By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
We're just three days away from the Patriots first game of the 2020 season, and there's still so much we don't know about this team. Uncertainty is a central theme this year, perhaps more than the last 20 years combined. A new quarterback, new weapons, incredibly young defense, this team has wild cards all over the field.
Add on top of that a limited offseason program, no preseason games, no fans in the stands, and just the general COVID cloud hanging over everything, and this is shaping up to be the most unpredictable season the NFL has ever had.
Given all of that, don't be surprised if things get weird in 2020. How weird? Here are five bold predictions for the upcoming Patriots season...
Cam Newton will catch at least one touchdown pass
The Patriots got burned time and time against last year by teams getting creative with big, mobile quarterbacks in the red zone. Well, now they have a quarterback of their own fitting that description. At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, Newton is the size of your average NFL tight end and nimble on his feet. With creative play-caller Josh McDaniels at the helm, the Patriots should take advantage of that size in every way possible and flip the script on teams like the Texans and Bills.
Plus, the Patriots have a number of guys they can trust to throw Cam the ball. Whether it's former NFL starter Brian Hoyer in a two quarterback set, Jarrett Stidham getting his chance in a similar formation, or even former college QB Julian Edelman in a wildcat/double pass situation.
I'm actually going to double down on this bold prediction. Everybody knows how much Bill Belichick loves making football history - I think he engineers a game plan that puts Newton in position to go for the cycle this year. That's throwing, catching, and running for a TD all in the same game. If it happens, the Patriots would be the first team in the modern era to have two players accomplish the feat (David Patten, 2001).
Kyle Dugger will win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year
If he starts off playing well, the Patriots will put Dugger in position to be around the ball on almost every snap, which will boost his numbers. He's also a very instinctual player, which will be magnified in the Patriots defensive scheme.
If one DROTY was given out for each conference, this might not even be that wild of a claim. In the AFC, Dugger would be competing mainly with Patrick Queen (Ravens) and K'Lavon Chaisson (Jaguars). Given the overall situation each player is being put in, Dugger would likely be right in the middle of that race.
But in reality, that's only half the story. Six of the first seven defensive players taken in the 2020 NFL Draft went to the NFC. When you begin to factor in guys like Chase Young and Isaiah Simmons, Dugger's candidacy gets a bit more unrealistic, but not impossible.
Matthew Slater will play multiple meaningful offensive snaps this year
It's no secret that the Patriots wide receiver depth is less than optimal this year. During roster cuts, the team elected to keep just five at the position (not including Slater). That includes 34-year-old Julian Edelman, who is coming off of an injury-plagued season, and N'Keal Harry, who had his own health issues last year.
While the Patriots do have four wide receivers on the practice squad, one (Isaiah Zuber) is primarily a kick returner while the other two (Mason Kinsey and Kristian Wilkerson) just arrived in Foxborough this week.
What does this all mean? Well, the Patriots could get desperate for receiver help and need to get creative at the position. Will it get bad enough for Slater to get his first target since 2016? Unlikely, but not impossible.
Ja'Whaun Bentley will be the only Patriots linebacker to play more than 50-percent of the team's defensive snaps
Last season, the Patriots had three linebackers play more than 50-percent of their defensive snaps in Kyle Van Noy (80.75-percent), Jamie Collins (80.65-percent) and Dont'a Hightower (71.73-percent). None of those players are with the team in 2020.
This feels like a sneaky easy pick just because the Patriots have so few true linebackers on the roster. When I say "only linebacker," that's out of the group of Bentley, Brandon Copeland, Shilique Calhoun, and rookies Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, and Cassh Maluia.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are absolutely loaded at safety, especially when it comes to box safeties/hybrid linebackers with Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks, and Joejuan Williams. The limitations at linebacker and riches at safety could lead to the Patriots using a lot of big nickel and even big dime sets this season.
If that's the case, there will only be so many snaps to go around for the linebacker corps. Expect Bentley to get the majority of them, given he's the most experienced and will likely be wearing the 'green dot' headset helmet.
The Patriots will have a better record in the first half of the season than the second half
Yes, the Patriots have a harder schedule in September and October than November and December. Yes, the Patriots have a bunch of new player still learning the system following a preseason with no games and limited practices.
But this prediction isn't about the players or the opponents, it's about the coach. While each team and each coach across the league prepares for a season in their own unique ways, after 60-plus years there's a general consensus of what works and what doesn't.
This year, that all got thrown out the window with the arrival of COVID-19. Everybody had to recreate their offseason plans from scratch. And there's nobody I'd trust more to blindly prepare for a season than Bill Belichick. I fully expect him to have this team more prepared than any other unit in the NFL.
That all being said, the Patriots have less raw talent on the roster than in years past, and are thin at a few key positions. It wouldn't be shocking to see them level off once injuries start to pile up and more of the new Cam Newton offense is put on tape.
All this not enough for you? Here are some more bold predictions from the rest of the 98.5 The Sports Hub staff:
Michael Felger, Felger & Mazz: Newton gets hurt in the first month and Hoyer/Stidham team up to win the division. Book it.
Tony Massarotti, Felger and Mazz: Patriots finish 7-9, second in AFC East. If they were in another division - like, a good one - they’d be looking at something worse. But the AFC East is the gift that keeps on giving, even without Tom Brady around to accept the gifts.
Jim Murray, Felger & Mazz: My bold prediction for the season is that Trump wins re-election, and because rational thought no longer exists, the players walk out that following Sunday and don’t return thus ending the season on Week 9 and nothing gets completed and the season will be over because everything sucks and we live in hell now.
Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub: While I'd love to be pleasantly surprised by Cam Newton and Co., unless there's a revelation here (the already-injured Damien Harris, N'Keal Harry, Chase Winovich?), this brutal schedule portends an up-and-down campaign at best, and the first sub-.500 season in New England since 2000, at worst.
Adam Jones, The Adam Jones Show: Sony Michel thrives with Cam Newton under center and looks like a first-round pick.
Dan Lifshatz, Over/Under 98.5: My two crazy picks: Cam Newton and Bill Belichick get consideration for MVP and coach of the year. Both may even win.
Marshall Hook, 98.5 The Sports Hub: Cam Newton has a good year and signs a multi-year contract extension to stay in New England.
Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com: Cam Newton scores 35 or more total touchdowns, wins Comeback Player of the Year, and gets consideration for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].