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The biggest questions at each positional group for the Patriots in 2020

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Related: Now is the time for the Patriots’ recent draft classes to step up

Carolina Panthers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Despite the loss of Tom Brady this offseason, the New England Patriots still have a lot of talent on both offense and defense. However, players needing to take the leap into bigger roles, sink or swim for some guys and an entire group staying healthy may make or break the Patriots in 2020.

Let’s therefore dive into the biggest questions surrounding the team this year.

Quarterback: Just how good can Jarrett Stidham be?

Coming off an offseason of unnecessary hype (sorry, not sorry) and optimism, the Patriots have made it pretty clear that Jarrett Stidham is their guy. The 2019 fourth-round draft pick is now tasked with arguably the toughest situation thrown to any player in league history; replacing Tom Brady.

Listen, Bill Belichick and company have been planning for Brady’s departure for quite some time now adding much needed youth and athleticism on both sides of the ball the last few drafts. They didn’t panic and add a veteran quarterback through free agency or insert more youth through the draft at the positon. The moves have made it clear since March that Stidham’s the guy and that alone should calm your nerves a bit as New England prepares for “Life after Tom.”

Stidham has the ability to step right in and take control of this football team as we’ve seen Stephon Gilmore, both McCourtys and Matthew Slater all praise his ability to process information as a rookie and how he helped make their defense what it was in 2019. Many, including myself, feel the Patriots have what it takes to win the division again despite the loss of Brady. They still have an elite defense, the offensive line is back healthy and the Patriots should be better at receiver with more experience and health to the position.

However, it’s a quarterback league and it’s really hard to win in this league if your quarterback isn’t consistent. That’s where the question comes in; how good can Stidham be? Can he lead them to a division title during his second year in the league?

First off, you have to trust that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will get Stidham to a point where he can be successful. Whether that’s letting him sling it all over the yard or taking a more conservative approach as a game manager, he will be put him in a situation that in turn best puts the Patriots in a position to move the ball efficiently. How New England wins games depends on a week-to-week basis and who their opponent is, that’s not going to change. The Patriots will win on defense, special teams or offense, they are still a top team in the league in all three phases of the game.

Now, there will definitely be some growing pains as Dante Scarnecchia said this week and they will probably come early on with Seattle, Kansas City and San Francisco all on the schedule the first six weeks of the regular season. However, if Jarrett Stidham can improve each week, don’t sleep on the Patriots putting it all together and being a tough out like they always are.

Stidham just has to be himself, take care of the football and trust that the veteran guys help him out as he prepares for his first full season as a starter. Sure, Tom Brady isn’t walking through that door, but Jarrett Stidham is and they will be alright. Trust me.

Fullback: Who will replace James Develin?

We’ve seen how much the Patriots’ success running the football has to do with the fullback position. James Develin was probably the most underrated Patriot of the last 10 or so years — his job was so important to the offense that you saw how much it missed him after he went down last year.

With Develin now retired, the Patriots have Jakob Johnson, who looked good in his limited time last year before suffering a season ending injury, and Danny Vitale, who was signed in free agency. Both are different types of players, Johnson is more of the Develin type — tough, big and can take on bigger guys and open up holes to help out in the run game. Vitale is more of a super back and could be used how Kyle Shanahan uses Kyle Juszcyzk.

With Stidham now at the helm, McDaniels may take a more modernized approach to his offense and open things up more — like we see Shanahan and Sean McVay do out west. Vitale can be a do-it-all guy and turn into a fan favorite quickly with his ability to play multiple roles like lead block or being asked to line up in the slot and taking some seam routes. He can certainly bring a ton of versatility to the position and help New England open up the playbook more than we’re used to seeing. He’s my pick to be New England’s next fullback.

Running Back: Will Damien Harris emerge as New England’s early down back?

It was reported last week that Sony Michel had another surgery — this time to fix a foot issue back in May. With Harris entering Year Two and Michel coming off a disappointing sophomore year and repeated injuries, Harris is deemed for a breakout sophomore season. With the 2019 third-round pick coming off a redshirt rookie season (like the Patriots most recently did with James White and Shane Vereen), many feel Harris is ready to take the majority of the carries in 2020.

It’s sink or swim for Michel as he enters his third year in the league. Sure, the offensive line issues didn’t help his cause last year but it’s clear that Michel lacks the burst or breakaway speed we saw during his Georgia days. Harris who had just five carries and was inactive 15 times during his rookie year due to a loaded running back room featuring Michel, White, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden, is now ready to contribute. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry during his time at Alabama and has the potential to be an early-down back for the Patriots. And with Michel now suffering his third injury in three seasons (two knee and now the foot) this opens the door for Harris to take on a much bigger role this season.

