By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Eight games down, eight to go. With the halfway point of the Patriots season upon us, it seems like a logical point for a big-picture look at how the team has performed in 2020.
We’ll start with the offense, which underwent a major overhaul in the offseason. How have new pieces fit into the scheme? And where do the Patriots still find themselves lacking? Here’s my position grades for the first eight games.
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There’s going to be a handful of people who say this grade is too high, and probably an equal amount on the other side who think it’s too low. That’s how you know it’s right.
The Patriots’ quarterback play has undoubtedly taken a step back in 2019, but things could be a lot worse. First off, keep in mind that no position was hurt more by the lack of offseason workouts than the QBs. The chance to gain chemistry and rapport with new wide receivers is valuable, and there wasn’t any time to do that.
There was also the setback of COVID. We don’t know exactly how much it impacted Cam Newton, but it became clear that at least to some extent, he wasn’t the same player post-diagnosis. Whether is was an effect from the virus itself, or just rust from the layoff is something that can be debated, but Newton has not been the same player since returning.
Given how the last few weeks have gone, it’s easy to forget the 31-year-old was on the fringe of the MVP conversation heading into October. Through three games, he was completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and had a 3:1 touchdown-to-turnover ratio.
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Of course, things changed when he returned from COVID, as the offense put up back-to-back historically bad performances following a disappointing outing in Kansas City from Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. But it’s what Newton has done since returning that deserves credit as well.
If the team had had to turn to Stidham as the starter full-time, which was on the brink of happening in Buffalo, it likely would have meant the de facto end of the season. Instead, Newton was able to steady himself just in time and start turning the ship. It wasn’t as quick or dramatic as a turn as many may have hoped for, but the trend was upwards and at least allowed the Patriots to get off the mat.
So it feels very 50/50 for the Patriots’ quarterbacks (namely Newton) right now. Will he keep trending upwards, and carry the Patriots in a race for a back-end playoff spot? Or have the last two games just been a mirage brought on by weak opponents? That’s going to be the key question for the second half of the Patriots’ season.
Running Backs: B-
It’s hard to really judge the performance of this group, because they haven’t been in the spotlight a ton. When the Patriots have success and run the ball, it’s usually Cam Newton leading the way. When they fall behind, it’s usually early, and they spend most of the game throwing.
Let’s break it down by player, starting with Sony Michel. Michel started the season slow, before breaking out with nine carries for 117 yards against the Raiders in Week 3. That was the last time we saw him, as he’s been sidelined with a quad injury.
You can’t knock a guy for getting hurt, its the nature of the game. But this a key season for Michel going in. Entering his third year in the league, many were looking for him to be the breakout star of the offense and take the pressure off of a diminished passing game. Outside of a few plays against Las Vegas, that never happened. With Damien Harris starting to get into a groove, we’ll see what kind of chance Michel gets when he returns.
Speaking of Harris, the second-year Alabama product has been the standout of the group. He leads the team in rushing at the midway point with 350 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. He’s proving to be the excellent yards after contact runner the Patriots drafted him to be, and his role is only growing.
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In a season where the Patriots’ skill position players have been put under a microscope, he’s been as-advertised after spending the first three weeks on IR. Hopefully a chest injury suffered at the end of Monday night’s game doesn’t derail his progress.
Meanwhile the two vets James White and Rex Burkhead continue to be the definition of reliable – especially in the passing game. Both have picked up some slack from a less than stellar wide receiver group. White is second on the team in receptions with 25 – despite only playing six games. Burkhead isn’t far behind him with 19.
Perhaps the most notable contribution from both is staying healthy and providing a steadying veteran presence to the offense. Their numbers are good but not through the roof, but leadership-wise both have been important.
That leaves UDFA rookie J.J. Taylor. He got off to a promising start in 2020 before essentially being benched. Since Week 4, he’s been either inactive or a DNP for every game. In fact, the Patriots are 2-1 when he plays, and 1-4 when he doesn’t.
Wide Receivers: C-
Jakobi Meyers’ Monday night performance against the Jets is really the saving grace of this group right now. It’s certainly encouraging, but it was also very new to see a Patriots’ receiver take over a game like that.
So far this season, the Patriots have only had a receiver catch six or more passes in a game five times, and go over 70 yards four times. Three of those performances happened in the same game, against the lowly Seattle defense. The other two are Meyers the last two weeks, against the Jets and Bills.
How much of that is on the receivers themselves, and how much is up to the quarterback, is a good debate. But the reality is the production just hasn’t been there, especially from key guys.
Like Sony Michel, you can’t fault N’Keal Harry for suffering a concussion. That’s football. But the team was counting on him to play a much bigger role this year, something he wasn’t really doing before the injury. Now that the offense seems to be clicking a bit better, maybe he’ll have a better chance once he returns.
Damiere Byrd has played a ton, and gotten himself open, but the ball just isn’t finding him. If Newton looks his way more, he could have a big second half.
