Absolutely, positively nothing is going to be normal about the NFL this season.
Of course, regardless of the coronavirus pandemic, nothing was ever going to be normal for the Patriots in 2020 following the departure of Tom Brady.
In addition to Brady and other fixtures in Foxboro (Stephen Gostkowski, Kyle Van Noy, Duron Harmon) having moved on months ago, the latest wrinkle to this subplot was the staggering number of players opting out of the 2020 season due to the ongoing pandemic.
First things first: if you’re harboring any ill will toward said players, don’t.
All of a sudden, however, in addition to Brady, the Patriots will forge ahead without Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon and Brandon Bolden, a quartet of players who have combined for 11 championships of their own. Dan Vitale, Marqise Lee, Matt LaCosse and Najee Toran have also exercised their right not to play in 2020, giving New England a league-high eight players who have opted out.
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This means that more than ever before, the competition for roster spots in Foxboro is wide open. With no preseason games, the degree of difficulty in paring down to 53 players by Sept. 5 has never been higher for Bill Belichick.
Almost half of the names on the current roster will be gone by then, the majority of whom you’ll never hear from or think of again. That said, getting down to 53 players for the regular season won’t come without at least a few surprises or painstaking cuts.
Here’s a look at where everyone in training camp today stands in terms of job security with roughly a month to go before decision day, separated into four categories: “locks,” players who are guaranteed to be on hand for the Dolphins in Week 1; “should be in,” players who may still have to flash a bit in training camp to feel better; “bubble,” players who are roughly 50-50 to be on the roster in the regular season; and “longshots,” players who hopefully rented instead of buying property in the greater Foxboro area.
Bold -- denotes player projected to make 53-man roster
Lock: Jarrett Stidham
Should be in: Cam Newton
Bubble: Brian Hoyer
Longshots: Brian Lewerke
Don’t misconstrue the order you see the quarterbacks listed here as a projected depth chart. Something will have had to go horribly wrong for Cam Newton not to be the Week 1 starter for New England.
That said, Stidham will be on the roster either way, given his age (24 on Aug. 8) and the upside he still theoretically possesses should things not work out with Newton long-term. Keeping Newton as a backup, however, makes little sense for anyone involved.
In the post-Tom Brady world, it’s not hard to imagine the Patriots keeping three quarterbacks for a change. Could Lewerke do what Hoyer himself once did in 2009 and make the team as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State? With no preseason games, it’s unlikely, but perhaps a spot on the practice squad is there for the taking.
Locks: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris
Should be in: None
Longshots: JJ Taylor
Can Harris, after essentially redshirting as a rookie, make a James White or Shane Vereen-esque leap in Year 2 and emerge as a major contributor in the passing game?
Can Michel, following back-to-back 900-yard rushing seasons, finally emerge as a pass-catching threat to boot in Year 3?
The questions could be moot with Brady gone and the offense becoming more suited for Cam Newton’s style of play. Christian McCaffrey topped 100 receptions out of the backfield in his second season with Newton in Carolina, however, so the chance for Michel to realize his potential as a dual threat back should be there.
Should be in: None
Bubble: Jakob Johnson
At least the Patriots got used to life without James Develin last season, when he missed all but two games with a neck injury that prompted his retirement. Johnson took 71 snaps as a rookie last year before winding up on injured reserve himself. As part of the NFL’s International Pathway Program, Johnson, 25, has a roster exemption and can remain on New England’s practice squad.
Locks: Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu
Should be in: Jakobi Meyers
Bubble: Gunner Olszewski, Damiere Byrd
Longshots: Quincy Adeboyejo, Jeff Thomas, Will Hastings, Devin Ross
From the seemingly-ageless Julian Edelman – he’s 34 – to the high-profile former first-round pick entering his second season in N’Keal Harry, everyone in this room has something to prove. Mohamed Sanu must prove he’s healthy and worthy of another contract, Jakobi Meyers must prove he’s more than just a feel-good story after making the team as an undrafted free agent last season – and that goes double for Gunner Olszewski, who made the majority of his contributions as a punt returner in 2019.
In a twisted way, the departure of Brady will benefit the younger players, no longer subjected to his ridiculous standard of execution. Playing with a quarterback like Newton, himself fighting for the longevity of his NFL career, makes for not just a marriage of convenience but potentially an ideal match: Newton won’t have the luxury of boxing anyone out.
The thinking here is that the Patriots keep six receivers out of camp, with Olszewski again playing primarily as a returner. Byrd, 27, spent three years in Carolina with Newton before setting career highs in catches (32) and yards (359) last season with Arizona.
Locks: Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene
Should be in: Ryan Izzo
Longshots: Jake Burt, Rashod Berry
The comparisons are lazy, if not dangerous, but it’s hard to completely ignore the similarities of New England nabbing Asiasi (UCLA) and Keene (Virginia Tech) in the same draft class, 10 years after drafting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez simultaneously. Hey, both sets of guys were brought in to help replace Ben Watson.
