By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
It’s hard to say we ever got to see what the true vision of the 2020 Patriots was supposed to be. Bill Belichick’s original roster plan was impeded by opt outs, injuries, and a COVID outbreak early in the season.
With unusually strict limitations on available players, cap space, and even practice time, it was an uphill battle for the team all season. While yes, every team dealt with similar circumstances, most teams didn’t have the kind of roster turnover New England saw in the offseason.
Even with all of that, a handful of players made the most of their 2020 opportunities. Meanwhile, others showed where the team needs to focus most as the rebuild continues in 2021. With that in mind, here’s how the offense shaped up this season.
It’s hard to say the Patriots got what they wanted out of their quarterbacks this year at any stage of the season. Collectively, the team finished 30th in passing yards and 23rd in net yards per attempt, both steep declines from recent seasons.
From the very beginning, things didn’t go as planned. Jarrett Stidham was reportedly expected to at least push Cam Newton for the starting job in training camp, but was never able to put up much of a fight. That seems to stick with him throughout the year. He was the third string QB in Week 1, and throughout the season, when there were calls to turn to Stidham, Patriots coaches repeatedly defended their decisions by saying (in some form) that Newton gave the team the best chance to win.
The biggest issue for the quarterbacks though was the turnovers. For a team that values ball security above all else, it was an uncharacteristically bad year. Newton was the only quarterback to start at least 12 games and finish with a negative touchdown to interception ratio throwing the ball.
Of course that’s not the whole picture. Newton was most effective as a runner, setting a new franchise quarterback record with 592 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season. However, his running proved to be less effective as the year went on, as the passing game became more and more of a struggle. The offense was at times one dimensional, and Newton’s struggles putting the ball in the air seemed to handcuff the play calling at times.
There were certainly good moments, such as the game against Seattle. But throughout the offseason the Patriots never really seemed to have a plan at quarterback, and it showed in 2020. Almost a year after Tom Brady’s departure they now find themselves back at square one, needing to rebuild the position from the ground up yet again.
(Midseason grade: C)
Running Backs: B+
Over the past few years, the Patriots have invested heavily in the running back position, both in terms of draft picks and roster spots. While there’s been some criticism of those decisions in regards to asset management, they helped build one of the team’s best positional groups in 2020.
The breakout star was second-year back Damien Harris. Despite starting and ending the season on IR, he put together a team-leading 691 yards in 10 games. Projected out to a 16 game season, that’s a 1,000-yard pace at five yards a carry.
For a while there, it looked like Harris’ emergence could lead to the end of Sony Michel’s run as the top back in New England. The 2018 first-round pick spent most of the season on IR, and was initially playing in a reserve role behind Harris and Rex Burkhead upon returning.
However, Michel assumed the spot at the top of the depth chart for the final few games of the year due to injuries. Once he was in a spot to succeed, he took his chance and (literally) ran with it. Over the final three games of the year, he averaged 6.1 yards an attempt on 36 total carries. He also showed he could contribute as a receiver, catching his first career touchdown in the finale.
As Harris and Michel carried the load, they were supported by the veteran duo of James White and Rex Burkhead. Between a change in the offensive philosophy and just a generally tough mental and emotional year, White took a step back in 2020. His 49 receptions, while second on the team, were the fewest he’s had in a season since 2015. Burkhead meanwhile was having arguably his best season as a Patriot, but it ended prematurely due to a knee injury in Week 11.
Both White and Burkhead are currently pending free agents. They’ll be 29 and 31 years old respectively by the time OTA’s roll around. In 2020, there were only 15 running backs age 30 or older (including Burkhead) in the NFL, so it’s safe to begin to wonder about their respective futures, especially with the Patriots.
Finally, there’s UDFA rookie J.J. Taylor. We didn’t get to see a ton of Taylor in 2020 – as is usually the case with rookie Patriots running backs. But coaches raved about him behind the scenes, and given what I mentioned above about White and Burkhead, it’s safe to assume he laid strong groundwork for an increased role in 2021.
(Midseason grade: B-)
Wide Receivers: C
When grading the receivers for the midseason report card after the first Jets game, the big takeaway was that Jakobi Meyers’ performance that week was the saving grace of the position through eight games.
Fast forward another eight weeks, and that projection proved to be accurate. After seeing just one target over the first six weeks of the season, Meyers capitalized on N’Keal Harry missing time to become the top receiver in the Patriots’ offense.
