The Patriots will play a meaningless game in Week 16 for the first time in 20 seasons, but Monday night’s clash against the AFC East Champion Bills can still be a learning experience.
New England has plenty of questions to answer over the last two weeks of their season, and they’ll get a first-hand look at one rebuilding project that is moving in the right direction.
Before you get all hot and bothered by me praising the Bills, no, Buffalo hasn’t won any postseason games yet, and Bill Belichick doesn’t need any pointers from anyone.
Still, Bills general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott are doing things correctly, investing in and around 24-year-old quarterback Josh Allen on both sides of the ball.
Buffalo selected Allen seventh overall in the 2018 draft after trading up not once but twice, moving from their original pick (no. 21) into the top ten to get their quarterback.
After taking Allen, a polarizing tools-based prospect with massive bust potential but a sky-high ceiling, the Bills continued to invest in their already stingy defense and beefed up their offensive line.
Then, Beane acquired star wide receiver Stefon Diggs along with Cole Beasley, and now Allen is thriving with the addition of those two wideouts in his third season.
Former Patriots assistant and current Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has his unit firing on all cylinders, and Daboll is now a hot name for head coach vacancies.
Thanks in part to Tom Brady’s departure from the division, Buffalo are AFC East champs for the first time since 1995, and Allen is experiencing a miraculous statistical turnaround.
The Bills quarterback has gone from a below-average passer with spotty accuracy and decision making to one of the league’s most potent downfield throwers.
In his first two seasons, Allen was 42nd out of 45 qualified passers in completion percentage over expected (CPOE). In 2020, Allen is the fourth-most accurate QB in the league based on CPOE and is making quicker and better decisions with the ball.
Here’s one example of Allen’s growth as a passer from last week’s division-clinching win over the Broncos. The Bills are trying to get Allen a clean middle-of-the-field read with a double-slant concept from the two inside receivers. The backside safety rotates into the slant window to take away his first read, then Beasley is covered on the second inside route. Allen moves quickly through his progression to throw an accurate dart on a deep comeback route to Diggs as his #1 receiver is coming out of his break (progression speed, timing, accuracy, arm strength).
Allen followed that up with a 55-yard bomb to Diggs on a stutter-and-go, where the Bills quarterback moves the deep safety with his eyes and drops a dime along the sideline, one of his best deep throws of his career.
Although Allen deserves credit, the Bills offense is thriving because their sole focus in Allen’s first three seasons was building a system with supporting talent that allowed Allen to make the leap in year three.
For the Patriots, aggressively pursuing their next franchise quarterback while putting him in a situation where he can succeed is a must, and Buffalo is a perfect case-study of that strategy.
On Monday night, New England can take this game against the 11-3 Bills to learn about their roster, especially their young players from the last two rookie classes.
Before we highlight those players to watch, you won’t see the following players as we’ve already determined they’re “hits” and a part of the future as Bill Belichick rebuilds his team.
Those “hits” are Pro Bowl punter Jake Bailey, wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, running back Damien Harris, and 2020 draft picks Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, and Michael Onwenu. The team is still figuring out the best ways to use Dugger and Uche, but it’s clear they can play (same with Winovich but more on him later).
We also didn’t include the 2018 rookie class because Isaiah Wynn (good when healthy, but not healthy), Sony Michel (good #2 lead-back, low-end #1), and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (early-down run-stuffer) are known commodities.
At this point, it’s not trending towards the team picking up either Wynn or Michel’s fifth-year options (they’re signed through 2022).
Here’s a breakdown of ten players to watch for the Patriots on both sides’ of the ball in the final two games of the 2020 season:
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Jarrett Stidham, Quarterback
Will we see Stidham start a game? Who knows about Week 17, but its not happening this week and Josh McDaniels’s comments weren’t great on Saturday. Internally, Stidham’s lack of intensity to pry the starting job away from Cam Newton is one reason why he’s not seeing the field. It’s also impossible to know how he’s performing at practice, but all we can do is trust the coaches on this one, and his 2019 preseason hype was a little overblown. Although he made a few nice throws in garbage time against the Chargers, Stidham hasn’t shown much of anything to suggest he’s a future franchise quarterback outside of the 2019 preseason opener. Stidham is turnover prone and erratic at times, but it would be nice to see him in an environment where he’s got a full week of prep with the one’s to start a game. With that said, I’m not counting on him as a long-term answer.
2. N’Keal Harry, Wide Receiver
I know people are sick of me trying to make Harry happen, but if you watch the tape over the last three weeks, the 2019 first-round pick is improving. Harry is playing with more confidence, running crisper routes, and even testing downfield coverage even if the production isn’t there. His lack of statistical production last week against Miami was mainly an issue of the situation and not being on the same page as Newton, not Harry’s ability to get open.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is moving him inside more to the slot, which is also helping. In the play above, Harry gets a free release because of his slot alignment, which allows him to open his strides and push vertically off the line. He beats Dolphins corner Nik Needham on a deep corner route, losing the stumbling Needham at the top of the pattern, but Miami’s blitz forces Newton to get rid of the ball too quickly to hit Harry downfield.
Former Pats quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch said last week that the team was starting to see Harry come on a bit in practice as well. If these improvements are strides towards turning his career around, it would be nice to see it show up in the stat sheet these next two weeks.
3. Devin Asiasi, Tight End
The Pats rookie had a bad drop on an iffy pass by Newton that was a schemed opportunity by McDaniels that should’ve gone for a big play early in last week’s loss to the Dolphins.
Asiasi also had an opportunity crossing over the middle of the field off play-action that should’ve gone for a big play, but Stidham didn’t pull the trigger.
Plus, his blocking stood out over the last two games as he held his own in the trenches, which should earn him favor with the coaches.
