Never before has a New England Patriots season come with this many questions.
Six players have opted out and will not play this season, including a starting offensive lineman and two of the team’s longest-tenured defenders. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out OTAs, minicamp and the preseason and chopped training camp in half. Some players fear the season itself is in jeopardy. Oh, and Tom Brady is long gone.
Along with those overarching concerns, the Patriots also face more conventional issues of roster management and new-player integration as they look to bounce back from their earliest playoff exit in a decade.
Here’s the biggest question facing each Patriots position group as camp begins:
Newton or Stidham?
If healthy, Cam Newton should open the season as New England’s starting quarterback, but that’s a big “if” for a player who’s coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries (shoulder in 2018, foot in 2019). It’s unreasonable to expect Newton to play at an MVP level at this point in his career, but he was a highly efficient passer before his injury in 2018 and remains a dangerous rushing threat. If he’s hindered, diminished or has trouble picking up the Patriots’ offense with limited practice time, the Pats will turn to Stidham or Brian Hoyer. Newton, though, has the highest ceiling of the three and could help reenergize an offense that sputtered in Brady’s final season in Foxboro.
What’s Sony Michel’s status?
The Patriots’ top ball-carrier is recovering from offseason foot surgery and might not be medically cleared before the first camp practice, according to a report Monday from The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. If he’s not, we’ll be closely watching 2019 third-round draft pick Damien Harris, who essentially redshirted last season but could take on a larger role in Year 2. Brandon Bolden’s decision to opt out also creates some uncertainty in one of New England’s most established position groups and might clear a path for intriguing undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor to land a roster spot.
Who steps up after Danny Vitale’s opt-out?
Vitale was supposed to add a new, athletic dimension to the Patriots’ fullback position, but he opted out, leaving second-year International Pathway player Jakob Johnson and a few rookie tight ends (Dalton Keene, Jake Burt) as the leading candidates for James Develin’s old post.
Can the youngsters carry the load?
After a dismal showing from last season’s Rob Gronkowski-less tight end crew, the Patriots drafted two players at the position (Devin Asiasi and Keene, both in the third round) for the first time since 2010 and carried two undrafted free agents (Burt and Rashod Berry) through the first round of roster cuts. Asiasi and Keene are roster locks, so 2019 holdovers Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo likely will be fighting for one spot in camp.
What will the depth chart look like?
Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry and special teamer Matthew Slater are locks, and Mohamed Sanu is a safe bet to stick around, as well. That leaves just two or three available spots for Damiere Byrd, Marqise Lee, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Jeff Thomas, Will Hastings, Quincy Adeboyejo and Devin Ross. In our view, Adeboyejo and Ross are the only true long shots of those eight. Byrd would provide some much-needed speed, Lee was productive in Jacksonville before losing most of the last two seasons to injuries, Thomas and Hastings are promising UDFAs, and Meyers and Olszewski both have a year of experience in New England’s system — a boon in this truncated training camp.
How do the Patriots replace Marcus Cannon?
New England was lean on tackle depth even before Cannon chose to opt out. Now, their only internal options to replace him are Korey Cunningham (seven career appearances), Yodny Cajuste (zero), Justin Herron (zero) and possibly left guard Joe Thuney. Cajuste, a 2019 third-round draft pick, was an excellent pass protector in college, but he’s unproven after missing his entire rookie season. What the Patriots really need is a proven veteran or two to prop up this group. Cordy Glenn (a career left tackle) and Demar Dotson (a longtime starter at right tackle) headline the list of available free agents. Former Patriots LaAdrian Waddle, Marshall Newhouse and Jared Veldheer are on there, too. And don’t forget: Cannon’s replacement won’t have Dante Scarnecchia to guide him. The legendary O-line coach retired this offseason and was replaced by Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich.
Is this group deep enough?
The Patriots were shallow up front last season and struggled against some of the NFL’s more potent rushing attacks. They made only minor adjustments this offseason, however, swapping out Danny Shelton (who was very good in 2019) for former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Beau Allen (who hardly played in 2019) and keeping the rest of the unit (Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise, Byron Cowart) intact. Opportunities exist for undrafted rookies Bill Murray and Nick Coe to play their way into roster spots this summer.
How do the Patriots replace Dont’a Hightower? (And Kyle Van Noy. And Jamie Collins. And Elandon Roberts.)
The Pats are in decent shape on the edges with John Simon, Chase Winovich and draft picks Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, but Hightower’s opt-out further complicates an already unsettled situation at inside linebacker. Third-year pro Ja’Whaun Bentley should start after being stuck behind Hightower and Collins last season, and Uche and veteran newcomer Brandon Copeland both have the versatility to play on the edge or off the ball. Uche, who played all over Michigan’s defense last season, will face added pressure to adjust quickly to the NFL game. Sixth-round rookie Cassh Maluia, undrafted rookie De’Jon Harris and 2019 practice squadder Terez Hall also will compete for inside ‘backer reps, with Shilique Calhoun and Derek Rivers vying for roster spots as edge defenders.
Can this group remain elite?
That’s the expectation. All six corners from the defensively dominant 2019 squad are back this season, including reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and budding star J.C. Jackson, who led all NFL cornerbacks in passer rating against last season. Jason McCourty’s status bears monitoring — he’s coming off offseason groin surgery — but this is New England’s deepest position group. At the bottom of the depth chart, we’ll see if Joejuan Williams can take on a larger role after playing sparingly as a rookie and whether D’Angelo Ross — who impressed last summer before going down with an injury — or Myles Bryant can become the Patriots’ latest undrafted gem.
Will Kyle Dugger be ready to contribute?
Adrian Phillips or Terrence Brooks likely will begin the season in Patrick Chung’s usual spot, but the X-factor in this group is Dugger, New England’s top 2020 draft pick. The second-rounder has the size and athleticism to play both safety spots — the Patriots lost two of their top three safeties when they traded Duron Harmon and Chung opted out — and might be able to chip in as a sub-package linebacker, as well. The issue, though, is Dugger will be attempting to transition from Division II to the NFL without the benefit of spring practice, a full training camp or any preseason games. That’s a tough ask. It could be a while before the Lenior-Rhyne product is ready for regular defensive duty.
Can Justin Rohrwasser handle the pressure of replacing Stephen Gostkowski?
Rohrwasser, the first kicker selected in the 2020 NFL Draft (fifth round), is one of the most important players on the Patriots’ roster. New England’s last two top-choice kickers both held their jobs for a decade or more (Adam Vinatieri from 1996 to 2005; Gostkowski from 2006 to 2019).
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images