In easily the biggest move of the off-season, Tom Brady in his first ever free agency after 20 years in New England decided to head south and join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady and head coach Bill Belichick had been the most stable and successful head coach and quarterback duo in NFL history over the past two decades, winning a record 6 Super Bowls and 36 more regular season games than any other team in the league over the past 19 seasons. Somehow, their second decade together was more dominant than the first, with a ridiculous 78.1% regular season winning percentage, an average of 2.3 wins per season more than the next best team. In fact, the second best team the Green Bay Packers were closer to being sub-.500 than to surpassing the Patriots’ win total.
Despite all their success together, it isn’t all that surprising that the two parted ways this off-season. The Patriots won 12 games in 2019, but ran out of steam after a 8-0 start and got eliminated in the wild card round for the first time since the 2009 season. Because they’ve been aggressive in restructuring contracts to create short-term cap space over the past 5 seasons, the Patriots lacked the financial flexibility to give Brady the contract he was looking for this off-season and even if they kicked the can forward another year on their cap problems, they wouldn’t have been able to afford the upgraded weapons Brady was seeking in the passing game.
The Buccaneers had the cap space to add the recently unretired Rob Gronkowski to arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL to begin with, they have a seemingly up and coming young defense, and they have a well respected coach in Bruce Arians who has a proven track record with veteran quarterbacks. The Patriots, meanwhile, couldn’t afford to bring back key linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins on defense even without re-signing Brady or signing a veteran replacement and did little to upgrade their roster in general in free agency.
Despite that, they still have among the least cap space in the league going into the 2020 season. That doesn’t mean they are spending a lot of money on players, however, as they have the 7th lowest payroll in the NFL in terms of actual cash spend. Not only do they have the 4th most cap space committed to players not on the team of any team in the NFL, they have several other players deep into their contracts that have significant dead money making up their cap hit after years of restructuring contracts to fit consistent Super Bowl quality rosters under the cap for the past 4-5 seasons. The credit card is coming due for the Patriots.
The good news is that they’re paying it off in one season, with a projected 92 million in cap space for 2021 as of right now, 4th most in the NFL. The Patriots may not have Tom Brady anymore, but for the first time in his tenure as Patriots coach/GM, Belichick will have close to unlimited resources to build this team the way he wants to build it through free agency next off-season. Belichick has rarely had the financial flexibility to make big external signings, but if the addition of Stephon Gilmore a few off-seasons ago was any indication, Belichick can find value at the top of the market just like he can in the lower tiers of free agency.
It’s not all bad news for the Patriots in the short-term either. Even with one of the lightest payrolls in the NFL, this isn’t a bad roster overall and Bill Belichick has proven time and time again that he can get the most out of his players. That probably doesn’t mean contending for a Super Bowl with this roster, but there are reasons to think this can still be a competitive team. How competitive will come down to what the Patriots have in their unknown under center, second year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who looks poised to get the first crack at replacing Brady after the Patriots didn’t add any meaningful competition for him this off-season aside from bringing back long time backup Brian Hoyer. There is talk the Patriots could give Cam Newton a look when they are able to work him out and test his surgically repaired foot and shoulder, but the Patriots’ financial situation makes that unlikely unless Newton is willing to take a significant pay cut.
Despite having arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, the Patriots actually invested pretty heavily in the quarterback position through the draft throughout Brady’s tenure in New England. Including Stidham, a fourth round pick in 2019, the Patriots have used five picks in the 4th round or higher on a quarterback since 2008, only trailing the Jets and Browns (6) over that stretch. Ryan Mallett and Kevin O’Connell washed out of the league, while Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett were outlasted by Brady and were starting quarterbacks elsewhere in 2019, leaving Stidham to be the one to finally get a chance long-term in New England.
Stidham (133th) wasn’t as highly drafted as Garoppolo (62) or Brissett (91) and the track record of quarterbacks taken outside of the top-3 rounds over the past couple decades is very unimpressive, but Belichick has proven to be noticeably better than average at identifying quarterback talent late in the draft. Since 2000, just 12 quarterbacks who have fallen out of the first 3 rounds of the draft have thrown more than 1400 pass attempts in their career. Belichick has identified three of them, taking Tom Brady in the 6th round in 2000 and adding Matt Cassel in the 7th in 2005 and Brian Hoyer as an undrafted free agent in 2009.
