The Patriots 2020 season could best be described as consistently inconsistent; with success outweighed by failures from a team comfortable with unthinkable success over the last two decades.
Expectations were high coming into the season, despite losing Tom Brady earlier in the year and losing the most players to the opt-out option due to COVID-19. But those expectations were unrealistic and unfair, to say the least.
This season was bound to be different than anything the New England team has experienced in recent memory. Tom Brady was gone and the unmatched success during his time on the Patriots left with him, too. Setting aside the expectations that developed during his tenure with the team is not easy but maintaining that mindset into the 2020 season was setting yourself up for disappointment.
Over the last several years there was a “win now” mentality from the top to the bottom of the Patriots organization. As Tom Brady was nearing his eventual retirement, there was a rush to keep winning and hopefully bring home more Lombardi trophies. Because of this, the team had to make personnel decisions to fit that mindset which in turn effected the roster this season.
With only Jarrett Stidham on the roster at quarterback after Brady’s departure, there was much debate regarding how the team would perform this season. But then came the signing of Cam Newton in late June on a veteran minimum deal. The former MVP brought some hope for a more successful season, but also the awareness that the team needed to add pieces on offense to help increase the chances of winning for the team.
However, that didn’t happen, and the season was impacted because of it. With the NFL giving players the choice to opt-out of the season until mid-August, many Patriots players did just that. A total of 8 New England players chose to sit out this season for their own individual reasons, making it too late for Bill Belichick to try and fill in the gaps before the season began.
It was obviously not an ideal situation for any team to begin their season and it certainly did not set up new quarterback Cam Newton to have a highly successful year. Coming into a new team so late in the offseason, and to a team that is historically known for having an exceedingly difficult playbook to learn and know, is never easy, even for a seasoned veteran.
Fans and the media expressed their disappointment with the 2019 Patriots and had the consensus they underperformed and/or didn’t have enough talent to win, even with Tom Brady. Without much improvement to the roster coming into the 2020 season, predicting how the season would go was completely up in the air. And after the conclusion of week 17, it could be said the team performed the best they could with what they had.
Regardless of how you feel this season went, there were several players who had outstanding seasons. It may be a season that most will choose to forget, but the future looks bright in many aspects for this team and those performances deserve to be recognized and remembered.
Who could have predicted that second year wide receiver, Jakobi Meyers, would become the Patriots’ number one target in 2020? Can’t say many could’ve guessed that. But with Julian Edelman nursing injuries and eventually being placed on injured reserve, it was the best-case scenario to have Meyers shine this season.
The connection between new quarterback Cam Newton and Meyers seemed natural and effortless, which was amazing to watch as the NFL had no OTA’s or preseason to build chemistry from. His breakout game came in week 7, having 4 receptions for 60 yards. And just 2 weeks later, he had the best game of his career, totaling 169 yards on 12 targets. As his incorporation into the offense grew and he began flourishing game-to-game, opposing defenses realized they needed to treat Meyers as WR1. But that didn’t stop his magnificent season.
Playing in 14 games and starting 9 of them, Meyers totaled 59 receptions for 729 yards, with a catch rate of 72.8% on the year. Comparing these numbers to most other receivers in the league may not look so impressive, but it’s important to keep note of the difficulties this year’s offense had. To put that into perspective, in the final 11 games, every other tight end/receiver on the team totaled 64 receptions for 794 yards, a mere 65 more yards than Meyers himself.
On top of his receptions, he was also able to contribute to the passing game. As a former quarterback that once attended Cam Newton’s All-Star tournament while in high school, Meyers completed 2 passes for 43 yards and two touchdowns. The first score came in week 10 with a 24-yard pass to Rex Burkhead. The next came in week 17, with Meyers making a 19-yard pass to Newton to tie the game with the Jets.
It cannot be stressed enough the importance of Meyers’ presence on the team in 2020. Much of the success in the limited passing game would not have occurred without his undeniable effort and consistent production. Without any clear and obvious WR1 this year, Meyers stepped up into the role when the team desperately needed it. Because of the focus on improving the receiving core this offseason, it’s unclear if he will maintain the same production next season. Regardless of what happens though, Meyers’ has seemingly solidified his role on this team.
