Julian Edelman and the Patriots seek to maintain their AFC East supremacy as embark on the post-Tom Brady era
The Patriots are turning back the clock to a tried and true formula for success, one that kick-started the NFL’s most dominant dynasty some 20 years ago and was the key to its first three Super Bowl wins: a dominant defense complemented by an efficient offense and opportunistic special teams play.
A defense that allowed a league-low 14.1 points per game a year ago received a boost of youthful enthusiasm and speed through the draft. The team’s top three selections could contribute right away, bolstering a front seven weakened by some free-agent defections.
If things fall just right, the club that has won 11 straight AFC East titles could be in position to make it an even dozen, extending the gloomy outlooks for at least one more year in Orchard Park, East Rutherford and Miami Gardens.
Bill Belichick eschewed using one of his draft picks on a quarterback, and that was more of an endorsement of sophomore Jarrett Stidham than an indictment of this year’s class. Stidham saw very little playing time as a rookie, which is standard operating procedure for Tom Brady understudies, so there’s very little tape to go on. However, Stidham received high marks from his coaches for the way he not only ran the scout team but also the first team. Brady’s practice time was limited last year as the team managed his wear and tear while he nursed a nagging elbow injury. This gave Stidham the chance to get meaningful reps against one of the league’s stingiest (and most complicated) defenses. By all accounts, Stidham handled the pressure situations, which included some tough love coaching, with flying colors.
However, Stidham may not get his shot to start following the Patriots' signing of former Carolina Panthers starter Cam Newton to an incentive-laden, one-year deal on June 30. Newton played in just two games last year because of injury and was released in late March as the Panthers are embarking on a complete rebuild under first-year head coach Matt Rhule. Concerns about Newton's health and the COVID-19 pandemic impacted his ability to meet with teams and it was reported that Cleveland was the only one other than New England that showed any interest. Now, the 2015 NFL MVP has a chance to become just the latest player to resurrect his football career as a Patriot.
Stidham does have the advantage of familiarity and experience in the system, as he built a rapport with receivers (and fellow rookies) N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers last season. Likewise, Newton's strong arm and his athleticism could lead to a more wide-open offense. Brady relied heavily on dependable veterans Julian Edelman and James White, often bypassing secondary options because of a lack of trust. Edelman and White still will get their touches, but expect the new trigger man to spread the wealth more by getting everyone involved. Edelman, White and Damiere Byrd all excel at getting open quickly, and that will go a long way toward getting the new starter comfortable in the driver’s seat. New England did a draft double-dip by grabbing tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. Both will provide punch as receivers and blockers at a position that was punchless last season following Rob Gronkowski’s retirement.
The hope was that the ground game would experience a bounce-back behind the return to health of the offensive line and the incorporation of a new fullback. But that outlook changed significantly on the eve of training camp. Center David Andrews, who missed last season because of blood clots in his lungs has been given a clean bill of health. He's a smart and rugged tone-setter. He’s an elite tactician and will help ease the transition to the new quarterback. Guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason are solid body movers who rely on strength and leverage to open pathways. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn has battled injuries but has flashed athleticism and power when healthy. Veteran right tackle Marcus Cannon has opted out of playing this season due to concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Cannon was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma during the NFL Scouting Combine in 2011, so his own health probably factored into his decision. Yodny Cajuste is in line to replace Cannon, but his absence makes depth more of an issue now. Rookies Michael Onwenu, Justin Herron and Dustin Woodard could be called on sooner rather than later. Fullback Dan Vitale, who signed as a free agent, also opted out. Vitale was expected to play a big role in the backfield following the retirement of James Develin.
New England’s running back room is deep. Nobody felt James Develin’s absence following his season-ending neck injury in Week 2 more than Sony Michel, who often followed the now-retired burly fullback into the trenches. Michel is an instinctive runner with good vision. He scored only two touchdowns in the final 10 games of 2019 (including playoffs) and averaged 3.7 yards per carry for the season. White is among the top pass-catching backs in the league. He can line up anywhere in coordinator Josh McDaniels’ attack and uses his soft hands and quick feet to break ankles and move the sticks. Veteran Rex Burkhead is a dual-threat back who uses deceptive power to push the pile and nice hands to produce in space. Damien Harris barely played as a rookie, but after a year in the program, he could challenge Burkhead for snaps. Harris has a nice initial burst and maintains power through his runs. He caught 52 passes in college, so he can contribute on all three downs.
Assigning a specific scheme to this squad is just silly. Want to call it a 4-3? Go ahead. A 3-4? Sure, that’s fine, too. Truth is, this front seven is loaded with adaptable guys at the point of attack and at the second level, and they play in so many subpackages that labeling them is a waste of time. New England values intelligence and versatility first and foremost, as it asks its defenders to be flexible with their responsibilities from game to game, series to series and play to play.
On early downs, the powerful Lawrence Guy and Beau Allen will defend on the interior. In pass-rush subpackages, Guy slides to an end position, and Adam Butler provides a disruptive inside presence. John Simon has been superb at setting the edge, and Chase Winovich, a pass-rush specialist a year ago, will see his role increase this year. Rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are outside linebacker/defensive end hybrids who fit the multiple role mold. They will be thrown into the fire early with veteran Dont'a Hightower opting out of playing this season. The Patriots will sorely miss Hightower's presence, as well as his veteran leadership and versatility. More pressure now falls on Ja'Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall. Rookies Cassh Maluia and De'Jon Harris could even factor into the linebacker rotation as the entire group will be in a state of transition without Hightower to lead.
The Patriots secondary is the primary source of frustration for defensive coordinators and quarterbacks. Headache No. 1 is Stephon Gilmore, the top cornerback in the league and reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Gilmore’s size, length, mirror skills and closing burst allow him to cover targets of all shapes, sizes and skill sets. He routinely erases opponents’ top receivers without help. J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty split the other boundary corner depending on the matchup. Jackson’s speed and stickiness make him one of the best deep ball cover corners in the league. He tracks the ball well and will make acrobatic interceptions. McCourty is a dependable veteran with savvy and strength. He’s rarely out of place. Jonathan Jones’ short burst and deceptive strength make him an ideal nickel corner. Joejuan Williams’ size (6'3", 212 pounds) is unique for the position, and he could be used as a matchup solution against bigger receivers. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung form one of the most valuable and versatile (there’s that word again) safety duos in the league, but Chung has decided to opt out and won't play this season. Chung's absence could lead to top pick Kyle Dugger, who has the same traits, moving up the depth chart quicker than originally anticipated.
The Patriots made Justin Rohrwasser the first kicker taken in the draft (fifth round), following in the steps of Stephen Gostkowski — the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Rohrwasser grew up in Upstate New York and kicked at Rhode Island (just down the road a piece from Gillette Stadium) and Marshall, so foul weather is nothing new to him. Jake Bailey handled punting and kickoff duties with aplomb as a rookie, and that should continue. Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel are two of the best kick coverage players in the league. Reserve running back and special teams stalwart Brandon Bolden was another Patriot to opt out so there could be a competition for the kick return job. Dugger will get a chance to win the punt return job.
The AFC East is loaded with talented young quarterbacks. The key word being young. Belichick’s ability to come up with unique and varied looks (while disguising them to look the same during pre-snap reads) to flummox and frustrate inexperienced signal-callers makes him the most valuable field general in this division and the entire NFL. In Newton and Stidham, Belichick has his choice of options to lead the offense and whoever it is will be supported by a solid line, a potent running game, and an offensive coordinator in McDaniels who will put the quarterback in the best position to succeed.