After two-plus weeks of buildup, the Patriots will finally take the field in football pads on Monday, August 17 in what will be a close replica of the training camp we know and love. After a big offseason of arrivals and departures, along with the decisions by eight players to opt out, this is a different-looking team than the one we pondered for most of the offseason that will take the field for four weeks of preparation before they're scheduled to open the season against the Dolphins.
Let's take a quick reset and break down the 20 most burning questions that face this 2020 Patriots squad.
1. Is the roster set?
After the Patriots had the most opt-outs in the NFL, they have some lingering roster questions that could need to be addressed. They reportedly signed three players earlier this week, but the depth at some other positions remains a concern, namely at offensive tackle, tight end and linebacker. They still have some flexibility but things change quickly in camp, especially when injuries start to strike and the team is never shy about turning over the bottom of their roster.
2. Any extensions coming?
According to Miguel Benzan (@PatsCap) the team has over $30 million in cap space to work with after being on cap space fumes for most of the offseason. With a lowered cap floor in 2021 and the deals of those opting out tolling to next season, the team will need to leave some funds for those issues next year. However, using a bit of the extra space now to lock up some promising young players could make sense. James White, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, J.C. Jackson and Lawrence Guy are just a few of the players set to hit free agency after this season.
3. Is the kicker ready?
No one is about to get thrown into the fire quite like rookie kicker Justin Rohrwasser, who appears set to make his NFL debut next month without any preseason games. There will be no breaking in period for Rohrwasser, the next kick in a game he attempts will mean something and it's a good bet the Patriots coaching staff will ramp up the pressure on him in practice as much as they can. Every kick will be under a microscope.
4. How do the returner competitions stack up?
With Brandon Bolden opting out, the kick off returner spot appears to be wide open, while Gunner Olszewski returns after winning a punt returner job last season. He'll get good competition from Kyle Dugger, while undrafted rookies J.J. Taylor and Jeff Thomas could find a roster spot returning kickoffs like they did in college. The returner spots are always filled with opportunities for some new faces and Dugger will be one to watch in this regard.
5. How do things look on the back end without Chung and Harmon?
Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon backstopped four trips to the Super Bowl in the last six seasons and have been fundamental parts of the defense. With them not in the mix the season it's unavoidable that there is going to be transition. The Pats have a collection of vets and young players to make up for the losses, but how quickly and seamlessly they can integrate will have a big impact on arguably the team's biggest strength -- the secondary. Veteran Adrian Phillips figures to play a major role
6. What does the new third down defense look like?
The team lost 19 sacks from their three departed starting linebackers alone, so one of the biggest questions about the defense is how they rebuild the group responsible for getting off the field on third down. Chase Winovich and Shilique Calhoun were passing-down role players last season, while rookie Josh Uche was a pass rush specialist in college. Adam Butler returns as an effective interior rusher who will be a free agent next season, he could use a big season and the Patriots need one from him. There are some interesting pieces but they'll have to rise up and create new production.
7. Who's on the edge?
The Patriots have some experience from their edge-setters, led by veteran John Simon who is as tough as they come, while rookie Anfernee Jennings is young but played in college with excellent responsibility against the run. Setting the edge will be critical, especially with hard-running teams like the Ravens on the schedule once again. Will the edge setting and pass rushing be done piecemeal? Or will three-down players emerge?
8. Is there enough linebacker depth?
The Pats essentially lost their top four linebackers from last season, and while Ja'Whaun Bentley is a holdover projected for an increased role, there just isn't the experience on the second level that the team has been accustomed to in recent years. They seem to have enough young depth to piece it all together, but it will be vital for some of those young players to make a jump. The depth of the interior linebacker group is most interesting, with Brandon Copeland being a wild card. If he can play inside, as he has experience with in the past, he might have a major role on defense this year.
9. Can any defensive rookies make an instant impact?
The additions of Uche, Jennings and Dugger all come at positions where the Patriots had big needs this offseason and all three will have the chance to step in and make an impact. Cassh Mailua will be another to watch along with undrafted rookie Scoota Harris, while undrafted defensive linemen Bill Murray and Nick Coe will have opportunities. If some of these rookies can make it through an incredibly challenging preseason and step in, the Patriots defensive future will look a lot brighter.