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Meyers’ last two games have shown a ton of promise, and make the decision to have him ride the bench early in the season even stranger. But hindsight is 20/20, and the point is he’s contributing now. Yet he still hasn’t surpassed Byrd as the most used wide receiver. In an offense that likes to keep a true slot receiver on the field, something will have to give when Harry returns. Will the Patriots set Byrd to the side? Will they bury their 2019 first-round pick? It’d be hard to justify taking Meyers out of the lineup if he keeps playing like this.
Usually when the Patriots’ passing game struggles, it means a heavy dose of Julian Edelman. But the 34-year-old was unable to duplicate his performance against the Seahawks as a nagging knee injury caught up to him.
It’s not a surprise given his age and the way he plays the game, but as long as he was on the roster, Edelman was going to be penciled in as a key part of the offense. Losing him hurt and there’s nobody on the roster (and few players in the entire league) who can replicate what he brings to the scheme.
The back end of the depth chart includes guys like Gunner Olszewski and Isaiah Zuber, who haven’t had much field time to make an impact. Overall, there is still some promise at the receiver position for the Patriots, but they’re a ways away from turning that potential into results right now. The hope should be that through two months they’ve build and will continue to build chemistry that can help them down the stretch.
Tight Ends: F
Ten catches for 122 yards. That’s the entire stat line for Patriots tight ends this year. By comparison, 39 tight ends elsewhere in the NFL have single-handedly exceeded those numbers.
All but one of those catches and eight of those yards belong to Ryan Izzo. He’s flashed in a few moments, but they’re usually followed by regressions to the mean, like his fumble against Denver. The 2018 seventh-round pick is performing more or less to expectations, he’s just been put in a rough spot.
Then there’s the rookie duo of Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. The pair haven’t been active in the same game, and both are now on IR at the midway point of the season. Keene has the lone catch between the two.
Asiasi had a successful training camp, and it looked like maybe the Patriots had found their next tight end. But an injury late in the summer slowed his start, and he ended up playing a very limited role before an ankle injury put him on the shelf. Before going on IR, he did seem to be getting open in the chances he did get on the field, but still didn’t see a target.
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Keene dealt with a neck injury early on. It’s perfectly understandable why a team would be overly cautious in that situation, especially given the physicality of the position. Yet once he was activated he ended up in the same boat as Asiasi – rarely used and rarely targeted.
Bill Belichick is known for taking things slowly with rookies. He’s spoken multiple times this year about how the lack of a preseason made things tougher on first-year players and their ‘comfort level.’ Frankly, all the clues were right there that Asiasi and Keene would serve limited roles.
But when the team used two third-round picks on tight ends back in April, the expectation was they’d provide a spark plug to an offense that had badly missed production at the position in 2019. Whether the players didn’t earn the playing time or the coaching staff simply isn’t giving it to them, it’s been a rough first half for the position.
Offensive Line: A
They lost David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Jermaine Eluemunor for multiple games early in the season, and have still managed to be a dominant unit. It’s mind blowing how the Patriots just turn out sound lineman after sound lineman, especially in the post-Dante Scarnecchia era (credit to the new co-offensive line coaches there, Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo).
Rookie sixth-round pick Michael Onwenu has been huge in keeping the line steady during the run of injuries and COVID tests. He’s played four positions in his first eight NFL games, and doesn’t look out of place doing so. He’s weekly one of the top graded PFF rookies, and looks to have a dominant NFL future ahead of him.
Buried a bit by Onwenu’s dominant start has been his fellow 2020 sixth-round pick Justin Herron, who has filled in at both right and left tackle. He’s allowed just six pressures in 161 snaps over six games this season. While he’s still a bit more raw than Onwenu, he’s certainly been a bright spot.
Highlighting the returning group of linemen is Joe Thuney. Usually a left guard, he played his first NFL snaps at center this season after Andrews’ thumb injury, and held his own. In a contract year, he’s done nothing to decrease his value.
Andrews has been impressive in his own right, returning to football after missing all of 2019 due to a pulmonary embolism. He hardly missed a beat to start the season, and picked up right where he left off after his thumb injury.
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At the other guard, Shaq Mason is putting together a bounce-back year after injuries hampered his performance in 2019. He’s allowed just one sack in 403 snaps.
Then there’s Isaiah Wynn, who has been battling injuries for most of the season. Unlike the last two years where he missed significant time, the former first-round pick has been able to manage his body better. So far, he’s played in every game and 97-percent of the Patriots’ total offensive snaps.
Between Marcus Cannon’s opt out, the pile of injuries, and the retirement of long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, there was every reason to believe the Patriots’ offensive line would take a step back in 2020. Instead, they’ve been as dominant as ever, with new players contributing at key moments. If the Patriots turn to more of a power-run identity in the second-half – and things are trending that way based on the last two games – they should have no problem relying on this group.
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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 Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.