The New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins in a regular season Patriots vs Dolphins Live Free game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, September 13, 2020. Gillette Stadium. 2020 NFL Team Preview Series: New England Patriots It’s a new era in New England after Tom Brady departed to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and post-Brady life for the Patriots is one of the season's biggest stories. For the most part, this offseason looked like previous ones for New England — successful players left, they signed new players to fill specific roles and they went with a high-volume draft approach. Then, they signed free-agent quarterback Cam Newton, increasing expectations with the 2015 MVP at the helm.
The big question is Newton’s health and how he adjusts to the new offense with below-average playmakers. The other question is the defense, where the secondary is one of the league’s best, but duplicating last year’s strong performance is a difficult task. Either way, the Patriots will be must-see TV this season, but for different reasons than in year’s past.
Most of the offseason was dedicated to imagining a Jarrett Stidham-led Patriots offense, but their recent signing of Cam Newton creates an entirely new vision. Newton is incredibly talented, and while many point to his 2015 MVP season, that year was a clear outlier compared to the rest of his career. Newton has been an above-average quarterback in his nine seasons, though he has ranked below 20th in PFF grading in each of the past three seasons. Injuries have been part of the issue, but early 2018 Newton was a change from the previous downfield-throwing, boom-or-bust passer who hit great throws while also missing far too many.
While Newton’s early 2018 numbers were slightly inflated, it showed his ability to play a more ball-control style, perhaps the desired style for the Patriots' offense. Newton’s rushing ability is another factor for the Patriots to tap into, and given his one-year contract, they could look to use it to its fullest. As for Stidham, he was a project coming out of Auburn, though he showed quick progress with a solid preseason as a rookie. There still may be a future starter in there, and adding Newton allows Stidham to continue developing, a rare occurrence in today’s NFL.
New England’s backfield committee remains intact for the second straight season. Former first-rounder Sony Michel led the team in carries for the second straight season and posted a 66.6 rushing grade that ranked 40th including the playoffs. Michel has not been as dynamic as expected, forcing just 0.13 missed tackles per attempt — which ranks 42nd out of 57 qualifiers over the past two years. He also has a disappointing 43.7 receiving grade.
James White is the top pass-game threat out of the backfield, ranking third among running backs in both receiving grade (90.5) and yards per route run (1.91). Rex Burkhead has cycled between feature back and receiving back in his three years in New England, all adding up to a 70.6 overall grade that ranks 50th during that span. The top three have defined roles, whereas 2019 third-rounder Damien Harris will try to steal some playing time after seeing just five snaps as a rookie last season.
New England also uses a fullback more than most teams, and they’ve brought in Danny Vitale to assume that role, but he graded at just 49.3 last season on 170 snaps with the Packers. The Patriots have their usual array of role players in the backfield, though they could use a more dynamic threat to challenge opposing defenses.Last season, Patriots wide receivers and tight ends combined to produce a 67.0 receiving grade, ranking 27th in the NFL. The receiving corps looked promising early in the season with Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown in the mix, but optimism soon turned into the worst offensive performance from the team in recent history. Julian Edelman is still effective, as he can work the underneath routes as well as any receiver in the league and finished the season with 100 receptions. Edelman’s 73.6 receiving grade in 2019 ranked just 37th in the NFL, in part due to 10 drops and three fumbles. Once defenses turned their attention his way, the Patriots' offense struggled.
Mohamed Sanu graded at just 57.1 with the Patriots, dropping four of his 27 catchable passes, while first-rounder N’Keal Harry got open on only 11.1% of his single coverage targets, the worst rate in the NFL. The Patriots also added Damiere Byrd and Marqise Lee this offseason to compete with second-year player Jakobi Meyers for the No. 4 spot. Byrd adds much-needed speed to an offense that looked like one of the slowest in the league last year, while Lee has been limited to just 111 snaps over the past two seasons.