The New England Patriots’ worst season in two decades may ultimately be remembered for what took place off the field.
Tom Brady left, COVID-19 rocked the country, and the NFL pushed on, holding its 2020 season in empty stadiums, which was fitting in Foxborough where the Pats’ offense was often unwatchable.
Among other failures, the Patriots severely overestimated their ability to pass with even minimal consistency, as a self-constructed, run-first operation captained by a new quarterback. Because as Cam Newton paid an ongoing price for failing to master the Pats’ system, his brush with COVID-19 and inconsistent mechanics, the Patriots finally picked up the tab for seven years of below-average drafts. Together, their January fate became obvious by Week 8, foreshadowed by a crumbling roster and Newton’s struggles.
Still, the Pats fought. They competed. They played for pride instead of the postseason over their final two games, a butt-kicking from the Bills and then a win over the rudderless Jets.
The finale showed the Patriots, even at their worst, their most injured and fractured, are still far from being the Jets. Indeed, it was a long fall from the top, but there’s still plenty of space between them and rock bottom — for now.
Here are the position-by-position grades from the Pats’ 2020 season:
Pick any measure. Newton endured his worst season as a pro in New England.
He had five touchdown passes entering Week 17. He finished as the NFL’s fifth-least accurate passer, per Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE), which accounts for the difficulty of throws and measures their likelihood of completion based on variables such as distance, nearest defender’s proximity and field location. Yet judging Newton’s season-long numbers omits the weirdness that interfered with and defined his year.
Furthermore, for all his passing woes, Newton thrived as a runner, scoring 12 touchdowns and unlocking a multi-dimensional rushing attack that ultimately sustained the Pats in close games. His season deserves context, and to be divided into parts.
After a hot start and then bombing atomically in Weeks 6 and 7 and overcoming COVID-19, Newton slowly returned to replacement-level play and found a groove against weaker competition. Then he went off the rails again, first in a ghastly outing against the Cardinals, then a 69-yard passing performance against the Chargers and bad losses to the Rams and Dolphins. He was benched twice before finally rebounding with his best performance as a Patriot.
Overall, Newton was limited by poor weapons and still came a few yards shy of rushing the Pats to a 9-7 record. Except, he came up short. The story of the season.
Running backs: B
The Patriots just might have a two-headed rushing attack in 2021.
In his first real NFL action, Damien Harris proved he could become the all-around back the Pats have been missing for years. His explosion was sorely needed and unique to the Patriots’ backfield. If he can reliably hold up in pass protection, Harris could be a monster next season.
Sony Michel’s advanced numbers, which rank him among the best rushers in the league, are difficult to grasp, but even a step down from there reveals a good running back. That’s who he was in 2020 — a good, power back.
James White was shockingly bad in pass protection, smooth as ever as a receiver and slightly less explosive in open space. Rex Burkhead was playing the best football of his career before tearing his ACL. Undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor could be useful down the road.
Wide receivers: D
The good news: Jakobi Meyers.
The bad news: Basically, everyone else.
Meyers emerged as the Pats’ clear-cut No. 1 wide receiver midway through the season, earning Newton’s trust and eye despite being sidelined for most of Weeks 1-8. He could develop into a bona fide No. 2 wideout (on a normal depth chart) next season. Meyers is only adding to his deep bag of route-running tricks.
Damiere Byrd’s season-long numbers — 47 catches for 604 yards — belie the fact he was effective on basically three routes: comebacks, curls and gos, which usually just cleared space. The only touchdown Byrd scored was on a deep post against the Texans, who owned one of the worst pass defenses in the league. In six of 16 games, Byrd had fewer than 30 receiving yards.
Meanwhile, N’Keal Harry finished with fewer yards than Julian Edelman, despite the fact Edelman missed the last nine games of the season and was clearly hampered over the first seven. It’s been written here before, but bears repeating with more evidence: the jury’s back. Harry’s a bust.
Tight ends: F
Seemingly, it couldn’t get worse for the Patriots than last year’s ragtag crew of tight ends.
Of course, 2020 had other ideas.
Third-round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene made 15 combined game appearances and caught four total passes this year. Four! Ryan Izzo deserves credit for fighting through injury so the Pats could field a single tight end while the kids were hurt midseason, but he ultimately succumbed after a dozen games, over which he managed 199 receiving yards.
Together, the tight ends failed to assert themselves consistently as average blockers, and couldn’t manage even 300 receiving yards.
The NFL is a results-driven business. No tight end group in the NFL was worse than the Patriots in 2020. Bottom line: it failed.
