Halfway through their 2020 season, the New England Patriots are in an unfamiliar position: they are just 3-5 and looking up from their third place in the AFC East. That said, there is a lot of football left to be played this season and the Patriots do have plenty of chances remaining to salvage their campaign and put themselves right back into playoff contention — starting this week with a challenging matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
Before looking ahead, however, let’s take one look back and analyze where the team is standing eight games into its season.
(Note I: The order within each position group is based not on a projected depth chart but rather the alphabet)
(Note II: The only players listed under injured reserve are those eligible to return again this year)
53-man roster: Brian Hoyer, Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham
While Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham also saw considerable action so far this year, Cam Newton remains the undisputed top option at the Patriots’ quarterback position — something that was reaffirmed by his play over the last two weeks. While the 31-year-old had a rough two-game stretch after returning from the Reserve/Covid-19 list in Week 6 and still has plenty of room for improvement, particularly in the ball security department, he appears to be getting into a better rhythm within New England’s system. Long story short: Newton gives the Patriots the best chance to play productive offensive football.
The two passers behind him, meanwhile, have disappointed. Brian Hoyer has been demoted to the third spot after starting New England’s game in Kansas City in Week 4, with Jarrett Stidham unable to show much during his relief appearances during that game and in Week 7. If he is indeed the Patriots’ future at quarterback, he is hiding it really good.
53-man roster: Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, Jakob Johnson, J.J. Taylor, James White
Injured reserve: Sony Michel
Despite losing fullback James Develin to retirement, New England’s offensive backfield has not skipped a beat this season. Sony Michel looked good early on in the season, while Damien Harris established himself as a bona fide early-down back after his return from injured reserve. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots use the two once Michel comes back from IR within the next two weeks.
Rex Burkhead and James White have been their usual reliable selves, meanwhile. White has been especially impressive, not because of his numbers but because he kept showing up even after losing his father in a car crash early during the regular season.
53-man roster: Damiere Byrd, Isaiah Ford, N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Matthew Slater
Practice squad: Mason Kinsey, Donte Moncrief, Kristian Wilkerson, Isaiah Zuber
Injured reserve: Julian Edelman
While “Weapons!” is a familiar battle cry in New England these days, the Patriots’ receiving corps did have some solid moments over the first half of the season: Damiere Byrd looks a serviceable complementary piece on the outside, while Jakobi Meyers was establishing himself as the Patriots’ number one wideout over the last three weeks. Other than those two, however, the group definitely had more downs than ups.
Julian Edelman was inconsistent outside of his monster game in Seattle in Week 2, while N’Keal Harry showed some progress before getting hurt — but probably not as much as one would hope from a former first-round draft pick. The question now becomes whether or not he can continue his development after his return from a concussion, and if trade acquisition Isaiah Ford can add another spark to the group from the slot.
53-man roster: Ryan Izzo, Jordan Thomas
Practice squad: Dylan Cantrell, David Wells
Injured reserve: Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene
Practice squad injured reserve: Jake Burt
The story of the Patriots’ tight end position remains the same as it was last year: it is arguably among the worst position groups in the entire league, registering just 10 combined receptions for 124 yards. Ryan Izzo would probably be a solid number two, but he has not shown any serious No. 1 traits so far in his career. Third-round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene have had their moments, in the meantime, but they were still unable to overtake Izzo atop the depth chart before being placed on injured reserve.
The rest of the group has not yet appeared in a game for the team and should not be expected to bring any noticeable change to the offense.
53-man roster: Korey Cunningham, Michael Onwenu, Isaiah Wynn
Practice squad: Jordan Steckler
Injured reserve: Yodny Cajuste, Jermaine Eluemunor, Justin Herron
After losing starting right tackle Marcus Cannon to the Covid-19 opt-out clause during the offseason, the Patriots also saw his replacement — Jermaine Eluemunor — go to injured reserve. And yet, the group has looked very good this season: Isaiah Wynn is having the best season of his career and looking like a legitimate left tackle in the NFL, with sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu proving himself a viable starting option on the right side himself. It would not be a surprise if Wynn and Onwenu turned into long-term starters along the Patriots’ O-line.
The other players listed above are also worth pointing out. Eluemunor looked good as well before hurting his ankle in late October, and it will be interesting to see how the team employs him after his comeback. Sixth-round draft pick Justin Herron is also currently on IR due to an ankle issue, and he too played some solid football as the number four option at the position. Both the present and the future look bright for New England at offensive tackle.
53-man roster: David Andrews, James Ferentz, Hjalte Froholdt, Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney
Practice squad: Caleb Benenoch
While the Patriots’ interior offensive line had some injury issues earlier during the season, the starting lineup of Thuney-Andrews-Mason has again proven itself one of the best in all of football. The trio, who is in its fifth year together, is terrific in the running game and no worse when it comes to pass protection. With Michael Onwenu also offering depth at guard after spending his entire college career there, New England also appears to be set there for the long run.
The question, of course, will be whether or not Thuney is retained next offseason — but that is a story for another time. Right now, he remains a key cog in the Patriots’ offensive machinery and setting himself up nicely for a big payday.
53-man roster: Adam Butler, Byron Cowart, Carl Davis, Lawrence Guy, Isaiah Mack, Nick Thurman, Deatrich Wise Jr.
Practice squad: Bill Murray
With Beau Allen out for the season, the Patriots will have to solidify their interior defensive line with the talent they have on their roster at the moment. Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise Jr. are the top-three and will continue to play regular snaps. Carl Davis, however, also had a solid performance in his debut last Sunday — all while looking more like your typical two-gap defensive tackle in New England’s scheme at 6-foot-5, 320 pounds compared to the smaller Byron Cowart (6’3/300lb) and Nick Thurman (6’4/305lb).