Even with no NFL experience yet, Asiasi and Keene both represent better fits for the Patriots than Izzo or opt-out Matt LaCosse, both of whom have already hit their relatively low ceilings. There’s virtually no downside to giving both of them free reign in 2020, thus rendering LaCosse obsolete were he to return next season.
The team does need at least some depth, however, so we’ll keep Izzo around for now, if for no other reason than he’s taken a few snaps in a real, live NFL game.
Locks: Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason
Should be in: None
Bubble: Yodny Cajuste, Hjalte Froholdt, Korey Cunningham, Jermaine Eluemunor, Justin Herron, Dustin Woodard, Michael Onwenu
The opt-out of Marcus Cannon is far from ideal – not to mention the retirement of position coach Dante Scarnecchia (again). Between Thuney, Andrews and Mason, though, the Patriots are in much better hands in the interior of the line as opposed to 2014, the last time Scar called it quits. You may recall New England won the Super Bowl that season, too.
Assuming the health of Wynn – never safe, as we’ve learned in his brief NFL career to date – the Patriots are truly set at four spots on the line. That leaves the vacancy of Cannon at right tackle, where it would make sense for New England to try and develop Cajuste, a third-round pick in 2019, rather than move Thuney out of position.
Cunningham, a seventh-round pick of the Cardinals in 2018, was acquired by New England last season for a sixth-round pick despite playing in just six games for Arizona. Might not be a bad idea to try and squeeze something out of that asset, either.
Locks: Lawrence Guy, Beau Allen, John Simon, Adam Butler, Chase Winovich
Should be in: None
Bubble: Byron Cowart, Deatrich Wise Jr., Derek Rivers
Longshots: Nick Coe, Bill Murray, Nick Thurman
A second-year leap from Winovich would be ideal for this group, which once again lacks star power but makes up for it with players who fill their roles to the best of their abilities.
Don’t be stunned if one of the players deemed a longshot here breaks through out of training camp, either. Rivers has now appeared in just six of a possible 48 games since being drafted by New England in 2017, while classmate Wise plateaued in 2018 and regressed in 2019 following a promising rookie campaign.
Locks: Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings
Should be in: Shilique Calhoun, Brandon Copeland
Bubble: De’Jon “Scoota” Harris, Cassh Malula, Terez Hall, Tashawn Bower
Jets quarterback Sam Darnold will only see the ghosts of the boogeymen when he plays the Patriots this year. We already knew Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins would be elsewhere in 2020, but Dont’a Hightower’s decision to opt out ensures New England will have an entirely new group of starting linebackers come Week 1.
Bentley is the most experienced of the group... with four career starts for the Patriots. The good news is that the team spent second and third-round picks on Uche (Michigan) and Jennings (Alabama), respectively, meaning New England was ready to acknowledge it may have been time for a youth movement here.
Now, there’s no choice but to full on embrace it. In any other year, most of those names you see on the bubble wouldn’t stand a chance at cracking the 53-man roster in Foxboro. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the back of the group actually shakes out, but the profile of Harris (Arkansas) stands out in two ways: first, he’s an undrafted free agent, and (at least) one always seems to stick out of training camp; second, he kicked and punted while in high school in Louisiana. Don’t think for a second Bill Belichick isn’t aware of that.
Locks: Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks, Adrian Phillips
Should be in: None
Bubble: Cody Davis, Myles Bryant
The Patriots could be in worse shape here, even following the trade of Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung’s decision to sit the 2020 season out. McCourty remains the heart and soul of the defense, while Brooks and Phillips are more than capable safeties in their own right – not to mention special teams stalwarts.
And so all eyes shift to Dugger, New England’s top draft choice and the highest-drafted player from an NCAA Division II school since 2006. No one is questioning Dugger’s physical attributes, but he’s already 24 years old and unlikely to slide into a starting role right away. With such an unconventional season ahead, however, could it be the perfect storm for such an unconventional draft choice to get in the mix sooner rather than later?
Locks: Stephon Gilmore, JC Jackson, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones
Should be in: Joejuan Williams
Longshots: D’Angelo Ross
Amid the carnage of free agent defections, trades and more recently, opt-outs, New England’s cornerback room escaped completely unscathed. Once again, the team possesses four starting-caliber cornerbacks on its roster, including the reigning 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Gilmore.
As such, Williams still faces an uphill battle when it comes to more playing time, and he did himself no favors this off-season with an arrest in Nashville in January. He was a second-round pick (45th overall) in 2019, but the Patriots have shown a willingness to move on from underwhelming defensive backs regardless of their draft stature in recent years. Duke Dawson (second round, 2018) was traded prior to the start of the 2019 season, and if not for landing on injured reserve, Cyrus Jones (second round, 2016) likely wouldn’t have remained Patriots property in 2017.
Locks: Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, Joe Cardona, Jake Bailey, Justin Rohrwasser
Should be in: Brandon King
No competitions here this year. Slater and Bethel will form the league’s best 1-2 punch of core special teamers and the return of King, assuming he gets off the PUP list soon, will only make this group even stronger.