): Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris
Fullback(s): Jakob Johnson

Starting RB: The term "starter" in a New England backfield has a somewhat shaky and murky meaning as head coach Bill Belicheck and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will use whoever is working. However Sony Michel and James White are the closest thing. The two split duties pretty clearly with Michel getting most of the carries and White getting more passing down/receiving work. Together they are a pretty potent duo in terms of yards. Michel has had two decent seasons, totaling 1,843 yards and four touchdowns, but has struggled to step up in really big moments and didn't have even one 100 yard game in his sixteen last year. In part, that may be a result of inconsistent carries, as Michel will carry a full compliment one or two weeks, then see just four or five carries. As hard as it is for a back to get into rhythm during a game when they are swapped in and out, it's equally hard to get into a rhythm over the course of the season when you never know how many carries you will get week to week. His seven touchdowns were solid as well, but he went eight games in a row without a score as the season closed out before he found the end zone in Week 17. Michel also had offseason foot surgery, increasing concerns that he'll never get his Georgia form back. White took a bit of a step back in 2019, seeing less targets and producing less yards and scores than he did the year before. That said, he was the second most targeted receiver on the team, his 95 a distant second to Julian Edelman's 154, but well ahead of anyone else. The result was that White was also totaled the second most receiving yards on the team, with his 645 well behind Edelman, but far ahead of anyone else. Those numbers may tumble if the Patriots can find a serviceable tight end or receiving option, but as the roster stands, White should see plenty of work this year, and could benefit from Cam Newton winning the starting job after Newton fueled Christian McCaffrey to a 100+ reception season in 2018.

Backup RBs: Rex Burkhead has been hyped during the last two offseasons as a talented back ready to break out, but even though he looked better than Sony Michel running the ball at times in 2019, he was third man on the totem pole, and that won't change barring injury. Burkhead can both run and catch the ball, but there's a better receiver in the backfield already and the team seems bent on keep Michel as the main back. As such, Burkhead's role will remain limited. Damien Harris spent 2019 mostly on the inactive list and didn't crack the lineup even in the rare instance he was active. Grabbed in the third round of last season's draft, Harris showed pass-catching ability, good skills running the ball and an ability to block in college but that didn't translate in training camp last season.

Fullback: Jakob Johnson finished the year on Injured reserve, after injuring his shoulder in mid-October, but he should be back after James Develin retired.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Julian Edelman, N′Keal Harry
Backups: Damiere Byrd, Matt Slater, Gunner Olszweski, Jakobi Meyers

Starting WRs: One of the few constants in a sea of change for the Patriots offense, Julian Edelman bounced back from a suspension shortened 2018 to top 1,000 yards for the third time in his career. He continued to be a reliable target for Tom Brady, and will be the same for any other player who lines up under center for New England, though he may see a decrease in overall numbers with a less consistent and experienced quarterback. N'Keal Harry's rookie season was a massive disappointment, with the first-round pick on injured reserve for half the season and woefully underperforming as he struggled to gain separation from coverage. He's holding onto the second spot for now, but a shaky camp could see one or more receivers leapfrog him. He has already been outplayed by fellow rookie Jakobi Meyers. That's not to say the undrafted free agent out of North Carolina State tore the league up, merely that he did a little more with his opportunities than Harry. Outside of Edelman, nobody on the roster is guaranteed anything given how the group underperformed last year.

Backup WRs: Damiere Byrd is a former Arizona Cardinal and Carolina Panther signed to a minimal contract and has struggled to emerge as the deep threat the Panthers hoped he could be when he was signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2016. Matt Slater was extended in March, in a move likely to help keep some leadership stability with Tom Brady's departure. Slater has just one catch on nine targets for his entire 12 year career but he's really not there for more than morale and special teams. Gunner Olszweski was an undrafted free agent out of Bemidji State, a converted cornerback, he mostly worked on special teams before ankle and hamstring injuries ended his season.

Tight Ends

Starters: Ryan Izzo
Backups: Devin Asiasi [R], Dalton Keene [R]

Last year the Patriots made up for no Rob Gronkowski by splitting tight end duties among three tight ends, including Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo. With concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on his pregnant wife, Matt LaCosse chose to opt out for the season as of Sunday, August 2. That leaves Izzo as the top dog going into camp, though questions about both tight ends led to the Patriots grabbing two tight ends in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Neither Devin Asiasi or Dalton Keene will make anyone forget Gronk, but they both have a lot of upside. Asiasi had a tremendously productive 2019 for UCLA, and his athleticism and speed are intriguing even if he needs to watch his weight and improve his blocking. Keeneis a versatile prospect who played inline, wingback, fullback and in the slot for Virginia Tech, and is a solid pass protector. He may have issues with the size and speed of pass rushers at the NFL level, but has the all-around skill to be a consistent pass catcher and blocker if he can improve his raw skills Even if one of the two becomes a star, the tight end position is likely to continue to be far less important in New England in a post-Gronk, Post-Brady world.

Place Kicker

: The Patriots decided to release both of their kickers at the end of training camp. We await their next move.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Damiere Byrd, Gunner Olszweski, Mohamed Sanu

Under Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots have quietly spent decades signing quality special teams contributors to the end of their roster, leaving them with a ton of potential returners but no real leader. Julian Edelman is one of the most prolific punt returners in history and will certainly get a handful of attempts, but beyond that expect to see Gunner Olszweski, Mohamed Sanu, James White, and Damiere Byrd all competing during camp... and possibly all fielding kicks during the season.

