The Patriots are going to be relying on young players in 2020 more than any season in recent memory, really out of necessity.
That's not all bad news. With or without Tom Brady, this roster has been overdue for an infusion of youth. Still, with plenty of veteran talent still onboard, the progress of several of New England's second- and third-year players will dictate just how far this team can go in this brave new post-TB12 world.
We already took a look at this year's rookie class in August. The players below, who've already made their NFL debuts, will be under the biggest microscope come Sunday.
Entering Year 3, what exactly is Michel?
He’s not a bust – the Patriots don’t win Super Bowl LIII without him – but it’s not totally unfair to call him a … minor disappointment. Michel is 12th in the NFL in rushing yards (1,843) among running backs since 2018, but a ghastly 63rd in yards per carry (4.04).
Michel’s teammate at the University of Georgia, Nick Chubb, was taken four picks later by the Browns in 2018 and has racked up 647 more yards rushing and has caught 37 more passes over his first two pro seasons.
That speaks to the most troubling aspect of Michel's game: his complete lack of development as a pass catcher. While it’s true that New England has James White, one of the best pass-catching backs in the league, to mitigate the damage, Michel’s presence on the field for the Patriots has been fairly predictable over his first two professional seasons.
When Michel lined up behind Tom Brady as a rookie, New England wound up running the ball an astounding 76% of the time. That figure dropped to 66% last year, but is still far too predictable. The addition of Cam Newton will lead to more designed quarterback runs for the Patriots, and it will be interesting to see which running back(s) are lined up next to Newton is such situations.
Newton worked with one of the top dual-threat backs in the league today in Carolina, Christian McCaffrey. Newton’s presence could be enough to finally unlock Michel as a pass catcher.
Either way, New England will have a decision to make on Michel next off-season as to whether or not to pick up his fifth-year rookie option. The Patriots haven’t picked up the option on any of their first-round picks since Dont’a Hightower, who was drafted in 2012. Could Michel (or left tackle Isaiah Wynn) snap the streak of futility?
New England running backs coach Ivan Fears said last week that Michel had "fresh legs" after missing the first few weeks of training camp due to yet another off-season procedure, this time on his foot.
"He’s going to be fresh and quick," Fears said. "His weight is good, no doubt. We’ve worked hard on that. He looks good. He doesn't show any signs of slowing down from the injury, anything along those lines."
Since being drafted in 2017, the Patriots have played 55 games between the regular and postseasons.
Rivers, New England’s top choice (albeit the 83rd overall pick) that year, has appeared in seven games amid nagging knee injuries.
Ordinarily, a player available so little would’ve been long gone at this juncture (see: Easley, Dominique, or Dowling, Ras-I). Rivers is coming off another strong training camp though, and since there were no preseason games, the first month of the regular season is when we’ll finally find out if there’s anything there. Unless he gets hurt, again.
"He's gained a lot of strength and explosiveness, as well as rehabbing the injury," Bill Belchick said earlier in training camp. "His overall body composition, strength, power is good. It's a very competitive position."
It’s really not even close: after punter Jake Bailey, Winovich was New England’s most impressive rookie in 2019.
It’s outstanding that Bill Belichick’s fifth-round draft choice who specializes in kicking actually made the 53-man roster in 2019, unlike this year, but Winovich is the player to be the most excited about heading into his sophomore campaign.
His 5.5 sacks as a rookie were sixth-best in franchise history – more than guys like Willie McGinest or Richard Seymour – and he did it despite not starting a single game.
What’s next for Winovich? Does he push double-digit sack totals, or does he settle in as a sub-rusher? Will he see time at defensive end, or be used as an outside linebacker along the edge? Lots of that depends on whether or not the Patriots stick with a 3-4 or go back to more of a 4-3 look after losing their entire starting linebacker corps from 2019.
Winovich was listed as a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice with a shoulder injury, which is certainly something to monitor leading up to the opener.
N'Keal Harry/Jakobi Meyers/Gunner Olszewski
Take your pick between these second-year wide outs, two of whom went undrafted in 2019.
The most pressure here is on Harry for a variety of reasons, first and foremost being New England's dearth of playmakers beyond Julian Edelman at the position. He was the first-round pick, he's the most physically gifted, thus he should be counted on to deliver.
Almost by default, Harry is going to be thrust into a starting role in Week 1 for the Patriots, especially after the team unceremoniously moved on from Mohamed Sanu last week.
Which takes us to Meyers and Olszewski, who become the first undrafted receivers to make it to Year 2 in New England since Kenbrell Thompkins in 2014.
Thompkins was better than either Meyers or Olszewski as a rookie, catching 32 passes for 466 yards and four touchdowns; conversely, Meyers had 26 catches for 359 yards and no touchdowns, while Olszewski, who played primarily as a punt returner, had two catches for 22 yards and no scores.
Thompkins was let go after two games in his sophomore season, but that was a Patriots team with a 28-year-old Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell to work with. All that's left is a 34-year-old Edelman, the third-oldest receiver in the NFL.
Don't think for a second that New England's offense is about to get better without Tom Brady. But if you're looking for a silver lining, it's that Cam Newton won't have the luxury of shutting these guys out.