By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Here comes one of the most unpredictable seasons for the Patriots in a long, long time.
Because, really, we have no clue what the heck is about to go down in Foxboro. Tom Brady is gone, with Cam Newton taking his place at QB. The wide receiver position is a bit of a mess — again. And half of New England’s defense is gone, either by way of free agency or via 2020 opt outs.
And just to make matters a little more cloudy, the majority of players have not played an actual football game since January. This should be fun.
At least the Patriots still have Bill Belichick, who is going to have his work cut out for him this season. It seems like people believe the Patriots will either continue their reign atop the AFC East, or go 5-11. There doesn’t appear to be a middle ground.
But that is all a long ways away, and right now, we’re focused on Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins. This is our very first look at the Newton-led Patriots away from the practice field, the first time we’ll see players deliver and take hits since that disappointing evening against the Titans nine months ago.
Buckle up, folks. This is going to be interesting.
The Cam Connection
Of course most of the attention is going to be on Cam Newton. He’s the guy now that No. 12 is in Tompa Bay, taking over for Brady under center and for Pat Patriot with the No. 1 jersey.
It has been a tough few years for Newton, who has dealt with a slew of injuries that caused a dip in production. He played just two games last year after suffering a Lisfranc injury and 14 games in 2018. He actually put up some decent numbers two years ago — 3,395 passing yards with 24 touchdowns, adding another 488 yards and four touchdowns on the ground — which was impressive given he was dealing with a nagging shoulder injury for much of the season.
Newton was a bargain find for the Patriots because no other team wanted him this offseason. That should be plenty of motivation for the quarterback, but that motivation won’t matter if he’s not healthy. We’ll get a pretty decent feel of where he is health-wise this weekend.
Of course, it would help if he had some receivers to throw to. At the moment, he has just one bona fide pass-catcher in Julian Edelman, who also carries that health tag with him. With Mohamed Sanu sent packing last week, N’Keal Harry is No. 2 on the depth chart, followed by Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers. It’s not a group that screams safety net for its quarterback, but that’s what Newton will be working with.
Expect Newton to get very familiar with James White early and often.
Newton Racing Team
Can Cam still run? He’s a monster at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, but 934 career carries are a lot for a now-31-year-old who took a beating over the last decade. He probably won’t be the dual threat that he was just five years ago, when he took home NFL MVP honors after an obscene season through the air (3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns) and on the ground (635 yards, 10 touchdowns). But if he can still find a way to scamper for 5-6 yards a few times a game, it will be a huge boost to a questionable Patriots offense.
No position saw as much turnover on the New England roster as linebacker. Dont’a Hightower opted out. Jamie Collins is now in Detroit, and Kyle Van Noy will be a visitor in Week 1.
Now the Patriots will turn to third-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley to lead the pack. He played in 16 games last season but only played 27 percent of New England’s defensive snaps. He’s about to get a massive increase in playing time.
He’ll be leading a pair of rookies in second-round pick Josh Uche and third-round selection Anfernee Jennings. Both of those youngsters bring a different skillset to the table, with Uche a talented pass-rusher and Jennings a do-it-all run stopper.
All three are going to have a lot on their plates throughout the season, and it all starts in Week 1.
Who Gets After Fitzmagic?
Kyle Van Noy will be on the visitor’s sideline on Sunday. Jamie Collins will be in Detroit facing the Bears. Dont’a Hightower will be changing diapers.
Gone are 19 of New England’s 47 sacks from last season, and you can add three more to that tally with Danny Shelton also now a member of the Lions. So who is going to get after the Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday?
It’s going to be something to monitor all season, but Chase Winovich is the likliest of candidates to provide most of the pass-rush for New England. He was impressive in spurts as a rookie, and is about to get a lot more playing time in his second season.
Per usual, Bill Belichick will be changing it up with different looks, so everyone could have a chance to get to Fitzpatrick. Don’t be surprised if we see some safeties pretend to be linebackers, and get a few chances to chase after Fitzpatrick. Defensive tackle Adam Butler also had six sacks last season, so he is a candidate to throw him to the ground on Sunday.
Bonus: Tua Time?
Fitzpatrick is Miami’s starter, but without the benefit of any preseason games, Brian Flores may send his rookie QB out for a series or two just to change things up. That would certainly be a much different look for the Patriots defense.
You can watch the Patriots kick off their 2020 season Sunday on WBZ-TV — the home of the New England Patriots! Coverage kicks off Sunday at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay. The Patriots and the Dolphins square off at 1 p.m., and stick to WBZ-TV after the game for Cam Newton’s first postgame press conference on Patriots 5th Quarter!