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Six positives to take away from the Patriots’ 2020 season

Related: No matter what the future holds, Cam Newton ended 2020 in record-breaking fashion

NFL: JAN 03 Jets at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If the New England Patriots’ 2020 season had to be summed up in one word, that word would be “disappointment.” Behind a struggling offense and inconsistent defense, the team managed to finish below .500 for the first time in two decades and will now have to watch the playoffs from home — all while entering the offseason with plenty of questions across the board.

Despite how 2020 went for the organization and the final 7-9 record, not all was bad for the Patriots along the way. In fact, there are still plenty of positives to point to. So, let’s do just that and take a look at six such positives to take away from New England’s season.

1.) Rookie contributions

The Patriots lost some considerable talent over the course of the offseason, either because of free agency or the Coronavirus opt-out clause. Those departures hurt the team overall, especially on defense, but they also opened the door for the rookie class to see increased action and lay a foundation for what could be a sizable role in future seasons.

On offense, Michael Onwenu stands out not just due to his size (he is listed at 6-foot-3, 350 pounds). The sixth-round draft pick started the year in a rotational role but ended up starting 12 total contests at three different positions. His most prominent action came at right tackle, where he played 616 of his 926 offensive snaps. Along the way, he proved himself a starting-caliber NFL player and potential cornerstone of New England’s offensive line for years to come.

On the other side of the ball, meanwhile, second-round selection Kyle Dugger was the most prominent player. Despite coming from a Division-II school and not having the benefit of a traditional offseason or preseason, Dugger carved out a significant role as a do-it-all safety in the Patriots’ backfield. He ended the season with 518 snaps and regularly displayed his elite athleticism and impressive instincts. Like Onwenu, he is a foundational-type player.

While Onwenu and Dugger stood out the most, they are not the only rookies worth mentioning. Linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings were given plenty of opportunities, for example, with the former in particular standing out as a situational pass rusher. Justin Herron also looked serviceable when on the field, and could turn into a swing backup offensive tackle in 2021. Undrafted rookie defensive back Myles Bryant, meanwhile, projects to also develop into a valuable player.

Not all of the Patriots’ rookies had the same impact as all those players — tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene and place kicker Justin Rohrwasser are the best example — but all in all the team can feel good about what its first-year players added to the equation in 2020.

2.) The kicking game operation

Gunner Olszewski may not become the next Wes Welker, Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman on offense, but he certainly proved himself capable of playing some quality football as part of New England’s special teams units. In fact, the second-year man finished the 2020 season as the league’s top punt returner: he ranked just 15th in punt returns (20), but led the league in both return yards (346) and yards per runback (17.3) while also scoring a 70-yard touchdown in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Olszewski’s return average in particular stands out. The difference between him and second-ranked Hunter Renfrow (11.5) is bigger than that between Renfrow and 16th ranked Pharaoh Cooper (5.9). No punt returner in the NFL was as good as the former Bemidji State cornerback this year.

The former rookie free agent was not the only special teams player worth mentioning, though.

Nick Folk, for example, proved himself a reliable presence at place kicker. While returning to the team relatively late and originally getting released on roster cutdown day, he returned to the active team in Week 1 and never looked back: Folk made 26 of 28 field goal attempts — including two last-second game winners from 50-plus yards out — and also was successful on 30 of 33 extra point tries. Heading into unrestricted free agency in March, Folk made a strong case for himself while kicking in challenging outdoor conditions.

The coverage team led by Pro Bowler Matthew Slater and fellow veteran Justin Bethel was also outstanding. On punts in particular, the group stood out: New England surrendered only 71 punt return yards all year. That is just 1.3 yards per punt, a minuscule amount of yardage on the grand scale of things.

Slater, Bethel and company played their part in this, but so also did one of the Patriots’ most consistent players all season regardless of position: Jake Bailey.

A first-time Pro Bowl selection, Bailey was terrific as New England’s punter and kickoff specialist. While the double-role hurt his consistency a bit during his 2019 rookie campaign, no such thing happened in 2020 — the former fifth-round draft pick was tremendous in both areas, with his punting contributions repeatedly helping flip field position in the Patriots’ favor.

All in all, Bailey punted the football 55 times for a gross average of 48.7 yards per kick and an NFL-best net of 45.6. He also had no blocks and just five touchbacks along the way. He was impressive.