Brissett and Garrappolo were higher picks, but it’s still unusual for 2nd and 3rd round quarterbacks to be consistent starters in the NFL. Along with Brady, Brissett and Garrappolo were 3 of just 11 quarterbacks who were not originally first round picks that attempted more than 400 passes last season. Mallett and O’Connell are examples that show Belichick isn’t perfect, but it’s clear he’s better than your average NFL decision maker at identifying quarterback talent after the first round.
Also in the case of Mallett and O’Connell, Belichick seemed to recognize his mistake pretty quickly with both quarterbacks. O’Connell lasted just one season with the team and only threw 6 passes despite Brady missing that season with a torn ACL. Mallett lasted three seasons, but didn’t become the backup until year 2 and threw just 4 total passes before being traded for a 6th round pick. Stidham, on the other hand, was the backup as a rookie and would not have gotten to this point in the off-season as the de facto starting quarterback unless he’s impressed Belichick behind the scenes, so he’s likely more similar to Brissett or Garoppolo as a prospect than he is to Mallett or O’Connell.
Coming out of Auburn University, Stidham was seen as a bit of a boom or bust prospect. He was highly recruited out of high school and flashed early in his career with Baylor, before transferring in the aftermath of the Baylor athletics scandal. In his first year at Auburn, Stidham was highly productive leading one of the better teams in the country and looked like a potential future first round pick, before falling off statistically with a worse supporting cast in his second season in 2018 and falling in the draft as a result.
Still, Stidham has an NFL arm and is experienced against the toughest defensive competition in college football in the SEC and, even in his down year, he rarely made significant mistakes. He never threw more than 6 interceptions in a season and had a career 1.53% interception rate, despite frequently throwing downfield and averaging 8.51 yards per attempt. He was a work in progress coming into the league, but all indications are that his progress has been significant behind the scenes.
Stidham might not be the next Tom Brady, but he doesn’t have to be the greatest quarterback of all-time to compete for Super Bowls. For the first 3 Super Bowl victories of his career, Brady wasn’t quite the quarterback he’d turn into later, leading teams built around defense. Brady arguably got better every season of his career before peaking around 40 but, as impressive as Brady has been in fighting off regression for most of his career, he started to show signs of falling off last season, so Stidham’s isn’t exactly replacing a prime quarterback.
Brady finished the 2019 season with his lowest QB rating in 13 seasons and his lowest YPA in 17 seasons and he was even worse later in the season, completing 56.6% of his passes for an average of 5.91 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions from week 9 on. The Patriots won 12 games, but their defense, which had the best first down rate allowed in the NFL by a wide margin at 29.64%, covered for an offense that ranked 21st at 34.70%, including 23rd at 33.73% from week 6 on.
Issues with his offensive supporting cast were part of the reason for his lack of production, but it wasn’t just statistically that Brady dropped off, as the “eyeball” test showed some regression as well. Including playoffs, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback. After a strong first 3 weeks of the season, Brady didn’t have a single game with a PFF grade higher than 80 the rest of the way and, from week 4 on, he was PFF’s 18th ranked quarterback, meaning he was close to being an ordinary starter for most of last season.
For a quarterback who prior to last season had 5 straight seasons with grades over 90 on PFF, including first place finishes at his position in 2015, 2016, and 2017, that’s a pretty big drop off. As we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it quickly when they get up there in age. Brady has defied the odds before, but going into his age 43 season, Brady is entering truly uncharted territory, with no quarterback ever throwing more than 10 passes in his age 43 season.
Even with a lack of financial flexibility, the Patriots could have still made Brady a similar offer to the one the Buccaneers gave him if they felt he would continue playing at a high level, but it would have almost certainly have meant parting ways with franchise tagged offensive lineman Joe Thuney, and Belichick thought purely from a football perspective, guaranteeing top quarterback money for a quarterback in his age 43 and age 44 seasons wasn’t in his best interest, which may prove to be the case if Brady continues declining like he did down the stretch last season. Stidham is close to a complete wild card and obviously comes with a bigger downside, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he wasn’t much of a dropoff from what Brady was last season.
As I mentioned, the Patriots did very little to improve their offensive supporting cast in free agency, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Stidham will have as bad of an offensive supporting cast as Brady did last season, as they should be significantly healthier after losing the 3rd most games to injury on offense of any team in the league last season, which doesn’t even take into account that top-2 wide receivers Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu played most of the second half of the season and their playoff loss through seriously limiting injuries.
Their defense suffered some major losses and should have more injuries after losing the fewest games to injury of any defense in the league in 2019, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots finished better than the 21st they finished in first down rate in 2019 on offense, if Stidham can show some promise in his first year and his supporting cast can stay relatively healthy. All this being said, it’s hard to ignore that there’s a lot more uncertainty at the game’s most important position for the Patriots than they’ve had in decades.
