Patriots Report Card: How Position Groups Graded Out In 2020 Season

Certain units churned out special performances in a disappointing season

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The Patriots, overall, had an unsuccessful 2020 campaign, but certain position groups still thrived while New England missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.

Parse through our 2020 season report card on the 7-9 Patriots:

QUARTERBACK
Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer all struggled under center this season, though it was a multipronged issue. The Patriots’ play-calling was uninspiring because of the performance of the quarterback, which was hindered by New England’s lack of weapons, who didn’t receive enough opportunities to improve because of the quarterback and play-calling. It was a real snake eating its own tail type of situation.

It all starts with the quarterback, however, and the play at this position was not good enough and must improve moving forward.

As for Newton specifically, yes, he threw for eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions but also rushed for 12 more scores. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes, but he finished 32nd among 35 qualified quarterbacks in average air distance. Newton also finished 30th in on-target rate.

Newton ranked third in completion percentage on passes that traveled 20-plus yards but 34th in 20-plus air yard attempts per game, which means the Patriots should have been allowing him to throw deeper with more frequency.

Newton acknowledged he had difficulty picking up the Patriots’ entire offense this season. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed to have a similar problem figuring out how to use Newton within New England’s offense.

Grade: C

RUNNING BACK
Damien Harris and Sony Michel had strong seasons, and Rex Burkhead was a playmaker before suffering an unfortunate season-ending injury.

Harris was stuffed on just 5.1 percent of rushing attempts (fifth-fewest among qualified running backs) despite facing an eight-plus man box on 37.23 percent of carries (second-most in the NFL). Michel picked up 63.5 percent of his rushing yards after contact, which was the second-highest rate among running backs with at least 50 carries.

James White didn’t quite look like himself in 2020 as he dealt with personal tragedy. He especially struggled in pass protection with an 88.8 pass-block efficiency rate, ranking 75th out of 81 qualified running backs in the PFF metric.

Grade: B+

WIDE RECEIVER
Jakobi Meyers had a fantastic season and should be viewed as a No. 2 or high-end No. 3 receiver moving forward in McDaniels’ offense. It’s unfair to expect Meyers to be Julian Edelman in the future, but he has similar traits.

Damiere Byrd had issues with drops late in the year but had his best season as a pro. N’Keal Harry continued his early-career struggles and can’t be counted on as a starter in 2021. Edelman missed half of the season with a knee injury.

The Patriots got little out of Gunner Olszewski, Donte Moncrief and the rest of their wide receivers.

The group tried hard. Meyers raises their grade by a full letter. He accounted for 35.7 percent of the Patriots’ total receiving yards from Week 7 to 17. That was third in the NFL behind Davante Adams and A.J. Brown in that same span.

The Patriots need to reevaluate how they use Harry moving forward. Despite being a big target at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Harry ranked just 69th out of 89 qualified wide receivers in air yards per target and 72nd in yards after catch per reception, meaning he’s not being targeted deep downfield nor picking up substantial yards after the catch. That results in him ranking 86th in yards per catch and 87th in yards per target. Harry showed the ability to make contested catches downfield. The Patriots just didn’t give him enough opportunities on those plays.

Grade: C+

TIGHT END
Patriots tight ends combined for just 18 catches for 254 yards with one touchdown. And 19.7 percent of those yards came on a meaningless 50-yard short Hail Mary completion from Newton to Ryan Izzo.

The Patriots really avoided using their tight ends. They called just 24 total plays all season with more than one tight end on the field.

Rookie Devin Asiasi had a drop on seven targets. Fellow rookie Dalton Keene fumbled on one of three catches.

Grade: D

OFFENSIVE LINE
They weren’t perfect in pass protection, ranking 28th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, but the Patriots’ O-line helped propel New England’s impressive rushing attack, ranking third in the adjusted line yards metric.

And that’s while Isaiah Wynn (six games), Shaq Mason (three games) and David Andrews (four games) all missed time with injuries. Only left guard Joe Thuney and versatile rookie Michael Onwenu started all 16 games. Jermaine Eluemunor, Justin Herron and James Ferentz also started games.

Grade: B+

DEFENSIVE LINE
The Patriots’ entire front-seven didn’t do a good enough job defending the run, as New England ranked dead last in rush DVOA. That said, Lawrence Guy did his job well while playing through some injuries, and Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise were solid rushing the passer.

The Patriots simply didn’t possess enough size or depth up front after Beau Allen went down with a season-ending injury. The Patriots had to rely heavily upon players like Byron Cowart, Akeem Spence, Carl Davis, Nick Thurman, Tashawn Bower and Xavier Williams.

The Patriots’ 2020 defensive line was the equivalent of New England’s 2011 defensive backs, as both teams shuffled through replacement-level players trying to find the best combination.

Grade: C-

LINEBACKER
The Patriots lost Dont’a Hightower to opt-out and Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency. The mass subtraction from this unit was glaringly obvious all season.

Case in point: The Patriots ran more plays with seven or eight defensive backs on the field (171 snaps) than the entire rest of the NFL combined (162 snaps).

Ja’Whaun Bentley is not a high-end starter, and rookies Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche were not ready for prime time. Uche showed promise. The jury still is out on Jennings.

Chase Winovich was in and out of the starting rotation all season, and Brandon Copeland suffered a season-ending injury early.

Shilique Calhoun and John Simon struggled. Terez Hall showed some promise but was thrust into action off the practice squad when other pieces weren’t working.

Safety Adrian Phillips wound up playing most of the season at linebacker out of necessity.

This group needs an overhaul if Jennings, Uche and Winovich — all first- or second-year players taken on the second day of the NFL draft — can’t get it together quickly.

Grade: D+

CORNERBACK
The Patriots struggled in pass defense this season, but their secondary was not helped by the front seven’s inconsistent pass rush.

JC Jackson finished second in the NFL with nine interceptions but also gave up big plays. Stephon Gilmore missed six games with injuries. Slot-man Jonathan Jones played well, and Jason McCourty lined up all over the secondary. The Patriots got some contributions from Myles Bryant, who showed promise until struggling in Week 17 against the New York Jets. He’s a building block moving forward with questions at this position.

Grade: B+

SAFETY
Patrick Chung opted out before the 2020 NFL season, but Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger filled in admirably for him as box safeties. Free safety Devin McCourty looked like himself patrolling the back half of the secondary.

Jones, Jason McCourty, Joejuan Williams and Terrence Brooks also saw snaps at safety.

The Patriots had some tackling issues in their defensive backfield once running backs leaked into the second level. The Patriots’ safeties were good but maybe not spectacular.

Grade: B

SPECIAL TEAMS
Easily the Patriots’ best unit and position group, the Patriots’ special teams ranked first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA this season.

The Patriots finished first in punt and punt return DVOA behind the strong leg of Pro Bowl punter Jake Bailey and shifty skills of returner Gunner Olszewski.

Bailey finished fourth this season, and 24th all-time, with 48.7 gross yards per punt. He ranked first in net yards per punt and second in punt rate inside the 20. The Patriots allowed just 71 punt return yards all season.

Olszewski led the NFL with 17.3 yards per punt return. That mark is 11th all-time in a single season.

Kicker Nick Folk missed just two field goals and three extra points. Unit captain Matthew Slater made his ninth Pro Bowl while teaming up with special-teams aces Justin Bethel and Cody Davis.

Grade: A+

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