Whether or not the Wise Jr.-Davis-Guy early down lineup will yield results remains to be seen, but the Patriots certainly have to hope that it does.
53-man roster: Tashawn Bower, Shilique Calhoun, Derek Rivers, John Simon, Chase Winovich
Practice squad: Rashod Berry
The Patriots’ outside linebacker position has seen a healthy rotation through eight games. John Simon is the number one guy, oftentimes aligning on the strong side of the formation, with Chase Winovich the most impressive player alongside him. The second-year man looked tremendous early on, but saw his snap numbers reduced coming out of New England’s Week 5 bye. He was given more opportunities again last Sunday, which could be a sign of things to come.
The other outside linebackers, meanwhile, have been used in a more rotational role. Shilique Calhoun and Derek Rivers are primarily employed as pass rushers, with the former also getting his fair share of special teams snaps. Rivers and Tashawn Bower, on the other hand, appear to be closer to the bottom than the top of the roster.
53-man roster: Anfernee Jennings, Josh Uche
Injured reserve: Brandon Copeland
The versatile move linebacker role was played by Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins last season, but the Patriots have not had any true contributions from the spot this year. Brandon Copeland is on injured reserve and while theoretically eligible to come back this season certainly out for the year; Day Two rookies Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche have slowly been inserted into the mix.
Jennings and Uche are the future at the position even when Hightower returns from his Coronavirus opt-out next year, but the Patriots will likely need more from them this season as well to help improve the defensive front seven.
53-man roster: Ja’Whaun Bentley
Practice squad: Terez Hall, Cassh Maluia, Michael Pinckney
Physically unable to perform: Brandon King
With Hightower, Collins and Elandon Roberts all leaving this offseason, the Patriots’ remaining inside linebacker depth is down to one player: third-year man Ja’Whaun Bentley, whose season has been a mixed bag so far. He looked very good coming out of the bye, but struggled against the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills in Weeks 7 and 8 before suffering a groin injury. He will resume a key role again after his inevitable return, but his play needs to become more consistent.
The Patriots also might turn to Terez Hall again to offer depth alongside Bentley (and possible interior options Uche and Jennings as well): the second-year man was elevated from the practice squad last week to help replace the top option during his injury-related absence. We might not have seen the last from Hall this year.
53-man roster: Justin Bethel, Myles Bryant, Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Joejuan Williams
Practice squad: Michael Jackson Sr, D’Angelo Ross
New England’s cornerback group struggled against the New York Jets last Sunday with Stephon Gilmore out, but it is still among the best in the league. Gilmore is one of the NFL’s top cover corners, with J.C. Jackson, Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones all bona fide starters as well — despite the occasional hiccups. The quartet is as good a cornerback group as any in football, and the heart and soul of the Patriots’ defense.
The biggest questions are therefore related to depth option Joejuan Williams. The former second-round draft pick looked good in limited action this year when matched up against opposing tight ends, but he cannot seem to get on the field constantly. His usage might be tied to the Patriots’ linebacker position — with Ja’Whaun Bentley the only off-the-ball option the team is relying on more safety help in the box, meaning that Williams as well might further weaken the size up front — but one thing is certain: Williams showed that he can play even if he has not yet become a regular member of the rotation.
53-man roster: Terrence Brooks, Cody Davis, Kyle Dugger, Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips
After losing Patrick Chung to the opt-out clause this summer, the Patriots opted to give Adrian Phillips the number one role as a strong safety/linebacker hybrid alongside Devin McCourty. Phillips has looked good, but his size has been regularly targeted by opposing offenses in the running game: he is no Dont’a Hightower or Jamie Collins. Still, the offseason signee has been a valuable member of New England’s defense.
As for McCourty, meanwhile, he is his usual reliable self as a versatile deep-field defender. There is one additional change, though, compared to years past: the veteran is serving as New England’s defensive on-field signal caller this year. The role previously belonged to Hightower and later went to Ja’Whaun Bentley before going to McCourty.
53-man roster: Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona, Nick Folk
Practice squad: Justin Rohrwasser
New England’s specialists have performed very well so far this season. Jake Bailey is turning into one of the league’s best punters, with Joe Cardona doing his usual job as a reliable long snapper. The biggest surprise might be Nick Folk: after returning to the team during training camp and originally getting released on roster cutdown day, he made his way back onto the 53-man squad and has played some tremendous football. He has made 14 of 16 field goal attempts this season, and was good on 14 of 15 extra points.
Fifth-round rookie Justin Rohrwasser, on the other hand, remains on the practice squad. He will get his next shot at taking the place kicker role next year.
All in all, the first half of the Patriots’ 2020 regular season was a bit of everything. Solid play in all three phases? Check. Breakdowns in all three phases? Check. Coronavirus issues? Check. New England may not have looked like one of the NFL’s best teams over the last two months — quite the opposite at times — but the team certainly retained its “must-watch” status: they can compete week-in and week-out, and have shown their potential time and again.
So, to answer the question above, where do they go from here?
Sunday’s game against the Ravens will be a good measuring stick. The Ravens are one of the best teams in the NFL, and if the Patriots can hang with them and possibly even earn a victory, they should be counted on to get right back in the mix for at least a wild card spot in the AFC. They certainly can do that, but it takes some improvements in all three phases: ball security, run defense and the return game all need to show some strides for the team to play its brand of football.
The Patriots may not be as bad a team as their record suggests, but they absolutely have not played up to their capabilities time and again this season. If they start doing that, they have a chance. If not, it will be “on to 2021” sooner rather than later.