By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Football is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ business. While every game matters, when it comes to assessing an entire season, what happens in December is much more pertinent than what happens in September.
So while there was nothing on the line in terms of a postseason game for the Patriots on Sunday, the players still had plenty to play for. Heading into what projects to be an active and turbulent offseason, this was the last chance for guys to leave a positive memory for the decision makers (a.k.a. Bill Belichick) as they rethink roster spots and the depth chart.
Against the Jets, who did the most for their stock entering the 2021 offseason? That conversation has to start with running back Sony Michel. In the season finale, the 25-year-old turned in yet another in what’s been a string of strong performances.
It looked like Michel’s tenure in New England could come to an early end, after he spent a good chunk of the year on IR while second-year back Damien Harris thrived. Once he returned, it was clear Harris was the new top back, and for a few weeks Michel’s chances were few and far between.
But with Harris on the shelf for the last few weeks, Michel has shown the burst and power that made him a first round pick in 2019. He totaled 76 yards on 16 carries against the Jets, and amassed 219 yards on 36 carries over the final three weeks. That’s good for 6.1 yards per carry, which would have led the NFL he kept that pace for 16 games. Sunday saw Michel put a check mark in the ‘pass catcher’ category as well, with three catches for 60 yards and a touchdown.
Michel’s rookie deal runs through the end of the 2021 season, but there’s a team option for 2022 that the Patriots must decide on this spring. If the team was on the fence about how to handle that situation, he certainly made a strong final argument to be kept around.
While Michel’s up-and-down season was mostly due to injury, Chase Winovich’s roller coaster 2020 was more unexplained. He started the season as a key member of the defense, before getting benched for most of October. His snap counts increased late, but mostly as a situational player.
As the Patriots get ready to re-tool their front seven, there are questions about where Chase Winovich fits. Can he make the adjustments necessary to become a three-down player? Or is he best utilized as a pass rush specialist?
If that second option is going to be the case Winovich needs to prove he’s worth a roster spot to only play 25 percent of the time. Sunday was a big step towards that, as he was in the backfield constantly. He sacked Sam Darnold twice, knocked him down another two times, deflected a pass, and had two tackles for loss against the run. There wasn’t a drive where Winovich didn’t massively impact at least one play.
Rushing with discipline has something Winovich hasn’t done consistently in his two years with the Patriots, but he was certainly able to do so on Sunday. Hopefully, that was a sign of things to come for the Michigan product.
Winovich wasn’t the only Michigan man to show up big on Sunday. Devin Asiasi (who started his collegiate career for the Wolverines before transferring to UCLA) showed up with the first catch and touchdown of his NFL career.
In total, Asiasi grabbed two passes for 39 yards, including a 26-yard score. He also showed up as a blocker, playing the majority of the game while the Patriots ran for 5.7 yards per carry.
Given the Patriots drafted a pair of tight ends in the third round last year, there usually wouldn’t be a conversation about spending premium capital at that position the following offseason. However, with the lack of production throughout the year (Asiasi’s TD was the first by a Patriots tight end this year) and a generational prospect in Florida’s Kyle Pitts in their draft range, Asiasi needed to show something to prove the position is in good hands.
Will his performance on Sunday completely take Pitts out of the equation? No, nor should it. But he did show the team he may be worth being patient with going forwards.
Of course, there were also those who didn’t to a ton to earn favor with the team heading into the offseason. Rookie UDFA Myles Bryant played a mostly-solid first half at deep safety. However, that fell apart in the final minutes. He missed a tackle that led to a chunk play on a screen, then had an interception taken away after conservatively playing the ball. Bryant had an impressive rookie campaign up to that point, and showed plenty of promise, but he certainly came away from Sunday’s finale with teachable moments.
Then there’s Damiere Byrd, a pending free agent. After a bad drop last week, Byrd had trouble reeling in a few passes against the Jets. With so much shakeup expected at the position it’s hard to say if Byrd projects to be re-signed or not, but he didn’t exactly help his case on Sunday.
Finally, there’s Cam Newton. Leading up to and following the game, there were conflicting reports about the Patriots future intentions with their starting quarterback and pending free agent.
Whether it’s the Patriots or another team Newton ends up in negotiations with, he certainly helped himself out by closing the season with arguably his best performance. He was 21/30 throwing the ball for 242 yards and three touchdowns. He also had a QB franchise-record 49-yard run, and caught his first career touchdown on a trick play.
Part of the reason Newton spent so long unsigned in 2020 was that his most recent tape was all discouraging. As he enters the job hunt again, this time around he’s got a much stronger recent resume to send out.
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.