Under normal circumstances, we would have gotten our first extended look at the 2020 New England Patriots tonight. The team would have hosted the Detroit Lions at Gillette Stadium at 7:30 pm after already having spent the week during joint training camp practices. Of course, 2020 is anything but normal: joint practices were canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and so was the entire preseason slate.
Instead of getting ready for tonight’s game, we are therefore dissecting yesterday’s first full-team practice based on a 30-minute live stream provided by the team. Fun!
But what would we talk about if the preseason was not canceled? This is purely a hypot exercise, of course, but it provides us with an idea of the big questions surrounding the Patriots at this point in time, and with merely one month to go until they kick off the regular season against the Miami Dolphins. So with that being said, let’s dive straight in while always keeping in mind the hypothetical nature of this analysis.
The starting quarterback
The biggest question for the Patriots this year is how to replace Tom Brady. The future Hall of Famer, of course, left the team in free agency after six Super Bowl wins in 19 years as its starting quarterback. While the first preseason game would not have given any definitive answers, it would have been a first in-game glimpse at the competition between second-year man Jarrett Stidham and offseason additions Cam Newton, Brian Hoyer and Brian Lewerke . All eyes would have been on the starter — if all four QBs would have been active for the contest in the first place.
Last year’s list of inactive players reads like a who’s who of the Patriots’ roster at the time. Tom Brady. Julian Edelman. Matthew Slater. Sony Michel. James White. The entire starting offensive line. Lawrence Guy . Dont’a Hightower. Kyle Van Noy. Stephon Gilmore. Jonathan Jones. Jason McCourty. Devin McCourty. Patrick Chung... You get the idea. New England was resting most of its high-end personnel, so the list of those to not see the field could have been telling this year as well not just at quarterback but other positions as well.
The players coming off an injury
The 2019 Patriots suffered considerable injuries throughout the year — from the season-ending variety (David Andrews’ blood clots, Yodny Cajuste’s quad) to the short term ailments (Julian Edelman’s knee and shoulder, Mohamed Sanu’s ankle, Chase Winovich’s hernia). Tonight’s game against Detroit would have given them a first opportunity to show that they are fully recovered and ready to go in a game setting. Now, they all will have to wait for the regular season to do just that.
The first-year players
New England invested considerable resources this offseason to maintain the quality of its roster despite some high-profile departures. Tonight, we would have had a first chance to watch the newly added talent in action and draw some (premature) conclusions. The spotlight would naturally have been on players projected to play prominent roles in 2020: draft choices such as Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche and Justin Rohrwasser, as well as free agency signings like Cam Newton, Beau Allen and Adrian Phillips.
The linebacker and tight end positions
Even if Dont’a Hightower had not decided to opt out of this season over Coronavirus concerns, the linebacker position would have been one to watch. New England, after all, lost Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency — adding players such as Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Brandon Copeland to help replace them. Likewise, we would have kept a close eye at the tight end spot after the team added third-round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene as the new one-two punch.
The camp surprises
It’s the same story ever year: a handful of players who were supposed to be on the roster bubble make big plays in camp and get everyone — fans and media members alike — excited about their potential. Whether they are named Jakobi Meyers (2019), J.C. Jackson (2018) or Adam Butler (2017), they all fell under the same category and solidified their standing on the roster with strong preseason showings. This year, the camp surprises will have to do enough in practice to make the cut.
The second-year jumps
From 2019 rookies such as N’Keal Harry, Chase Winovich and Jarrett Stidham, to free agency signings like Terrence Brooks and Justin Bethel, to trade acquisitions Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Eluemunor and Korey Cunningham, New England has plenty of players on its roster entering their second year in the system. Year Two is typically when a player takes a significant step in his development and it would have been interesting to see some early signs of that during the preseason — be it in terms of role or contribution.
Besides the teaching and player development aspect behind it, the most important thing about preseason is to simply get through it without any major injuries. The Patriots suffered a handful last year with wide receiver N’Keal Harry, special teams ace Brandon King and outside linebacker Derek Rivers as the most prominent. Injuries are a part of the game, unfortunately, and any player going down would have been closely watched both in relation to his role on the roster and his availability in the days and weeks to follow.