Update: I mentioned that the Patriots would only be able to sign Cam Newton if he took a significant pay cut compared to what he’s made in the past. Well, still unsigned into late June, Newton has decided to do just that, taking a heavily incentivized deal that could pay him as little as the league minimum and only as much as 7.5 million if he hits all his incentives. Newton isn’t guaranteed to win the starting job, given the uncertainty with him due to his injury history, but he should be considered the heavy favorite and, if he doesn’t win the job, the Patriots won’t have to pay Newton very much.
There seem to be two narratives around Newton right now, one that he’s washed up and done after all the time he missed due to injury and one that he’s a former MVP who can bounce back to that level. There are some elements of truth to both narratives, but I don’t think either tells the whole history. On one hand, Newton’s two injuries, the shoulder injury he suffered in 2018 and the foot injury he suffered in 2019, are separate injuries and the former he should be long recovered from at this point.
Newton’s age is becoming a concern in his age 31 season and his playing style leads to him taking more hits that could lead to more injuries, but he has relatively little history of missing time with injuries aside from the past couple seasons. As recently as week 9 of 2018, prior to his string of injuries, he was PFF’s 14th ranked quarterback and had completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while adding 342 yards and 4 touchdowns on 73 carries on the ground (4.68 YPC). That wasn’t that long ago and Newton isn’t that old.
On the other hand, those remembering Newton’s MVP season are likely looking at history through rose colored glasses, as that year stands out as an obvious outlier in his career. Newton had been a consistently solid starter throughout his career prior to his injuries, but he never finished higher than 11th among quarterbacks on PFF in any of his other seasons in the league aside from his MVP season. If healthy, Newton could easily be a capable starter again, but the chances that he bounces back to anything close to his MVP form are highly unlikely, even if he does stay healthy. Newton comes with a lot of risk, but for a quarterback needy team like the Patriots the risk clearly outweighs the reward. If Newton can be at least a capable starter, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots right back in contention in their first season without Brady.
Probably the biggest loss of the season for the Patriots’ offense in 2019 was center David Andrews, who was ruled out for the entire season with blood clots last off-season. He’s expected to make a full recovery, which is great news for him personally, but also great news for the Patriots’ offense in 2020. Andrews was one of the better centers in the league before going down and he was badly missed by a team that fell from 4.26 in yards per rushing attempt in 2018 to 3.81 in 2019.
An undrafted free agent in 2015 and a bit of a late bloomer, Andrews finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center in 2017 and their 11th ranked center in 2018, holding his own in pass protection and excelling as a run blocker. In his absence, backup Ted Karras was PFF’s 21st ranked center out of 38 qualifiers. Only going into his age 28 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Andrews return to form if his medical issues are behind him, which would be a big boost for this offense. With Karras gone and no clear backup on the depth chart, they can’t afford to lose him again.
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn also missed significant time with injury, and was limited to just 7 starts in the regular season. While Andrews’ absence hurt their run game significantly, Wynn’s absence hurt their pass game significantly, as Wynn is an above average pass protector and was replaced by veteran journeyman Marshall Newhouse, who finished 58th out of 88 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF and allowed a team 6 sacks despite making just 9 starts. A first round pick in 2018, injuries have been the story of Wynn’s career thus far, as he missed his entire rookie year with an achilles tear as well.
Even when on the field he has left something to be desired in the run game, but he’s shown a lot of promise in pass protection and, still only in his age 24 season, could easily take a step forward in his 3rd year in the league if he can finally stay on the field. If not, they’d likely turn to Yodny Cajuste, a 2019 3rd round pick who missed his whole rookie year with injuries of his own. Cajuste has upside as well, as he could have gone much higher in the draft if not for injury concerns. He’s a complete unknown at this point, but he has more upside than most backup left tackles and only has to beat out bottom of the roster talent Korey Cunningham for the swing tackle role with Newhouse gone.
The rest of this offensive line stayed relatively healthy, with right tackle Marcus Cannon and right guard Shaq Mason missing a game a piece and left guard Joe Thuney making all 16 starts for the fourth straight season since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016. Now at the end of his cheap rookie deal, Thuney seemed likely to depart in free agency, but the Patriots somewhat surprisingly kept him off the open market with the franchise tag, even though doing so meant they wouldn’t be able to make Tom Brady a competitive offer.
