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State of the Franchise: Will Cam Newton continue Patriots' reign?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the New England Patriots organization, Pats fans around the world and those who want to learn how to use Cam Newton's social media font:

The Patriot Way. It's something that gets thrown around quite a lot. The idea that a system is bigger than any individual player. We have seen many teams try (and fail) to emulate the Patriot Way. One big reason why: While it's good to have a catchy team philosophy, it's easier to accomplish consistent success when you have a Hall of Fame quarterback. But Tom Brady has exited Foxborough. Now, Bill Belichick and Co. must carry on with a new quarterback, a young man named [checks notes] Cam Newton. Yep, seems about right.

How the Patriots got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Starting out 8-0. The defense looked historically great, with New England yielding just 61 total points over the first two months of the season. During this dominant stretch, the Patriots went down to Miami -- a bizarre house of horrors in the Belichick/Brady era -- and routed the Dolphins 43-0. Demon: Exorcised!
  • Knocking off the Eagles in Week 11. I'm not sure if Patriots fans are still bothered by Philly for the whole Super Bowl thing, but a tight win at The Linc had to be gratifying.

The lows:

  • Suffering the first loss of the season in Baltimore. And it wasn't very close. Lamar Jackson and Co. jumped out to a 17-0 lead less than a minute into the second quarter, and while New England did close the gap to four points in the second half, the Ravens eventually prevailed 37-20.
  • Opening up December with consecutive defeats. While the losses came against a pair of talented clubs -- the playoff-bound Texans and eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs -- New England's December dominance is well-established, making back-to-back Ls quite notable. And it served as foreshadowing for the absolute debacle at the end of the month ...
  • Blowing it in Week 17. The Patriots had a golden opportunity to secure a first-round bye. All they had to do was beat the 4-11 Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Miami never wins in Foxborough. But after Ryan Fitzpatrick hit Mike Gesicki for a go-ahead touchdown with 24 seconds remaining, well, Miami won in Foxborough. This forced New England to host Tennessee in the opening round of the playoffs, and ...
  • Bailing out on Wild Card Weekend. Former Patriot Mike Vrabel beat New England for the second time in as many seasons, this time on the road and -- most crucially -- in the playoffs. Not exactly the ideal way for Brady to wrap up two decades in Foxborough.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Bill Belichick. Considered by many to be the greatest coach of all time. In any sport. Fine, in North American sports (because I'm sure there is a cricket coach or rugby manager somewhere who should be in this conversation, but I'm going to plead ignorance to that). But yeah, Belichick is indeed the greatest coach/manager in North American sports history. Because nobody has done what he has been able to do. Not only has he won six Super Bowl titles while in the big chair, but he's done so in the free agency era. In a league that thrives on parity. Through the decades, many of the greatest coaches across sports benefitted greatly from a nucleus remaining largely intact. But for the Patriots of the past 20 years, it's been two guys: Belichick and Brady. The two were a combo -- connected like Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge, the core of the greatest punk-pop band of the 1990s. Now Belichick on his own. In this situation, he's the Hoppus, getting to keep the band name as the only original member still on board. (That's right: Travis Barker replaced Scott Raynor on drums for Blink-182.) This is a chance for Belichick to prove to anybody who doubts his greatness. I'm not exactly sure who those people are, but I know they exist because, well, I've been on Twitter before.

The good news for Belichick is that he's had some experience with this before. Brady famously missed nearly the entire 2008 NFL season with a knee injury. With Matt Cassel under center, the Patriots went 11-5. Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season, but Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett combined to go 3-1. In general, over the last two decades of Patriots football, when a great player departs Foxborough, the next man up is ready to rock. But this is clearly going to be the biggest challenge of all. Not that a losing record would impact Belichick's legacy one way or the other. But he could really cement unparalleled greatness if he takes a Brady-less team to the Super Bowl. And honestly, I'm not betting against it.

Quarterback: Cam Newton. Pretty charmed existence you're living, Pats fans. New England had Tom Brady, who, you might have heard, was pretty good. And replaced him with Cam Newton on an obscenely affordable one-year prove-it deal. I know some of you are out there acting like Cam's returning to action like he's Bill Goldberg, who was well past his prime when he recently beat The Fiend to set up a PPV match against Brock Lesnar. But Cam is not far removed from being the face of the NFL. He was the MVP in 2015. And I know quarantine makes that seem like a lifetime ago, but it's not.

