The New England Patriots are in the midst of one of the more transformative offseasons in franchise history. Tom Brady, Stephen Gostkowski, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon are just some of the big names that have departed Foxborough over the last few weeks, really marking the end of one era and the start of another. While leaders like Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater remain on the roster, Bill Belichick will look to a few of his younger players to carry that baton left by those who have walked out the door as he ushers in this dawn of a new era in New England.
For the purposes of our discussion today, we're going to take a look at three Patriots players and highlight why this trio could be on the verge of a breakout season in 2020. The 2019 draft class is on display here with second-year men like defensive end Chase Winovich and quarterback Jarrett Stidham, while New England's 2018 first round pick in Sony Michel will also get some shine heading into his third season in the league.
Just because Tom Brady took his talents to Tampa Bay, that doesn't mean the standards that Belichick has set in New England will come down. They expect to compete in the division and make a run in the playoffs. For them to do that, they'll need these three to step up in a big way.
2020 projection: 55 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss
Almost immediately after he was drafted by New England in the third round last year, there were plenty of people dubbing it a slam dunk selection and were flabbergasted how the Michigan product even fell to the Patriots at that spot. Out of the gate, Winovich proved to be a strong situational pass rusher for Belichick's defense, compiling four sacks through Week 5. That sack production did dip as the season went on as he finished with just 1.5 more sacks to put a bow on his rookie season, but Winovich's opportunity is about to increase dramatically in 2020.
While plenty of attention was paid to Tom Brady's departure in free agency, the Patriots also lost three linebackers in Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts. As it relates to Winovich, the exit of both Van Noy and Collins specifically should mean that his playing time will bump up and could possibly claim a starting spot. The 24-year-old played in all 16 games for New England last season, but was never able to secure a start. With Collins and Van Noy out of the picture, that opens up two starting positions, and Winovich will have as good of a shot as anybody to take one of them.
With that starting job comes greater opportunity to produce, which is why he's a prime candidate to take a leap in Year 2. He has the talent, has spent a year in the system, and is now on the verge of getting ample playing time to really make an impact on the field.
2020 projection: 3,604 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 63.5 completion percentage
Similar to Winovich, Jarrett Stidham's projected leap in 2020 is all about opportunity. A lot can change between now and the start of the regular season, but he currently has the inside track to become the starting quarterback to begin the post-Tom Brady era. While his collegiate production at Auburn wasn't eye-popping, Stidham was a bad fit for that system and does possess a ton of talent.
He's already been backed by a number of Patriots veterans following Brady's decision to sign with the Buccaneers, and it seems like Patriots brass is impressed with him as well. Outside of Brian Hoyer, who is on his third stint with New England, there's arguably no other quarterback that is currently available who is better suited to take the starting spot. Stidham spent the entire year behind Brady learning the Patriots offense and was even working a lot with the first team towards the tail end of the season as Brady dealt with injuries. He also saw a ton of playing time in the preseason where he impressed with throws like this one.
On top of his experience in the system and talent, Stidham is going to have the benefit of having both Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick setting him up for success. The two coaches won't just throw the textbook at Stidham and expect him to learn the ins and outs of the offense (which is basically advanced calculus) all at once. They'll ease him along. Sure, there will be a point where Stidham will have to make plays, but there's no doubt that Belichick and McDaniels will give him proper schooling before that moment comes. They were able to manage with Matt Cassel for a season and patch things along for a month with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett in the past. They'll be able to do it again, and it will come at the benefit of Stidham.
2020 projection: 1,137 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 30 receptions, 270 receiving yards
I'm higher on Sony Michel heading into next season than most. The former first-round pick regressed in 2019 after his strong rookie season, but there is a logical explanation for it.
During Michel's strong postseason performance during the 2018 season where New England won Super Bowl LIII, the Patriots really relied on the ground game, running up the gut through the A and B gaps. That required strong play from both center David Andrews and fullback James Develin, who were instrumental during that championship run, as you can see in this highlight clip below.
Heading into last season Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Develin, meanwhile, suffered a neck injury in Week 2 and also landed on IR. With those two out of the picture, the running game -- and offense as a whole -- suffered. Both appear to be on track to return in 2020, and if that does in fact happen, Michel should be able to put up numbers that are similar to that playoff run from a few years ago.
It also doesn't hurt that the Patriots will likely be rolling Jarrett Stidham out as their quarterback in 2020. When you have a first-year starter under center, handing the ball off to take some of the pressure off him is essential, which should mean even more work for Michel next season.