Here are eight questions facing the slumping New England Patriots as next Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline draws near:
1. Will the Patriots be buyers, sellers or neither?
Acquire reinforcements, swap assets for draft picks or stand pat? That question could hinge on the result of Sunday’s AFC East showdown with the Buffalo Bills.
The Patriots currently sit at 2-4 following their first three-game losing streak since 2002. Beat the 5-2 Bills — who haven’t looked nearly as impressive in their last three games — and they’re right back in the mix for the division title. Lose, and their odds of reaching the postseason decrease dramatically.
Since 1990, 146 teams have lost five of their first seven games. Just seven (4.8 percent) made the playoffs, and none advanced beyond the divisional round. At 3-4, that number jumps to 18.2 percent.
It is important to note, though, that contending teams can sell off prominent pieces, too. The Patriots did so in 2016 when they traded starting linebacker Jamie Collins after starting the season 6-1 (and went on to win the Super Bowl).
The COVID-19 pandemic also could result in a less active trade deadline than the league has seen in years past.
2. If they’re sellers, who goes?
The top candidate would be cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who almost certainly won’t be willing to play for the $7 million he’s set to earn next season. Gilmore, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, could fetch a first- or second-round pick from a Super Bowl contender with a shaky secondary, and the Patriots are deep at corner.
New England also could have suitors for left guard Joe Thuney, who’s playing on the franchise tag this season, and No. 2 cornerback J.C. Jackson, who’s set to hit restricted free agency. Wide receiver Julian Edelman’s value can’t be high given his age and 2020 production, but perhaps the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be interested in reuniting Tom Brady with his favorite target.
3. If they’re buyers, who comes aboard?
Wide receiver and tight end are two of the Patriots’ most prominent needs. Some potential targets to watch at those positions include Houston’s Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills and Darren Fells; Cincinnati’s John Ross and A.J. Green; Detroit’s Marvin Jones; the New York Giants’ Golden Tate and Evan Engram; Minnesota’s Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph; Cleveland’s David Njoku; and Jacksonville’s Tyler Eifert.
Linebacker and defensive tackle also are positions of weakness for New England at the moment.
4. Can Cam Newton be fixed?
A few weeks ago, we were talking about the Patriots potentially locking up Newton to a long-term extension. Now, it’s not clear if he’ll even make it through the season.
Newton struggled in the last game before his positive coronavirus test and has looked downright bad since returning from the reserve/COVID-19 list, throwing five interceptions with zero touchdowns over his last two starts. Bill Belichick benched the former NFL MVP late in Sunday’s blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers. And while Newton will keep his starting spot for at least one more week — backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham has been similarly ineffective in two relief appearances — he’ll be on a much shorter leash moving forward.
The Patriots have issues elsewhere on their roster, but Newton’s play in their most important variable. If he performs like he did in Weeks 1 and 2, they’ll be back in the playoff hunt. If he continues to look like this, their season is cooked.
5. What’s the solution at receiver?
Newton has not played well recently. He’s been inaccurate, hesitant and has missed open receivers. The Patriots also have one of the weakest receiving corps in the NFL. All of those things can be — and are — true.
Damiere Byrd has been a solid addition, but he’s not a No. 1 wideout. N’Keal Harry has yet to take the second-year leap the Patriots were hoping to see from their top 2019 draft pick (and currently is sidelined with a concussion). Edelman has looked like a shell of his former self outside of his career night in Week 2. Jakobi Meyers hardly played in the first five games but provided a spark on Sunday, catching four passes for 60 yards.
If the Patriots don’t plan on adding a starting-caliber receiver within the next few days, it might be time to see what players like Meyers, Gunner Olszewski and even practice squadders like Isaiah Zuber and Kristian Wilkerson can provide.
6. Can the young tight ends emerge?
Maybe one of them already is. Dalton Keene made his Patriots debut Sunday and immediately outsnapped starter Ryan Izzo (24 to 23). Keene caught just one pass on one target for 8 yards but didn’t look overwhelmed in his first taste of NFL action. He deserves to be in the lineup again this week.
We’ll see if Devin Asiasi, who appeared in the first five games before being healthy scratched against San Fran, can join him there in the coming weeks. New England still ranks last in the NFL in receptions by tight ends (eight).
7. Can Josh Uche immediately contribute?
Brandon Copeland’s season-ending injury further weakened an already-shallow linebacking corps. At inside ‘backer, the Patriots basically are down to Ja’Whaun Bentley, safety Adrian Phillips, third-round draft pick Anfernee Jennings and sixth-rounder Cassh Maluia, who’s only played on special teams.
Jennings saw a huge increase in playing time against the 49ers but struggled. Uche, who’s more athletic than his fellow Day 2 rookie, would add some much-needed speed to this position group, assuming his coaches believe he’s ready to play. He wasn’t at the start of the season, sitting out Week 1 as a healthy scratch before landing on injured reserve.
Uche returned to practice last week but was not added to the 53-man roster. We’ll see if that happens this week, as Copeland’s move to IR freed up a spot.
8. What will the Patriots get from Beau Allen?
How shallow has the Patriots’ defensive line been this season? Just look at their transaction log. New England has elevated at least one practice squad D-lineman to the gameday roster in five of their first six games.
Unsurprisingly, the Patriots’ run defense has been subpar thus far, ranking 27th in yards allowed per game and 25th in DVOA. They’ve surrendered 125 or more rushing yards four times already, including a season-high 197 against a Niners team that was missing its top two running backs.
Allen — who, at 327 pounds, is the type of prototypical nose tackle the Patriots have lacked all season — could fix this unit. Like Uche, Allen returned to practice last week after suffering an undisclosed injury early in training camp that sidelined him for more than two months. The 28-year-old could suit up Sunday against Buffalo if activated.
Allen only played 19.6 percent of defensive snaps for Tampa Bay last season, so there’s no guarantee he’ll be an immediate savior. But this group badly needs a player with his size and experience.