Hart: 10 Patriots facing the most pressure in 2020


Pressure creates diamonds.

It’s also been known to crush men.

While the NFL is a production-based world in which players (and coaches) are continuously being evaluated, the hot spotlight of pressure and expectation is not necessarily shared equally.

Some guys will get by, chugging along in mediocrity. Others will be overlooked to the point that there is really only room for impressive overachievement.

Still others, though, must produce. Must shine. Must prove their worth and answer the carnivorous critics who are salivating for fresh meat to gnaw on.

Otherwise there will be a blizzard of biting analysis and potentially reputation-altering disappointment in what could be the most interesting Patriots season in more than two decades.

Every new season in the NFL brings opportunity, a fork in the road in which legacies can be made or tarnished.

This season in New England will see plenty of Patriots get their time to truly shine, the TB12 shadow a now-distant memory.

Failure is a distinct possiblity.

Here’s a look at the Patriots players and coaches facing the greatest pressure in 2020.

1 – Bill Belichick – Depending on your viewpoint, Belichick either allowed Tom Brady to leave New England or pushed him out the door. Either way, the Hall of Fame coach remains in Foxborough trying to bridge the NFL’s modern dynasty into its next era. With no obvious successor to Brady and an aging core of talent, Belichick’s genius will be tested in 2020. Any other coach might be allowed a down year, but Belichick will be under the pressure of the expectation that the Patriots will still compete for a playoff spot. And the comparison's between what's going on in Tampa Bay and New England will be constant.

2 – Jarrett Stidham – While many are trying to spread the tall tale that Brian Hoyer could and should be the Patriots starter to open the season, that reality is that most see the second-year former fourth-round pick Stidham as the heir to Brady’s job. No one could fill Brady’s massive cleats, but Stidham has been put in the spot to attempt to keep the dynasty chugging along. He’s also been straddled with the significant hype this offseason as a guy with “first-round talent” and franchise QB ability. Good luck, Jarrett. You’re going to need it.

3 – Josh McDaniels – McDaniels has built an impressive career as an offensive mind, most of it with Brady as his quarterback. Now he’ll have to prove he can help develop a young passer like Stidham or piece together an offense with less than GOAT play at the quarterback position. There are plenty of personnel questions about the New England offense, but somehow McDaniels needs to coordinate a productive unit.

4 – Stephon Gilmore – As the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year following a career season, Gilmore almost has no place to go but down. He’s the best player on the New England defense that will be expected to carry even more of the load in 2020, even against much improved competition. Oh, and the season kicks off with a rematch with DeVante Parker, the Dolphins wide receiver who took it to Gilmore in his only really bad day a year ago in the season finale.

5 – Julian Edelman – Now well past the usual expiration date for slot receivers, the 34-year-old Edelman is really the only proven playmaker on the Patriots offense. Coming off a 100-catch season and career-high in receiving yards despite battling injuries last fall, Edelman will be counted on to stay healthy and produce at a high level regardless of who’s throwing the football.

6 – N’Keal Harry – The first-round pick’s rookie season was an obvious disappointment from start to finish. A stint on IR to open the year and not enough consistent production saw Harry fail to live up to almost any expectations. Can he stay healthy? Can he get open? Can he catch the ball consistently? NFL history is littered with first-round wide receiver busts. Harry’s every move will be analyzed with an eye on that harsh reality.

7 – Dont’a Hightower – The veteran linebacker is the best returning player on the front seven. But his job will get a lot tougher without Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins around him. Hightower isn’t getting any younger and he’ll be asked to not only play at a high level but also help mentor youngsters Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.

8 – Sony Michel – There was no Year 2 Jump for the former first-round pick, rather a regression last fall. Michel had a nice postseason run as a rookie but has yet to prove he can be anything close to a focal point of the offense over the long haul. His job will only get harder with Brady gone and more attention from opposing defenses. If Michel can’t prove he’s capable of making plays and getting more than is blocked on occasion then he’s nothing more than an average back and a disappointing draft pick.

9 – Joe Thuney – As a mid-round pick who never misses time, Thuney is an overachiever and great story at left guard. Now, though, he’ll be expected to be an elite offensive lineman thanks to his $14-plus million contract on the franchise tag. Good won’t be good enough for Thuney in 2020.

10 – Devin McCourty – McCourty is coming off one of his better seasons and inked a two-year, $23 million contract this offseason at the age of 32. The veteran will also be part of the leadership group tasked with trying to maintain the culture and winning environment in the Gillette locker room, even through what could be a more challenging season than most coaches, players and fans are used to. McCourty needs to continue to play well and lead even better.

Bonus 1 – Matthew Slater – Slater is a Pro Bowl special teamer. If healthy, that shouldn’t change. But he’s also one of the few Patriots players who serves as a team spokesman and leader. He answers all the tough questions and deals with the media when many of his teammates can’t/won’t/don’t want to. Slater’s leadership and spokesman duties could be key over the course of the ebbs and flows of the 2020 season.

Bonus 2 – Offensive line coach – Brady isn’t the only legend to have departed the Patriots this offseason. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired, leaving a massive hole on Belichick’s staff. Whether it’s Cole Popovich or Carmen Bricillo who leads the line, he won’t be able to live up to his predecessor’s accomplishments or reputation. If the line, which struggled a year ago, isn’t good the coaching will immediately be questioned. Scarnecchia earned the benefit of the doubt that his successors will not get.