Harris fits the New England mold for an early-down back, he’s a big body who can run between the tackles and is great at cutting to the outside. With Michel’s injuries adding up and Harris on the rise, this will be one of the top stories to watch as we inch closer to Week 1.

Wide Receiver: Can N’Keal Harry take the leap and solidify the WR2 spot?

It’s unfair to rule N’Keal Harry as a bust just 8 games into his NFL career. He missed 90% of training camp and preseason last year, the first 10 weeks of the regular season and then came into an under-achieving positional group that was looking for a savior. Missing that much time, lofty expectations due to where he was drafted, and asking to get on the same page with calculus-leveled quarterback Tom Brady is too much for anyone, first-round pick or not. It should be known by now that rookie pass catchers, no matter where they are drafted, should have a pass in Year One knowing the complex playbook and asked to click with Tom Brady right away.

However, coming into the 2020 season, where the Patriots didn’t add any “big name” wideouts through the draft or free agency, a fully healthy Harry is poised for a breakout year. Now working with Stidham allows for Harry to learn with him and take advantage of a potentially more modernized offensive approach. He’s been working with Rischad Whitfield, otherwise known as the “Footwork King,” who trains guys like Le’Veon Bell and Deandre Hopkins on his footwork and releases. Harry has the body and tools to be a go-to guy for years to come but it depends on his ability to take advantage of this opportunity.

Expect a much better year from Harry with schemed touches and getting the ball in his hands quickly and in space. With Julian Edelman recently turning 34, the Patriots will need to find that “go-to-guy” and have somebody blossom into taking on a much bigger role for years to come. All eyes should point to the 22-year-old Harry.

Tight End: How much impact will Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene make in Year One?

The Patriots’ offense struggled last year with the lack of production at the tight end position. Matt LaCosse, Benjamin Watson and Ryan Izzo didn’t serve as any threat in the passing game and couldn’t contribute in the running game. The Patriots made a mistake in the draft the last few years not addressing the tight end position, but they finally added some young talent when they selected Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the third round of the draft in April.

New England had considerable success moving the football with their two tight end sets the last 10 years that started with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and then Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett back in 2016. Now they have two, young and much different players at the position.

Asiasi provides a lot of help in the passing game, primarily over the middle of the field and through the seam but is also known for his nastiness as a blocker. Asiasi stands at 6’3, 255 lbs, can line up and take on pass rushers, and help out in the run game by opening up lanes. Keene can serve as that “Swiss Army knife” with his ability to line up pretty much anywhere, sort of how the Niners use the aforementioned Kyle Juszcyzk. We could even see Keene in the slot at some points this year and also line up in the backfield.

The Patriots have two, young and unique tight ends that will be asked to play and make an impact right away in 2020.

Offensive Line: Can they stay healthy?

The Patriots head into 2020 without the legendary Dante Scarnecchia but they do return four out of five lineman that dominated the line of scrimmage the entire Super Bowl run back in 2018. However, the biggest question for the Patriots offensive line is if the players can stay healthy.

When Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon are on the field and close to 100 percent, life can be pretty simple for those playing behind them. Wynn has missed over 70 percent of games his first two years in the league, however, Andrews is coming off blood clot issues that sidelined him for all of 2019, while Mason and Cannon were dealing with injuries themselves. A lot of the Patriots’ success in 2020 will depend on the unit staying on the field.

Although it is hard for any offensive lineman to stay healthy for an entire season, the Patriots have added much-needed depth through the past two drafts. Yodny Cajuste could push Marcus Cannon for that right tackle spot with Justin Herron adding a reliable depth piece as a rookie. Hjalte Froholdt and Michael Onwenu, meanwhile, offer depth on the interior behind Thuney, Andrews and Mason.

With the young and inexperienced Stidham taking over, keeping him clean and allowing the run game to get going to take some pressure off him will help the transition from Tom Brady. If it stays healthy, this offensive line could return to its top-five form and be the backbone of this team even without Scarnecchia coaching it.

Defensive Line: Can Adam Butler grow into a top tackle in the league?

