Looking ahead to 2021- Three Patriots players who shined and three who won’t be back next year

There’s no denying that the 2020 season has been a disappointment for the New England Patriots and their fans. Obviously, losing one the best quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady during the offseason lowered the expectations going into the season. However, signing Cam Newton, a former MVP who, at only 31 years old, is theoretically still in his prime, offered some hope that this year could be salvaged. Plus, with Bill Belichick on the sideline, the Patriots were expected be able to play at a level greater than the sum of their parts.

Once the games started, though, it quickly became clear that this roster was not set up to win in the present. While much of the roster has underperformed, there are still several players who continued to perform. Here are three players that had breakout seasons and should be featured players next season and beyond, and three players whose roster spots should be in doubt heading into next season.

Breakout Performers

  • Damien Harris, RB- Simply put, Damien Harris has been one of the best running backs in the league this season. For long stretches, handing the ball to Harris was the only play that worked in the Patriots offense. A third-round pick in the 2019 draft out of Alabama, he only appeared in two games last season. Coming into this year, he was in a backup role once again, but an injury to Sony Michel opened the door, and Harris busted it wide open. In his first start, against the Kansas City Chiefs, Harris rushed for 100 yards on 17 carries, an incredible 5.88 yards per carry. And that was just the start, as he has maintained that level of consistency even as his carry total dropped due to the Patriots having to abandon the running game because they have spent so much time behind this season. He’s averaging 5.0 yards per carry for the season, which ranks sixth for all running backs. In December, Pro Football Focus had him graded as their best running back of the season to that point. Harris has firmly planted himself as this team’s best running back going into next season, using a disappointing team season to show his incredible talent.
  • Jakobi Meyers, WR- Jakobi Meyers has been the Patriots’ best wide receiver this year by quite a bit. In his second season since being an undrafted free agent out of NC State, Meyers has shown that he deserves to be a central member of the team’s plans moving forward. Despite playing only 12 of 14 possible games, he leads the team with 616 receiving yards. On a team that has suffered from inconsistent quarterback play (more on that later), the level of production Meyers has put up makes you think about what he would be able to do with someone more capable throwing him the ball. Even though he does not have a touchdown on the season so far, that is more a reflection of a quarterback room that only has eight passing TD’s total (one of which was actually thrown by Meyers!). Going into next season, Meyers deserves to be at least the #2 receiver, depending on Julian Edelman’s return to health or if the Patriots take a college wideout with their high pick.
  • JC Jackson, CB- With Jackson and reigning DPOY Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots have one of the very best cornerback tandems in the league. And even though Jackson was one of the best cornerbacks in the league last season, he did it quietly due to the stardom of Gilmore across from him. This season, and especially now with Gilmore out for the season, Jackson is getting the recognition he deserves. Second in the league in interceptions, he has a knack for always knowing where to position himself to make a play on the ball, with a team-leading 13 passes defended this year. Jackson is an upcoming restricted free agent, and the Patriots should be willing to do whatever it takes to keep him in New England for years to come. Without a doubt, he has proven this season that he is a star in the league, and that he deserves to be a big part of this team’s future.

Shouldn’t Be Here Next Year

  • Cam Newton, QB- As mentioned earlier, hopes were high when the Patriots signed Cam Newton this offseason. Yes, there were question marks around his injury history and why a quarterback of his experience level lasted so long on the free agent market. And replacing Tom Brady was never going to be an easy task. But after the first month of the season, Newton has done next to nothing to prove that he is still an NFL-level quarterback. With two games left in the season, he still has only thrown five touchdown passes. Yesterday, running back Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints scored more than that in one game.  He consistently misses easy throws and seems half a second late through his reads. While the Newton experiment was worth it going into the season, the most interesting part of his year has been his hat collection, and there is no reason for him to return next season.
  • N’Keal Harry, WR- Just a year removed from being a first-round pick, N’Keal Harry seems to be very much in danger of being traded or outright released this offseason. With the emergence of Jakobi Meyers, the return of Julian Edelman next season, and the likelihood that the Patriots will be looking for WR help in the draft, possibly even with their first-round pick, Harry simply has not produced enough to deserve to stick around. This year, it has felt like he is more likely to commit an Offensive Pass Interference penalty than make a positive impact in the passing game. Hindsight is 20/20, but it only gets more painful when the wide receivers taken after him in that draft, such as DK Metcalf and A. J. Brown, make amazing catches weekly and have emerged as true #1 receivers. After this season, Harry should be looking for a new NFL home, as he has not shown any reason for the Pats to keep him around.
  • Ryan Izzo, TE- This selection actually has very little to do with what Ryan Izzo has done in his career. In fact, this is probably more of a ‘may not be here’ than ‘should not be here’. In his two years, he has been perfectly okay. Like Cam Newton, he was given the impossible task of replacing an all-time great in Rob Gronkowski. However, he has not done much in the passing game, with only 19 career receptions and now ending this season on IR. On the roster, the Patriots have two third-round tight ends in Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi, both of whom were receiving threats in college that can also block, especially Asiasi. Utilizing those two players more would eliminate the need to keep a tight end who is only really useful for blocking in Izzo, as shown by his lack of receiving production across two seasons as the starting tight end.  Continued development and health from those two could lead to Izzo being left off the roster next season.

After this season, the Patriots will have much roster building to do to return to being a competitive team in 2021. Even in a disappointing season for the team, individual players still have opportunities to shine. While some grabbed this chance and ran with it, others showed that they will likely not be part of the team’s future.

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