Over the final 10 games of the season, Meyers caught 54 passes for 662 yards. Projected out to a 16-game season, that’s 86 catches and 1,059 yards. And although he wasn’t able to record his first NFL touchdown, that was due more to overall issues with the Patriots offense, as opposed to his own lack of effort or ability (although he did throw for a pair of scores).
Behind Meyers, there wasn’t much promise from the Patriots’ receiver group in 2020. It was supposed to be the breakout season for 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, but a concussion and the emergence of Meyers held him to just a 58-percent usage rate.
After a strong first two weeks, he totaled more than five catches in a game just once, and failed to surpass 50 yards. Many problems carried over from his rookie year, both for Harry and the coaching staff, who outside of a few jump balls in LA seemed to struggle to put him in positions to use his strengths to succeed.
Damiere Byrd showed an early ability to get open, but once he started seeing regular targets later in the year had trouble reeling in the ball. As is the case with most deep ball receivers, consistency was an issue as well. Of his total 604 yards, 50 percent came in just three games (against Seattle, Houston, and Kansas City).
What really hurt the group was losing Julian Edelman in late October. Although he got off to a rough start, Edelman was still dictating coverage when he was in the lineup. Without him, the Patriots receivers were as young and inexperienced a group as any in the league.
Between Edelman’s age and knee injury, and the uncertainty surrounding Harry and Byrd, it looks like there could major overhaul at the position in 2021.
(Midseason grade: C-)
Tight Ends: D+
It took 17 weeks, but they finally caught a touchdown against the Jets, meaning the season wasn’t a total failure.
Still, to say the production from the tight end spot was underwhelming would be an understatement. Including fullback Jakob Johnson – who is part of the Patriots’ tight end room – the group totaled 289 yards and a touchdown on 26 catches this season. Individually, 31 NFL tight ends surpassed all three of those numbers in 2020. Four teams saw multiple TEs pass those numbers.
Nobody came into the season expecting a top-of-the-league performance, but after the team invested so heavily at the position in the draft, an improvement over 2019 seemed realistic. However, the lack of offseason camps and a preseason hampered Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene – as it did all rookies across the league.
The two struggled to pick up playing time, and when they did they seemed out of sync for the most part. That’s not to say they can’t become contributors in the future, but there were certainly plenty of learning experiences put on tape in 2020.
Not ready to fully deploy either of their draft picks, the Patriots’ turned heavily to Ryan Izzo. There were some bright spots for the 2018 seventh-round pick, but many mistakes as well. In 12 games, he recorded 13 catches for 199 yards.
Overall, the position was de-emphasised in the Patriots offense in 2020. The Patriots used multiple tight end sets on just over four percent of their offensive snaps this season, as opposed to 20 percent of the time in 2019.
(Midseason grade: F)
Offensive Line: A
The Patriots’ offensive line had every reason to take a step back in 2020. Opt outs. Injuries. No more Dante Scarnecchia. Instead, they were once again one of the best units in the league.
Despite using seven different starting combinations over the course of the season, with players often playing out of position, the unit paved the way for the rushing attack to average 4.7 yards per carry, the eight highest total in the league. In the passing game, they made Cam Newton one of the NFL’s least-hit quarterbacks in the pocket.
That was all accomplished despite only two players being available for all 16 games. Joe Thuney played 97 percent of the team’s offensive snaps (a career low, believe it or not). Early in the year injuries forced him from his typical left guard spot to making two starts at center, a position he had never played in the NFL.
The other wire-to-wire player was rookie sixth-round pick Michael Onwenu. Primarily a right guard in college, he played significant time at both guard spots in 2020. However, he was primarily a right tackle, replacing Jermaine Eleuemunor early in the year. Despite having not played the position since high school, he stood out as arguably the best rookie on the team.
Although he missed four games due to thumb and calf injuries, it was clear getting David Andrews back at center was a big boost. He, Thuney, and right guard Shaq Mason were a big reason for the Patriots’ success on the ground. Adding promising and quick-assimilating rookies in Onwenu and Herron helped keep things afloat as personnel options became thin. In a year where it seemed like everything that could go wrong did go wrong, you wouldn’t have known it watching the Patriots’ offensive line.
(Midseason grade: A)
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.