The year 2020 is an adjustment for the world. We’re learning how to interact with each other in a COVID-19 world, watching sports without fans and, for New England Patriots fans, handling new expectations without Tom Brady.
A team that over the last two decades has rarely made major splashes during the offseason (Randy Moss not included), changed a lot this spring. Cam Newton is in the building, and the Patriots are not surefire division champions for the first time in years.
This is a proud organization, that won’t go down without a fight. Here are five bold predictions for the 2020 Patriots season.
1. The Patriots Run the AFC East Table
This doesn’t exactly sound bold. The Patriots always win the division, right? I’ll admit, they’re still the favorite to take home the crown as the elite AFC East team, but the Buffalo Bills hype train has many people questioning the Foxboro supremacy.
New England will win this division by doing what it always does: dominate the other AFC East teams. The Patriots are 91-25 against the rest of the AFC East, and will continue to own the other three rivals.
In 2019, the Pats went 5-1 in the division. Their one loss, the annual fluky loss to the Miami Dolphins in week 17, was due to NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore putting in his worst performance of the season, and struggling to contain Devante Parker. Gilmore and the rest of the secondary will be locked in for that matchup (I expect Glimore to have a massive week one performance against Miami), and win both of those contests.
Elsewhere in the division, the Jets have a floundering offense with a suspect offensive line that they just signed. None of their improvements move the needle, and Sam Darnold continues his struggles against New England.
And that is the biggest difference. Combined, Darnold and Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen are 0-5 against New England and have put together some of their worst performances against the defense. Even the Bills’ addition of Stefon Diggs doesn’t allow them to match up with the elite secondary the Patriots have.
2. Damien Harris Leads the Patriots in Rushing
If you’ve followed training camp news this isn’t much of a shock. Besides starting the season on Injured Reserve, which will keep him out at least three weeks, Harris has been impressive in camp and seems primed to take over the backfield when he’s healthy in New England.
Harris had mixed reviews coming out of college as a mid-round draft pick but did start over Las Vegas Raider Josh Jacobs at Alabama, who was a first-round pick the same season. Harris for his career with the Crimson Tide had over 3,000 rushing yards. He’s got great size and is known as a solid between the tackles runner, which is perfect for the Patriots power running game behind their elite interior offensive line.
Even with the injury designation, Harris will still lead the Patriots in rushing due to Sony Michel struggling with his own injury history. He came into the draft after a torn ACL while at Georgia, and has struggled with knee and foot problems throughout his career. If Harris does usurp Michel, there will be more talk about the mistake of taking Michel one pick ahead of NFL MVP Lamar Jackson.
3. Cam Newton Makes the Pro Bowl and is the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year
The talk of Newton has been everywhere this offseason. From opinions as far as a prima donna and washed up to still elite and underrated, there seems to be no real consensus on his value this upcoming season.
Of course, much of Newton’s struggles in the past have to do with Carolina struggling to build around him. Even with the Patriots offensive line losing right tackle Marcus Cannon to opt-out, this will be the best offensive line Newton has had in quite a few seasons. Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, and the return of center David Andrews give the Patriots an interior offensive line as good as anyone else in the NFL, and a healthy Isaiah Wynn gives them four above-average players across that group. In truth, Cannon was the weak link of the group anyways, and the Patriots will hope to find a league-average replacement at the position.
As far as Newton’s weapons, the Panthers have struggled to supply him with consistent options outside of Christian McCaffery. The Patriots have McCaffery-light in James White, one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL, and should have an improved wide receiver group with a healthy Julian Edelman, and the emergence of second-year players N’Keal Harry and Gunner Olszewski will make this a good group for Newton to attack with.
Overall, the biggest difference will be a clean bill of health. Now that it seems like he has that, Newton will finish the season around 4,000 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, 8 interceptions to go along with at least 500 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
4. The Kicking Struggles are Overblown
While the country was focused on quarterbacks, the biggest battle during training camp was at the kicker position. Fifth-round draft pick Justin Rohrwasser struggled early in camp, and this led to Nick Folk being brought in to once again compete for the job.
The two sides are simple: Folk has been rock solid his entire career and was solid last year for the Patriots. Given his age, his long-range kicking isn’t as high of quality, but he’s capable of hitting from 40 and in at a high level.
Rohrwasser, meanwhile, struggled mightily in camp, but apparently was dealing with an injury throughout training camp. If healthy, there’s a good chance he earns his chance back at the job and has significantly more upside than Folk.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick surprised many by selecting Rohrwasser in the fifth round. But kickers are incredibly valuable positions in football, as they consistently rank among the top point-getters in the league. If any coach would make sure he has this spot figured out, it would be Belichick. Rohrwasser will eventually prove he was worth the pick and put together a solid season for the Patriots at the position.
5. Chase Winovich Finishes with Double Digit Sacks
New England hasn’t finished with a player in double-digits for sacks for a season since 2015 when Chandler Jones had 12.5. Typically, they’ve relied more on the collective group performance rather than individual numbers, but this season that front seven group is as barren as it’s ever been.
Over the last two years, the Patriots have lost Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins for the second time. All three guys were among the team leaders in sacks during their tenure with the Patriots, and they’ve struggled to find replacements for those guys. The Patriots drafted Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, but it’s unfair to expect that much production out of rookies. Likely, the second-best option outside of Winovich is John Simon, who hasn’t had more than five sacks in a season, and Adam Butler, who had six sacks last season but at defensive tackle, isn’t expected to make as much of an impact in the pass-rushing department.
That leaves Winovich, who finished the 2019 rookie season with a solid five and half sacks. Albeit as a 24-year old rookie, he showed promise as a pass rusher. Despite just playing 29 percent of snaps, he finished the year with the third-most quarterback hits on the team.
Mainly used as a specialist, with more production he should be able to put up some big numbers. I think he leads the way for the Patriots with 13 sacks on the season.
Photo: (Steven Senne – AP Photo)