2020 was a tough season for the New England Patriots. In their first season post-Tom Brady, the Cam Newton-led squad finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. While the Patriots’ special teams and defense struggled, their offense proved to be a liability, forcing costly turnovers and ultimately losing several games.
What Went Right
The Patriots’ defense looked promising this season. When the team welcomes back their numerous opt-outs in 2021, they could find themselves atop the league’s defensive rankings once again. Stephon Gilmore continued to impress when healthy while J.C. Jackson exploded enough to put his name in the Pro Bowl and Defensive Player of the Year conversations. Adam Butler, Adrian Phillips, Chase Winovich, and Anfernee Jennings were among several other players to shine this season.
New England also led the team in special teams for yet another campaign. Always recognized for their impressive special teams play, the Patriots rostered two First-Team All-Pros this year, with both of them being special teamers. Punter Jake Bailey earned the selection for his rise to being the best punter in the NFL, while Gunner Olszewski also burst onto the scene and made his mark in the punt return game. Furthermore, while not recognized with any award or selection, kicker Nick Folk was an underrated part of the team, connecting on 26 of 28 field goals and 30 of 33 extra points.
Finally, rookie offensive lineman Michael Onwenu showed his commitment to the Patriot Way. The sixth-round guard accepted a position switch to right tackle and filled in admirably, earning himself a selection among Pro Football Focus’ top-10 right tackles. On the other side of the trenches, left guard Joe Thuney finished as PFF’s No. 6 at his position, though he is scheduled to hit free agency with a hefty price tag and likely won’t return next season.
What Went Wrong
For Patriots fans, a lot of the good was overlooked by the bad. While some may want to only focus on what went right, it’s even more important to identify what some of the biggest issues were and how they can be improved.
Let’s start at quarterback. Cam Newton is obviously not the answer for the Patriots going forward. There was nothing wrong with taking a chance on the former MVP, but he did not earn himself a starting job this season, especially considering New England is seeking a quick return to the playoffs in 2021. Beyond Newton himself, the quarterback room was drastically mishandled this year. When everyone was calling for Bill Belichick to switch to Jarrett Stidham, the future Hall of Fame head coach held firm and opted to play Newton. Even when Newton tested positive for COVID-19, veteran Brian Hoyer leapfrogged Stidham to make a spot start against the Kansas City Chiefs. The lack of clarity at quarterback was a major flaw of the 2020 Patriots.
Another glaring concern is the wide receiver corps. While Julian Edelman‘s injury could not have been predicted, the lack of depth behind him came as no surprise. Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd did show signs of life throughout the season. However, Meyers has yet to catch a touchdown and Byrd is a 27-year-old impending free agent. The Patriots had a poor supporting cast of receivers in Brady’s final season, and the unit took yet another step back alongside Newton.
Team Award Winners
MVP – J.C. Jackson
J.C. Jackson has always shown potential on the defensive side of the ball, but he truly climbed to star level in 2020. The third-year cornerback appeared in all 16 games, filling in admirably when Stephon Gilmore (knee) was a no-go. Jackson logged 40 tackles, three forced fumbles, and 14 passes defended. His nine interceptions put him just one behind Xavien Howard for the league lead and positioned him one spot (but three interceptions) ahead of Tyrann Mathieu. With Gilmore and several opt-outs returning to complement Jackson next season, the defensive future looks truly bright.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Michael Onwenu
As explained already, Onwenu is likely a favorite of Bill Belichick based on his late-round selection and rise to success. Drafted as a guard, Onwenu has taken on a hybrid role while protecting the right side of the offensive line. With Joe Thuney leaving in free agency, the line will take a hit. However, Belichick should have confidence in Onwenu, his new anchor, while searching for players to fill in the other vacancies. Having consistency in the trenches is one of the most important parts in developing a young offense, so Onwenu’s reliable presence comes at a perfect time for New England.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – Kyle Dugger
The Patriots’ defensive rookie class was on an off in 2020, with players like Dugger, Josh Uche, Myles Bryant, and Terez Hall all having their moments of success. While all four defensive rookies showed immense potential this season, Dugger’s reliability (14 games) made him the right pick for this award.
Biggest Surprise – Adrian Phillips
Phillips, a former Los Angeles Charger, had never started more than seven games in a single season, earning most of his playing time by being a special teams star. (His dominance in the special teams unit earned him Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro selections in 2018.) Whether or not he came into New England to be a special teamer, he was asked to do a lot more, and it’s safe to say he played terrific football. Already a fan favorite, Phillips logged 16 starts (more than double his previous career-high), making 109 tackles, one sack, and two interceptions. The 28-year-old is an impending free agent, but it’s safe to assume the Patriots will work to re-sign him.
Biggest Disappointment – Cam Newton
This one is nearly a no-brainer. While players like Julian Edelman and Stephon Gilmore underperformed due to injury, Newton can’t blame his struggles on an ailment. When your quarterback is your biggest disappointment, you know the season is a lost cause.
Newton had a few strong games but ultimately struggled for most of the year. In 15 starts, he went 7-8 with a 65.8 percent completion rate, which was actually the second-best mark of his career. However, he completed 242 passes for 2,657 yards and eight touchdowns, while were all career-lows (minimum three games). He also threw 10 interceptions and fumbled six times. Newton’s biggest value was his mobility as he scrambled for 592 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. He also added two catches, 35 yards, and one score through the air. Of course, nobody expected Newton to be Tom Brady 2.0. Nevertheless, he significantly underperformed and did not earn himself a roster spot for 2021.
One Burning Question
What will the quarterback position look like in 2020?
Things are bad under center at Gillette Stadium. Newton is a problem, Hoyer isn’t the solution, and Stidham doesn’t have any approval from Belichick. The only solution here is an external option. Whomever it may be, the Patriots need to spend their resources on a quarterback if they want to win. As uncomfortable as this may be for Belichick, he must accept something that is fairly unfamiliar to him.
Spending precious resources on a quarterback is necessary in order to be a winning franchise.
The ball is in your court, Coach.
Follow Andersen Pickard on Twitter @AndersenPickard
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