Though there is certainly room for subjective interpretation, there is also certainly some truth to the cliché – both in life and sports – declaring that if you aren’t getting better then you are getting worse.
In the bottom-line world of NFL football, progress is key both on an individual and team level each and every season.
Bill Belichick’s entire philosophy in New England has been built over two decades around the idea that every member of the organization must reestablish their individual value each year as the team resets for the long, cumulative competition of an NFL season.
While Tom Brady’s stunning offseason departure has nearly everyone presuming that 2020 will be a season of regression if not depression in New England – and not to minimize TB12’s overall contributions and importance to the Patriots – he is merely one man in the massive machine in New England.
Certainly the quarterback position is in question and could take a significant step back this fall, regardless of whether unproven youngster Jarrett Stidham, journeyman Brian Hoyer or some other passer is taking the snaps.
But, there are also plenty of players and positions on Belichick’s roster that could and in reality should be better in 2020.
Here is an optimistic look at that group of Patriots whose contributions and play should be penciled in to improve in the new season of this new era in New England.
1 – N’Keal Harry – The rookie first-round pick certainly showed flashes of playmaking ability over the second half of the fall after missing the first half of the season on injured reserve. With a full year in the system under his belt, healthy, training hard and settling into a new-look, post-Brady offense there is every reason to believe Harry will be a bigger contributor in 2020. Will it be enough to quiet his critics (hand raised!), live up to his draft status and measure up in comparison to other second-year receivers across the league? Time will tell what the famous Belichick Year 2 Jump brings for Harry.
2 – Mohamed Sanu – One game, that was basically the sum of Sanu’s contributions after arriving via trade last fall from the Falcons in exchange for a second-round pick. After being force-fed the ball 14 times leading to 10 catches for a mere 81 yards against the Ravens, an ankle injury and ugly drops were the story of the rest of Sanu’s first half-season in Foxborough. He had surgery this offseason and assuming he can get back to health he has to be considered for an increased complementary role in the offense similar to what he filled for years in Cincinnati and Atlanta, albeit next to far superior All-Pro receiver talent.
3 – Damien Harris – There is really only room for improvement for Harris, the third-round running back out of Alabama who was a healthy scratch for 14 games as a rookie and carried the ball just four times for 12 yards. A two-time 1,000-yard rusher for the Tide, Harris never got his shot to prove himself a year ago for a team that didn’t run the ball too well. He looks the part. He has the resume. Time to see what he can do for a team that may be theoretically looking to run the ball more often and more successfully in 2020.
4 – Shaq Mason – People forget that a year ago at this time everyone believed Mason, not Joe Thuney, was the Patriots’ best guard and overall offensive lineman. Last fall he battled a knee injury and didn’t play nearly up to his potential or paycheck. Assuming he returns to health, there is every reason to believe the hardworking, affable Mason will rebound and regain his Pro Bowl-caliber form.
5 – Ja’Whaun Bentley – Though he played in all 16 games in his second season last fall, Bentley didn’t have the type of impact on the front seven that many (hand raised!) thought he would. New England had a strong, veteran base of linebackers that pushed Bentley into the background. Now, though, with Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and, most importantly, Elandon Roberts having moved on in free agency, Bentley could be in line for increased reps in the middle of the front. He very much looks the part, now he may get a chance to play it.
6 – Jakobi Meyers – The undrafted rookie receiver had his ups and downs on his way to 26 catches for 359 yards as a rookie, often talking openly about the pressure of trying to please Brady. Heading into 2020 Meyers doesn’t have to worry about a perfectionist GOAT QB and has the experience under his belt as he looks to build on his 2019 preseason rapport with Stidham. Meyers may never be a flashy contributor, but he has the skills to be a bigger complementary option moving forward.
7 – Isaiah Wynn – Two years into his career, the former first-round pick Wynn will hope to settle into the left tackle spot that he capably filled over the second half of his sophomore season. Wynn needs to stay healthy first, then prove he can consistently hold his own as an athletic, undersized left tackle. He’ll also do so without the coaching of legendary offensive line coach and Wynn advocate Dante Scarnecchia. Even if Wynn can simply play in anything close to 16 games it would be a step in the right direction for him and the group up front.
8 – J.C. Jackson – The third-year former undrafted rookie cornerback is very well thought of inside the Gillette Stadium football offices. He’s proven himself very capable and competitive, including starts in six of 16 games played last fall when he picked off five passes. With Stephon Gilmore as the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year it could see more teams throw to the other side of the field in the direction of Jackson, Jonathan Jones or Jason McCourty. That could be opportunity for the playmaking Jackson to take another step in his impressive development.
9 – Jake Bailey – Sure, he’s just a punter. Sure, he was good as a rookie for the most part, including holding and kickoff duties. But Bailey should continue to evolve in his situational punting and if the offense struggles, he may have more chances to show off his big leg and increase his average with more room to work. Bailey has Pro Bowl potential.
Bonus 1 – Tight end – While it’s not clear exactly who will make big enough strides to show improvement at the tight end position in 2020, the reality is that New England couldn’t really get any less out of the spot than it did a year ago. Last fall Patriots tight ends didn’t really contribute in the passing game. They didn’t really hold their own as blockers. It was a massive post-Rob Gronkowski hole in the offense. Whether it’s a healthy growth from Matt LaCosse or impact from mid-round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, the tight ends should be at least marginally better in 2020.
Bonus 2 – Steve Belichick/Jerod Mayo – Bill Belichick is and always has been the overseer of the New England defense. That won’t change. But last fall saw Mayo come out of retirement to coach the linebackers and have a big voice on the defense. It also saw Steve Belichick ascend to primary playcaller and would-be defensive coordinator. The experience they both earned, leading one of the best defenses in the game, can only help them as they continue to work with a retooled, aging unit again this fall. It might also free Bill Belichick up to spend more time with the Patriots offense, one that will be going through a major transition without Brady.