2020 NFL Team Previews: New England Patriots

2020 NFL Team Previews

By Professor MJ

New England Patriots



1. Introduction

The Patriots won an 11th straight division title with a 12-4 record, but stumbled down the stretch with three losses over the final five regular season meetings. That included a stunning 27-24 home loss to the lowly Dolphins, which cost New England a first-round bye.

The Miami loss turned out deadly, as the Patriots suffered a 20-13 upset home loss to the Titans. Tom Brady’s last pass as a Patriot was a pick six with nine seconds left in the game.

New England is starting a new chapter in its history with Brady gone. The team compiled a mind-blowing 232-72 record from 2001 to 2019, a 76.3% win percentage, while collecting six Super Bowl trophies.

2. Offensive Position-by-Position Breakdown

2.1 Quarterbacks (QBs)

One of the big stories during the offseason was obviously Tom Brady leaving the Patriots after spending 20 years with the franchise.

Now, one of the most intriguing questions heading into the 2020 season is whether Jarrett Stidham has what it takes to become a starting quarterback in the NFL. He obviously has big shoes to fill.

As he was heading into his final year at Auburn, Stidham was hyped as a potential #1 overall pick. However, his stock plummeted after a disappointing season in which he completed 60.7% of his passes (down from 66.5 the year before). His TD-to-INT ratio remained pretty much the same during those two college years: 18-to-6 as a sophomore versus 18-to-5 as a junior. In other words, no improvement at all.

The team signed Cam Newton, who spent the first nine seasons of his career in Carolina. He is very likely to open the season as the starter due to his experience. Also, it was reported that Stidham threw many interceptions early in camp. Don’t expect Newton to be the savior considering he appeared in just two games last year and given the lack of weapons at the wide receiver position. Now 31 years old, he’s not as fast as he used to be as a runner.

2.2 Running Backs (RBs)

The Patriots love to use many runners in their backfield to keep them fresh, and that is likely to remain the same this year.

Granted, they have the weapons to do it. Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White represent a nice group of running backs.

Michel had the most rushing attempts by far with 247, compared to 132 for Burkhead and White combined. But let’s be honest: he hasn’t been a great back thus far in his career.

For the second straight year, he rushed for just under 1,000 yards. The problem is as follows: his yards-per-carry average dropped from 4.5 in 2018 to a pedestrian 3.7 last year. He’s also a non-factor in the passing game, having caught just 19 passes in his two-year stint in New England.

If it wasn’t for Michel’s first-round status, Rex Burkhead might have obtained a chance to become the lead back. He was clearly a better runner and a better receiver than Michel last year. Burkhead was pretty elusive, as shown by his number 9 position out of 61 RBs in terms of years after contact per attempt.

James White has been a pass catching machine for years in New England. Look at these astounding stats: he has averaged 69 receptions over his past four years, while also scoring 6.5 total TDs per year in that time frame. He is a very valuable tool in the Patriots offense.

2.3 Wide Receivers (WRs)

The lack of reliable pass catchers was a big topic of discussion among Pats fans last year. If you take a look at the numbers, you may fall off of your chair.

Julian Edelman and James White led the way with 100 and 72 receptions, respectively. The next-highest number of receptions drops to 29! The team is clearly undermanned in their receiver corps.

Obviously, having Edelman back is a plus for the Pats. However, despite coming off a 100-reception season, he graded as a slightly above-average receiver in the league. Indeed, his 71.4 mark was his lowest since 2012. One of the reasons was his unusually high number of drops; he led the league in that category with 13. Now entering his age-34 campaign, you have to be worried about his 2020 performance, especially playing with an unproven QB.

Phillip Dorsett was pretty much Tom Brady’s lone deep threat. He only caught 29 passes despite the thin receiving corps, which was disappointing. He packed his bags to play with the Seahawks next year.

