Patriots have problems in 2020 that a QB swap won’t fix

The Patriots replaced QB Tom Brady with Cam Newton, but free-agent losses and opt-outs could render the change irrelevant in 2020.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Previously, on “As the Patriots Turn ….”

  • Tom Brady is leaving the Patriots? Without a doubt, that will be the most shocking event of 2020!
  • Bill Belichick is tanking for Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. That’s TOTALLY an in-character thing for Belichick to do.
  • Based on tea-leaf reading and wishful thinking, it’s clear that second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham is the next Brady.
  • Cam Newton! Hahahaha! The Patriots outsmarted the rest of the National Football League again will win the next five Super Bowls!
  • Marcus Cannon, Patrick Chung, Dont’a Hightower and others opt out of the 2020 season: A reasonable response to a national crisis or a brilliant plan by Bill Belichick to tank for Trevor Lawrence? We’ll be debating that question for the next three-and-a-half hours today

Is Cam still Cam? Are the Patriots still the Patriots? Can New England sports fans emotionally survive a season of ordinary football? Find out in this year’s episode of “As the Patriots Turn!”

NFL Recap from Mike Tanier
Every Sunday and Monday, Mike Tanier gives his NFL Recap of the biggest stories around the NFL. Click here for the rest of his takes on NFL Week 2 in the long-form format you’re used to seeing from Mike. For individual pieces, head on over to our NFL Recap page.

What to expect from this new look New England Patriots team

Best-case scenario

The 2015 MVP version of Newton may be too much to expect as he returns from multiple injuries and adjusts to an entirely new offense. But 2017 Cam (22 touchdowns, 754 rushing yards, 11 wins as a starter) should be well within reach. Belichick and All-Pro defensive backs Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty still lead a defense capable of shutting down most opponents. Once coordinator Josh McDaniels reconfigures the offense to Cam’s specifications, the 2020 Patriots prove to be about as capable of grinding out lots of wins as the 2018 and 2019 versions of the team.

Worst-case scenario

The defense lost too many pieces to both free agency (Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Duron Harmon, Danny Shelton, Elandon Roberts, others) and opt-outs (see above). Cam, McDaniels, and Belichick mesh about as well as you would expect them to if you really think about their personalities (about 90% of Newton criticism is angry Facebook father-in-law nonsense, but that remaining 10% could throw a wrench into the works in Foxboro). The Patriots’ first losing season in 20 years will seem like a catastrophe for fans who can’t remember the last one.

Deep Dives

Cam Newton

Newton completed 67.3% of his passes that traveled 10 air yards or less over the last five seasons, averaging 5.59 yards per attempt with 58 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. Brady’s completion rate was 69.2%, and he averaged 5.83 yards per attempt with 101 touchdowns and 16 interceptions on the same types of short passes.

McDaniels is sure to tailor the Patriots offense to make the best use of his new quarterback’s arm and mobility. However, going from one of the most efficient short passers in NFL history to someone who is just an OK short passer is sure to be a major adjustment. And remember: Newton’s MVP season is included in those numbers.

Julian Edelman

Wide receiver Julian Edelman led the NFL with 13 dropped passes last season. Edelman also dropped eight passes in 2018. Fans of talk-radio quarterback narratives can look forward to all of Edelman’s drops this season being blamed on Newton.

Stephon Gilmore

Gilmore finished third among NFL cornerbacks who were targeted 25 or more times with a 30.72 passer rating (including six interceptions) allowed on 86 targets. Teammate J.C. Jackson led the NFL with a 14.94 rating (and five interceptions) on just 58 targets, and Jason McCourty finished sixth in the NFL with a 32.86 rating (just one interception, but only 20 completions and zero touchdowns) allowed on 44 targets. The good news for the depleted Patriots defense is that all three cornerbacks will return.

New England Patriots Secondary

The bad news for the Patriots secondary is that they will likely face fewer quarterbacks of Luke Falk/Josh Rosen/Colt McCoy caliber this season. The Patriots held their first eight opponents last season to a total of just 61 points, but they faced a shocking number of rookies, journeymen, third-stringers, and struggling youngsters during that span. Sam Darnold and Josh Allen are older and wiser than they were when the Patriots swatted them around last year, and Belichick has far fewer chess pieces on the board among his front seven than he did in 2019.

Should you target any Patriots in fantasy football?

Sony Michel and this muddled run game

Sony Michel finished eighth in the NFL with 41 red zone carries last season and tied for ninth with 12 carries inside the five-yard line (for five touchdowns). But Michel underwent foot surgery in June and wasn’t all that productive in the first place.

A committee of James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, and newcomer Lamar Miller are likely to share everything, even a percentage of the goal-line touches. Plus, Newton may get a few goal-line carries himself. Draft Patriots running backs at your own peril.

In fact, draft Patriots in general at your own peril. Edelman’s a safe WR3, Newton could be a bargain at his 13th-round ADP, but nearly everyone else carries more risk than reward. Even kicker Stephen Gostkowski is gone, with rookie Justin Rohrwasser worth passing over for a variety of reasons.

Fantasy football and real football are very different beasts, but the lack of fantasy value in New England is an indicator of just how much has changed for the organization over the past six months.

Will the Patriots QB situation be enough for a run in 2020?

Brady looked like an old actor who was getting propped up as an action hero by his director and stuntmen over the last two seasons: Liam Neeson in Taken 18 or something. Newton should bring back some sizzle and big-play capability at QB in 2020, but his supporting cast is shockingly weak. File the names “Belichick” and “Patriots” off the label, and this is a 6-10 roster. Coaching and four Jets and Dolphins games should push them higher, but not much higher.

Despite the roller-coaster of hot takes and special pleading we rode over the last six months, it’s likely that the Patriots didn’t have a coherent post-Brady plan, let alone some sort of galaxy-brained pandemic contingency template. They’re muddling through 2020 like the rest of us now. That makes them more relatable, but it’s unlikely to make them serious contenders.

New England Patriots 2020 Prediction

9-7, second place in the AFC East.

NFL Recap from Mike Tanier
Every Sunday and Monday, Mike Tanier gives his NFL Recap of the biggest stories around the NFL. Click here for the rest of his takes on NFL Week 2 in the long-form format you’re used to seeing from Mike. For individual pieces, head on over to our NFL Recap page.