The 2020 Patriots Will Repeat as AFC East Champs [OPINION]
Sure, Tom Brady is gone. We've ripped off the band-aid and started the healing process.
The New England Patriots will now have a much different look and for the first time this century, as neither Drew Bledsoe nor Tom Brady comes out of the tunnel with the team in Gillette Stadium.
But a bonafide franchise quarterback will come out nonetheless. Cam Newton will lead the offense with some QB credentials to offer. The 2011 Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn previously spent his entire NFL career with Carolina Panthers and, when healthy, has produced well. He was the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 2015.
The problem is, he has rarely been healthy in recent years. At 6-6, 250 lbs., he is a very big quarterback and has used his legs to move the ball quite a bit. He holds the NFL quarterback record with 58 rushing TDs.
Given that he's 31 years old and that he is now under the watchful eye of Bill Belichick, this will likely tone down his propensity to run as eagerly as his younger self, but the Patriots now have the threat of a rushing QB, something Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is likely to exploit.
The 2020 Pats come equipped with a very talented and most battle-hardened running back battery of Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, and also rookie JJ Taylor, an Arizona Wildcat signed yesterday to replace Damien Harris, who is out until at least Week 4. Harris was placed on the Injured Reserve list yesterday with a finger injury that required surgery.
The offensive line will need to not only improve but learn how to play together as there has been a shakeup. Marcus Cannon has opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. In my opinion, it's addition by subtraction. I'm not a fan.
Conversely, the return of three-time captain center David Andrews is most welcome. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn and left guard Joe Thuney should also both have terrific years. Right guard Shaq Mason returns and replacing Cannon will be an Arizona Cardinals 2018 seventh-round pick, right tackle Korey Cunningham.
Cunningham is a giant man at 6-6, 311 lbs., and will be pressured to perform with the Pats' 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste (6-5, 310) fighting for playing time at the position. Word is, it's a great contest between the two.
I look at this group and if the right tackle position performs well, this could be one of the best offensive lines in the league.
When it comes to the tight ends – let's move on to the defense. Seriously, though, if there is are gaping concerns for me, one has to be here. Ryan Izzo is tentatively slated to be the starter here (gulp).
The Patriots are not expected to rely on offensive TE production right away, unless one or both rookies – third-rounders Devin Asiasi (the 91st pick) and Dalton Keene (101st pick) – somehow develop into early starting roles.
The last time the Patriots invested so heavily at tight end, we'd have to go back to when Rob Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth round) were drafted in 2010.
Asiasi is rather interesting. While at UCLA, the 6-3, 257-lb. Asiasi lined up at the slot receiver 59 percent of the snaps. He is quicker than average (4.73 40-yard dash), not Gronkowski quick (4.68) but a tough challenge for any linebacker to cover, and certainly at slot receiver McDaniels can exploit mismatches during the course of the year. Asiasi is possibly a bit banged up coming into the league's opening week with some left ankle or foot issue, but nothing too serious, it seems.
Dalton Keene is my darkhorse surprise. My eyebrows raised when Belichick ponied up three picks to move up 21 slots in the third round to get him. A touch faster than Asiasi (4.71 40-yard dash), Dalton has the physical tools. He's 6-4, 251 lbs. and can block beyond a doubt. Can he get open and catch passes in the NFL? We probably won't see for the first part of the season but you never know.
Dalton also had the longest broad jump (125") and the quickest short shuttle (4.19 seconds) in the combines of all the tight ends. These are barometers indicating to the scouts that he should be able to produce as a receiver, but it's the NFL, and scouting is still an imperfect science. Look for Keene to be used as a fullback as well.
Matt Lacosse is still on the roster as the fourth tight end on the depth chart.
Now, the defense. The Patriots' best linebacker opted out. This position issue is a bit involved but deserving of a good long look.
Dont'a Hightower was frazzled by the NFL's plan to deal with COVID and won't come near Gillette. I won't say I'm not disappointed because we do need him badly. Who is going to play linebacker?
Brandon Copeland and Ja'whaun Bentley will be the outside linebackers, with a lot of hope on rookie Anfernee Jennings (third round out of Alabama) playing in Hightower's usual spot inside. Yesterday, the Pats promoted Cassh Maluia from their practice squad to the final 53-man roster. Maluia is on the smaller side at 5-11, 231 lbs. but is very quick with an impressive 4.53 40-yard dash. He will probably see more action on special teams.