Punt Returners: Julian Edelman, Gunner Olszweski, James White, Mohamed Sanu

Under Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots have quietly spent decades signing quality special teams contributors to the end of their roster, leaving them with a ton of potential returners but no real leader. Julian Edelman is one of the most prolific punt returners in history and will certainly get a handful of attempts, but beyond that expect to see Gunner Olszweski, Mohamed Sanu, James White, and Damiere Byrd all competing during camp... and possibly all fielding kicks during the season.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Isaiah Wynn, LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, RT Korey Cunningham
Key Backups: OT Marshall Newhouse, OT Jermaine Eluemunor, OT Yodny Cajuste, OL Dustin Woodard [R], OL Michael Onwenu [R], OT Marcus Cannon (opt-out)

Left guard Joe Thuney made the All-Pro second team and was designated the team''s franchise player during the offseason. Thuney could move to right tackle after Marcus Cannon opted-out for the season. Right guard Shaq Mason is a gap-power mauler. Center David Andrews, who was lost to injury last year returns to the lineup. Legendary line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired (again) this offseason, leaving the gig to a pair of assistants.

Team Defense

For the first half of 2019, the New England defense was one of the valuable fantasy commodities at any position. 47 sacks, an astounding 36 takeaways including 25 interceptions, and five defensive/special team scores, along with the #1 ranks in scoring and points allowed led them to being the #1 fantasy defense in most every scoring system. They did weaker as the season went on and wilted against Miami to lose a bye and then couldn't stop the Tennessee running game in the wild card loss. The offseason saw Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy leave and take lucrative contracts with former Patriots defensive coordinators in Detroit and Miami with no clear replacements on the roster or acquired in free agency. The rest of the defense is basically intact, but how will this unit respond with Tom Brady gone to Tampa Bay and the mystique of the team broken? They are being drafted in the top 3 of most leagues, which seems overly optimistic.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Lawrence Guy, DT Adam Butler, DE John Simon
Backups: DE Deatrich Wise, DE Chase Winovich, DE Josh Uche [R], DE Derek Rivers, DT Beau Allen, DT Byron Cowart

Starting DL: The Patriots lack star power on the defensive line but have a deep rotation of edge players at their disposal. The playing time will likely be divided among many players so the starter designation is less critical here, but Lawrence Guy led all returning players in snaps last year and has produced consistently strong tackle numbers since joining the Patriots in 2017. John Simon has 7 years of experience on 4 different teams yet appears to have found a home in New England as a complementary pass rusher. Adam Butler had a breakout year of sorts with 6 sacks last year and should see a clear increase in playing time now that Danny Shelton has moved on.

Backup DL: Deatrich Wise has flashed potential at times but his numbers tend to understate his effectiveness at generating pressure. Chase Winovich may have the most potential among the group as he posted 5.5 sacks as a rookie last year despite averaging fewer than 20 snaps per game. Josh Uche is a typical Patriots player in that he doesn't have high-end talent but makes up for it with great instincts and awareness. Derek Rivers has been plagued by injuries since the Patriots drafted him in 2017 and may be running out of time if he doesn't show something soon. Beau Allen was signed in free agency and will provide additional depth as a run plugger inside. Byron Cowart should also be part of the DT rotation.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Ja'Whaun Bentley, OLB Brandon Copeland, OLB Shilique Calhoun
Backups: OLB Anfernee Jennings [R], ILB Terez Hall, LB Josh Uche, ILB Donta Hightower [opt out]

Starting LBs: This is a group in transition as the Patriots lost two key contributors in free agency when Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts all signed elsewhere. Donta Hightower was set to return as the leader of the unit but he has opted out of the 2020 season. Ja'Whaun Bentley was stuck in a part-time role last year but should finally get an opportunity to play on all three downs. If so, he is likely the best fantasy option here but unlikely to be anything more than a low-end starter. Rookie Josh Uche could also be forced into action to help replace Hightower. The options at outside linebacker are underwhelming but can be used somewhat interchangeably with the defensive ends in a frequent rotation. Brandon Copeland comes over from the Jets and is a versatile player who should fit in well but lacks upside. Shlilique Calhoun has been in the league for 4 seasons as a backup and has yet to record a sack so he'll likely be a rotation player at best.

Backup LBs: Anfernee Jennings was a 3-year starter at Alabama who plays hard and does a lot of things well. A lack of depth inside means Terez Hall, a former undrafted free agent, is one injury away from a starting job.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Stephon Gilmore, FS Devin McCourty, SS Adrian Phillips, CB Jason McCourty
Backups: S Kyle Dugger [R], S Cody Davis, CB J.C. Jackson, CB Jonathan Jones, CB Joejuan Williams, S Terrence Brooks, SS Patrick Chung [opt out]

Starting DBs: Stephon Gilmore has a strong case to be the best cornerback in football and his ability to take away one side of the field is a key reason for the Patriots defensive success. While he's a sound tackler and willing run supporter, his fantasy value relies heavily on interceptions since he sees so few targets. Devin McCourty came into last season with just 6 interceptions in the prior 5 years and then picked off a pass for the first four games in a row. While he typically posts solid tackle numbers for a deep safety, last year's interception streak looks like an outlier and he's due to slow down at 33 years of age. Patrick Chung was a key piece of this defense due to his versatility, but he chose to opt out of the season due to Covid. Adrian Phillips figures to get the first crack at replacing him after playing a hybrid linebacker/safety role with the Chargers. Jason McCourty used to be an elite fantasy cornerback but he's also 33 years of age and likely better suited to a reserve role.

Backup DBs: With their first pick of the draft in round 2, the Patriots selected Kyle Dugger, a small-school player with big upside who will be groomed as a future starter at strong safety. Cody Davis will most likely be limited to a role on special teams. J.C. Jackson will likely serve as the top backup cornerback outside while Jonathan Jones typically works out of the slot. Joejuan Williams was a second round pick last year who didn't show much as a rookie and then had some off-field trouble with a drug arrest in January.