On both sides of the ball, it’s fair to assume that the Patriots will spend a large portion of the 2020 campaign honing in on the usage of running backs.
It would be the understatement of the year to say that the offense is going through a transitional phase. A limited offseason means less time for everyone to get acclimated. While it’s exciting to see Cam Newton and Julian Edelman working out in LA, we are likely to see the Patriots rely on more short passes and direct runs in the early goings.
New England has never been known to air it out, but even the patented drag routes and check-downs aren’t always easy to grasp. Sony Michel was a competent pass catcher at Georgia, but he never quite got on the same page with Brady. Part of this was due to his lingering knee injuries. Nevertheless, Michel’s modest 19 career receptions have led to a level of predictability when he’s in the backfield.
For his part, Cam Newton had his highest completion percentage in Carolina when targeting Christian McCaffrey. Expect the McCaffrey role to be filled by a committee in the Pats offense. There will be a healthy dose of the usual suspects (James White and Rex Burkhead) in addition to a more increased role for Michel as everyone gets adjusted.
The Patriots are committed to Michel and the run game. This is evident not only with his draft position but with the way the team changed its offense during the Super Bowl run of 2018. The ground and pound style of play has made a comeback in the NFL as a juxtaposition of the air raid offenses. Pats fans know how well it still works, as Derrick Henry and the Titans proved last season.
The Patriots also acquired a new fullback in Danny Vitale after James Develin’s retirement. Michel seems to be a lot more comfortable with that lead blocker in front of him, and the loss of Develin last season saw a downtick in his production.
Excluding fullbacks, the Patriots have six RBs on the roster. It seems that all six have a good shot to make the team given the injury history at that position. Before Burkhead’s new contract, it was possible that a strong camp from 2019 3rd rounder Damien Harris might kick the former Bengal to the curb. Harris will have a lot to prove after virtually redshirting last season. He will probably be battling undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor if his roster spot is ever in question.
There’s also the dimension that Newton (or Stidham) can bring to the table. In what we like to call “gotta have it” situations, we won’t see Brady bullets to Edelman and Gronk anymore. Instead, expect the dynamic nature of a dual-threat quarterback to be in play. If Newton is even half of his MVP form, he is still a whole different aspect of the offense to pay attention to in the red zone. Mix that with a timely fade route to N’Keal Harry or new contributions from Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi, and you’re looking at the best-case scenario for the new Patriots offense.
On the flip side of the ball, it’s a lot more simple. Teams will want to attack the first two levels of the defense. The Patriots need to prove they can stop the run. This is only amplified by the loss of key components Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Danny Shelton.
Offenses probably won’t be challenging one of the best secondaries in football. This is the most complete unit New England has had in a long time. While it’s true that McCourty and Chung are getting a little long in the tooth, they still do everything you need from a safety tandem. The duo will play a huge role in fostering the success of their potential replacements, Kyle Dugger and Joejuan Williams.
The corner group is the best you could ask for. In the slot, Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty have proven they are more than capable. They would each probably be the second corner on the depth chart of most teams. On the outside, you have maybe the most underrated player in all of football in J.C. Jackson and the 2019 defensive player of the year in Gilmore. Both have been graded exceptionally well by Pro Football Focus.
More often than not, the opposing QB will look across the hash marks and realize it’s in their best interest to run the ball…unless of course that QB is Andy Dalton, in which case all bets are off.
Photo: (Maddie Meyer – Getty Images)