Copeland has never played for a winner before, with his first four years split between the Lions and the Jets. Cut by the Ravens and Titans, he played arena football for a couple of years and was lost in 2017 for the season for the Lions with a torn pectoral muscle. He has had limited playing time but was thought to be signed as a special teams player first. Not good, at least on paper.
The only silver linings here are that this is an area where Belichick has mined greatness out of role players. He seems to find a way to use them for their strengths more than opponents are able to exploit their weaknesses. Secondly, all three of these guys are thought to be instinctually solid football players with the intangible "football IQ" in their favor.
While physically limited, Copeland and Bentley seem to know how to get to the ball. Covering running backs and tight ends as receivers with these linebackers might be an issue – check that, should be an issue. Jennings is expected to be a competent player in the league but hopefully, that is both true and soon.
The defensive line should be serviceable with veterans like Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, John Simon, Deatrich Wise Jr., and second-year pass rusher Chase Winovich.
I like the secondary even with Patrick Chung opting out, also over COVID -19 concerns. He's a bit long in the tooth and finally started to show it last year.
Belichick, without knowing Chung would opt out, already had the position handled with rookie Kyle Dugger picked in the second round of the 2020 draft. Dugger is kind of a mystery choice as he played in NCAA Division II and rarely saw NFL candidate-quality competition. He runs well with a 4.49 40-yard dash and has incredible defensive numbers, but at the D-II level. In Bill, we trust.
Dugger may be able to ease into the position, though, as the Patriots also have acquired Adrian Phillips, a veteran strong safety formerly with the Chargers. He is coming off of a broken arm, suffered in Week 7 last year but is back to 100 percent and will start next to free safety Devin McCourty.
Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty will start at cornerback with J.C. Jackson breathing down McCourty's back for a starting role. Add Jonathan Jones for depth at cornerback and dime defense, and you've got the most excellent first down, nickel or even dime defensive backfield in the league; I see this as a Patriot's strength in both talent and depth.
The wide receiver position is a bit of an unknown as a squad, but I see some talent here. The heart and soul of the Patriots are now found in Julian Edelman, who will be paired with the second-year player, 2019 first-round pick N'Keal Harry, who started to show some real signs of greatness as the year progressed. Jacoby Myers and Gunner Olszewski will provide competent depth and both have a knack, like Edleman, of getting open quickly. Veteran Marquise Lee opted out of the season for personal reasons.
Look for the Pats to pick up some linebackers and receivers as teams slashed their rosters this past Sunday. There is literally no placekicker on the team as of Sunday, but look for them to re-sign Nick Folk if they already haven't as I write this.
I believe that there is a good reason that Belichick stuck his neck out (for him) by publicly stating "I like this team." It would be easy to explain away a lousy 2020 Patriots season with the departure of the greatest quarterback this team – or possibly any team – has ever had in Tom Brady. Bill has rarely offered public optimism for any of his teams of this 20-year dynasty, but he has done so here going into the 2020 new era of the Patriots franchise.
Given my optimism for the offensive line, running back personnel, the rumors of Cam Newton working very hard and very well so far, the proven M.O. of Belichick's teams improving as the year goes on, and with only spotty issues on the defense, here are my predictions:
Their losses will most likely come in Weeks 2, 4, and two of three games in Weeks 7, 8, and 9, but not all three. In addition to those concerns, they usually lose a curious one they are expected to win. Contenders for that would be Week 2 at Seattle, Week 4 at Kansas City, Week 7 at home against San Francisco, Week 8 at Buffalo, Week 9 hosting the Ravens, or Week 10 at Houston.
They will finish strong from Week 11 on, going undefeated after that turbulent mid-season, with the last six games being Week 12 against the Cardinals, Week 13 at the L.A. Chargers, Week 14 (four days later and back-to-back in Los Angeles) at the Rams, Week 15 at Miami, Week 16 back home against the Bills, and Week 17 against the Jets.
I predict a finish of 11-5 with the AFC East championship. Buffalo will push the Pats hard and will also have continued success as their team improves. The Bills will grab a wild card position with a 10-6 record.
The crystal ball gets fuzzy for seeing into the playoffs but I have great doubts about them escaping the AFC and getting to the Super Bowl, but who knows who will be standing at the end of December. I cannot rule them out.
In Bill, I still trust.
Ken Pittman is the host of The Ken Pittman Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.