There’s a very strong chance the New England Patriots are simply playing out the string over the final three games of the 2020 NFL season.
The Patriots currently have a 2-percent chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight.com. That improves to 4 percent if the Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, 10 percent if they also beat the Buffalo Bills in Week 16 and 12 percent if New England wins out by also defeating the New York Jets in the final week of the season.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
The Patriots currently have a 98-percent chance of missing the playoffs. Even if they do their job New England has, at best, an 88-percent chance of missing the postseason.
The Patriots can find out more about their future in the final three weeks of the season, however, if they give some young players more snaps.
Here’s what the Patriots can learn in Weeks 15, 16 and 17:
Jarrett Stidham’s potential
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is adamant that Cam Newton remains their starting quarterback and will be QB1 on Sunday against the Dolphins. But what about Weeks 16 and 17?
Jarrett Stidham has thrown 37 career passes for 226 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions, but he’s never started a game nor gone into a week taking top practice reps. He’s also the only Patriots quarterback currently signed for the 2021 season. There’s a theory — one I subscribe to — that we won’t truly know what the Patriots have in Stidham until he starts a game.
Obviously, one start won’t paint a clear picture of Stidham’s future. But it would certainly give the Patriots a better idea of what they have in the once- (and still possibly-) promising 2019 fourth-round pick.
If N’Keal Harry can be a starting-caliber receiver
If there’s a perfect indicator of how the first two seasons of N’Keal Harry’s career has gone, it’s that the 2019 first-round pick has five catches for 64 yards with a touchdown combined over the last two weeks, and it’s commonly viewed as the best stretch of his NFL career because the 6-foot-4, 225-pound wideout finally has begun to use his physicality as an advantage.
Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Julian Edelman, Gunner Olszewski and Marqise Lee are under contract for next season. The Patriots definitely need more help at the position. Harry’s next three games will indicate just how much more help New England needs.
Whether they need more help at tight end
The Patriots took two tight ends in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and they’ve combined for one catch on two targets for 8 yards.
Ryan Izzo currently is on injured reserve, so those rookies, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, will definitely see more playing time for at least the next two weeks.
If they show starting potential, then the Patriots might not need to address the position again this offseason. If they continue to struggle with production, then perhaps the Patriots could splurge on a player like Los Angeles Chargers free agent Hunter Henry.
Right tackle of the future
The Patriots will likely need a new starter on their offensive line next season with left guard Joe Thuney hitting free agency. That would likely move Michael Onwenu from right tackle to left guard, leaving a void at right tackle if Marcus Cannon, who opted out this season, doesn’t return. Jermaine Eluemunor is also a free agent.
Justin Herron, who has shown potential at left and right tackle this season, could be a starter in Week 15 after Eluemunor missed practice Thursday with an ankle injury. If Herron continues to impress, then he could find himself with a starting job next season.
If Chase Winovich and Josh Uche are complete players
The Patriots continued to show a hesitancy to use outside linebacker Chase Winovich on early downs Thursday night in their 24-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. The Patriots got gashed on the ground anyway. With playoff hopes slim, the Patriots might as well see what they have in Winovich and his former Michigan teammate, and fellow linebacker, Josh Uche against the run. The Patriots have only really used Uche as a pass rusher and occasionally in coverage. He mostly played on third down with the Wolverines, but he was selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, so the Patriots must see the potential for a bigger role in Uche.
Joejuan Williams’ ability to cover wide receivers
Stephon Gilmore likely will need a pay raise next season to stick around since he’s owed just a $7 million base salary in 2021. Fellow starting cornerback JC Jackson is a restricted free agent and is no guarantee to return if another team signs him to an offer sheet, and Jason McCourty will be an unrestricted free agent.
Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant and practice-squadder D’Angelo Ross are more slot/safety options. That leaves Joejuan Williams and practice-squader Mike Jackson Sr. as the only real potential outside cornerbacks on the roster behind Gilmore, Jackson and McCourty.
Williams has played just 108 defensive snaps this season, and 36 of them have come at wide cornerback with the other 72 in the box or the slot. Williams has allowed five catches on nine targets for 97 yards. Wide receivers have accounted for two of those catches on three targets for 19 yards.
Williams was drafted as a cornerback and played there as a rookie before he was moved into more of a safety role covering tight ends this season. Maybe he’ll see more snaps at wide cornerback over the last three weeks of the season to show if he has a future covering wideouts.