The Patriots have used the franchise tag several times in the Belichick era, but there are only four other instances of Belichick using it on a non-special teamer he intended to keep (Matt Cassel and Tebucky Jones were tagged and traded), so Thuney getting tagged is somewhat of a rarity. Belichick clearly values his reliability and the continuity of keeping this offensive line together and, with 3 straight seasons in the top-14 among guards on PFF, including a career best 5th in 2019, it’s hard to argue Thuney doesn’t deserve a top of market deal, still in his prime in his age 28 season.
Shaq Mason was given close to a top of the market extension two off-seasons ago, re-signing for 45 million over 5 years, but that looks like a bargain now. Now only the 12th highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary, Mason has finished in the top-12 among guards on PFF in 4 straight seasons, maxing out at #1 in 2018, and is still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. Mason still has 4 years left under team control and doesn’t project to have a cap number higher than 5% of the cap in any of those seasons, so he has one of the better veteran contracts in the league. His average salary rank will continue to fall as he gets further into his contract and other guards sign for more money.
Assuming Wynn and Andrews are healthy, the biggest question mark on this offensive line is right tackle Marcus Cannon, who is going into his age 32 season and coming off of his lowest rated season on PFF since before he became a full-time starter back in 2015. He still finished around middle of the pack at his position, but appears to be on the decline, with his PFF grade falling in each of the past 3 seasons. He could have another couple seasons left in the tank as a solid starter, but it’s possible the Patriots view Cajuste as the future on the right side if he’s over his injury. Overall, this has the potential to be one of the better offensive lines in the league if healthy, but their depth is suspect if injuries strike again, especially on the interior. Using what little cap space they have left on some reliable veteran depth would be a good idea.
The Patriots also dealt with a lot of injuries in the receiving corps last season as well, most prominently Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu, who were supposed to be their two leading receivers. Edelman didn’t miss a game and Sanu only missed one, but both were playing very banged up down the stretch. Sanu, a mid-season acquisition from the Falcons, caught 10 passes in his 2nd game with the team week 9, but suffered an ankle injury and didn’t surpass 35 receiving yards in a game the rest of the way, averaging just 0.66 yards per route run over that stretch.
Edelman, meanwhile, was dealing with shoulder, knee, and rib injuries by season’s end and, though he still finished with a 100/1117/6 slash line and was one of 5 receivers to have 100+ receptions, he averaged just 34.3 receiving yards per game in the final 3 games of the season and the Patriots playoff loss to the Titans, a game in which he significantly cost the Patriots with key drops. It’s not a coincidence that Sanu and Edelman’s drop offs due to injuries coincided with this team’s drop off down the stretch last season. Having both healthier this season should be a boost to this team.
That’s not to say they are surefire locks to bounce back though, given that both are on the wrong side of 30, with Edelman entering his age 34 season and Sanu going into his age 31 season. Edelman has averaged a 102/1117/6 slash line per 16 games since 2013, but much of his value has come from his familiarity with Tom Brady and, with the combination of Brady leaving and Edelman getting up there in age, there is significant potential for statistical drop off for Edelman in 2020. That’s not to say he can’t remain a reliable possession receiver for Stidham for another couple seasons and he hasn’t shown much sign of drop off when healthy, but it’s likely his days of topping 1000 yards in a season, something he’s done three times in his career, are over.
Sanu is a few years younger than Edelman, but isn’t as proven, maxing out with a 66/838/4 slash line in 2018. That being said, it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better this year than last year, given how ineffective he was after his ankle injury. Sanu is an unspectacular player, but he’s not totally over the hill yet and was on pace for a 75/715/2 slash line with the Falcons last season before the Patriots acquired him for a 2nd round pick to replace Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon, who fell out of favor with the team.
Part of the reason they parted with a premium pick to acquire Sanu is that he is owed just 6.5 million for the 2020 season, which allows the Patriots to get a capable receiver on a below market value rate in a year when they don’t have much financial flexibility. The Patriots could have acquired Emmanuel Sanders instead and, while that may have made sense in hindsight, Sanders commanded a 2-year, 24 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season, almost double what Sanu makes annually. Sanu doesn’t have to be spectacular to be worth more than his salary and he should give Stidham a reliable receiver, assuming he can stay healthy.
N’Keal Harry also dealt with injuries last season and, as a result, the first round rookie could never get into the flow of the offense and managed just a 12/105/2 slash line on 221 snaps in 7 games, while making several mistakes and generally struggling on the field. Harry still has a lot of upside though and could easily progress significantly in his 2nd year in the league and if he can stay healthy and get the necessary practice reps. He’s tentatively expected to be the 3rd receiver behind Sanu and Edelman, but he has the upside to finish higher than that on the team in receiving yards.
