Pats Extra: Caught between the present and future

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Cam Newton's positive test for COVID-19 was a shock, but also a reminder of what the Patriots face when they have to take the field without him. What happens next could be a harbinger of the team's future at the quarterback position, if they make a certain choice.

Though Newton could ultimately return Monday night against the Denver Broncos, the reality is he will now go three seasons in a row and four of the last five without playing 16 games. COVID-19 is certainly different from a broken bone or torn ligament, but it's also the latest setback in a prove-it year for the 2015 MVP. And his stay in Foxboro may be temporary, anyway. The hope is that Newton gets healthy and stays that way long-term, but even if he does, he may not be ready for the next game.

So if the Patriots do decide to make Jarrett Stidham their starting quarterback against the Broncos on Monday, they'll make a nod toward the future. Stidham's night against the Chiefs gave the first glimpse of 2020 at the sophomore out of Auburn, and perhaps a peek at what's to come for the offense.

For the sake of Stidham and the team, hopefully what's to come is closer to Stidham's touchdown pass to N'Keal Harry than either of his two interceptions. The first one went through the hands of Julian Edelman and into those of Tyrann Mathieu, who grabbed an easy pick-six. Stidham's second interception was an underthrown deep ball to the end zone for Damiere Byrd, virtually Hail Mary attempt. But Stidham showed excellent ball placement on the Harry touchdown, while the receiver finally showed some body control to out-maneuver the cornerback and reel in the ball.

Jarrett Stidham is reportedly in line to be the Patriots starting quarterback against the Broncos. (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
Jarrett Stidham is reportedly in line to be the Patriots starting quarterback against the Broncos. (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

As crazy as it may sound, though, Stidham may still not have quite as much command of the offense as Brian Hoyer would. The veteran showed plenty of that between the 20-yard lines, particularly as the Pats marched down the field with a diverse attack on two key red zone drives. The problem is they came up empty-handed both times, after Hoyer inexplicably took a sack and appeared to forget the Patriots had no timeouts left at the end of the first half, then again held the ball for too long and fumbled it away.

MORE: Was Monday night a peek at the Patriots' future?

Those egregious mistakes understandably seared into everyone's mind. But if Hoyer learned the hard way to just sail the ball through the back of the end zone next time, then he may yet be the Patriots' choice to face the Broncos if Newton has to miss another game. Even with Hoyer playing inexplicably poor situational football, the Patriots should be able to beat the 1-3 Broncos at home with the other team also fielding a backup quarterback.

Jason La Canfora reported Friday that if it's not Newton, then Stidham "would be in line to start." We'll see if that turns out to be true, but that would mean Hoyer had quite a short leash on himself. The Patriots' decision on a starting quarterback against the Broncos shouldn't make a difference in the game, but it will show what Bill Belichick wants to see more of in the coming weeks - more of the present, or a glance at the future.

Secondary shuffle

There may be enough time passed and COVID tests returned negative that Stephon Gilmore gets to play on Monday. But if he can't go against the Broncos, the Patriots secondary will look quite different.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - AUGUST 26: Stephon Gilmore #24 of the New England Patriots arrives to Patriots Training camp with Offensive Coordinator Josh MlcDaniels at Gillette Stadium on August 26, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Stephon Gilmore arrives to Patriots practice with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The simplest avenue for Belichick to take would be to shift everyone on the CB depth chart up a spot. But if Belichick wants his Gilmore "replacement" to play aggressive press-man coverage against dynamic Broncos rookie wideout Jerry Jeudy, perhaps J.C. Jackson gets an opportunity there. Joejuan Williams could see more time at corner, especially since the Broncos will be without sophomore tight end Noah Fant.

Fortunately, the Pats are deeper at CB than any other position. But it'll be interesting to see how they adjust to the challenge of playing without the Defensive Player of the Year, if they have to.

Winovich in elite company

Chase Winovich continues to make disruptive plays up front for the Patriots defense. He's been a much-welcomed playmaker for a front-seven that saw significant turnover at linebacker and needs more push up front against star quarterbacks.

The second-year pro out of Michigan is part of an elite group of pass-rushers to fill out their stat line so far this season. Winovich is one of five players in the NFL to log at least 11 tackles, six QB hits, 2.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. The other four are Aaron Donald, Myles Garrett, Chris Jones, and Za'Darius Smith.

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - OCTOBER 05: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs is sacked by Chase Winovich #50 of the New England Patriots during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium on October 05, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Patrick Mahomes is sacked by Chase Winovich at Arrowhead Stadium. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Winovich will surely have to put together a high-end performance from wire-to-wire to truly enter the same class as players like Donald and the others. But he's played at quite a high level in the early-going and looks to have the potential of a real difference-maker for the Patriots defense.

Harris' next step

Second-year running back Damien Harris is coming off a solid first game back against the Chiefs, but has room for improvement. Outside of a nice, hard 41-yard gallop in Kansas City, Harris rushed for 3.6 yards per carry.

At times, Harris ran straight into the pile when he appeared to have seams around the edge. But he powered hard through the point of attack on those plays, showing his potential as a reliable short-yardage back. If he can unlock more of the same vision and decision-making that he had on his 41-yard run, he'll become more dangerous for the Patriots' ground game.

Patriots Podcasts

Alex Barth and I discussed the report that Jarrett Stidham is in line to start against the Broncos, as well as the Patriots and NFL's handling of the COVID-19 situation. Have a listen below.

Ty Anderson also talked plenty of Patriots with me on this week's episode of the Sports Hub Sidelines podcast. You can listen to the full podcast below. Patriots talk starts at 39:38.

Matt Dolloff is a 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. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].