With Tom Brady under center, the New England Patriots were routinely among the most productive passing attacks in the football year after year. His final one as a member of the team, however, was different: the Patriots struggled to consistently move the football through the air during the 2019 season, and eventually succumbed to their weaknesses in the passing game late during their wild card playoff loss against the Tennessee Titans.
Entering 2020, the Patriots are left with considerable questions regarding their ability to throw the football.
Not only is Brady gone after signing a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency, the team made only minimal additions to its skill position group: New England signed Damiere Byrd in free agency to effectively fill the role previously held by Phillip Dorsett, drafted two tight ends in the third round who have yet to prove their ability to adapt to the system, and signed a few rookie free agents to compete for roster spots.
Most of the 2019 personnel did return, however, which is why it is not exactly a surprise to see the Patriots’ receiving corps ranked as one of the worst in football by advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus: PFF’s Ben Linsey analyzed the pass-catching groups in the NFL and only the Jacksonville Jaguars’ and the Washington Redskins’ were seen as worse. The rationale behind New England’s 30th ranking reads as follows:
While many will point to Tom Brady’s numbers last season, the big problem with the Patriots’ offense was that they just didn’t have receivers who could separate downfield. Julian Edelman remains one of the more reliable slot options in the short and intermediate range, but Mohamed Sanu added very little after he was acquired by the Patriots midseason (57.1 overall grade post-trade) and N’Keal Harry’s rookie campaign was a disappointment headlined by an injury that sidelined him for a large portion of the season. The two tight ends New England picked up in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft should see playing time, given the lack of options in front of them on the depth chart, but neither is likely to really solve the issue as a rookie. The Patriots’ biggest hope for the year will be that Harry takes a big step forward in a healthy sophomore campaign.
There are certainly some valid points raised in this analysis: Edelman was still his reliable self, Sanu added little after joining the team, and Harry contributed little. That said, only part of the story of New England’s offensive issues is told — especially as it relates to the team’s ranking and its outlook heading into the 2020 season. After all, the Patriots’ top three wideouts were all hampered by significant injuries last year.
Edelman dealt with chest, shoulder and knee issues that did not force him to miss any games but did visibly slow him down and in the case of the latter two required medical offseason procedures. Sanu, looked very good in his new system before suffering a high-ankle sprain — one that also was also since surgically repaired — in just his third game. Harry, meanwhile, never was able to make up for his missed time after hurting his ankle in the first preseason game and not returning until mid-November.
Based on their offseason, the Patriots appear to be banking on all three recovering nicely and both Harry and Jakobi Meyers making a jump in Year Two. It remains to be seen if this approach — plus the addition of tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene through the draft — pays any dividends for projected new starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham, but New England’s receiving corps could very well turn out to be much more productive than PFF’s offseason ranking make it seem.