By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
So there you have it. For the first time since 2008 (and since 2002 without their Week 1 starting quarterback), there will be no postseason football for the New England Patriots. Sunday’s loss to the Miami Dolphins erased The Path, and put the team and its fans in unfamiliar territory in late December.
Without a playoff game to look forward to, what should fans focus on for the final two weeks of the season? There’s actually quite a bit to learn down the stretch, which could impact how the team approaches the offseason. As Devin McCourty said after the game, “teams that don’t make the playoff change.”
It’s not unrealistic to think those changed could be impacted by what happens against the Bills and Jets. Some of those areas of focus are more in the weeds, but we’ll start with the big question that’s on everybody’s minds…
When/will we see Jarrett Stidham?
After last week’s loss to the Rams, Bill Belichick says he was sticking with Cam Newton at quarterback because he gave the team “the best chance to win.” With the playoffs no longer a possibility, will the team take a more “we’re on to 2021” approach? If so, the final two weeks represent the best chance to make up the preseason snaps the team didn’t get back in August.
That of course, would mean a chance for a full evaluation of Jarrett Stidham. Regardless of what Stidham has looked like in mop-up work this season, a complete assessment wouldn’t be complete without allowing him all of the ‘perks’ a starting quarterback usually has going into a game. That includes working with the first-team offense during the week, a game plan focus, and more.
On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with getting the full picture on Stidham. The more information, the better. However, there’s a reason Stidham has yet to play. The team has seen him more than we have. If they’re already convinced – without a full week of preparation as the starting quarterback – that he’s not the next guy, they could look to move him in what should be an active and aggressive offseason.
If that’s the plan and the powers that be know he’ll struggle in a starting role, especially against a good Bills defense, it makes sense to keep him on the bench. Putting Stidham into a situation where he’s set up to fail can only hurt his confidence, and/or his trade value.
It all really depends on how the Patriots see the situation internally. There’s as much to learn from if he plays as there is from how he plays.
Which skill position players have their jobs on the line?
Of course, there will likely be an overhaul coming of the Patriots’ skill positions over the next few years. For the last two weeks of this season though, there are a few key players to focus on whose jobs could be in jeopardy this offseason.
First and foremost is Sony Michel. As recent weeks have shown, Damien Harris has what it takes to be a bell cow running back in the NFL. Still, an impressive performance against Miami reminded everyone why the former Georgia Bulldog went in the first round.
This upcoming offseason, the Patriots will have to decide if they want to pick up Michel’s fifth-year rookie option. With Harris running well, and J.J. Taylor in the wings, Michel will have to prove he’s worth keeping around.
2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry is in a similar spot. He’s started to show some consistency over the last few weeks, but as the Patriots look to remake their offense the question will be if he’s shown enough to be a part of the new-look unit. How he looks against Buffalo and Tre’Davious White will be telling.
Finally there’s the two rookie tight ends, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. While they’re almost locks to be on the roster next year, their roles are still up for grabs. The Patriots now flirting with a top-10 pick, and there’s a potential generational tight end in the class in Florida’s Kyle Pitts. Can Asiasi and/or Keene show enough that Belichick is comfortable passing on Pitts to improve other elements of the roster? Or will he need to invest heavily in the position for the second straight year?
Offensive line puzzle pieces
The Patriots could be looking for as many as three new starters on the offensive line over the next two years. Joe Thuney’s contract is up at the end of the season, Isaiah Wynn’s option will be on the table this offseason, and there have been rumors right tackle Marcus Cannon could retire after opting out of the 2020 season.
Belichick and the Patriots are pretty prepared for even the worst-case scenario here. They have a pair of rookie linemen in sixth-round picks Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron who are not only talented, but versatile as well. Versatility is certainly a good thing, especially for backups, but if they’re going to become starters in the near future the team needs to figure out what position maximizes their skillsets.
After not playing on the exterior of the offensive line since high school, Onwenu has been primarily used as a right tackle by the Patriots in 2020. He’s certainly held his own, but so far it’s clear he’s best suited as a guard. Will he be Thuney’s eventual replacement, or can he progress enough to potentially be the long-term right tackle.
Herron will factor into the right tackle discussion as well as long as Cannon’s status is up in the air. On Sunday though he played left tackle, after Jermaine Eluemunor struggled against the Rams. If Herron plays well enough in the final two games, it’s possible he could come after the oft-injured Wynn’s job on the left side next season, with the Georgia product in the final year of his contract.
Dont’a Hightower’s heir apparent
Similar to the uncertainty surrounding Marcus Cannon in 2021, there have been rumors that Dont’a Hightower may be done as well. The team has missed him significantly this year, especially against the run.
Even if Hightower does come back, the team should start thinking about the future of the middle linebacker position, given how crucial it is to Belichick’s defensive scheme. Ja’Whaun Bentley is the favorite for that spot right now, but his contract ends after the 2021 season.
If Bentley can’t prove to be the guy and worthy of a second contract, there are a number of potential replacements on the roster right now. 2019 UDFA Terez Hall has filled in for Bentley while he’s been hurt. The Mizzou product is still pretty raw, but has shown flashes of promise.
2020 draft picks Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings have also seen time at the MIKE linebacker spot, but the team may not be willing to move them out of their natural edge positions long-term unless they show they can really make a difference in the middle.
Against a strong rushing team in the Bills, and a relatively strong rushing team in the Jets, there will be ample opportunities for the team to evaluate the young linebackers as run defenders, and decide how much of a priority the MLB position needs to be this offseason.
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.