In theory the opening of NFL training camps is little more than a week away.
While there remains plenty of skepticism that camps will open as scheduled on July 28 given all the questions surrounding the return-to-work protocols for the players in this coronavirus landscape, the hope is that sooner or later teams will indeed begin the process of preparing for the 2020 season.
Certainly, training camps are going to look and feel different this summer. There will be no fans. Media will be limited. Social distancing and face masks will be a reality wherever possible.
But, if and when NFL players report, the goal will be the same – to begin the process of building a team worthy of competing for a Super Bowl. That’s the obvious objective, one that may not be realistic in many cities, but it’s still the goal.
With that in mind, what exactly will Bill Belichick and the Patriots need to accomplish in this strange summer of 2020 in order for New England to once again compete for the AFC East title and, with a couple breaks, maybe even a spot in the Super Bowl? Glad you asked…
1 – Stay healthy – Sure, part of this is the usual summer hope to avoid torn ACLs and other potential season-ending injuries to key players. That’s always a concern in football. But this time around staying healthy also must acknowledge the coronavirus. Right now players are concerned enough about it to wonder if they can realistically even play or practice football, especially in areas of the country that are in the midst of a spike in cases. That’s not a problem in Massachusetts, at least not right now. But there will still be a focus on ensuring that as few members of the organization – remember some 150-plus people will be converging for training camp when you included players, coaches, trainers, ball boys and staff – as possible test positive for Covid-19. All those people coming from various parts of the country to work in a non-bubble environment could be a challenge. Even just a few players testing positive, which based on statistics and what’s happened with other sports/colleges is likely, will create challenges. Getting from the opening of training camp to the regular season as healthy as possible will be the first priority for the Patriots and all NFL teams this summer. If they can’t do that, there may not be a regular season to even worry about.
2 – Settle on a starting quarterback – While the coronavirus has become the biggest story on the planet, it doesn’t completely overshadow the fact that for the first time in two decades the Patriots don’t have Tom Brady to pencil in under center and must find a quarterback. With Cam Newton’s arrival, most feel it’s his job to lose. He is after all an experienced veteran with an NFL MVP on his resume. Others, though, still seem to think that second-year former fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham has a chance at the job. Maybe veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer will even have a say. Regardless of who it is, and how the competition plays out, New England must find a true starting quarterback by September. Teams that enter the regular season with uncertainty at the quarterback position rarely succeed.
3 – Get comfortable as a coaching staff – It doesn’t get the same attention as the unknown at the quarterback position, nor should it, but the Patriots have decent amount of changes to deal with on the coaching staff. New England has not yet officially announced its list of assistants, but will have a new guy in charge working with the wide receivers, quarterbacks, offensive line, defensive line, special teams and potentially some role alterations elsewhere on the defensive staff. Though the continuity and stability that Belichick provides -- as well as that of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels – is a huge positive for the Patriots, all the turnover on the coach staff is an issue that must be worked through. Like players, coaches need to learn how to work with each other, especially in the heat of game action. That process begins during the heat of the summer. Even Belichick faces some uncertainty. A year after focusing primarily on defense and his young, inexperienced staff on that side of the ball, the veteran head coach will have to figure out exactly how to divvy up his time to best serve the team in 2020. It’s hard to quantify exactly how all the changes on the coaching staff will affect New England this fall, but it’s an issue that must be worked through behind the scenes in training camp for a group that hasn’t spent the usual amount of time working together this offseason due to the coronavirus.
4 – Figure out which puppies will bite – Bill Parcells used to say that if players don’t bite as puppies they probably won’t bite at all. While it’s always dangerous to count on unproven players too much, New England certainly might be doing that with some guys in 2020. Safety Kyle Dugger, LB Josh Uche, LB Anfernee Jennings, TE Devin Asiasi, TE Dalton Keene, kicker Justin Rohrwasser, RB Damien Harris, QB Jarrett Stidham, OL Hjalte Froholdt, swing tackle Yodny Cajuste and others could all be asked to fill at least complementary roles for New England with no prior experience. It’s unlikely that all will be ready for such roles. Mix in young guys with limited experience such as N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Chase Winovich and a couple others and there are plenty of young guns with a lot to prove this summer. The Patriots have a very much aging roster in a lot of areas. They need to find some young guys to contribute and inject youthful potential into the rotation. But they must also weed out the guys who aren’t ready to do the job. Figuring out which young guys are prepared to play will be even more difficult with limited practices, no joint practices and the limited or no preseason action. But it must be done.
5 – Weaponize the offense – The quarterback position will get all the attention in the early stages of post-Brady era. But there are serious questions and competition throughout the skill position group on offense. Certainly Julian Edelman is the top dog at receiver, assuming the 34-year-old doesn’t fall off the cliff that used to be reserved for Brady. James White will be the secondary target for whoever is throwing the football. Beyond that, all the roles and reps at wide receiver, tight end and running back are very much up for grabs. Maybe it’s Harris’ turn to shine in the backfield? Can Asiasi have a significant role at tight end after just one productive college season? Will Harry make the Year 2 Jump as an outside receiver that he and so many fans are clamoring for? Will veteran target Mohamed Sanu be a positive camp surprise coming off ankle surgery or a surprise camp cut? Surely the success of the Patriots offense in 2020 will be directly tied to whatever production the team gets out of the quarterback position. But, it will also be very much related to whether lots of guys facing lots of questions at the other skill positions can step up to the challenge and contribute with some regularity. Getting an idea of who is ready to shine in that spotlight will be key in training camp and early on in the regular season.