There were many challenges on the offensive line for a good part of the start to the season. Because many players suffered injuries, the line had to be adjusted weekly if not in-game to accommodate the pieces that were missing. Watching rookie Michael Onwenu play this season, you would never know he was playing out of position in any game.
Listed as a guard, Onwenu moved all around the line this year, playing the majority of snaps at right tackle but also dabbling at both left and right guard. His flexibility and technique made him a reliable player, helping to fill in gaps left by the absence of Marcus Cannon as well as those injured, such as Isaiah Wynn.
In just his rookie season, Onwenu started all 16 games, playing 92% of all defensive snaps. He allowed only 3 sacks and 13 quarterback disruptions, landing behind only David Andrews and Joe Thuney for the year. As the team transitioned to a run heavy offense, Onwenu was stellar with his run-blocking, earning one of the highest grades of any tackle in the league. His high-level play did not go unnoticed, with Pro Football Focus grading him an 84.3, the third top rated rookie of the season.
The futures of Thuney, Andrews and Jermaine Eluemunor are unknown as they head to free agency, making Michael Onwenu’s development during his first season with the Patriots that much more important. His versatility and solid play made a tremendous impact on a unique season, setting the bar high for his sophomore year in 2021.
As the season began, Sony Michel continued to be the go-to guy in the backfield. But after suffering an injury and being placed on injured reserve in October, Damien Harris finally got his shot to show exactly why the team drafted him in 2019.
After sitting out nearly the entirety of his rookie season, Harris impressed quickly filling in for Michel. As the weeks went on, the possibility of him continuing as the starting running back seemed like the best idea. Through the 10 games he played in and started, he totaled 137 carries for 691 yards and 2 touchdowns. He placed at number 11 among all RBs in the league averaging 5 yards-per-carry, making it quite the impressive second season.
Because the Patriots developed into a run-heavy team this season, Harris was an intricate part of the offense’s success. He consistently found holes to run through and broke tackles to add extra yardage to his runs. In 3 of the toughest games this season, Harris was able to run for over 100 yards while also securing 1st downs when needed.
Ending the year as the #2 PFF graded running back in the league, Harris made a name for himself in 2020. With him and Michel presumably healthy to start next season, the duo could be near impossible to stop. Whether the team continues with a run-first offense or not, Harris and Michel will be an outstanding duo for years to come.
THE “WHAT COULD’VE BEEN?”
Before suffering a season ending injury in week 11, Rex Burkhead was on pace to have the best season of his career. As a dual threat running back, Burkhead has been a reliable rusher and receiver for any quarterback over the last few years in New England.
With a crowded backfield this season, it was difficult to predict how the production would be split amongst the talented group. But with Damien Harris seemingly taking over the role of the starting rusher, Burkhead was used to his strengths, rushing for first downs and scoring touchdowns. Before he was injured, he had 67 carries for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns, while also having 25 receptions for 192 yards and 3 touchdowns. In a difficult and unique season, Burkhead was able to score in crucial moments and frequently help set the team up for success.
Now that the offseason is upon us, and Burkhead will be heading to free agency, there is hope he will be able to recover from his injury in time to be re-signed to New England. His contributions to the team in his 4 years as a Patriot has been significant, and it cannot be overstated how much he brings to this team. His absence was surely felt after his injury this season, but hopefully Rex Burkhead will suit up for the Patriots once again next season.
THE RECORD BREAKER
The performance of Cam Newton as the Patriots 2020 quarterback is highly debated and often scrutinized. Regardless of your opinion on the matter, credit should be given when it is earned and deserved. It’s obvious Newton didn’t have a spectacular season, with many struggles lasting throughout. But his mobility at the position continuously benefitted the team and broke several records, too.
For the entirety of his football career, Newton has been known for using his rushing abilities to his advantage. Although he may not run as much as previous seasons, he played a vital role in the success of the Patriots “run first” offense this year.
