New England Patriots

Grading the Patriots' Breakout Candidates Through 3 Weeks

There have indeed been some developments -- mostly positive -- when it comes to several of New England’s younger, unproven players

Three weeks into the 2020 season, there’ve been very few surprises for the Patriots as a team.

Even if we were living in normal times, and even if Tom Brady were still here, the team would almost certainly have a 2-1 record at this point of the schedule. A boring win over the Dolphins at home, a hard-fought loss to the Seahawks on the road and a bounce-back win against an overrated Raiders team -- you didn’t have to follow Jon Gruden’s bunch back to Las Vegas to win big on that notion.

Individually, the No. 1 revelation has been the return to form of Cam Newton, Sunday’s relative clunker notwithstanding.

Beyond that? The status of players remaining from last year’s roster hasn’t changed a ton, but there have indeed been some developments -- mostly positive -- when it comes to several of New England’s younger, unproven players.

The New England Patriots relied on their ground game Sunday to improve to 2-1 on the season, as they rushed for a season-high 250 yards in their 36-20 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. Raul Martinez, Ted Johnson and Tom E. Curran break down Sunday’s win.

Heading into what feels like a scheduled loss to the Chiefs, here’s where several players we pinpointed as poised to breakout prior to the start of the regular season stand.

Sony Michel

What a difference a half makes.

Through 10 quarters of football in 2020, Michel had been downright average -- at best -- and appeared to be in serious danger of slipping behind undrafted rookie JJ Taylor on the running back depth chart.

Then, on consecutive carries in the third quarter against the Raiders, Michel ripped off runs of 38 and 48 yards, respectively, establishing a new career-high with each burst.

The next thing you knew, Michel finished with 117 yards on the ground against Vegas, the second-most of his career, and had his first game with more than 100 yards rushing at all since the 2018 AFC Championship Game. Only four backs have gained more yards on the ground in a single game in 2020. Michel even caught two passes for 23 yards, a total that represents the third-highest mark of his career.

From Michel’s perspective, the timing couldn’t have been better. In addition to the emergence of Taylor, James White is back with the team following the death of his father while Damien Harris is eligible to come off of injured reserve as soon as this week. Oh yeah, and Rex Burkhead had three touchdowns on Sunday.

“Their performance, it motivates me,” Michel said. “It excites me to see those guys succeed because I see how hard they work in practice. Everything they do in the games, they practice on the practice field fundamentally.” 

Michel has all of the tools to be New England’s best pure running back, which is why he was drafted 31st overall in 2018 in the first place. Game plans fluctuate week to week, so there’s no telling how Michel could figure into this week's in Kansas City, but the view from 10,000 feet on his numbers are pretty great right now: he’s third among eligible rushers -- second among running backs -- in the entire NFL in yards per carry at 6.7.

Derek Rivers

The fourth-year edge player is more of a feel-good story than anything else at this point, but the Patriots will take any contributions they can from the oft-injured Rivers.

He’s registered 1.5 sacks through three games, already surpassing his career high of one sack, in six games played, in 2018. He hasn’t played more than 20 snaps in a single game yet defensively, but again, we’re talking about a player who missed two full seasons and the majority of another since being drafted in 2017.

Interestingly enough, Deatrich Wise Jr., one of two remaining member of New England’s 2017 draft class along with Rivers, has shown signs of breaking out after it appeared his career was already on a downward trajectory.

Though he’s been credited with just half a sack, Wise, who bulked up almost like an interior lineman in the off-season, scored a defensive touchdown against the Raiders, a game in which he also played a season-high 39 snaps.

N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski

Olszewski has spent the first three weeks on injured reserve following a strong training camp, while Meyers has just one catch for seven yards on the season.

New England’s third second-year receiver, Harry – who comes with the highest pedigree, being a former first-round draft pick and all – has been a prominent figure for the team through three weeks.

While his fumble through the end zone in the opener against Miami would probably still top his early season highlight reel, Harry has, indeed, taken several steps forward as a legitimate NFL wide receiver.

His five catches for 39 yards against the Dolphins were a career high, one he shattered a week later against the Seahawks with eight catches for 72 yards.

For the season, the Arizona State product is up to 15 catches for 145 yards, having surpassed his rookie year marks of 12 catches for 105 yards in seven games.

Again, baby steps. He has Cam Newton’s confidence, something he seemingly didn’t have a season ago with Brady. Bill Belichick noted his performance running after the catch on Sunday against Las Vegas, too, something Harry didn’t do much of in the first two weeks of the season.

Plenty of work remains for Harry to justify where he was drafted. If nothing else, at least he’s trending in the right direction.

Chase Winovich

Here we find one of New England’s brightest stars through three weeks, regardless of position or age.

The second-year linebacker out of Michigan has undeniably taken the biggest step forward from anyone drafted by the Patriots in 2019. He’s got 1.5 sacks to go along with a forced fumble against Las Vegas, as well as five QB hits through three games.

“Obviously anytime you can get a turnover, it's a huge opportunity in terms of momentum and helping the team win and it's something that any good defense, in my opinion, constantly emphasizes,” Winovich said Sunday. “We always talk about it from an offensive perspective, you know, certain defenses especially are really taught to go after the opposing team’s, I don’t want to say ball, but try to create turnovers, whether it's a fumble or an interception. Ball disruption, basically.”

In the post-Boogiemen world, Winovich looks primed to become New England’s leader at the second level of the defense -- or along the front line, as he’s been lining up all over the place in the early going. Winovich’s versatility has helped his early-season breakout.

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