Five Patriots storylines to watch in a season unlike any other

TIM JEAN/Staff photoNew Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, shown here during the Carolina Panthers' 2017 win over New England at Gillette Stadium, will be competing with Jarrett Stidham for the right to succeed Tom Brady as the Patriots' starting quarterback this coming month.

At this time last year, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots were gearing up for yet another title defense. Led by 42-year-old starting quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots were considered among the favorites to claim the franchise's seventh Super Bowl title.

In other words, everything was normal, the story largely unchanged from the preceding two decades.

Who could have imagined where we'd find ourselves one year later?

The 2020 season is shaping up to be unlike any other. With the nation still gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, the NFL is implementing radical changes and new public health protocols to help keep players, coaches and staff members safe. Exactly what those changes will look like remains uncertain, as negotiations between the league and the NFL Players Association remain ongoing even with players set to report to camp in the coming days.

If and when those issues are worked out, the Patriots still find themselves in uncharted waters. Tom Brady is gone, and with his departure the franchise officially turns the page and begins a new chapter in its history.

What does the future hold? When it comes to the coronavirus, your guess is as good as mine. But when it comes to the team itself, there is at least some clarity if you know where to look. That being the case, here are five non-coronavirus related storylines to watch as the Patriots open camp.

1. An actual QB competition!

While position battles are a regular feature of any NFL training camp, it's been decades since there has been a meaningful competition for the starting quarterback job in New England. Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe each had the job locked down throughout their tenures, with Brady only supplanting Bledsoe after the latter suffered an injury mid-season in 2001 just months after signing a 10-year, $103 million contract.

That changes this summer, as former NFL MVP Cam Newton and second-year pro Jarrett Stidham are expected to battle it out for the right to succeed Brady as New England's quarterback.

Newton is widely considered the favorite given his talent, experience and proven resume as a starter over the past decade. The former Carolina Panther is held in high regard by his NFL peers, but he has also been limited by injury in recent years, which is one of the main reasons why he was available at such a bargain (one-year, $1.05 million plus incentives) in the first place.

Stidham, meanwhile, is largely an unknown. The former fourth-round pick out of Auburn was impressive in training camp last summer, beating out Brian Hoyer for the backup job, but has essentially been stashed behind closed doors ever since.

It will be interesting to see how this competition plays out in the weeks to come, and in some respects it has already begun. Both have held informal workouts with teammates throughout the summer, an important first step towards building camaraderie and credibility within the locker room they hope to lead.

2. Offense has a lot to prove

Just about everything went wrong for the Patriots' offense last fall. First-round wide receiver N'Keal Harry and midseason trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu both got hurt and were never able to find their rhythm. Starting offensive linemen Isaiah Wynn and David Andrews both missed extended periods, and perhaps not coincidentally second-year running back Sony Michel turned in a disappointing sophomore campaign. The team got virtually no production from its tight ends, and even the fullback position became an issue, with the Patriots having to use linebacker Elandon Roberts to fill in for James Develin and Jakob Johnson.

Take all of that and add a new starting quarterback, and you have a lot of question marks.

How worried should fans be? The situation probably isn't as bad as it sounds. Sanu had been as consistent and reliable as they come throughout his career prior to his injury, so between him and Julian Edelman the Patriots should have two solid receivers they can count on. If Harry's healthy then he'll have a chance to prove what he's capable of, and with the entire starting offensive line and running back corps ready to go, the Patriots should at least have a strong running game to fall back on if all else fails.

The development of the younger players – and especially rookie tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keane – will warrant close watching.

3. Secondary could be elite

While the Patriots' offense has some clear issues, the defense generally looks pretty solid, and the secondary in particular has a chance to be among the best in the league.

On one hand, you have talented and established veterans at almost every spot, including reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones at cornerback and Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and newcomer Adrian Phillips at safety. On the other hand, you also have talented youngsters like JC Jackson, Joejuan Williams and rookie Kyle Dugger who will be pushing for their own starting spot.

No matter who emerges as the top guys from this group, opposing quarterbacks are going to have a heck of a time throwing against the Patriots this fall.

4. New opportunity at linebacker

Last season three Patriots players saw the vast majority of the team's snaps at linebacker, with Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins each playing more than 80% of the team's defensive snaps while Dont'a Hightower was close behind at 71%. The trio rarely came off the field, but this fall the defense will have a new look with Van Noy, Collins and fellow veteran Elandon Roberts all now playing elsewhere.

Who might step up? Third-year pro Ja'Whaun Bentley should play a much larger role at inside linebacker after enjoying success as a role player his first two seasons. John Simon and Chase Winovich will both be key factors on the edge, and rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings will both have an early opportunity to make their presence felt as well. Shilique Calhoun also returns and fourth-year pro Derek Rivers will have one more chance to make an impact after losing two of his first three seasons to season-ending injuries.

5. Will undrafted streak continue? 

An undrafted rookie has made the New England Patriots' 53-man roster for 16 straight seasons, and if that streak is going to continue, one of this year's newcomers will have to really stand out. With the coronavirus wiping out the spring offseason program and most likely much of the upcoming preseason, the diamonds in the rough won't have as many opportunities to shine.

So who might have a chance to make the team? If you follow the money, Arkansas linebacker De'jon "Scoota" Harris is probably the safest bet, considering the Patriots have a wide open linebacker competition and he received the most guaranteed money ($140,000) and the highest signing bonus ($15,000) of all the team's undrafted rookies. Miami wide receiver Jeff Thomas is another favorite, he fits the profile of past successes like JC Jackson in that he's extremely talented but went undrafted due to off-the-field issues.

But the sentimental favorite should no doubt be Lynnfield's Jake Burt. The former St. John's Prep and Boston College tight end is a big body at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds known for his blocking, and with the team's tight end situation totally up in the air, he has as good a chance as any to carve out a role on the 53-man roster. 

Mac Cerullo can be reached at mcerullo@newburyportnews.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo. 

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