2020 was a weird year, just ask the New England Patriots. It started with a wild card playoff exit, saw the free agency departure of Tom Brady, and ended with the team heading towards its first losing record since the dawn of the millennium — all while missing the postseason. Along the way, the Patriots also experienced a Coronavirus outbreak and had to deal with inconsistent play on both sides of the ball.
Add it all up, and you get a 7-9 season that was defined more through its oddities than impressive moments. In fact, those oddities perfectly tell the story of the 2020 Patriots. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at five of them.
Devin McCourty, touchdown machine
New England’s offense struggled to put points on the board all season, and one fact illustrates this more than any other: Devin McCourty finished the season tied for fourth place in total touchdowns.
That is right, the defensive back finished the season with more scores than the team’s leading wide receiver (Jakobi Meyer) and with the same number as the team’s leading rusher (Damien Harris). In total, McCourty found the end zone two times: he registered a pick-six in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks and later also returned a blocked field goal attempt for another score in Week 13 versus the Los Angeles Chargers.
Those two scores allowed the team captain to finish 2020 behind only Cam Newton (13), Rex Burkhead (6) and James White (2) in the scoring standings. While this shows how McCourty is still a difference maker even at age 33, it also does not speak for the Patriots’ offensive firepower.
The 2020 season was a breakout campaign for Jakobi Meyers. The former undrafted free agent started the year behind Damiere Byrd, Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry on the depth chart, but after a series of injuries ahead of him got his chance. He never looked back and ended his sophomore season as the Patriots’ leader in targets (81), receptions (59) and receiving yards (729). Long story short, Meyers was New England’s WR1 by year’s end.
Despite his productivity, however, the 24-year-old has yet to wait for his first career touchdown — at least on the receiving side. After all, he finished the season with more touchdown passes thrown than caught.
Meyers’ first touchdown came in Week 10 against the Baltimore Ravens, when he completed a 24-yarder to Rex Burkhead. In Week 17 versus the New York Jets, Meyers and Cam Newton hooked up for a 19-yard score. Both times the short-time college quarterback perfectly executed the play call, thus finishing the 2020 season with an impressive stat-line of 2-for-2 for 43 yards and a pair of scores.
The first receiving touchdown of his career, meanwhile, still has to wait. Given his status as a de facto lock to be on the Patriots’ 2021 roster as well and likely play a prominent role, however, it would not be a surprise if Meyers finally caught a scoring pass in Year Three.
Defensive back bonanza
Besides the quarterback position no other was hit as hard last offseason as linebacker. Not only did Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts leave New England in free agency, Dont’a Hightower also opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns about the Coronavirus. One year after fielding arguably the best linebacker group in the NFL, the Patriots therefore had to adapt on the fly — a process that did not go smoothly.
In fact, the team had to rely on its secondary for much of the season in order to make ends meet at linebacker. With Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger often serving in the Star role as safety/linebacker hybrids, New England finished as the most defensive back-heavy team in football.
Just look at it from this perspective: the Patriots had seven or more defensive backs on the field for 16.9 percent of their 1,012 snaps in 2020. Those 171 snaps are nine more than the rest of the NFL combined.
A disappointing sophomore season
After his rookie season was marked by injuries, N’Keal Harry also failed to break out during his 2020 sophomore campaign. The former first-round draft pick, who once again missed playing time after sustaining a concussion in Week 7, finished with just 33 catches for 309 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While the numbers are an improvement compared to his first NFL season, they still did not meet the natural expectations coming with his draft status.
One fact that illustrates this is that Julian Edelman actually finished the season with more receiving yards than Harry. While the youngster registered the aforementioned 309 of them, Edelman had 315.
The main difference between the two, however, is the number of games played: Harry was on the field in 14 contests, compared to Edelman’s six. And yet, the veteran contributed more receiving yards to the Patriots’ total offensive output.
One tight end sets
New England invested considerable resources in its tight end position in the 2020 draft, picking both UCLA’s Devin Asiasi and Virginia Tech’s Dalton Keene in the third round. However, the two rookies had a limited impact all year — a non-traditional offseason and lack of preseason games due to Covid-19, as well as stints on injured reserve all contributed to that.
Accordingly, the Patriots turned to third-year man Ryan Izzo to fill the top spot while the rookies saw comparatively limited action. Once Izzo was placed on IR himself, however, the path was open for the youngsters to take over. But while they did share the tight end snaps form that point in December on, they rarely ever shared the field — a continuation of the entire season considering that New England rarely ran two-tight end sets.
All in all, according to NESN’s Doug Kyed, the Patriots had two or more tight ends on the field for just 24 snaps in 2020. That number clearly has the team ranked last in the league, with the Buffalo Bills and their 117 snaps checking in at number 31.