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#PostPulpit Mailbag: Reasons for optimism; And where is Chase Winovich?

Related: What’s been going on with Chase Winovich lately? Patriots coaches say there are ‘no issues’

Las Vegas Raiders v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

It was another disappointing loss for the New England Patriots on Sunday. As the offense finally seemed to find its rhythm, Cam Newton fumbled away the game, and what looks like any chance they had at winning the AFC East.

The Patriots now sit in an unfamiliar spot at 2-5, 3 1/2 games out of the division lead. This season is quickly slipping away, and after listening to Bill Belichick’s comments about the salary cap and team’s depth this year, the 2020 New England Patriots look like a lost cause.

Let’s quickly revisit this offseason, starting with March 20. New England was miserable in mid-quarantine. Things couldn't get worse, but they did (of course), as Tom Brady officially announced his two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The rest of the offseason came and went. Due to several dead cap hits (a result from going “all out” the last few years), New England was severely limited in free agency. At times, their total cap space sat under $1 million, as their offseason additions included Damiere Byrd, Beau Allen, Adrian Phillips, and eventually Cam Newton. Come (virtual) draft time, the Patriots traded out of the first-round to help recoup draft picks lost in the Mohamed Sanu trade. The entire draft concluded several days later without the Patriots even selecting a wide receiver.

Then came May 7, the day the 2020 NFL schedule was released. The Patriots had one of the toughest schedules in the league in terms of opponents win percentage in 2019. It was another daunting challenged that loomed over the 2020 Patriots. Pairing the schedule with the lack of talent added to the roster, and of course then the Covid-19 opt-outs, the Patriots over/under record prediction shifted to 8.5, their lowest oddsmaker projection since 2003.

However, when the season kicked off, the Patriots bought us back in with strong performances early in the year. But in reality, this team was never that good, and even Belichick seemed to hint at that when mentioning the lack of depth and usage of young players.

So now, with a losing record heading into November for the first time since Patriot fans can remember, New Englanders don't know what to do. That leads us into our first question in this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag:

@SammyJSammyJ Should I continue to watch every week?

Even though this team may not be competing for a Super Bowl or hosting a home playoff game, there is reason to watch. Look back to the Patriots last losing season in 2000 (you read that right, 2000!). The Patriots went 5-11, but the pieces that built the first dynasty were there: Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest up the middle, Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy roaming the secondary, Troy Brown making plays at receiver. Then the next offseason, they added major contributors like Mike Vrabel and David Patten. When New England sat near the top of the 2001 NFL Draft due to their poor record, they then picked up Richard Seymour who started 10 games in 2001.

After Bill Belichick lost 13 of his first 18 games as head coach, they went on to win the 2001 Super Bowl and you know the rest. It shows how quickly and drastically things can change in this league. Now is a poor 2020 season going to result in another 20-year dynasty? No, and that level of success will most likely never happen in professional sports again.

So, to answer your question: yes, keep watching. This team is playing plenty of exciting young players and rookies that could be major parts of next year’s team, or a potential Super Bowl winning team down the road. Watch them grow and develop, then watch the Patriots go to work this offseason with nearly $60 million in cap space.

@Chil59 Is this not the time to test Stidham and see what we have?

Not yet. Cam Newton’s Sunday performance was his best since the Week 2 Seattle game. New England was able to move the ball on offense, putting together back-to-back touchdown drives for the first time all season. It wasn't perfect, but they took major steps forward on Sunday and should look to build on that going forward with Newton under center.

As for Jarrett Stidham, I would not make the switch unless: A. The Patriots are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention; or B. Cam Newton starts performing like he did in Weeks 6 and 7. New England will have to evaluate the future at the QB position and if Newton keeps improving, it should be his. If not, then they have to see what they have in Stidham.

@TeamCrazyMatt Seriously, why is Winovich getting so little playing time? If the run defense continues to play poorly without him, why is he not on the field more?

The Chase Winovich story has been one of the biggest question marks surrounding the Patriots this year. After constantly playing 50-plus percent of the team’s defensive snaps the first four games, his snap counts the last three games have drastically and steadily decreased (22, 13, 5).

Some suggested Belichick was punishing Winovich — perhaps for his unnecessary illegal blindside block in Week 7. When asked by CLNS’ Evan Lazar if this was the case, linebacker coach Steve Belichick shut that theory down, saying, “No, definitely not.” He added that Winovich “hasn’t done anything wrong.”

When looking at his decrease in playing time, the best explanation is simply the Patriots’ defensive scheme. Winovich’s five snaps against the Bills all came on obvious third down pass-rush situations. New England focused more on stopping the run against the Broncos, 49ers, and Bills, leaving Winovich on the sideline.

“It’s been situational. He’ll play,” Belichick said on Monday. “He’s a good player, he’ll play.”

It’s still an odd situation, as Winovich graded well against the run early in the year and Belichick explained he’d have an every down role. It should be in New England’s best interest to play the second-year defender as much as possible down the stretch, so we’ll see what unfolds.

@kirb410 Reason to be optimistic about pats future is the emergence of Harris..... and dare I say Meyers?

