10 storylines to follow at the start of Patriots training camp

There are many questions for the team to answer as it moves into a new, Tom Brady-less era.

N'Keal Harry during the 2019 season.
N'Keal Harry during the 2019 season. –Gary Landers/AP

COMMENTARY

After a long delay, NFL training camps are starting across the league, with Patriots players set to report to Foxborough this weekend. As the Patriots get set to finally take the field after an extended offseason due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are many questions for the team to answer as it moves into a new, Tom Brady-less era.

Here are the top storylines for the team heading into training camp.

How will the coronavirus further affect the team’s roster and preparations?

The NFL and its fans have gotten a sneak peek over the last few days at how different the 2020 regular season will be because of COVID-19, with more than 30 players already opting out of the season, including a league-high six players on the Patriots. It underscores the tenuous nature of the upcoming season, where rosters could change week-to-week, or even day-to-day.

Advertisement

While the NFL and its players managed to come to an agreement over health and testing protocols for the 2020 regular season, the lack of a bubble environment to protect its players, coaches, and staff will be an issue, as we’ve seen this week in MLB, where the Miami Marlins’ season has been temporarily suspended because of a coronavirus outbreak that has infected 16 players and two coaches, so far.

Before players even began opting out, teams had to adjust their rosters because of the pandemic, as the NFL and the NFLPA agreed to cut training camp rosters from 90 players to 80 players by August 16. Teams have the option of keeping their rosters at 90 players if they agree to split-squad practices, in order to limit exposure, but the Patriots already decided to cut to 80, releasing 10 players this weekend.

The move by the team indicates they were unaware of the players opting out until Monday, as they would have only had to cut four players, in addition to the six that opted out, to meet the 80-man limit.

Smaller rosters will limit the ability of late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents to make NFL rosters, as those will primarily be the types of players who will be cut in the next couple of weeks. From New England’s perspective, that puts the team’s streak of 16 straight years of having an UDFA make the team in jeopardy.

Who wins the starting quarterback job?

Advertisement

Coronavirus concerns aside, the biggest question by far for the Patriots in 2020 will be who gets the starting nod in Week 1.

Because of his lengthy resume and high-level talent, Cam Newton is the current odds-on favorite to win the job, but in a shortened offseason, Jarrett Stidham could have an advantage over Newton due to his familiarity with the playbook.

The Patriots’ ceiling with Newton as their starting quarterback is higher than with Stidham under center in 2020, but durability concerns and lack of preparation time could threaten to derail Newton’s time with the Patriots.

Can Justin Rohrwasser successfully take over for Stephen Gostkowski?

Turnover for New England at the kicker position has been a rarity for the last two decades, having gone from Adam Vinatieri to Stephen Gostkowski. Now, with Gostkowski no longer a Patriot, the team will turn to a relatively unknown and unproven commodity in rookie kicker Justin Rohrwasser, a fifth-round draft pick from Marshall University.

Having played at the University of Rhode Island before transferring to Marshall, Rohrwasser has experience kicking in bad weather conditions, which should help him adjust to kicking in New England in 2020. Whether he can get near the level of consistency that Stephen Gostkowski displayed throughout his career will be something to watch for, and if he struggles, the team may need to make another move at the position to bring in some competition for the rookie.

Inside linebacker depth chart

The team was already razor-thin at inside linebacker before Dont’a Hightower’s announcement, and even more so now that the linchpin of the New England defense will be absent in 2020.

Advertisement

New England didn’t invest much in the position during this year’s draft, only taking a sixth-round flier on Wyoming linebacker Cassh Maluia. Besides Bentley and Maluia, the team has undrafted rookie De’Jon Harris to compete for spots at the position. Whether any of these rookies can be counted on in any serious role is questionable right now, and the the team may need to just piece things together for 2020.

In addition to the linebackers left on the roster, Adrian Phillips could be a player who sees more reps down in the box as a hybrid linebacker, playing the role vacated by Patrick Chung, who is also opting out of this season. Phillips played linebacker a good amount during the last couple of years with the Chargers when they were in a dime package, and could very well do the same in New England this year, especially with few other options left at the team’s disposal, currently.

Can the Patriots’ pass rush replace lost production?

With Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Danny Shelton all departing in free agency, and now Dont’a Hightower opting out of the season, the Patriots defense has a lot of production to replace in 2020. 47 percent of their pass disruptions from last year, to be exact.

John Simon and Chase Winovich are the projected starters on the edge of the defensive line for New England, but the team will need more depth than that to continue its elite defensive performance from last year. Winovich could see time as an off-ball linebacker now, with Hightower out, or free agent acquisition Brandon Copeland could help fill the void left by Hightower.

Chase Winovich celebrates after getting a sack against the Dolphins. —Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The growth of rookies Josh Uche (Michigan) and Anfernee Jennings (Alabama) will go a long way in determining whether the Patriots pass rush has some punch to it, or is a more toothless version of what it was in 2019. Uche, in particular, due to his versatility, suddenly becomes a very important player early on for this Patriots defense, and will need to learn on the fly now with Hightower gone.

At the defensive tackle spot, outside of the dependable Lawrence Guy, the team also has question marks to answer in 2020. Beau Allen was signed to replace Danny Shelton, but is coming off a down year in Tampa Bay. Second-year DT Byron Cowart will have plenty of opportunity to push for more snaps in 2020 with the lack of depth at the defensive tackle position in 2020.

Development of the rookie tight ends

After basically ignoring the tight end position in 2019, the Patriots drafted two tight ends in the third round of this year’s draft, Devin Asiasi (UCLA) and Dalton Keene (Virginia Tech). Whether those two players can become contributors to the team as rookies will go a long way in determining if the Patriots offense can rebound from a disappointing year in 2019.

Health of David Andrews

After recovering from a blood clot in his lungs in 2019 that sidelined him for the whole season, Andrews has said he intends to return to football in 2020, which should be a big boost to the New England offensive line, especially after last year’s starter, Ted Karras, left the team in free agency to head to Miami. Even amidst the flurry of player opt-outs this week, it’s been reported that Andrews is still committed to playing this season.

If Andrews is not able to make a full recovery, the team could be exposed at the center position. If Andrews can’t go, sixth-round draft pick Dustin Woodard would be thrust into the spotlight, as Woodard played center in college at Memphis. The team does not have another player on the roster with extensive experience at the center position, outside of Andrews and Woodard.

N’Keal Harry’s growth

After a shaky rookie year, Harry looks determined to come out strong in his sophomore campaign in the NFL, having already met up with Cam Newton to catch balls out in LA.

The Patriots are desperate for an infusion of youth and athleticism on offense, and Harry can still provide that, as long as he stays healthy. Harry should get plenty of time on the field as a red zone target this year, and will have ample opportunity to gain reps due to the team’s lack of threats at the wide receiver position.

Outside of Harry, the team really doesn’t have a boundary threat at the X receiver position who can out-muscle opponents and high point the ball in the air. Harry’s skillset will be much-needed in 2020, and sets him up to have a big role for the Patriots this season, if he can stay on the field.

Use of the fullback position

With James Develin retiring due to the neck injury he sustained in 2019, and Dan Vitale opting out, that leaves Jakob Johnson as the team’s lone option at the fullback position in training camp. Dalton Keene also figures to factor into the team’s plans at the position now, if not because of his experience playing the position at Virginia Tech, then for the simple need for another body at the position.

How the team uses its fullback will be something to watch, as the offense figures to evolve with different personnel in 2020. We went into detail on that here.

Will Damien Harris get a real opportunity in 2020?

After investing a fourth-round draft pick in Damien Harris in 2019, and then keeping him inactive for almost every game last season, it will be interesting to see what plans the team has for him in 2020.

Damien Harris runs the ball during a week two preseason game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on Saturday. —Wesley Hitt / Getty Images

With Sony Michel rehabbing from foot surgery he underwent this offseason, Harris could have a major opportunity to prove himself to the coaching staff if Michel starts the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.

With the Patriots’ running back depth chart almost the same as it was in 2019, it will likely take an injury to Michel or Rex Burkhead for Harris to see snaps on gameday. With that being said, as the Patriots look to transition to a run-first attack on offense, having a strong and deep stable of running backs is a must, and Harris could very well see his number called more often this season as a result.

Get Boston.com's browser alerts:

Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.

Turn on notifications

Great, you’re signed up!

Jump To Comments