10. How do the departures and opt-outs change the defensive front seven?
The transition in the defensive front seven is overwhelming and there are opportunities at every position for new players to emerge and fill some big shoes. Can this group stop the run better than the defense did down the stretch in 2019? Can they make quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket? Do they have the athleticism to deal with the variety of offenses they'll face this fall? This is largely a new and unproven group and no one knows quite for sure how it will look.
11. Which offensive weapons make the second-year leap?
There would be no better scenario for the long-term health of the offense than if N'Keal Harry, Damien Harris, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski all took major strides in their second seasons. If those players can form a new offensive core, the Pats will be in a good spot for the future with manageable multi-year contracts that can allow them to focus more financial attention elsewhere. But they'll all have to hold off a number of undrafted rookies and veterans.
12. Which UDFA does the near-impossible?
With no preseason games, an undrafted rookie will have to stick out in practice to make the team. With expanded practice squad sizes, their chances receive a bit of a positive boost. Jeff Thomas, J.J. Taylor and Scoota Harris are a few of the favorites, but they'll need to make every day on the football field count. Despite the challenging situation it's a good bet the Pats figure out a way to hold on to a few of the UDFAs.
13. Are the rookie tight ends ready to jump in?
After Matt LaCosse opted out, the offense was left with Ryan Izzo and four rookies. It's rare for rookie tight ends to step in and be major contributors, but this might be the year to just throw them in there and see what happens. The drop off at tight end in 2019 was one of the biggest detriments to the offense and now it might come down to the two rookies making an instant impact if they're to avoid a similar season.
14. Is fullback back?
With James Develin's retirement and Danny Vitale's opt out, the Patriots are now back to second-year player Jakob Johnson if they still want to resurrect the fullback position in their offense. Johnson was a remarkable story from 2019 and should grow from his first year of NFL experience, but what is his ceiling? Dalton Keene could contribute here as well, but it's a big question what kind of production the team will get from the fullback spot this season. The reported acquisition of Lamar Miller could be a minor signal as Miller is capable without a fullback blocking in front of him.
15. Edelman still Edelman?
Julian Edelman powered through a difficult 2019 season to nab 100 catches and play in all 16 games despite multiple injuries. Edelman can once again be a powerful engine for the offense and the new quarterback's best friend. But at 34 there are obvious reasons for concern and no receivers after Edelman are a sure thing. The veteran is doing his part to set the tone in camp, as there's no question who the leader of the offense is right now.
16. Reasons for optimism at wide receiver?
After Edelman, the team must find reliable receiving targets and that starts with the development of N'Keal Harry. But there are plenty of x-factors, including veterans Mohamed Sanu and Damiere Byrd, both were active at pre-camp throwing sessions. Perhaps it comes down to who sparks with which quarterback, you can never quite tell which players just have a natural chemistry together. That's the kind of thing you have no choice but to wait to see on the practice field.
17. Can the young corners take the next step?
J.C. Jackson and JoeJuan Williams are two promising young corners who have been part of a stacked depth chart that has protected their development. But will either take a big step in their development this season? It could take an already-strong secondary to a new level. Jackson is eyeing restricted free agency next year, while Williams has unique size in the secondary and could find a niche role because of it.
18. Are two more tackles ready to play?
Marcus Cannon has been a long-time fixture at right tackle and his decision to opt out has left a thin position group even thinner. The team already projected to see a new swing tackle play a role on their offense this year, but now they'll need a starter as well. The team has three obvious candidates -- Korey Cunningham, Yodny Cajuste and rookie Justin Herron -- but could look to add some experience to the group with a veteran.
19. Has the offense shifted away from its Brady-centric approach?
Over 20 years the Patriots offense was built around Tom Brady's ability to recognize defenses and get the ball out quick. How much will that philosophy shift post-Brady? It will likely depend most on which players emerge, but could there be more designed QB runs? Multiple backfields? Do they have a field stretcher? Josh McDaniels and Jedd Fisch have already jumped into solving this equation.
20. Who will start at quarterback?
The team has made every effort to communicate that this is an open competition between the three veteran quarterbacks. While Cam Newton is the favorite, there is plenty that can change as the team moves toward actual football practice. It will be a quick competition, with limited opportunities and no preseason game reps and an injury could quickly turn things upside down. Ultimately, the winner of this competition becomes the main story line heading into the Patriots 2020 season.