The New England Patriots just went through arguably the most transformative offseason the franchise has seen in its history. Of course, the headliner to that momentous statement is Tom Brady, who left the franchise after 20 years and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency, but there was much more than just TB12 taking his talents to Florida. New England also saw defensive stars like Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts all leave for greener pastures on the open market as well, which now leads some big shoes to fill at various spots on the depth chart.
And that brings us here -- training camp. While this summer and the entire year will be far different from what any of us are accustomed to due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we'll get a bit of normalcy with some good old-fashioned training camp battles in Foxborough over the next month. That said, the coronavirus is still making its presence felt here as five players, including Dont'a Hightower and Marcus Cannon, have all decided to opt-out of the 2020 season, which further throws a wrench in the Patriots' plans. We also won't be able to see any of these players compete over live game reps after the NFL and NFLPA agreed to eliminate the preseason, but these will be heated battles nonetheless at extremely important positions.
Might as well start with the big one.
The Patriots have three quarterbacks on the roster all fighting to fill the seat that Tom Brady sat in for the past two decades and played the position better than any other signal-caller in history. For most of the offseason, it looked like Jarrett Stidham was the clear heir apparent with Brian Hoyer serving as a valuable backup to the second-year quarterback. That all changed, however, with the signing of former league MVP Cam Newton. Instead of a coronation for Stidham, he's suddenly booted from the inside track for the job and looking at a daunting fight for the starting job.
Of course, Bill Belichick is not in the business of simply handing out jobs so he'll give an honest look to all three of these quarterbacks, including Hoyer, who is beginning his third stint with the club. If we're being honest though, this is a two-horse race between Newton and Stidham.
Newton comes to New England with a tremendous résumé. He's a former No. 1 overall pick, Heisman winner, former MVP, and was able to take his former Panthers squad to Super Bowl 50. He's clearly the most talented quarterback of the bunch, but he'll need to answer questions surrounding his health before he truly solidifies himself as QB1. He missed the bulk of last season due to a Lisfranc fracture and has been hampered by a shoulder injury for the past few years. If he's able to show that he's recovered, he has a massive edge in the talent department.
The one area where Stidham may still be able to have the edge, however, is the playbook. He spent all of last season behind Tom Brady as his backup, learning New England's system. With Brady gone, the Patriots will likely modernize the offense a bit to cater to the quarterbacks they have on the roster, but Stidham's experience will be extremely valuable during this battle.
With the pandemic putting an emphasis on depth, I would expect all three of these quarterbacks to make the roster. Having a third-stringer like Brian Hoyer, who is extremely knowledgeable and familiar with the system, will prove immensely valuable during this unique season.
2. Right Tackle
New England's offensive line was a bit disjointed in 2019 after left tackle Isaiah Wynn missed time due to injury and starting center David Andrews missed the entire year due to blood clots in his lungs. Because of that, the unit was never able to play well consistently. As they look forward to 2020, they'll get most of their pieces back in place, except for at the right tackle spot with Marcus Cannon making the decision to opt-out due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. That opens up a competition for a starting spot along the O-line, which will have even greater importance this season as they'll either be blocking for an oft-injured Newton or first-year starter in Stidham.
There's always a chance the Patriots look outside the organization to find a replacement for Cannon, but we'll primarily be looking at in-house options here. When looking at that group, second-year tackle Yodny Cajuste likely has the inside track at the job. The 6-foot-5, 312 pounder was a third-round draft choice of the Patriots in 2019 out of West Virginia but missed all of his rookie season due to a quad injury. As long as he's healthy, Cajuste, who was the 11th-ranked tackle in his class (via PFF), has a realistic shot to win the gig. If not, the Patriots could look to Korey Cunningham, who spent time as a depth piece with the team last year.