If I'm being real, this feels similar to what we saw in San Francisco during the 49ers' glory days, when they swapped in Steve Young for Joe Montana. Like that was fair. But seriously, there are a lot of the same vibes. Cam is 31 years old -- the same age Young was when he completed his first full season as the Niners' starter. Cam brings athletic running ability to the Pats' offense, just like Young did for the 49ers' attack. Of course, Young wasn't a former MVP when he took the reins from Montana.

I know that Cam has been injured in recent years, but the time off is ultimately going to do more good than harm. You all know in your heart of hearts that Cam still has a lot to offer to this game. But many just don't want to see the Patriots' dynasty continue even after Brady exits stage. I get it. You're human to feel that way. But Cam is going to be really good.

Projected 2020 MVP: Stephon Gilmore, cornerback. I know, you're probably thinking quarterback. Instead, I'll go with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Considered the best cornerback in the game today. And when you think of all the big-name AFC receivers he'll be tasked with shutting down (guys like Tyreek Hill), Gilmore's more important than anybody else on this team.

Potential 2020 breakout: Ja'Whaun Bentley, linebacker. The Patriots have experienced a lot of offseason changes on defense, especially at the linebacker position. Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy are gone. But again -- and I hate to keep repeating myself here -- the Patriots always seem like a team in flux. I'm old enough to remember when Richard Seymour and Willie McGinest left town and people thought it was the end of the dynasty. And then somebody else stepped up and filled the void. This season, that person will be Bentley. The former fifth-round pick will have to make a pretty big leap, but we've come to expect that in New England.

New face to know: Danny Vitale, fullback. One of the most underrated players for the Patriots in recent years? Fullback James Develin. He was a huge part of Sony Michel's prolific 2018 postseason. His absence last year -- along with that of tight end Rob Gronkowski -- really hurt New England's run game. Vitale is a good fullback. He could help Michel and the Pats' ground attack bounce back this year.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: EXTREME. I mean, it's the Patriots. Most teams would lose their Hall of Fame quarterback and expect a dip in productivity. And you would think last season's playoff humbling would lower expectations. But New England fans don't do humble. So, it's playoffs or bust for this team. And in reality, New Englanders expect much more than just making the postseason.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Dolphins. An immediate date with the team that helped end the Tom Brady era by handing the Patriots that stunning Week 17 loss in New England. The Pats typically handle Miami at home, but this is a chance for Cam to showcase how far he's come after two injury-plagued seasons.
  • Week 4 at Chiefs. With Patrick Mahomes now under contract through 2031, the Chiefs have the looks of a budding NFL dynasty. Kansas City and New England did battle in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, with the Pats winning that game and then the Super Bowl. In Week 14 of last season, Kansas City bested New England in Foxborough. Mahomes vs. Cam should be really nice.
  • Week 7 vs. 49ers. The Patriots have to face both of last season's Super Bowl participants within the first seven weeks of the season, and directly after this game, a road date looms at Buffalo. This is going to be a brutal stretch for the team.

Will the Patriots be able to ...

Find Julian Edelman some help? Edelman had 100 receptions in 2019 for a career-high 1,117 receiving yards. Some might even say he's a Hall of Fame receiver, given his immense postseason production. Edelman's great, but he did have 71 more catches than the Patriots' No. 2 receiver last year, Philip Dorsett. That was the second-largest differential, trailing only New Orleans' Michael Thomas, who had 119 more receptions than Ted Ginn Jr. But like the Saints, who have Alvin Kamara (81 receptions last year), the Patriots also have James White as an effective receiver out of the backfield. White had 72 grabs in 2019. In fact, since entering the league in 2014, White leads all NFL running backs in receiving yards (2,809) and receiving touchdowns (24). He's not quite Christian McCaffrey, but he's pretty damn impressive.

Still, though, the Pats need more from their other wide receivers. The Pats gave up a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu last October, but he made little impact down the stretch. One guy to keep an eye on is 2019 first-rounder N'Keal Harry, who had just 12 receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns in Year 1. Harry is an uber-talented receiver who could make that second-year leap that's pretty common at the receiver position.

