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Which Patriots players improved the most during the 2020 season?

Related: Identifying six Patriots breakout candidates for the 2021 season

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New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

The 2020 season was not kind to the New England Patriots, given that the team finished below .500 and in turn missed the postseason for the first time since 2008. Disappointment aside, not all was negative for the organization — from the special teams unit being arguably the best in the league throughout the year, to some young players putting forward encouraging performances in increased roles.

Among them was wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. The former undrafted free agent finished his second year in the league as the Patriots’ leading pass catcher, notching 59 receptions for 729 yards. Despite having started the season in a limited role, injuries suffered ahead of him on the depth chart paved the way for Meyers to see increased snaps and he never looked back.

Accordingly, the 24-year-old is not just a building block for New England’s next receiving corps but also a realistic candidate to earn the title Most Improved Patriot for the 2020 season. One outlet — advanced analytics site Pro Football Focus — recently named him as such, and his case certainly is a strong one:

New England Patriots: WR Jakobi Meyers

As an undrafted rookie free agent out of North Carolina State, Meyers was given a brief opportunity on a depleted Patriots’ receiving corps in 2019. He played relatively well in that limited role, but Meyers showed definite signs of improvement in his second season with the team, serving as a bright spot on an offense that had few of those to speak of.

Meyers improved his PFF grade from 64.7 to 78.6 and led all Patriots in both receptions (59) and receiving yards (729) on an offense that leaned heavily on the running game with Cam Newton at quarterback. He has a definite role on the offense heading into 2021.

Meyers may not be the most impressive athlete, but he has proven himself a reliable pass catcher in a New England offense lacking just that in 2020. His chemistry with quarterback Cam Newton was obvious all year long, as was the coaching staff’s trust in him: Meyers did not just establish himself as a starting wideout over the second half of the season, he also was called upon to throw the football two times. The results? Two touchdown passes for the former college quarterback.

Meyers’ second-year jump was impressive, but he is not the only member of the team to be mentioned when it comes to improvement in 2020: he is one of multiple players who stepped up during a challenging season and could therefore be players to watch as the team is heading into what will hopefully be a rebound year.

Six candidates in particular stand out to challenge Meyers for the title of Most Improved Patriot. Let’s take a look at them

RB Damien Harris

2019 season: 0.4% offensive snaps; 4 carries, 12 rushing yards

2020 season: 24.8% offensive snaps; 137 carries, 691 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns; 5 catches, 52 receiving yards

Despite coming off a de facto redshirt season and starting the year on injured reserve, Damien Harris was outstanding in 2020. He led the Patriots in rushing attempts and yards gained on the ground, and repeatedly showed that he can be a viable early-down runner who also has some upside as a receiver out of the backfield. While his role for the upcoming season has yet to be determined — New England faces some turnover with James White and Rex Burkhead both headed for free agency — anything but Harris again seeing considerable action would be a major surprise.

FB Jakob Johnson

2019 season: 6.2% offensive snaps; 1 catch, 5 receiving yards

2020 season: 36.9% offensive snaps; 8 catches, 35 receiving yards, 1 touchdown

There may not be a player in the NFL that made as big a jump since arriving than Jakob Johnson. A former undrafted free agent who only re-entered the league via its International Pathway Program, the German-born fullback impressed during his first training camp and preseason in 2019 and subsequently made his way onto the practice squad and even the active roster (although he ended the year on injured reserve). In 2020, Johnson’s rise continued: he earned the fullback role in the aftermath of James Develin’s retirement and Danny Vitale’s opt-out and was an integral part in New England’s rushing attack all season.

LB Chase Winovich

2019 season: 28.9% defensive snaps; 26 tackles; 5.5 sacks, 24.5 total QB pressures

2020 season: 58.4% defensive snaps; 48 tackles; 5.5 sacks, 56.5 total QB pressures

Chase Winovich already flashed his talents during his 2019 rookie season, but the former third-round draft selection still made a sizable jump in Year Two. With fellow outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy having left in free agency, Winovich took over the starting role opposite John Simon. While his playing time fluctuated a bit based on the defensive strategy used by the Patriots, the 25-year-old still left his mark whenever he was on the field. All in all, he finished as New England’s most disruptive defender and proved himself a potential foundational-type linebacker on a front seven in transition.

LB Terez Hall

2019 season: N/A

2020 season: 25.4% defensive snaps; 50 tackles; 3.0 total QB pressures

After spending his entire 2019 rookie campaign on the practice squad and not seeing any in-game action, Terez Hall’s second year with the Patriots started in similar fashion. In November, however, he was promoted to the active roster and from that point on showed his growth on a weekly basis. While not the best athlete and better suited to play in a situational role and on early downs, Hall still showed that he can compete at the NFL level — not a bad development for a former undrafted free agent.

P Jake Bailey

2019 season: 51.0% special teams snaps; 81 punts, 3,638 yards, 41.3 net yards/punt; 65 kickoffs, 58.5% touchback rate

2020 season: 48.9% special teams snaps; 55 punts, 2,678 yards, 45.6 net yards/punt; 72 kickoffs, 58.3% touchback rate

Even though he already proved himself a reliable punter and kickoff specialist during his 2019 rookie season, Bailey took an enormous step forward in 2020. He led the league in net yards per punt and was arguably the best player his position had to offer during the season. In turn, Bailey was voted not just to the Pro Bowl but also the first All-Pro team. Needless to say that Patriots have found a weapon in the kicking game capable of flipping field position seemingly without much of an effort.

PR Gunner Olszewski

2019 season: 21.3% special teams snaps; 20 punt returns, 179 yards, 9.0 yards/return

2020 season: 41.6% special teams snaps; 20 punt returns, 346 yards, 17.3 yards/return, 1 touchdown; 18 kickoff returns, 418 yards, 23.2 yards/return

Speaking of flipping field position, no punt returner in football was better in this area than Gunner Olszewski. Even though the second-year man, who sent undrafted out of Bemidji State in 2019 after having spent his college career as a defensive back, had just a limited impact at his listed position of wide receiver, he was a valuable member of the team last year — one that also was named to the first All-Pro team in light of his impressive season.

All in all, the Patriots can be happy with all of those players and their development will also be crucial heading into 2021. If New England wants to bounce back, players such as Meyers, Harris and Winovich will certainly play a big role — and their 2020 season was an encouraging one from this perspective.

Poll

Which Patriot improved the most in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    WR Jakobi Meyers
    (282 votes)
  • 27%
    RB Damien Harris
    (187 votes)
  • 2%
    FB Jakob Johnson
    (19 votes)
  • 3%
    LB Chase Winovich
    (24 votes)
  • 1%
    LB Terez Hall
    (12 votes)
  • 4%
    P Jake Bailey
    (29 votes)
  • 17%
    PR Gunner Olszewski
    (116 votes)
  • 0%
    Other (please name in comments)
    (5 votes)
674 votes total Vote Now