It’s probably too early to make a final judgment about him, but first-rounder N’Keal Harry seems like a bust so far. He started the year on injured reserve before playing eight games, if you include the playoff game against Tennessee. His “best” performance was 3 receptions for 29 yards. He couldn’t create any separation and must make a big leap in year #2 if he wants to stay in the league.

The best bet to fill the WR #2 role is Mohamed Sanu. The team sacrificed a 2nd-round pick in order to acquire him from the Falcons at midseason last year. The production New England got out of him last year wasn’t even close to being worth a second rounder.

Here’s an important remark, though: Sanu sustained an ankle injury in his third game with the Pats, and that seemed to slow him down a lot for the rest of the year. As a matter of fact, he underwent a surgery during the offseason to resolve the problem. In his final six outings, Sanu averaged 2.2 catches for 18 yards. Perhaps he could rebound in 2020, but he’s not a game breaker and he will be playing at 31 years of age.

The Pats also gave a shot to an undrafted rookie named Jakobi Meyers. Tom Brady himself raved about him during preseason. He showed some flashes, but he looks more like a depth piece.

New England signed Damiere Byrd away from the Cardinals. Much like Meyers, he appears more to be a depth option. He’s an undrafted 27-year-old who posted career-highs last year in Arizona with 32 receptions for 359 yards and 1 TD.

2.4 Tight Ends (TEs)

Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo won’t ever be confused with Rob Gronkowski.

Watson had the most targets and receptions of all three guys. However, a 17-173-0 stat line is nothing to write home about. After turning 39 years old, he decided to hang his cleats.

Matt LaCosse showed nothing that could even remotely suggest he could start in the NFL. The same could be said of Ryan Izzo, who caught six passes last year.

The team desperately needed help at this position, so they decided to choose a couple of tight ends in the third round of this year’s draft: Devin Asiasi (UCLA) and Dalton Keene (Virginia Tech).

Asiasi is a pretty bad blocker, but he is a threat in the passing game. Over the past two years, he has made 14 plays topping the 20-yard mark. Slot corners may have trouble covering him.

Keene’s skillset is completely different from Asiasi. He’s a solid blocker who wasn’t targeted often in the passing game, although he did score eight TDs in his final two seasons with the Hokies. He’s pretty versatile, as he can also play fullback or as a wingback.

2.5 Offensive Line (OL)

Joe Thuney turned out to be a third-round gem. He hasn’t missed a single game in four years and he did not allow a single sack for the second consecutive season! He finished the 2019 season as the fifth-highest graded guard in the league, according to the PFF rating system.

The team’s other guard, Shaq Mason, did not finish much lower than his teammate as he obtained the #9 spot. After a more shaky rookie season, Mason has been a steady force in each of the past four years.

David Andrews was supposed to be the starting center in 2019, but he missed the entire season due to blood clots in his lungs. He is optimistic to return in 2020, but he hasn’t been cleared to play by doctors yet. He was among the top 10 centers in the NFL before this health issue came up.

The Pats turned to Ted Karras to replace Andrews at center. He ended up grabbing the 20th rank out of 37 centers. He signed with division rivals from Miami during the offseason.

Left tackle Isaiah Wynn missed half the season due to a toe injury. He did not play at all in 2018 after being chosen in the first round of the draft. He graded as an average tackle in 2019, which isn’t bad considering his lack of experience. He was a big upgrade over Marshall Newhouse who filled in during his absence.

Right tackle Marcus Cannon is a nine-year veteran whose play upgraded quite a bit in the past four years, as opposed to his first five seasons in the league. He is an above-average tackle. He won't play in 2020 since he chose to opt out because of the coronavirus.

2020 VS 2019 OFFENSE

If I were to tell you that a specific NFL team will start an unproven fourth-rounder at quarterback, along with a bunch of “okay” running backs, two starting wide receivers above 30 years old and abysmal tight ends, you would certainly tag this group as a bottom-five offense.

Yet, if we’ve learned something in the past 20 years, it must be to never bet against Bill Belichick. Like him or not, he simply gets the best out of his players.