Outside of the drop against Miami, we’ve seen much more promise from Asiasi than fellow rookie tight end Dalton Keene. The Patriots should establish confidence for Asiasi in these final two games, as he has shown starter potential in flashes. If the 2020 third-round pick can string some positive games together, he could be a year-two breakout candidate a la Damien Harris.
4. Dalton Keene, Tight End
Keene’s development as a traditional tight end was always going to be a long process. Still, he looks lost both technique-wise and mentally as a blocker while his routes are leaving much to be desired too.
On his fourth-quarter target last week, Keene allowed Dolphins DB Eric Rowe to keep his hands on him throughout his run up the seam, a big no-no for a receiver. With Rowe smothering his route, Keene doesn’t present much of a throwing window for Newton and might’ve missed-timed his jump as he tried to haul in the high pass. It wasn’t a good route or throw.
As a blocker, he’s still ducking his head into his engagements and looks unsure of his assignments when he’s in-line as a traditional tight end.
Belichick eluded to a learning curve after the Pats made the Keene selection, but it’s just not coming together this season for the rookie as a more traditional tight end. We’ll see how it looks in these final two games, but I still like Keene’s potential in a Tuszczyk-type role in the future.
5. Justin Herron, Offensive Tackle
The Patriots’ offensive line factory continues to churn out day-three finds as Herron is looking the part along with rookie standout Michael Onwenu. Both were drafted in the sixth round last April, and although it took Herron longer to catch on, he did some good things in his first start.
Herron’s best reps were as a run-blocker. He combined on a massive double-team block with left guard Joe Thuney and showed great footwork to seal the edge for Sony Michel. Both examples were impressive displays of efficient footwork.
Although he had some issues cutting off angles in pass protection, Herron has the foot speed to get to his landmarks once he gets a better grasp of the NFL game. Belichick suggested that Herron might be in for more of a swing or third tackle role next season rather than a starter. But there could be some shuffling along the offensive line with starting left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews as free agents. Herron could earn a starting role if he plays well in these final two games and carries that over into the 2021 preseason at either tackle spot.
6. J.J. Taylor, Running Back
We are saving “Little Dion” for last, but don’t sell him short; Taylor could be the future third-down back for the Patriots (okay, I’ll see myself out). Taylor brought some juice with his opportunities in the first month of the season before Harris’s emergence and offers intriguing receiving skills as well.
Last week, the Patriots flexed Taylor out wide to get him a matchup on a linebacker (bottom of screen). Newton’s pass to Taylor fell incomplete, but not before the rookie UDFA drew an illegal contact penalty on Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker on a slant-and-go (sluggo).
Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears referred to Taylor as “Little Dion [Lewis]” earlier this season, and Taylor’s burst, contact balance, and versatility make that an accurate comparison. The Pats typically redshirt rookie running backs, and with James White starting to age a bit, Taylor should get some opportunities in the next two weeks to tab himself as a potential White successor.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
7. Chase Winovich, Outside Linebacker
As Belichick has said all year, Winovich is a good football player. There’s no doubt about that. He’s explosive off the ball and is still among the league-leaders in pressure rate at edge defender. However, he hasn’t consistently set a firm edge in run defense and was undisciplined at times this season.
Finding an every-down role for the 2019 third-round pick hasn’t come easy, bringing into question his fit in a Belichick defense. Adding to that, the Pats’ short-lived experiment with Winovich at inside linebacker looks more like an offseason and training camp project rather than an in-season switch. Maybe he can carve out an early-down role at inside linebacker. We know Winovich can play, but can he play in all situations in Belichick’s defense? That’s still TBD.
8. Joejuan Williams, Cornerback
The easy take on Williams is that if he were performing in practice at a high level, the coaching staff would find playing time for him. Some of that is true, but it’s also more complicated than that. Williams is buried on the depth chart at outside corner, which explains why he’s not playing there. The issue is that rookie Kyle Dugger already beat him out in the Chung role, which is good for the team but potentially bad for Williams.
In Week 1, Williams looked good in coverage, locking down Dolphins’ tight end Mike Gesicki on a few occasions. He also got some run against the Chargers and held his own. Last week, Williams was inactive because Gesicki was down for the Dolphins. But with Stephon Gilmore’s injury, it should give the 2019 second-round pick a chance to play more, especially at outside corner. If it were me, I’d give Williams reps at outside CB opposite JC Jackson and let him sink or swim. Let’s see what the 23-year-old can do.
9. Anfernee Jennings, Outside Linebacker
Unlike Uche, Jennings has been quiet for the Patriots in his first season. The Alabama product is starting to see consistent playing time as the Pats search for answers at edge defender, but he hasn’t done anything notable and hasn’t done much after reviewing the film to turn heads. Physically, Jennings is holding up against NFL competition. To me, it looks like he’s overthinking and isn’t playing fast enough. More playing time could help that, or maybe he never adjusts to the speed of the game. It’s too early to tell.
10. Myles Bryant, Defensive Back
Belichick might’ve struck gold again with an undrafted defensive back. Bryant has shown the ability to play man coverage, the deep half, the deep third, and rotate into the box into short zones.
The undrafted rookies’ mirroring skills in man coverage out of the slot are particularly intriguing. In the play above, he maintains his leverage and doesn’t fall for any of Keenan Allen’s fakes in his release. With Bryant refusing to give up his inside positioning, Allen has to run through the Pats rookie up the seam rather than opening the door for an inside release to create initial separation.
Although he isn’t as fast in the open field, Bryant’s skillset is in the mold of Jonathan Jones, and is another versatile defensive back. The last frontier for Bryant is learning how to hold up against the run at his size (5-8, 183 pounds). Good play-callers attack box safeties and slot corners in the run game. Bryant needs to learn how to avoid head-on collisions.