3.) Second-year contributions

Bailey and Olszewski were not the only second-year Patriots to have a big impact on the team in 2020. Other members of the team’s 2019 draft or rookie free agent class also put forward impressive performances worthy of recognition; performances that can be seen as a potential outlook into their future roles with the club.

Two players stand out on the offensive side of the ball: running back Damien Harris and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. Both started the season on the sidelines — Harris because of a finger injury, Meyers due to his spot on the depth chart — but at the end finished as the Patriots’ leading rusher and receiver. Harris gained 691 yards on 137 carries and also found the end zone twice; Meyers caught 59 passes for 729 yards and also threw a pair of touchdowns.

On an offense lacking game-changing talent, the two stood out as positive exceptions.

Defensively, linebacker Chase Winovich and defensive tackle Byron Cowart deserve to be mentioned.

While Cowart was a bit up-and-down at times and would have benefitted from the Patriots having a true big-bodied nose to help him play a more natural role, he still showed that he can have a future in the NFL as a rotational interior lineman. Winovich, meanwhile, proved himself the Patriots’ most disruptive defender and a player who too is entering “cornerstone” territory for the offense. Winovich still has room to grow and become more a more well-rounded outside linebacker, but his performance in 2020 was encouraging.

4.) Cam Newton

Wait, what?

Yes, including starting quarterback Cam Newton on this list might be controversial given his inconsistent play and the numbers he posted. However, he deserves to be mentioned nevertheless.

The basis of this is not his on-field play — even though he found himself in a challenging situation to begin with — but rather how well he adapted to the “Patriot Way” in his first year with the club.

There were quite a few questions asked when Newton arrived about how well he would fit in with the team led by head coach Bill Belichick (especially by Boston’s notorious sports talk radio). The shoes to fill were massive after Tom Brady, but the long-time Carolina Panthers quarterback did not mind: he tackled the challenge head-on, bought into the system, and was even voted a team captain by his peers despite only being in the locker room for less than two months at that time.

Newton was a respected member of the 2020 Patriots and quickly became one of their leaders. And even as things started to fall apart and it became clear that they would not play a major if any role in the playoff picture, his demeanor and leadership remained on the highest of levels.

Whatever his future holds, that alone should have made Newton a few fans in New England. He was a true professional all year.

5.) The offensive line performance

As mentioned above, New England’s offense struggled for most of the year. One exception, however, was the performance of the team’s offensive line even after losing long-time coach Dante Scarnecchia to retirement. Even with Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo at the helm, however, the unit thrived.

Replacing Marcus Cannon after his opt-out? Of course.

Integrating Michael Onwenu into the mix? No problem.

Moving numerous pieces around because of injuries? Sure.

Turning from the pass-heavy days of the Tom Brady era to a run-first team? Gotcha.

While the top-five of Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu started just five games together all year (all between Week 7 and Week 11), the line as a whole had a strong season both on the ground and in pass protection. The Patriots offense did not see a lot of consistent performances elsewhere, but Popovich’s and Bricillo’s unit played some tremendous football throughout the year regardless of who took the field.

6.) No lasting Covid-19 effects

Just one day before the Patriots were scheduled to fly to Kansas City for their highly-anticipated Week 4 matchup against the reigning world champions, Cam Newton became the first member of the organization to test positive for the Coronavirus and be placed on the league’s newly created Reserve/Covid-19 list.

What followed were some chaotic hours and days: the game was rescheduled for one day later; the Patriots flew west on game day without their starting quarterback and in two planes to separate potential high-risk contacts from others; they came back home and Stephon Gilmore suddenly tested positive; their next game against the Denver Broncos had to be moved back one week; six more players were sent to the Coronavirus reserve list.

New England’s outbreak eventually was controlled and the team had only three more players sent to Reserve/Covid-19 all year, but the situation was still a scary one in what has been an unusual season to begin with. Nobody knew what would or could happen, while the players themselves expressed some major criticism aimed at the league and the NFL Players Association.

“The people that don’t have to walk in our building, whether it’s the league office or whether it’s the NFLPA, they don’t care,” said team captain Jason McCourty in October. “I mean, we’re trying to get games played and we’re trying to get the season going. So, for them, it’s not about what’s in our best interest, our health and safety. It’s about, ‘What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good, looks good? How can we go out there and play games?’

“I think what I kind of learned personally throughout this situation is that it’s going to be up to us as the individuals in this building to just really take care of one another.”

At the end of the day, however, the Patriots were able to play a full season and most importantly not suffer any major Covid-19 cases or lasting physical effects. Everything could have gone very wrong. Luckily, it did not.