The X factor is visibly the play of Jarrett Stidham. If you ask 10 experts to forecast his 2020 statistics, you are likely to get 10 very different answers. The truth is nobody knows what to expect from him.

Still, it’s hard to see the change at quarterback as an upgrade for the Patriots. Brady ranked as the 12th-best signal caller according to PFF grades. Even if Stidham does “well”, he probably won’t finish higher than the 12th spot.

The situation remains stable at the RB and TE positions when comparing 2019 and 2020 (unless you expect Asiasi to have a big impact right away as a rookie). On the offensive line, David Andrews is expected to be back as a center instead of Ted Karras. That’s neither a huge positive or negative.

Finally, losing Phillip Dorsett while getting Damiere Byrd seems to be a slight loss.

In summary, the only big change occurs at quarterback. Since it is the most important position on offense, you’ve got to expect a moderate downgrade. Stidham and/or Belichick will need to pull a rabbit out of a hat to avoid further damage.

Final call (2020 vs 2019):

Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade

3. Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown

3.1 Defensive Linemen (DLs)

The bad news for the Patriots is their interior defender with the best PFF grade last year, Danny Shelton, left for Detroit. He did a very respectable job during his two-year stint in New England.

Up next, the Pats had Lawrence Guy on the interior of the line. His play tailed off quite a bit last year and he finished in the middle of the pack in PFF rankings.

Few people expected Adam Butler to record six sacks. Despite that surprising production, he still graded as a below-average DL. He is an undrafted prospect in his mid-twenties who is more of a rotational player.

The Pats signed Beau Allen who played just 16% of the snaps with the Bucs last season. Don’t expect great things from him; he’s been a role player throughout his six-year career and has accumulated just 2.5 sacks during that time period.

3.2 Defensive Ends (DEs) / Edge Rushers (ED)

Kyle Van Noy has never been a dominant pass rusher, but he was the total package, meaning he was good in all aspects of the game. He signed with the Dolphins in the offseason, which takes a blow to the Pats defense.

John Simon is a decent above-average edge defender. He usually gets between 2 and 5 sacks per year. He will turn 30 pretty soon, but you can expect a fair level of play from him.

Chase Winovich had a successful rookie season. The third-rounder from Michigan logged 5.5 sacks despite being on the field for 29% of the snaps. He is a promising player who will certainly get more opportunities in 2020 following Van Noy’s departure.

Shilique Calhoun never made a mark with the Raiders, and it was no different with the Pats last year. He’s looking for a part-time job in this defense.

Third-round rookie Anfernee Jennings should have a rotational role with the team this year. He is known for having great technique.

3.3 Linebackers (LBs)

The linebacking corps took a bit hit when Jamie Collins decided to reunite with Matt Patricia in Detroit. At 30 years old, he enjoyed one of his best campaigns with three interceptions, three forced fumbles and by leading the team both in tackles (81) and sacks (7.0).

At least the team still has Dont’a Hightower. He finished just one spot below Collins in PFF rankings with the number 17 rank out of 89 LBs. After a couple of more ordinary seasons, Hightower came back with a very solid season. He is also 30 years old. UPDATE: Hightower opted out of the 2020 season due to covid-19. A big blow to this defense.

The Pats traded up in order to select Josh Uche out of Michigan late in the second round of this year’s draft. He carries some question marks since he rarely played in his first three years with the Wolverines before playing close to 50% of the snaps in his senior season. In other words, he has limited playing experience. He projects to be used in sub-packages in pass rushing situations.

Ja’Whaun Bentley was selected in the 5th round of the 2018 draft. It’s hard to tell whether the Purdue prospect can embrace a bigger role or not.

The team picked up Brandon Copeland from the Jets. He’s never been very good and will likely provide depth at the position.

3.4 Cornerbacks (CBs)

The Pats allowed the second-fewest passing yards in the league last year, only behind the 49ers. Hats off to the team’s cornerbacks for a fruitful season.