With Harry missing time and Sanu spending the first half of the season in Atlanta, Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Myers finished 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver. Both players were pretty mediocre. Dorsett is no longer with the team and likely won’t be missed, as he provided a deep threat (10.9 air yards per catch), but caught just 53.7% of his targets and averaged just 2.8 yards per catch after the catch.
The Patriots essentially replaced him by taking a flier on free agent Marqise Lee, who had a 63/851/3 slash line in 2016 and a 56/702/3 slash line in 2017, but has missed 35 games in his other 4 seasons in the league and has caught just 3 passes the past 2 seasons due his inability to stay on the field. He and Jakobi Myers, a 2019 undrafted free agent with some upside, will be Harry’s biggest competition for the 3rd receiver job. Lee has some upside as well, still in his age 29 season, but durability is a major question mark. He also lacks Phillip Dorsett’s speed, leaving this receiving corps without a true speedster. Still, they should get more from their wide receivers this year simply because they are healthy and Dorsett won’t be missed significantly.
The Patriots should also get more out of their tight ends this year, though that’s not saying much, as they completed just 28 passes to tight ends in 2019. That’s a big difference for a team that was once famous for their two-tight end sets and that once employed arguably the greatest tight end of all-time in Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots didn’t make any big investments at the tight end position this off-season, but seem to be trying to go back to their two-tight end roots, taking a pair of tight ends in the 3rd round in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, similar to how Gronkowski and his less beloved former running mate were taken in the 2nd and 4th in 2010. It’s unlikely either tight end will put up big numbers as a rookie, but they will get plenty of opportunity to play and are both capable blockers, which is at least better than what they had last year. This receiving corps lacks a clear top option, but has some interesting depth and overall should be healthier and deeper than last year.
With Brady gone, the Patriots will almost definitely be putting more of an emphasis on the running game this season. They were unsuccessful on the ground last season, ranking 25th in the NFL with 3.81 yards per carry, but the Patriots should be healthier on the offensive line and added a pair of solid blocking tight ends through the draft. The Patriots could also get a healthier year from Sony Michel, who fell to 3.69 YPC on 247 carries after a 4.45 YPC average on 209 carries as a rookie in 2018, along with 336 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on 71 carries (4.73 YPC) during the Patriots’ 3-game Super Bowl run. Michel didn’t miss a game in 2019, but consistently played through injuries, which, combined with the Patriots’ inability to block, significantly hurt his effectiveness. The former first round pick still has a lot of upside going into his third season in the league.
Michel has durability issues dating back to college, however, so there’s no guarantee he can ever stay healthy for a full season. Perhaps the Patriots will get more from 2nd year running back Damien Harris, who was barely active as a 3rd round rookie last season. It’s tough to project a major role for a player who has barely played, but the Patriots invested a somewhat premium pick in him and could easily still be high on his upside now that he’s had a year in the system. Carries are there for the taking on a run heavier offense if he develops. He’ll compete with jack of all traits Rex Burkhead to be 2nd in line for carries. Burkhead’s versatility is nice and he likely has the inside track on a roster spot because of his special teams and pass catching ability, but his 4.13 career YPC is pretty underwhelming, so Harris is the higher upside option.
James White will also be sprinkled in as a runner, though he’ll primarily contribute as the passing down back. White has averaged just 60.8 carries per season over the past 4 seasons, but he’s averaged 68.8 catches per season over that stretch and has been a key part of the passing game. Brady was notorious for targeting backs in the passing game, so how many balls White catches without Brady is a question mark, but he should be secure in his passing down role with Michel and maybe Harris working as the early down backs and Burkhead playing a utility role. It’s a solid group, though one with a low floor if Harris doesn’t develop and Michel can’t stay healthy.
As mentioned earlier, the Patriots had the best defense in the league last season and it wasn’t really close, which made up for their lack of offense for most of the season. Despite finishing just 21st in first down rate, the Patriots finished the regular season 3rd in first down rate differential thanks to a defense that not only ranked 1st in first down rate, but by a wide margin. The Patriots finished at 29.64%, while the 2nd ranked Steelers finished at 32.43%, which was actually closer to the 16th ranked Saints than to the Patriots. The Patriots didn’t have the toughest schedule, but even when adjusted for schedule, they were still by far the best defense statistically in the league last season.
Obviously the players deserve a lot of credit, but defense is also where Bill Belichick does his best coaching and he and this defensive staff, which stayed intact this off-season, did an incredible job of getting the most out of their players last season. Even with key losses of Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy and the players who will inevitably get injured after the Patriots’ defense had the best injury luck in the league last season, there is still a lot of reason to expect this to be a strong unit. They still have a lot of talent and added some interesting players to replace departures.