The emergence of Damien Harris and Jakobi Meyers has been one the bright spots in the past few weeks for the Patriots. Harris has run well, rushing for 100-plus yards in two of his four games, while Meyers has looked like the club’s best receiver at times. The development of both second-year players is certainly exciting and a reason to be optimistic about their future.

As for other players to be optimistic about, Michael Onwenu has certainly cemented himself at the top of the list. The 2020 sixth-round pick is PFF’s highest graded rookie on the year. Before getting injured, Kyle Dugger was also extremely impressive when on the field and you could notice Josh Uche’s speed immediately in last week’s game. Perhaps the biggest player to be optimistic about for the future, however, is Cam Newton.

After two horrible games, his Week 8 performance was extremely impressive. If he can build off this, it is good news for the future of the Patriots’ quarterback room.

@BostonEvan11 Why was the run defense so bad again!?

New England’s run defense has been of the biggest issues on the defensive side of the ball this year. I think one player who departed in free agency that is a bigger loss than we realized was Danny Shelton. The Patriots badly miss Shelton’s size up the middle and his ability to take up multiple blockers. New England’s replacement plan has not been good, as Beau Allen is out for the year and Byron Cowart has struggled at times.

Against Buffalo in particularly, New England played six or seven defensive backs for the majority of the game. Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, and Terrence Brooks all payed 100 percent of the defensive snaps from the safety position, which left them vulnerable against the run. When Lawrence Guy then went out with an injury, the Patriots had to rely on Nick Thurman and practice squad call-up Tashawn Bower. It also hasn't helped that Ja’Whaun Bentley, who’s strength is his size and stopping the run, has been bad this year and struggled to finish tackles against Buffalo. Defensive tackle is definitely a need for the Patriots going forward as Josh Uche should see more playing time as well.

@Prostarr27 Are the Patriots making enough adjustments within the game in the first half? As always they come out of the half playing better but no TDs in the first half means they are always playing from behind

I would put the blame more on play calling than adjustments. In the Buffalo game, New England’s first half play-calling was extremely conservative. When they opened things up more and executed better in the second half, they were able to move the football up and down the field.

It wasn't just the Buffalo game, conservative play calling has been an issue all year. On the year, the Patriots rank 28th in the league in pass rate on first and second down (48 percent), according to Sharp Football Stats. On third down, their 56 percent ranks dead last in the league, falling way below the NFL average (76 percent) and a wide margin lower than the next closest team (Baltimore, 68 percent). New England has to open up their offense more going forward and trust Cam Newton to get it done.

@sean_siders How many more games do you give cam? And how do you not question the front office? No QB play. No WR depth. And Not a single TE.

If Cam Newton plays like he did in the Buffalo game or better, I'm giving him the rest of the season and a new contract.

As for questioning the front office, you heard Bill Belichick's comments about the limited salary cap space. They brought in Newton at quarterback and drafted two tight ends, but it is fair to blame them for not trying at the wide receiver position. Perhaps they thought N’Keal Harry would take a big year two leap, but sitting back and watching players like Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins get traded while every receiver in the most talented rookie class in years gets selected to a different team is a questionable move.

Going forward, I would argue their receiving core has strong depth. Players like Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, and now Isaiah Ford would be a strong 3-5 on the depth chart. They now need to add talent to the top and can do that in free agency (Allen Robinson?) and in next year’s draft, which could be just as good as this past year’s.

@ryanmullzy With the late cap $ opening up (opt outs) is there anyone out there you wish the Pats added via free agency?

When money became available for the Patriots, it was almost too late as the majority of the top free agents had already found new homes. There were still veterans like Everson Griffen or Jadeveon Clowney available, but one or two of these veterans probably would not have made a big difference on this year’s roster. In the case of Griffin and Clowney, Griffin has already been traded once while Clowney has struggled to produce. For New England it made the most sense to keep the salary cap space and roll it over to next year, instead of paying two veterans like them close to $20 million.

Rapid fire time:

@Mikes_Thoughts1 What is the long term solution here at QB

Mike, I’m glad you asked. You can find that answer here.

@BrycenPapp Any possible chance we sneak into the 7 seed

The Patriots currently sit 2 1/2 games out of the seventh seed in the AFC with eight games to play. It’s possible, but their odds do not look good. On the bright side, the team currently in the seventh spot is the Browns. If any team was to fall apart, it might as well be Cleveland.

@jbrooksORRN Why does it hurt so bad even though we weren’t going very far anyway

Patriot fans have been spoiled the last 20 years. Every fourth quarter comeback felt like a walk in the park with No. 12 back there. Even when they lost, it really didn't seem to matter because the season really started in January when Gillette hosted an AFC Championship Game. We thought those times were gone, but they bought us right back in the first few weeks. But for now, those times really are gone. Bring on the pain.

@bennihana24 Can we realistically tank for Justin Fields? There’s no way to out tank the Jets, but maybe?

Fields will likely go second or third in this year’s draft, so it is highly unlikely the Patriots end up with a chance to draft him. According to ESPN Football Power Index (FPI), New England currently projects to finish with the 12th overall pick. They have a 42.9 percent chance to earn a top-10 pick and a 8.9 percent chance to earn a top-five pick. They would need pull off a blockbuster in order to go get Fields.

@patshighlights What is happiness?

Better times. Take 20 minutes today and enjoy, you all deserve it.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!