Three Burning Questions as the Patriots Kick Off the 2020 NFL Season

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Football is finally back.  For the first time in nearly two decades, somebody other than Tom Brady will start under center for the New England Patriots.  For the first time in nearly two decades, the AFC East division and a playoff berth are not a guarantee.  For the first time in nearly two decades, the regular season actually matters for the Patriots.  As you prepare to watch this team kick off a new era Sunday afternoon against the Miami Dolphins, here are some questions to ponder.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

1. How much of the playbook has Cam Newton grasped? 

One of the early storylines in training camp surrounded the quarterback position.  There was talk about a faux competition between Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer for the starting job.  In reality, everybody knew that if Newton was healthy enough, the job was his.  All reports out of camp early were that Newton's physical attributes were markedly better than his two teammates, but their knowledge and comfort of the playbook was evident, as Newton played catch up. 

A lot of reports said that Newton was holding on to the ball a little too long, seemingly indecisive on where to throw.  There were times where he would pause at the line of scrimmage and look back to Stidham or Hoyer for confirmation on what to call.  Newton is sure to have more familiarity with the playbook now, compared to two months ago, but without the luxury of preseason games to get reps in, where is he really at?  We're about to find out on Sunday.  Thankfully, he's not facing a world beater of a defense.  The Dolphins defense is solid, but it appears their top two defensive backs are going to be less than 100%, if they even play. 

One thing Newton can always fall back is his running ability.  If he can't find an open guy, or feels like he doesn't know where to go with the ball, he can just take off and use his athleticism to turn nothing into something.  The catch with that is he leaves himself more susceptible to injury in the open field.  So, while he can extend plays with his legs, you don't want to see him become overly reliant on them.  That will be something interesting to keep an eye on Sunday.  Does Newton have the patience and comfort to go through his reads, or will he just take off if the first option isn't available?

2. Who is Cam Newton throwing to?

On that same note, if Newton is being patient and hanging in the pocket, who is he throwing to?  The issues with the receiving corps were well documented last year.  Almost half of the team's 378 receptions for the entire year belonged to Julian Edelman (100) and James White (72).  The next closest was Phillip Dorsett with 29.  New England had one of the weakest wide receiving groups last year, and you could argue it is even worse this year.

Edelman is still solid, but he's also 34 and didn't miss any games due to injury last year, or the year prior.  I hate to say it, but it sort of feels like he's due.  I'm still hopeful for N'Keal Harry, but he still feels like a rookie to me since he missed half of the season last year.  Then what?  Your third receiver is Jakobi Meyers?  Gunner Olszewski?  Damiere Byrd?  We all feel good about the two rookie tight ends, but it may take some time for them to get going. 

The big knock on last year's group, outside of Edelman and White, was the inability to get open.  Sure, there were times when guys were open, but Brady was so fixated on Edelman and White that he missed them.  With no prior relationship with any of these guys, Newton will be more apt to spread the ball around and give guys opportunities to make plays.  However, if he constantly has to make perfect throws, or throw guys open, it could be another long season.

3. Can the secondary carry the defense?

Easily the most talented positional group on the Patriots, the secondary is arguably the best in the league.  Stephon Gilmore is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.  His counterpart J.C. Jackson has elite coverage skills, but doesn't get the attention he would likely get anywhere else because of Gilmore.  Jonathan Jones is one of the top slot corners in the league.  The McCourty brothers, Terrence Brooks and Adrian Phillips are all solid veterans, and then you have a couple of young guys in JoeJuan Williams and Kyle Dugger.

Passing yards will be hard to come by for opposing offenses.  My question is, how much will that matter with so much unknown up front?  Three of New England's top four leaders in tackles, and sacks, are either gone or have opted out.  Almost their entire linebacking corps from last year is gone.  I bet if I listed out the projected starting front 7 right now, your first reaction would be to reread the names and see if reading them a second time helped you figure out who they are. 

Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler should help keep things sturdy in the interior of the defensive line, but who is going to make plays at the second level of the defense?  Who is pressuring the quarterback?  Chase Winovich showed promise last year, but he's still a bit of an unknown.  With some of the elite secondaries of recent memory (Seattle, Denver), they were accompanied by elite pass-rushing talent.  New England doesn't have that.

Is a shut down secondary enough to keep this team in games?  If quarterbacks are not facing pressure, your secondary can only cover for so long.  If the Patriots can get a couple of good to great pass rushers to emerge, this could be an elite level defense. 


Follow Derek on Twitter @mcvay34

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Boston Sports Syndicate: Three Burning Questions as the Patriots Kick Off the 2020 NFL Season
Three Burning Questions as the Patriots Kick Off the 2020 NFL Season
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