Aside from the losses of Van Noy and Collins, the Patriots also had a few other minor losses, including interior defender Danny Shelton. Shelton was New England’s highest ranked interior defender on PFF last season, but was primarily a big run stuffer and the Patriots found a decent replacement in 6-3 327 pound Beau Allen, who came over from Tampa Bay this off-season. Allen has only been a rotational player in his career, maxing out at 423 snaps in a season in 6 seasons in the league, so he might not take over Shelton’s full role (492 snaps), but he has a similar set skill and can be a decent situational player against the run. Byron Cowart, a 2019 5th round pick, could also have a bigger role with Shelton gone, after playing just 43 snaps as a rookie.
Veteran Lawrence Guy remains as the other starting interior defender in base packages, primarily focusing on stuffing the run. A journeyman rotational player before arriving in New England, Guy has developed into a strong run-stuffer with the Patriots, earning positive grades from PFF in all 3 seasons with the team. He wasn’t quite as good last season as he was in 2018 when he finished 7th among interior defensive linemen in run stopping grade, but he had a strong year nonetheless. He doesn’t see many passing downs, but he isn’t lost when he rushes the passer, with 5 sacks and a respectable 7.7% pressure rate over the past three seasons. Age is a bit of a factor going into his age 31 season, but he could easily have at least another couple solid seasons left in the tank as a high level role player.
While Guy and Allen are expected to start in base packages, Adam Butler will again be their primary interior pass rush specialist, after seeing 374 of his 474 snaps in 2019 come on pass plays. Butler’s 6 sacks jump off the page for a part-time player, but his peripheral pass rush stats are not as impressive (3 hits, 7.1% pressure rate) and he’s a liability against the run on the few run snaps he does play. Originally an undrafted free agent in 2017, Butler has gotten marginally better in every year in the league and is clearly valued by the Patriots, who kept him on a 2nd round tender as a restricted free agent this off-season, but his 2019 pressure rate was barely above his career average of 6.7%. Barring a big step forward, I would expect more of the same from Butler in 2020.
Deatrich Wise is also in the mix as a situational pass rusher. A 4th round pick in 2017, Wise was underwhelming in the first two seasons of his career on the edge, but flashed as a situational interior pass rusher last season, with 2 sacks, 8 hits, and a hyper-efficient 21.5% pressure rate while playing about 22.7% of the snaps. At 6-5 275, Wise isn’t a prototypical interior defender, but he has the size to hold up inside and his quickness makes him a mismatch on the interior in obvious passing situations. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a larger role in 2020. The Patriots lack a dominant interior player, but this was not the strength of this defense last season and they have some interesting parts that fit together well.
The area of this defense most affected by off-season losses is the edge, as both Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins were hybrid linebacker/defensive ends that saw significant snaps as a pass rusher off the edge. Van Noy saw 86 coverage snaps to 449 pass rush snaps and managed 6.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate, while earning positive grades as a run stuffer and in coverage from Pro Football Focus and finishing as their 20th ranked edge defender. Collins, meanwhile, saw 343 coverage snaps to 189 pass rush snaps and had 7 sacks, 4 hits, and a 16.9% pressure rate. He struggled a bit against the run, but excelled in coverage and finished as PFF’s 13th ranked off ball linebacker overall. Needless to say, it won’t be easy to replace either player.
Most directly, they will be replaced by 2nd round rookie Josh Uche and 3rd round rookie Anfernee Jennings. Both players fit the mold of the player they’re replacing, but it’s unrealistic to expect either to be as good from day one. I would expect them to be more role players than the 813 snaps and 814 snaps that Collins and Van Noy played respectively. The Patriots also took a flyer on ex-Jet Brandon Copeland in free agency and he comes with more upside than you’d expect, as he flashed on 611 snaps in 2018 before falling out of favor with a new coaching staff in 2019. He hasn’t done much else in other 6 seasons in the league, but he had 5 sacks and a 10.6% pressure rate in 2018 while earning positive grades from PFF against the run and in coverage, so he fits what the Patriots look for at the position and has some bounce back potential in a friendlier system, still only in his age 29 season.