Let’s start with the guy who was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore. He had a career-high with six interceptions and he repeatedly held opposing #1 WRs in check. He was fantastic! He is turning 30 years old this September, but there is no reason to believe his play won’t be great again.

J.C. Jackson played 68% of the snaps and he added five more interceptions to his resume. Some off-field issues caused him to go undrafted in 2018, but his first two seasons have shown some promise for sure.

Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones also received nice grades from PFF. Indeed, they finished as the 17th- and 19th-best corners out of 112 players. McCourty will be playing his age-33 campaign, but his play last year showed no sign of slowing down. He had trouble finishing the season because of a lingering groin injury.

As for Jones, he’s another undrafted guy that the Pats were able to convert into a NFL-caliber player. Even though he did not intercept a pass, he was still solid in his 4th year as a pro thanks to admirable run defense.

As you can see, the team is loaded at the position and did not lose any impactful player.

3.5 Safeties (S)

The Pats were able to re-sign Devin McCourty, but they couldn’t do the same with Duron Harmon. Yes, you guessed it, Harmon also left for Matt Patricia’s Lions.

Harmon’s loss will sting. He’s been a very steady contributor in each of his seven seasons with the Pats. He picked off 10 passes in the last three years.

As good as Harmon was, McCourty is an even better player. The only source of concern pertains to his age, as he will be turning 33 this summer. He has picked off a pass in each of his 10 seasons in the NFL, totaling 26 of them during that time.

Patrick Chung brings more question marks. He’s had ups-and-downs in his career, and 2019 was clearly a bad one. He graded as the 78th-best safety out of 87 players. He is also on the wrong side of 30 and is potentially facing NFL discipline following a case of cocaine possession. He decided to opt out of the 2020 season following the pandemic.

New England picked up Adrian Phillips in free agency. The six-year pro played his entire career with the Chargers. He’s not a difference maker.

The Pats selected Kyle Dugger early in the second round of this year’s draft. He played Division-II football for four years. He showed incredible athleticism at the NFL combine, but he will be facing a major leap in competition level. He carries an alpha demeanor and New England is likely to use him in different ways: as a safety, as a slot corner or as an outside linebacker.

2020 VS 2019 DEFENSE

The team lost its best DL (Danny Shelton), its best edge defender (Kyle Van Noy), its best linebacker (Jamie Collins) and its number two safety (Duron Harmon).

Those losses were not addressed via free agency, as New England only signed second-tier players. They did draft LB Josh Uche and S Kyle Dugger, but they aren’t blue chip prospects who are guaranteed to make a big impact in 2020.

Under such circumstances, it’s difficult not to downgrade severely this unit when comparing the 2019 and 2020 rosters. But once again, here comes the Bill Belichick element. He’s so good at plugging guys and making them stars. Will he be able to do some magic once again?

Even though it’s rarely a good idea to bet against Belichick’s mastermind, I’m still going to predict a big dropoff in production from this defense. They allowed the fewest-points in the league last year. Obviously, they can’t go up. I’m expecting them to finish in the 10th-17th range.

Final call (2020 vs 2019):

Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade

4. Regular Season Wins

According to sportsbooks, the New England Patriots are expected to win 9 games this season. Should we bet the “over” or the “under”?

Here is the methodology I used in order to answer this vital question:

  • Use BetOnline.ag’s point spreads on all 256 regular season games.
  • Convert those point spreads into win probabilities.
  • Simulate each of the 256 games, according to those win probabilities, via the R statistical software.
  • Repeat the previous step one million times (you get 1M simulated seasons).
  • Count the proportion of seasons where the Patriots won more or less than 9 games.

The results of this thorough statistical investigation generate the 4th-highest ROI (Return On Investment) among the league's 32 teams.

As you can see on my website, the Over/Under pick is provided for free for the NFL teams producing the ROIs ranked 11-32.

The top 10 picks, which includes the Pats, all have a ROI above 24% and they are available in my special NFL Gold Package. This is the best product I have ever sold. Take advantage of it!

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