It's been an offseason like none other for the New England Patriots. The biggest headlines -- watching the departure of their 20-year franchise quarterback in the midst of a pandemic and then the arrival of a former MVP -- were what defined the buildup to the 2020 season. Undaunted, the franchise continues the team-building approach that has helped them sustain excellence for the better part of two decades.
Before we open the book on a new kind of training camp, let's take a quick look back at how the offseason unfolded for the Pats.
It was a stunning and disappointing end to the 2019 season that saw the Patriots lose a playoff bye week with a Week 17 loss to the Dolphins, then bow out of the playoffs in the Wild Card Round for the first time since 2009. That sudden ending was still little preparation for the challenges of 2020.
As the new league year approached, the Patriots kicked things off by securing two critical leaders. Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty both signed on for two more seasons, ensuring continuity for both the special teams and defense.
Their next opening salvo as the 2020 league year opened was to assign the Franchise Tag to guard Joe Thuney. It was a bit of a surprise, but considering Thuney's steady play and reliability, it was another solidifying move, this time for the offense.
The departures came quickly as free agency opened, with Kyle Van Noy heading to Miami and Jamie Collins reuniting with Matt Patricia in Detroit right out of the gate. But those significant departures would be overshadowed just a day later when Tom Brady announced that he would not be returning to New England. A few days later Brady would sign with Tampa Bay, a seismic shift not only for the Patriots, but the entire NFL.
Brady's departure overshadowed some other significant moves, as the team traded Duron Harmon to Detroit and saw two more contributors in Elandon Roberts and Ted Karras join another former Pats coach, Brian Flores in Miami.
The team began adding to their roster like they usually do in free agency – finding veterans at good value. Arizona speedster Damiere Byrd was brought in after Phillip Dorsett signed with Seattle, while safety Adrian Phillips helped re-stock safety the position after Harmon's departure. Fullback Dan Vitale was signed as well, an early indicator that James Develin's neck injury would result in his retirement which came in late April.
Brian Hoyer returned for his third stint with team, while versatile linebacker Brandon Copeland was brought in to help offset the losses of Van Noy and Collins. The team also added safety and special teamer Cody Davis as the safety position continued to be reinforced after the departure of Nate Ebner to the Giants.
For the most part, free agency resulted in many one-for-one swaps, with the team getting younger and cheaper.
New England wrapped up a busy first week of free agency by releasing long time kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who had lost most of the 2019 season to injury. The team saw their two longest-tenured players depart in the matter of a week.
After bringing back outside linebacker Shilique Calhoun for another season, the team was largely quiet until the draft, but ended that silence with another shocking move by trading the retired Rob Gronkowski to the Buccaneers for a fourth-round pick. On the morning of the first round they made another move by signing Marqise Lee, a once-emerging receiver with the Jags who had two season derailed by injuries.
In the draft, the team traded out of the first round, then focused on defense for their first three picks, adding versatile small-school safety Kyle Dugger first at 37th overall, then complementary edge players Josh Uche (60th overall) and Anfernee Jennings (87th overall).
The team then tacked to the tight end position with back-to-back trade-up selections of Devin Asiasi (91st overall) and Dalton Keene (101st overall). After a down year in the wake of Rob Gronkowski's single-season retirement, the team made a concerted effort to restock the position and were aggressive in pursuit of the two players they wanted.
The team made a surprise selection of Marshall kicker Justin Rohrwasser in the fifth round to replace Gostkowski. Rohrwasser wasn't in many pre-draft conversations as one of the top rookie kickers but he was the first at the position to be drafted.
With their final four picks, the Patriots rounded out their depth, selecting three offensive linemen – Michael Onwenu (182nd overall), Justin Herron (195th overall) and Dustin Woodard (230th overall) – along with an underrated middle linebacker, Cassh Maluia (204th overall).
The team always seems to find gems in undrafted free agency and pounced on 14 players in the wake of the draft, targeting specific positions like wide receiver (four signings), tight end (two signings), Defensive line (three signings), quarterback (two signings) and inside linebacker (two signings). Cornerback Myles Bryant and running back J.J. Taylor rounded out the signings. Unfortunately, it would be a tough year for undrafted rookies and many would be jettisoned before training camp due to reduced roster size and the truncated preseason.
Post-draft, things were quiet as the team navigated an offseason decimated by the novel coronavirus that forced training activities to all be done virtually. That was until late-June when the team struck a deal with quarterback Cam Newton.
The move dramatically altered the narrative surrounding the Pats plans to replace Brady, and gave them a former MVP on a low-risk deal who is motivated to prove people wrong. After two injury-marred seasons, Newton enters an excellent situation with a veteran offensive line and secondary, along with a nice stable of running backs.
The Patriots were largely systematic in their approach this offseason. There's no question they're entering a period of uncertainty with transition at the most important position in the game. But they've done well to get younger after being the oldest team in the league by a significant margin.
The unknown is whether the younger players can step up and replace the veterans who have brought so much success in recent seasons. If the Patriots are to sustain their dominance into a third decade they will need new blood to emerge, and this was only exacerbated by multiple veteran starters choosing to opt out.
But for 2020 things are still in pretty good shape. If Newton can give them consistency while also presenting some new problems for defenses, New England should be once again in the mix to win their 12th-straight AFC East divisional championship. That would be no small feat after all their departures and opt outs in the midst of a pandemic.
Beyond 2020 remains in question, but by being forced to insert younger players into the lineup, this season could result in valuable experience across the board, even if the win column looks a little different. Still, you can never rule out a Bill Belichick team and they'll continue to navigate the challenges of this year as well as any team.