Dont’a Hightower, John Simon, and Chase Winovich are holdovers that will also be in the mix for snaps on the edge. The latter is a 2019 3rd round pick who flashed on 291 snaps as a rookie and will almost definitely be getting a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. He has some breakout potential. Simon is a 7-year veteran going into his age 30 season. He’s never topped 631 snaps in a season, but he has a proven track record as a versatile role player, contributing in coverage and against the run and pressuring the quarterback at a 10.6% rate for his career. His age is a minor concern, but he should remain effective on a similar amount of snaps as last season (481 snaps).
Hightower is a hybrid linebacker who also sees significant snaps as a middle linebacker in base packages, in addition to rushing the passer on 59.3% of his pass snaps in 2019. A first round pick in 2012, Hightower is now one of the longest tenured players on the team. Injuries have sapped his abilities in recent years after he was one of the best linebackers in the league in his prime and now he’s going into his age 30 season, but he still earned average or better grades for his coverage, run stopping, and pass rush ability last season and he’s still a very valuable versatile weapon for this defense. It’s also worth noting he’s only missed a couple games with injury the past two seasons, though he hasn’t played a full 16 games since 2013, so he’s likely to miss at least some time at some point. Losing Van Noy and Collins hurts this unit, but the Patriots still have an intriguing group of edge players.
As I mentioned, Dont’a Hightower will also see snaps as a traditional middle linebacker in this defense, although third year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is their best pure middle linebacker. He only played 275 snaps as season, despite playing all 16 games, but he has the opportunity to pick up vacated snaps left behind by situational run stuffer Elandon Roberts (202 snaps) and also Jamie Collins, who occasionally played some traditional linebacker in this defense as well.
Bentley has thus far only played 413 snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 5th round in 2018, but he’s played well in limited opportunities, earning positive grades from Pro Football Focus in both seasons in the league. His lack of playing time hasn’t really been his fault either, as he was limited to 3 games by injury as a rookie after earning a starting role in the pre-season and then was simply buried on the depth chart on a deep defense last season and couldn’t get more than a rotational role. With an opportunity for a larger role in 2020, he has breakout potential in his 3rd season in the league.
The Patriots also like to drop a 3rd safety down and play him as a linebacker in a lot of situations, which makes up for their lack of depth at the linebacker spot. Patrick Chung played 83.2% of his coverage snaps in the box last season and the Patriots signed ex-Charger safety Adrian Phillips, who has played 76.6% of his coverage snaps in the box over the past 2 seasons. The Patriots are very deep at the safety position, so expect Chung and Phillips to play significant snaps as linebackers.
Chung has been in New England for 10 of his 11 NFL seasons, but finished below average on PFF for just the 3rd time in those 10 seasons last season, seemingly due to nagging injuries that he played through after a good start to the season. Now going into his age 33 season, his age is becoming a concern, which is likely part of why the Patriots brought in Phillips. Phillips is a prototypical Belichick defensive back because of his versatility, not just to play linebacker, but cornerback and special teams as well.
Phillips came as a bit of a bargain as a free agent this off-season because injuries limited him to 7 games last season, but he earned positive grades in 2017 and 2018 on 521 snaps and 685 snaps respectively and he played well while on the field last season as well. Still only in his age 28 season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Phillips play his best football in a scheme that fits his abilities very well. He could easily take playing time away from Chung and be close to a full-time player even without a set position. The Patriots lack traditional linebacker depth, but have enough versatile players at other positions to cover and have a pair of players in Bentley and Phillips who have a lot of potential in this scheme.
As I mentioned, the Patriots are very deep at the safety position and that is true of their secondary in general. The Patriots traded away Duron Harmon, who played pretty well on 657 snaps last season, but not only did they add Phillips this off-season, they also used a 2nd round pick on Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger. Dugger might not play a ton of snaps as a rookie, but he should have a role. Dugger could also be Devin McCourty’s long-term replacement, as McCourty is now going into his age 33 season. A versatile player who played 53% of his snaps in the box last season, McCourty is also a ball hawk who finished last season 4th in the league with 5 interceptions and has 26 since entering the league as a first round pick in 2010, 7th most in the NFL over that stretch.
Age will catch up to McCourty eventually and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he dropped off a little bit in 2020, but he still finished 11th among safeties on Pro Football Focus last season, his 7th season in the top-19 among safeties in the past 8 seasons. Even with as much depth as the Patriots have at this position, don’t expect him to come off the field much. 2019 2nd round pick JoeJuan Williams could also be in the mix for snaps at safety, although that’s mostly because the big 6-4 208 pound cornerback doesn’t have an obvious path to playing time at his natural position, which is also a deep position for the Patriots. Williams played just 80 snaps last season and, despite being a high draft pick, isn’t a roster lock in a deep secondary, especially after an off-season drug arrest.