With 137 carries for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first year with the Patriots, Cam totaled the most rushing yards by a quarterback in Patriots history. And, with his 12 rushing touchdowns, he tied with Patriots great Steve Grogan for the record of most rushing TDs by a quarterback. He may not have had the best timing and accuracy with his passing game in 2020, but Newton was consistently able to continue drives by running for first downs or touchdowns.
Because of his incredible work on the ground for a quarterback, he was able to break yet another record this season. Becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to have 3 seasons with double-digit rushing touchdowns, it’s clear Cam has been a workhorse throughout his professional career.
His first and possibly only season in New England may not be remembered too fondly by most, regardless of the many factors that possibly impacted his success. But his dual-threat abilities benefitted this offense a lot this year and the records he broke because of that should definitely not to be ignored.
It is undoubtedly a unique season when the most reliable player on your team is your punter, and Jake Bailey was just that. Reliable and consistent.
Bill Belichick has always had a knack for special teams, and he nailed it again when drafting Bailey in 2019. After an already impressive rookie season, the bar was high for him to be even better this year. And with all the struggles the team dealt with throughout the season, it was good to have the dependability regarding Bailey.
To end the year, Bailey had 72 kickoffs for 4,584 yards, with an average kick of 63.7 yards. He also had 55 punts for 2,678 yards with a long of 71 yards. And because of his phenomenal special teams counterparts, none of his punts were blocked.
In just his second season as a pro, Bailey set franchise records by allowing only 71 punt returns, the fewest in team history. On top of that, he led the league in kicks downed inside the 20-yard line, helping the defense to be more successful against opponents. Because of all his contributions this season, Bailey earned a spot in his first Pro Bowl this year, joining only 2 other teammates voted in as well.
Continuing the success of not only your previous season, but also your predecessor in Ryan Allen, is not a task to take lightly. Bailey’s performance this season was nothing short of extraordinary, especially with so much career left ahead of him.
Over the last handful of years, the Patriots have lost several players they typically used for punt and kick returns. With Danny Amendola leaving, Mohammad Sanu being cut and the effort to keep Julian Edelman out from running returns, it has been difficult for the team to find “the guy.”
Not many fans were thrilled at the idea of Gunner Olszewski remaining on the Patriots this season. Listed as a wide receiver, the team hadn’t given many chances to Olszewski to show what he was capable of on the offense. But it appears they hit their mark by transitioning him to special teams this year, and his performance throughout the season was one to be remembered as he was selected to his first Pro Bowl and made the AP All Pro team.
With 20 returns for 346 yards and a touchdown, Olszewski lead the league in total punt return yards. Not only that, he also led the league in average return yards with 17.3 yards. His speed and agility allowed him to push for those extra yards time and time again. Using that to his advantage, it helped him score a 70-yard punt return touchdown in week 13, the first touchdown of his career.
As special teams continues to succeed with Belichick’s expertise, it appears their experiment of moving a player out of their typical position worked in their favor once again. Olszewski’s production this season proved that hard work, dedication and heart can go a long way. And now that his place on the team seems cemented, his success will surely resume into next season.
The struggle to find a replacement for long-time Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski persisted into this season, as the team seemed to not be comfortable with rookie Justin Rohrwasser to take over the role. Starting the season without a kicker on their 53-man roster, it left them to bounce those available back and forth from the practice squad. Eventually, they kept Nick Folk for the job as he demonstrated his reliability throughout the year.
After his brief stint in New England in 2019, Folk played in all 16 games this season and became a key part in many games to keep the team afloat. He ended the season with a total of 26 of 28 field goals made, his best percentage of his career, while also making 30 of 33 extra points.
Special teams has always been a consistent part of a Belichick run Patriots team and this season was no different. With all the difficulties over the last few years to find Gostkowski’s replacement, Nick Folk’s great season benefitted the team when it needed it most. Heading into the offseason, the Patriots once again are left without a kicker, with Folk heading to free agency once again. Because of his success in 2020, don’t be surprised to see Folk back in New England next year.
