The New England Patriots’ 2020 season was a disappointment. But despite finishing with a 7-9 record and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the team still saw encouraging performances by some of their players.
Four of them were eventually voted to at least one of the two major all-star squads: cornerback Stephon Gilmore (Pro Bowl), wide receiver/special teamer Matthew Slater (Pro Bowl/All-Pro 2nd team), wide receiver/punt returner Gunner Olszewski (All-Pro 1st team) and punter Jake Bailey (Pro Bowl/All-Pro 1st team).
As far as individual honors are concerned that was it. No other players saw any major recognition for their season-long play in 2020; quite the opposite from the previous year when Gilmore was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year following his outstanding 2019 campaign.
Gilmore winning the honor again in 2021 is not an unrealistic outcome given that he is still among the better defensive players in the game. That said, the odds are certainly against him: not only does he face some challenging competition, there are also only eight players who have won the trophy more than once since its inception in 1971. None of them were defensive backs, by the way.
Still, Gilmore is one of the better candidates this year to represent the Patriots at the NFL’s Honors ceremony ahead of the Super Bowl. With that being said, let’s take a look at the most important awards (sorry, “Celebration of the Year” trophy) to find out how the team’s chances of winning it look.
Most Valuable Player
If the past has taught us one thing, it is that this trophy will go to a quarterback unless another offensive player essentially obliterates the record book. Just look at it this way: since the start of the NFL’s salary cap era in 1994, the trophy was taken home by 23 quarterbacks — including ex-Patriot Tom Brady on three separate occasions — and six running backs. No other position was honored, with the last defender, Lawrence Taylor, winning it in 1986.
With that said, does New England stand a chance? It all depends on who will win the starting role, and what his outlook will be. Cam Newton already earned one MVP award in 2015, but he struggled especially as a passer in 2020. While the circumstances are far more favorable this year, his last few seasons suggest that him returning to his MVP-caliber form should not necessarily be the expectation. As for rookie Mac Jones, him winning the starting gig and the MVP trophy would be a major upset.
Coach of the Year
If the Coach of the Year trophy actually went to the best coach in football rather than the one that helps his team to the biggest turnaround, Bill Belichick would have around 20 of the awards so far. In reality, however, he only owns three of them and has inexplicably not won it since 2010.
Entering the new season, however, he appears to be in as good a position to earn it as he has ever been:
Coming off a disappointing 7-9 season in Year 1 after quarterback Tom Brady’s departure, Belichick has rebuilt his team. He invested considerable resources to improve the offensive skill position talent and defensive front seven, and also will be able to work with his team — including starting QB Cam Newton — in a more favorable setting than last year.
While it remains to be seen whether or not the Patriots will indeed take advantage, a successful season would give Belichick a strong argument to be named Coach of the Year. If his club goes 12-5 or 13-4 under the new 17-game format, for example, he should be considered a strong candidate: New England would have successfully bounced back, with Belichick proving that he can still coach a winning football team even after having lost Brady.
It very much seems as if this is the year for Belichick to win his record-tying fourth Coach of the Year trophy.
Assistant Coach of the Year
While the offense was rebuilt over the course of the offseason, the Patriots’ defense and special teams units will still do a lot of the heavy lifting this year. That said, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels still appears to be the best candidate on the team’s staff to win the Assistant Coach of the Year award in 2021 based on name recognition alone.
There is also this: New England has still not yet named a defensive coordinator, making it unlikely that one of the group’s leading coaches will take home the trophy regardless of success. Cam Achord’s kicking game crew, meanwhile, was already the best in the business last year and did still not earn him the honor. As for the offense, nobody knows what to expect of it. This, in turn, could bode well for McDaniels’ chances to win if the unit bounces back strong after a disappointing 2020 season.
Offensive Player of the Year
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry won the Offensive Player of the Year trophy in February after coming within eight yards of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record. That is what it takes for a non-quarterback or running back to win the award.
Unless Cam Newton returns to his 2015 form he should not be expected to be in the race for either MVP or OPoY. The same has to be said for Mac Jones. It also holds true for the rest of the Patriots’ offense because it simply does not operate by focusing as much on one skill option. Players such as Damien Harris, Jonnu Smith or various offensive linemen should play big roles this season and possibly themselves into the Pro Bowl conversation, but one of them being named the NFL’s best offensive player in 2021 still seems unrealistic.
Newton and Harris have the best odds, but even theirs are not necessarily great.
Defensive Player of the Year
The Patriots field a former Defensive Player of the Year, and Stephon Gilmore is a candidate to win the trophy again in 2021 despite his challenging season last year. But are there any other candidates on the team’s roster who could be worthy of recognition?
If so, they will likely play in the Patriots’ secondary. Devin McCourty, for example, is one of the best safeties in the game and a key piece of the unit despite being perpetually under-appreciated by the league’s Pro Bowl/All-Pro/award voters. J.C. Jackson might be a dark-horse candidate as well after he has proven himself an outstanding ball-hawk in the defensive backfield. If he leads the league in interceptions — something he came close to doing in both 2019 and 2020 — he might have a shot over other higher-profile players.
As for the front seven, the pass rush is likely the key. Could players such as Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Josh Uche or Chase Winovich generate enough QB takedowns to play themselves into the conversation? Possible, but not overly likely. Under Bill Belichick, after all, no Patriots defender has registered more than 12.5 sacks in a single season (Mike Vrabel, 2007; Chandler Jones, 2015). This will not win the trophy.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
As opposed to the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year categories, the one honoring rookies on this side of the ball is not as drastically biased towards quarterbacks. That being said, the Patriots’ most realistic candidate is still a passer — if he wins the starting position in the first place.
The oddsmakers seem to like Mac Jones, but it all depends on whether or not he can beat out Cam Newton in training camp. If he can, he should have a realistic shot while playing in an offense that looks better suited to support him than that of other rookie passers. If not, he will likely have no real chance at the trophy.
Out side of Jones, fourth-round running back Rhamondre Stevenson might have a shot. If the Patriots use him as an early-down or goal-line back, he might post good enough numbers to play himself into the conversation. Beating out one of the quarterbacks such as Trevor Lawrence or Zach Wilson or the talented wideouts drafted will still be tough, though.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
New England invested heavily in the defensive side of the ball in this year’s draft, and even traded up in the second ground to grab the consensus top defensive tackle available. But even though Christian Barmore as well as third-round outside linebacker Ronnie Perkins project to play prominent roles on the Patriots’ defense, neither should be seen among the favorites to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
After all, 16 other defenders were drafted ahead of Barmore alone and all of them play more prominent positions than the interior defensive line.
Comeback Player of the Year
Led by the aforementioned Stephon Gilmore as well as linebacker Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots have a long list of players returning from either an injury-related reserve list or the Covid-19 opt-out. Both are therefore candidates to win the Comeback Player of the Year award, even though they would likely need to play at an All-Pro level to challenge the frontrunner: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury in Week 5 and had to miss the remainder of the Cowboys’ 2020 season. Given how much publicity the injury gathered, plus the position that he plays, and he should be seen as the favorite to win the award.