The track record of Bill Belichick’s undrafted free agents has been impressive, but Butler, who made the team out of camp back in 2017, may be the best of the recent bunch. One of the most underrated players in the league, he’s been one of New England’s most consistent players of the last few years. He’s been a problem both as a pass rusher and a run stuffer on the interior of the Patriots’ defensive line. He signed his restricted free agency tender this offseason after registering six sacks, eight tackles for loss, and nine quarterback hits. Butler has improved in each of his first three years in the league and with the acquisition of Beau Allen and Byron Cowart itching for a role, Butler has the opportunity to take on an even bigger role this season and start earning the more recognition around the league.

Linebacker/Edge: Can Ja’Whaun Bentley and Chase Winovich take the next step?

One of the many reasons the Patriots defense was elite last year was because of the roles Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins played. With Van Noy taking his talents to South Beach and Collins joining Matt Patricia in Detroit, it’s time for Ja’Whaun Bentley and Chase Winovich to take a leap and lead the Patriots front seven alongside Dont’a Hightower.

Winovich appeared in all 17 games during his rookie season and established himself as a core member of New England’s sub edge rush while also contributing on special teams. He became just the fourth first-year player under Bill Belichick to record more than five sacks in his rookie season. Despite playing just 29 percent of defensive snaps, he finished 2019 with with 26 tackles, 5.5 sacks — tied for fourth most on the team — as well as 10 quarterback hits (third).

Winovich was on the field in obvious passing situations as just under 80 percent of his snaps came versus the pass. He will likely help fill that Kyle Van Noy role with former Michigan team Josh Uche a strong candidate to contribute as well.

Bentley, who saw himself wearing the green dot back in Week 3 as a rookie in 2017, is primed to take on more leadership for the Patriots’ young linebacker room. He was a four-year starter and three-year captain at Purdue and attracted Belichick’s staff due to his leadership skills. He appeared in just three games as a rookie after tearing his pectoral and found himself in a tough situation to find consistent time on the field in 2019 with Hightower, Van Noy, Collins and Elandon Roberts all ahead of him last year.

But despite playing just 27.3 percent of defensive snaps last year, Bentley will account for the second highest snap count of any returning linebacker. A position that provides so much value to the Patriots defense, Bentley can be a key cog in the middle next to Hightower, while Winovich will likely have his hand in the dirt and pass rushing for the majority of his snaps.

The Patriots’ biggest question mark on defense will be the edge and linebacker position due the departures of key guys like Van Noy and Collins, but Winovich and Bentley have the talent to step right in and contribute.

Cornerback: How will Joejuan Williams find meaningful snaps in his second season?

The Patriots return arguably the best cornerback room in all of football — one that is led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, with J.C. Jackson, slot corner Jonathan Jones and veteran Jason McCourty all playing big roles on the defense. The Patriots drafted Williams in the second round in 2019 and like several of his classmates, just couldn’t find consistent time on the field due to the veteran talent in front of him.

Williams played just seven percent of defensive snaps last season (85 out of 1,070) and it is a question mark as to how he will find more snaps this year with the same corners back for 2020. He projects as a perimeter defensive back who can take on bigger, physical receivers (like the Patriots had with Brandon Browner in 2014), and with Jason McCourty on the back nine of his career and dealing with groin problems all last year, we could see Williams slide in and help take the load off of him and see an uptick in snaps in his second season.

Williams said earlier this offseason that he was also training at safety so we could see him take on tight ends and play a bit more downhill due to his size at the position as well.

Overall, for him to see more time this season, he’ll likely help out in Jason McCourty’s role or play in New England’s dime packages. Whatever it is, the Patriots hope Williams can produce and find time on the field as their second-round defensive backs haven’t panned out in the past.

Safety: What will Kyle Dugger’s role be?

Before the draft, some believed Bill Belichick was molding Williams into that Patrick Chung role as someone who is a downhill, box player that can take on tight ends in coverage. The selection of Kyle Dugger at 37th overall this year put a halt to that for now. Dugger, who looked like a high school senior playing pop warner at Division II’s Lenoir-Rhyne, will have arguably as big a jump in competition as anyone entering the league. The 6’2, 220 lb Dugger will have the opportunity to learn behind veteran leaders like Chung and Devin McCourty, but could be a victim of limited offseason workouts: coming from a Division II school and jumping right into training camp may be a tough adjustment for Dugger as the Patriots obviously had a virtual offseason this year.

With Chung extended this spring, McCourty back and Adrian Phillips manning the strong safety spot, Dugger may take a backseat role in Year One. He has a lot to learn and adjust to and practically having no offseason may hurt him in terms of his production in 2020. As for his role, we will most likely see him contribute on special teams due to his athletic ability and after having a below-average return game last season, we may see Dugger return some kicks as well.