That means the Patriots will be done playing football in early January for the second straight year.
At least the 2019 squad made the wild-card round of the playoffs before fizzling out. The 2020 team will miss the postseason altogether in what turned out to be a lost season in New England.
The Patriots had some unfortunate cap room luck, got hit harder by COVID-19 — both through opt-outs and positive cases — than perhaps any other team, and their experiment with Cam Newton didn’t go as New England probably hoped. But when it came down to it, the Patriots simply were not talented enough to win games and advance to the postseason.
The Patriots have some promising pieces on offense and defense to build around, but two players continue to flash week in and week out, including Sunday in New England’s loss to the Dolphins.
Cornerback JC Jackson intercepted his eighth pass of the season, made four tackles and let up just four catches on six targets for 34 yards against the Dolphins.
Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers was hard on himself after losing a fumble. But he was far and away the Patriots’ most productive offensive player, catching seven passes on 11 targets for 111 yards from Newton.
“We’ve just gotta execute better — especially me,” Meyers said. “The team put me in a position to make plays and help the team win. I didn’t do my job to the best of my ability. I’ve gotta take that one personally for sure.”
Jackson now has let up just 34 catches on 63 targets for 433 yards with three touchdowns and eight interceptions this season for a 52 passer rating allowed. He’s second behind Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (nine) in interceptions with two games to go.
“I saw the ball, and I went to attack the ball and made a play,” Jackson said after the game about his interception.
Meyers and Jackson, both of whom came to the Patriots as undrafted free agents, are the most obvious young offensive and defensive players on New England’s roster to build around. (Punter Jake Bailey could be thrown into this mix, as well, if we’re including special teamers.) Meyers is signed through the 2021 season, at which point he’ll become a restricted free agent.
Jackson will be a restricted free agent this offseason. The Patriots will almost certainly put a first-round tender on Jackson. If no team signs Jackson to an offer sheet, then the Patriots would pay him around $5 million, a bargain for a ballhawking cornerback, in 2021. If a team does sign Jackson to an offer sheet, then the Patriots would have the option to match. If the Patriots chose to match, they would sign Jackson to the contract offered by the other team. If the Patriots chose not to match, then the other team would fork over a 2021 first-round pick.
There’s no guarantee that the Patriots would get a player of Jackson’s caliber in the first round. They’d be smart to sign him longterm especially with the future of cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who suffered an injury Sunday, uncertain.
As for Meyers, the NC State product has proven he can be a productive wide receiver as a team’s No. 1 option, and he currently leads the Patriots with 49 catches for 616 yards. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Patriots should head into 2021 with Meyers as their top receiver, but he’s definitely an option to replace the versatile role Julian Edelman serves as an outside/slot receiver. The Patriots should still look to add a top “X” receiver through trade, via free agency or in the draft. But Meyers works in the Patriots’ offense.
“It’s something that you kind of tip your hat to, a guy who makes the most of his opportunity and that’s pretty much what it is,” Newton said Sunday. “He doesn’t blink. The moment is never too big for him. I know he wishes he would have had that fumble back just like I wish I would have had mine back, but when you battle hard, mistakes happens. We got all week just to get critiqued on 60 minutes, and sometimes it’s fair, sometimes it’s not fair, but at the end of the day, we just keep doing what we can control.”
Among healthy players, Patriots offensive tackle Michael Onwenu, linebackers Chase Winovich and Josh Uche and safety Kyle Dugger are promising recent draft picks that should continue to build consistency. But they’re not at Jackson and Meyers’ level quite yet.
And the Patriots should hope to get more out of recent high picks like wide receiver N’Keal Harry and tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the future. Harry had one 12-yard catch on two targets Sunday. Asiasi dropped a pass, and Keene fumbled after one 2-yard catch on two targets.
As for why Newton continues targeting Meyers so much more than other young options like Harry, Asiasi and Keene?
“It’s just what the read tells me to do,” Newton said after the game.
We’re not quite sure what to make of the fact that the Patriots’ two most promising young players are undrafted free agents and that the third, Onwenu, is a sixth-round offensive tackle. The Patriots certainly didn’t plan on Meyers outproducing Harry or Jackson being better than second-round picks and fellow cornerbacks Duke Dawson (no longer on the team) and Joejuan Williams (inactive Sunday).
But Meyers and Jackson have outplayed their undrafted status at this point. And they serve as building blocks on a team that couldn’t make the playoffs.