Offensive line: B-
Rookie offensive lineman Michael Onwenu was the Pats’ pleasant surprise of the season. For the offensive line, he may have been their saving grace.
Onwenu started at three different positions, helping the Patriots survive injuries, COVID-19-related disruptions and constant shuffling up front. The sixth-round rookie dominated at the point of attack and impressed in pass protection. He single-handedly should allow the Pats to confidently let Joe Thuney walk in free agency.
As for Thuney, he again finished as the Patriots’ best and most durable lineman, though Onwenu and Shaq Mason were close. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn established himself as an above-average starter, but sat for six games due to injury; two more than center David Andrews missed.
Overall, the Pats ranked among the best run-blocking O-lines throughout the year, but their pass protection declined throughout December.
Defensive line: C-
Practice-squad players and street free agents shuffled in and out over the second half of the season. That’s about all you need to know about the Pats’ defensive front.
It lacked depth, talent and consistent push. When Lawrence Guy sat with an injury, the Patriots were in trouble. Fellow defensive tackle Adam Butler was forced to play though injury and out of position for most of the season, but came on late, with multiple pressures in five of his last six games. Byron Cowart should return to being a full-time reserve.
Aside from a healthy Butler, Deatrich Wise was the only D-lineman to generate consistent pass rush. Credit to Wise for also fortifying his run defense. It could soon earn a big payday. Speaking of the offseason, the Pats could reload their entire D-line in a couple months.
Because if Akeem Spence and Tashawn Bower are on the active roster Week 1 next season, the trouble will likely continue.
Chase Winovich and Josh Uche offer real promise for the Patriots’ pass rush moving forward. Perhaps more. But that’s only if Winovich can be trusted with a three-down role, and Uche finds a permanent positional home. Because much like their unit as a whole, both players endured and up-and-down 2020 season.
Third-round rookie Anfernee Jennings never looked comfortable at inside or outside linebacker. Brandon Copeland was done for the year after Week 7. Practice squad alum Terez Hall replaced Ja’Whaun Bentley for a key stretch after Bentley got hurt and played abysmal football to start the year.
On the edge, Derek Rivers got released midseason. John Simon missed a team-high 10 tackles and was overwhelmed far too often while setting the edge. Shilique Calhoun proved to be the Pats’ worst run defender. Thankfully, Winovich and Uche put enough heat on quarterbacks to carry the group for stretches, but nothing could save the group from disappointing as a collective.
Defensive backs: B-
Stephon Gilmore played better than his box-score statistics indicated and remains a true No. 1 cornerback. The reverse can be said for J.C. Jackson, who finished second in the NFL with nine picks, but remains prone to enough big plays that it could scare the Pats from committing to him long-term — at least this offseason.
Adrian Phillips was a rock in the middle of the Patriots defense as a hybrid linebacker/safety, who led the team in tackles. Devin McCourty provided the same stabilizing presence in the back end, coordinating coverages and playing center field. Jason McCourty played an increasing amount of safety, as did undrafted rookie Myles Bryant, who impressed. Joejuan Williams attempted to make the same transition as a tight end-coverage specialist, but wasn’t heard from much between Weeks 2-15.
After Gilmore, Jonathan Jones arguably enjoyed the best season of any Patriots defensive back. Top 2020 pick Kyle Dugger started seven games down the stretch and looks like the complete package. The next step for him will be more playmaking.
Special teams: A-
At last, the bright spot.
Kicker Nick Folk played the best football of his career at age 35, drilling two game-winning field goals from 50 yards or longer. He missed just two kicks — both extra points — after September. Folk signing late in training camp turned out to be a godsend.
Punter Jake Bailey and captain Matthew Slater accounted for two of the Pats’ three Pro Bowlers this year, both deserving. Coverage specialist Justin Bethel met Slater at the punt returner each week and helped force dozens of fair catches. Core special teamer Cody Davis shined over his first year as a Patriot.
Though, the Pats also allowed the Dolphins and Bills to convert fake-punt passes in consecutive weeks. Room to improve for next year.
Josh McDaniels and the offensive staff did all they could with the talent available, which included the NFL’s worst collection of wide receivers and tight ends. They wisely leaned on their run game and offensive line to carry the offense. But Newton’s late-season regression is a major mark against the staff.
Defensively, the Pats dominated at times — limiting the Chiefs to 19 offensive points and corralling Lamar Jackson during an upset win — and got shredded in others: at Houston, Seattle and versus the Bills. The edge Bill Belichick is supposed to provide against elite quarterbacks didn’t reveal itself in most matchups, and this defense also lost to a rookie, Tua Tagovailoa, with their playoff hopes on the line.