The Patriots go four deep at cornerback as well, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Cornerback is arguably the toughest position in the NFL to be consistently dominant at and outside of Gilmore no other cornerback finished in the top-14 at the position on PFF in both 2018 and 2019, but Gilmore finished in the top-5 in both seasons and has allowed less than 50% completion in both seasons with a league leading 40 combined pass deflections over that stretch (no one else has more than 33). Gilmore also finished 24th among cornerbacks in his first season in New England in 2017 and 23rd in 2014, as he was a solid cornerback with the Bills before turning into the top cornerback in the league in New England. His age is a minor concern going into his age 30 season, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he continued to dominate.
Behind Gilmore on the depth chart, roles are up for grabs, with Jonathan Jones, JC Jackson, and Devin’s twin brother Jason McCourty all competing for playing time. The Patriots use four cornerbacks at the same time somewhat regularly, so all four saw playing time last season, with McCourty having the fewest snaps at 474 only because he was limited to 12 games by injury. Expect them to all have roles again in 2020.
Jones is likely locked into the primary slot role, where he played 68.5% of his 619 snaps last season. Jones went undrafted in 2016, but saw 438 snaps in his 2nd season in the league in 2017 and has seen his snap total in each of the two seasons since. Last season was also his best season, as he finished as Pro Football Focus 22nd ranked cornerback overall. He excels as a run stopper off the edge, but he also ranked in the top half among cornerbacks in yards per route run allowed on the slot and ranked 13th with 303 slot coverage snaps.
Jackson is also a former undrafted free agent, being signed by New England in 2018. He’s been a quick riser though, playing 395 snaps as a rookie and 682 snaps last season, while earning positive grades from PFF in both seasons. Jackson was PFF’s 47th ranked cornerback last season and could easily set a career high in starts in 2020 after starting 5 as a rookie in 6 last season. He has some breakout potential even if he’s not an every snap player in every matchup.
McCourty is the veteran of the bunch, obviously going into his age 33 season like his brother. A versatile chess piece who can play inside, outside, and some safety, McCourty should find somewhere to play in this secondary. An underrated player throughout his career, McCourty has finished in the top-22 among cornerbacks on PFF in 7 of the past 10 seasons, including a 21st ranked finish in 2020. Being an excellent run stuffer has a lot to do with it, but he’s also earned positive coverage grades from PFF in all 7 of those seasons as well. Age is a concern though, especially since he’s had some injuries in recent years, but he won’t need to play every down. This is probably the deepest and most talented secondary in the league.
The big story around the Patriots is Tom Brady’s departure, but replacement Jarrett Stidham might not a big downgrade considering the way Brady played down the stretch last season and the Patriots should be healthier on offense around the quarterback this season, most notably on an offensive line that is one of the league’s best when their starting five are in the lineup. The bigger concern is their defense, which lost two of their best players in free agency in Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins as well as a few lesser players, and that is unlikely to have as few injuries in 2020 as in 2019, when they had the fewest adjusted games lost to injury on defense. Last season a dominant defense carried a mediocre offense to 12 wins, a division title, and a 3rd place finish in first down rate differential.
How close they come to that in 2020 will primarily be dependent on how much Belichick can coach up a less talented group. I like some of the replacements they added this off-season, but they had very little financial flexibility to add significant replacements and the rookies might not be able to contribute right away. The Patriots are severely handicapped by their financial situation right now and figure to be worse than they’ve been in a couple decades and not just because of the loss of Brady. Fortunately, it should only be temporary, given how much money the Patriots will have available next off-season, and even with a small payroll, this could still be a competitive football team in a weak division in 2020, especially if Stidham can be a capable starting quarterback.
The Patriots look poised to get more with less once again, even if that more is not as many wins as they’re used to. They have one of the toughest schedules in football, but primarily because of their first place schedule and their non-divisional schedule. They play in one of the easier divisions in the league, which increases their chances of claiming a playoff spot for the 12th straight season, as does the addition of a 3rd wild card spot. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Update: The Patriots have signed Cam Newton. I go into more details in the quarterback section, but, even with Newton’s uncertainty, his addition obviously boost this team’s chances of being contenders in 2020.
Final Update: No team was harder hit by opt outs than the Patriots, which erases a lot of the distance between them and the Bills in the AFC East and offsets some of the benefit of adding Cam Newton. I still have the Patriots as the top team in the division by a slight margin, but that says more about the Bills than anything. In any other division, the Patriots would struggle to make the playoffs as a wild card.
Projection: 8-8 (1st in AFC East)