New England also drafted Justin Herron out of Wake Forest in the sixth round earlier this offseason. He suffered a torn ACL in 2018, but returned in 2019 to start all 13 games for the Deamon Deacons. According to Pro Football Focus, Herron went 469 pass-blocking snaps without allowing a single sack. If he's able to bring that play to the NFL, he'll be in the thick of this competition as well.
The Patriots linebacker group (inside and outside) was absolutely gutted this offseason. Not only did they lose Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts in free agency, but defensive anchor Dont'a Hightower also decided to opt-out of 2020 due to the coronavirus. That means the Patriots will have lost three of their four highest-producing pass-rushers, their top-two tacklers, and three full-time starters. That's not even accounting for the leadership each of them brought to the table.
Because many of New England's linebackers cross-pollinate between lining up on the outside and moving to the middle of the field, there's going to be a number of players vying for starting spots. At inside linebacker, third-year man Ja'Whaun Bentley will specifically be asked to take on a significant role. He showed tremendous promise during his rookie season in 2018, totaling 14 tackles, and an interception over three games (two starts), but suffered a torn bicep and was placed on IR. He came back in 2019 and suited up for all 16 games (two starts) and totaled 44 tackles. Bentley has been billed as a run-stuffer, but that glimmer in 2018 really showed potential as an all-around linebacker.
If he's able to play that way consistently, that'd be a tremendous asset to New England as they try to repatch this unit. Second-year linebacker Terez Hall could also be a darkhorse candidate for some time in the middle of the Patriots defense. Second-round pick Josh Uche could play a role out of the gate here as well.
The outside is a bit more clear when speaking about the starting spots. Second-year pass-rusher Chase Winovich will likely leap into a starting role along with veteran John Simon. Behind them is where things could get interesting between third-round pick Anfernee Jennings, Shilique Calhoun, Brandon Copeland, and Derek Rivers. Specifically looking a Winovich, he has a chance to evolve into an elite player for Bill Belichick after totaling 5.5 sacks and 26 tackles in 16 games played last season.
Of course, the Patriots could use all the star power they can get in this area, so, with their newfound cap space, this could be a spot where they dip into the trade market or free agency.
4. Tight End
The Patriots received next to zero production from the tight end spot in 2019. The combination of Ben Watson, Matt LaCossee and Ryan Izzo totaled just 36 reception for 448 yards and two touchdowns last year. Sheesh. Because of that inferior play, New England double-dipped at the position for the first time since selecting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez back in 2010 by selecting UCLA's Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene out of Virginia Tech
With a strong camp, Asiasi has the opportunity to leap over LaCossee and into the starting role. For the Bruins last year, the 6-foot-3, 257-pound tight end hauled in 44 catches for 641 yards and four touchdowns. That type of production may already make him the most sure-handed receiving tight end the Patriots have on the roster. All he has to do is flash his potential.
Dalton Keene is a bit more of a project, but could certainly rise up as well. He could be more of an H-back in New England and use his versatility in a similar fashion the Patriots did with Hernandez. His stats a Virginia Tech don't jump off the page, but he could be a very interesting and versatile weapon for Josh McDaniels.
5. Running back
This may be one of the deeper units on the Patriots roster, but particularly intriguing at the very top. Sony Michel is entering a pivotal third season in New England where he'll need to prove himself as a legit feature-back. The offensive-line struggles and the loss of fullback James Develin didn't do Michel any favors last season, but the back was pretty inefficient, rushing for just 3.7 yards a carry. He also didn't make a significant leap in the pass-catching game, which was something the club hoped would evolve after taking him in the first round in 2018 out of Georgia.
If Michel continues on this path, he could be supplanted by 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris. The former Alabama back only appeared in two games for the Patriots last season, rushing for just 12 yards on four carries, but did have a promising career for the Crimson Tide. After back-to-back seasons rushing for over a thousand yards in 2017 and 2018, Harris rushed for 876 yards on 5.8 yards per carry during his final collegiate season. If he's able to take a leap, he could really push Michel for snaps.
Meanwhile, James White should continue to serve as the team's leading pass-catching back.