A lot can change in the NFL over the course of one year. Last offseason, for example, the New England Patriots’ roster was seen as arguably the most talented in the league: the team invested considerable resources to improve a passing offense that had lost tight end Rob Gronkowski to retirement, while also keeping a defensive unit intact that was coming off one of the most impressive performances in Super Bowl history. From top to bottom, the Patriots appeared to be stacked.
Perception and reality are two different things in pro football, however.
While the defense proved itself to be among the league’s best and led the NFL in scoring during the 2019 season, the offense struggled to find its groove and eventually succumbed to a combination of inexperience, injury and off-field issues. And with the ensuing offseason bringing some major changes — gone are, among others, starting quarterback Tom Brady and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins — the team is seen in a different light entering the 2020 season than it was last year at the same time.
The Patriots are one of the toughest teams to project heading into the new campaign: they have plenty of talent across the board, but a lot of it is either unproven at the professional level or within New England’s system. Accordingly, it is therefore no surprise to find the team’s roster ranked as only the 18th best in football despite its potential upside: Pro Football Focus recently analyzed all 32 squads for ESPN and came to the conclusion that the Patriots’ is below average at the moment.
Second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who will likely take over for Tom Brady, is seen as the biggest question mark and the obvious X-factor entering the new year:
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham took just 15 offensive snaps last regular season as a rookie, but he appears in line to take the reins for 2020. With Stidham’s lack of NFL experience, we’ll have to look at his college numbers to try to glean some insight into what the Patriots can expect. Stidham came out of the gates firing in 2015 as a freshman at Baylor, with a 91.5 PFF passing grade in limited action, but his grading profile in 2017-18 in Auburn’s offense — which doesn’t attack the intermediate range of the field with NFL throws — wasn’t nearly as impressive. At this point, Stidham being an average NFL quarterback looks like an uphill battle.
Stidham showed plenty of promise during last year’s training camp an preseason — drawing comparisons to former Patriots backup and current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — but was largely inactive as Brady’s backup in 2019. Now poised to take on a bigger role, he might just be the biggest single factor in determining New England’s success in Year One after the greatest quarterback of all time.
Setting realistic expectations for the 23-year-old can be difficult, but anything going above a 60-percent completion percentage and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14:11 — the average for first-year starting QBs between 2011 and 2019 — could be considered a success. This rings especially true considering that the Patriots still have possibly the best pass defense in football available. As PFF pointed out, the unit remains New England’s biggest strength:
No team was stingier in pass coverage than the Patriots last season. They allowed the lowest EPA per pass play in the league, and it wasn’t particularly close. That shouldn’t come as a surprise given the talent and depth New England boasts in its secondary — a group that returns nearly all of its key components in 2020. Stephon Gilmore, the most valuable player in that secondary, has recorded a higher PFF grade (92.2) and more forced incompletions (54) than any other cornerback in the NFL since joining the team in 2017.
While the Patriots’ ability to defend the pass will likely be a key component to their success in 2020, they will also need to move the football through the air — such is the nature of the professional game in this day and age. Stidham’s role in this process is obviously a big one, but so is that of a receiving corps that struggled to consistently produce positive results in 2019 as was noted above. For PFF, this struggle could continue in 2020: the receiving talent was named as the biggest weakness on the current roster.
If we weren’t taking notice that the Patriots receiving corps struggled to create separation prior to Tom Brady’s passionate sideline plea for faster, more aggressive play, the broadcast camera capturing that moment put the problem in the national spotlight. The only wide receiver or tight end on the Patriots’ roster with a receiving grade of 70.0 or higher in 2019 was Julian Edelman (72.4), and even he was among the league leaders in drops (10). The Patriots will be hoping a healthy Mohamed Sanu and N’Keal Harry take big jumps in 2020.
As pointed out by PFF, Mohamed Sanu and N’Keal Harry will be needed to contribute on a higher level in 2020. The former looked good initially after being acquired via trade mid-season, but was not the same player after hurting his ankle on a punt return. The latter, meanwhile, missed the first half of the season following an injury suffered in preseason — he eventually returned to the field to fill the number three receiver role, but struggled to provide consistent play and a difference-maker on the perimeter.
Add all this up, and you can see why PFF opted to name other teams’ rosters above the Patriots’ right now. That said, the team does have some obvious potential to improve its 18th place ranking — whether it is Stidham playing above-average football, Harry and Sanu taking a second-year jump, or the defense remaining its stingy self for a second year in a row.