Count on Sony Michel? I'm rooting for him. Mostly because he helped me win a fantasy title two years ago. But he's fresh off foot surgery, as well as a disappointing sophomore campaign. Michel did not reach 100 yards rushing in a single game last season. He enjoyed six such outings (including the playoffs) as a rookie. The Patriots have to be kicking themselves for taking Michel over his Georgia teammate, Nick Chubb. As noted above, Vitale could blow open some holes as the team's new fullback. And if it's not Michel toting the rock, somebody like Damien Harris could be an interesting possibility. Not to mention, a healthy Cam is about as good a goal-line back as there is. Although it seems a little unfair that those kids who have grown up knowing nothing but Patriots playoff success (well, maybe not last year) will also get free footballs from Newton.

Rely on the defense to be as stingy as last year's unit? The 2019 Patriots allowed the fewest points and yards per game in the NFL. Statistically, it was the best Pats defense of the Belichick era. New England has ranked top 10 in scoring defense in eight consecutive season. But last year's figures rang a little hollow after the D kinda came apart down the stretch. During the first eight games of the season, the Patriots yielded just 7.6 points and 234 yards per game. And I know you fantasy dorks were loving that, as you rode them and refused to stream defenses. But the second half of the year was, well, not great. It was like watching the second half of Wedding Crashers. Over the final nine games (including the playoff defeat to Tennessee), the Patriots allowed 20.4 points and 312.7 yards per game, going 4-5 in the process. And when you think of the losses of guys like Collins, Van Noy and Danny Shelton, this could be a trouble spot for New England. I mean, with Belichick in charge, it probably won't be -- shoot, they'll probably end up being the 2000 Ravens -- but it's still worth noting.

One storyline ...

... people are overthinking: Cam missing so much time last season. He's still just 31 years old, and maybe I'm getting too influenced by his Instagram feed, but the dude looks like he's in good football shape. Me? Yeah, I'd rather take a chance on a former MVP who's one of the most physically gifted players I've ever seen than roll with a fourth-round pick with four career pass attempts. Though, before the Newton signing, I was ready to make a case for Jarrett Stidham, because the Patriots are the Patriots. BTW, did you know that Cam is one of just two quarterbacks in NFL history to win at least 15 games in a season? The only other was Brady in 2007 (16).

... people are overlooking: The Patriots are the sixth team in NFL history to add a former MVP at quarterback after making the playoffs the previous season. Everyone one of those teams went on to make the playoffs, with the 1980 Kenny Stabler-led Oilers being the only club to make the postseason but not win the division. The 1972 Dolphins added Earl Morrall and then went undefeated and won the Super Bowl. The only logical conclusion we can take from this is the Patriots are going undefeated and winning the Super Bowl. I'm joking. (Maybe.)

ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: Who plays tight end for this team? You might not have heard, but Rob Gronkowski is also in Tampa Bay. And he retired before the start of the 2019 season, so you can't be that upset about losing him. He had already broken up with you and he wasn't coming back. (Although it seems weirder to see Gronk in a Bucs uniform than Brady. I don't know why, but it's true.) Patriots tight ends combined for an NFL-low 37 receptions (on 53 targets) last year. Matt LaCosse is at the top of the depth chart. But the team did just draft a pair of tight ends in the third round: Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Patriots MUST:

  • Make the AFC Championship Game. I mean, if the Patriots were going with Jarrett Stidham, you could reason that just making the playoffs would be an accomplishment, especially given how last season ended. But when you add a player like Cam Newton, you are putting yourself back in that conversation again. I won't say that New England's more talented than the Chiefs or Ravens, but the Patriots will be in the mix again because they still have the coaching G.O.A.T.

In closing

It's an interesting time for the Patriots. For years, you could count on the Pats to win the AFC East and get to the AFC Championship Game. At least. But now they are underdogs. I mean, it was always rich when New England annually tried to paint itself as this gritty ragtag bunch. It was disingenuous, like when the WWE tried to do that stuff with John Cena. Especially since Cena and the Pats always seemed to win. But this is the first time in a long time that the Pats have some real vulnerability. You have a coach trying to (further) prove his genius. A quarterback trying to prove he's still one of the best. For the first time in forever, the Patriots are, well, captivating. I can't wait to see how it plays out.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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