If there was any player that could be considered as the best offseason signing for the Patriots in 2020, Adrian Phillips would be toward the top of that list. After spending the first 6 years of his career with the L.A. Chargers, Phillips made quite the impression early in New England.
Although it was his first year with the team, Phillips solidified a prominent role on the defense and at times even on special teams. Starting in all 16 games for the first time in his career, he had his most active season to date, leading the team with a total of 109 tackles on the year. Because of that, he became the first DB with 100+ tackles in a season since Rodney Harrison in 2004.
But his notable season doesn’t stop there. Phillips also had 2 interceptions returned for 5 yards, 1 sack and 1 quarterback hit. His production showed his immense versatility and his passion shined through all season long. With a defense that is stacked with talent, Phillips was able to stand out with his contributions and helped sustain a dominant secondary.
The Patriots’ 2019 defense was one of the best in decades with most remembering the immaculate season-long performance of Stephon Gilmore, earning him the title of Defensive Player of the Year. Pairing with J.C. Jackson as his partner in crime, there was a high standard to live up to this year.
There has been a lot of discussion regarding Jackson and whether he was ready to be the CB1.. Since Gilmore suffered injuries this season forcing him to miss games, Jackson was given the opportunity much sooner than anticipated. Although he struggled to some extent filling in for his teammate, his effort all season proved he was on the path to becoming a top corner in the league.
Starting in 11 games this season, the most games of his career thus far, Jackson totaled 9 interceptions, tying Ty Law in 1998, and 2 fumble recoveries. At one point he had an interception in 5 consecutive games, bringing him to a total of 10 at the time, making him the player with the most interceptions since 2018.
On top of all his turnover contributions, Jackson also totaled 14 passes defended, 40 tackles and allowed only a 59% completion percentage when targeted. He naturally had some missteps this season, allowing 5 touchdowns when he hadn’t allowed any previously. But with his magnet-like hands for the opposing quarterback’s passes inarguably benefitted the team this year.
As he heads to free agency this offseason, there is a lot of chatter regarding what the Patriots will do. With the rumors swirling of the possible desire to trade Gilmore before the deadline this year, it’s clear the Patriots should re-sign Jackson and retain their up-and-coming star cornerback. There is a lot to keep an eye on for the team as this will be the most crucial offseason in quite some time. And what happens with J.C. Jackson will unquestionably be one of the most watched storylines for weeks to come.
THE STAR ON THE RISE
There was a lot of discussion after the 2020 draft with much of it focusing on the Patriots’ second-round pick of Kyle Dugger. Coming from the DII college of Lenoir-Rhyne, there was emphasis of skepticism surrounding the “lack of competition” he faced throughout his college career. But as usual, Belichick saw the potential in the rookie and Dugger proved the doubters wrong.
Because veteran safety Patrick Chung opted out of the season, Dugger was given the task to fill that void. Playing in 14 games and starting 7 of them, he was able to record 64 total tackles, the fifth most on the team in 2020. Although he was drafted as a safety, he was all over the field this season. Throughout the year, he showed not just his raw physicality, but also his unique versatility to play any position he was given. Whether he was in as a safety, linebacker, or even cornerback, he consistently made crucial tackles, most noteworthy in the game against the Ravens in week 10.
With the lack of depth on defense this season, Dugger’s proficiency to be plugged in where it was needed made his performance all year stand out above others. Because many players in the secondary are getting older and some have their futures in their air, Dugger’s impressive rookie season and his potential are key to this team’s continued success on defense.
The Patriots’ 2020 season is certainly memorable in mostly unfavorable ways. However, with many players on the team having outstanding seasons, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge their accomplishments. Not all hope should be lost heading into the 2021 season. There are many improvements needed to be made and the team will surely be vastly different next year. But the importance of these players’ production this season should bring some excitement for what’s to come.
(Photo credits: Michael Onwenu: (Steve Milne-AP Photo), Jakobi Meyers: (Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports), Damien Harris: (Olindo Longo- @ojl.photo on Instagram), Jake Bailey: (Timothy Ludwig-Getty Images) & Adrian Phillips: (Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)
–Sara Marshall is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sport Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow her on Twitter @smarshxo