Three NFL powers could take major steps backward in 2020. Yardbarker's Chris Mueller, Sam Robinson and Michael Nania explain why.
ROBINSON: A Patriots effort to show why Bill Belichick, not Tom Brady, was more responsible for the team's dynasty may have to wait until 2021. Going from an all-time great quarterback to the winner of a Brian Hoyer-Jarrett Stidham competition presents long odds of the Pats staying on their usual level this season.
Beyond the ocean between Brady’s reliability and that of his to-be-determined successor, the Patriots both lost key defensive starters and are aging on that side of the ball. Bigger than the Patriots losing their top two 2019 sackers — hybrid linebacker-rushers Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy — is that their six projected defensive starters are north of 30 or set to be by year’s end.
The 2008 Patriots won 11 games with Matt Cassel at QB, but in addition to employing Randy Moss and Wes Welker, they returned nine defensive starters — six of them Pro Bowlers — from 2007’s 16-0 team. While Belichick largely keyed this dynasty by coaxing high-level play from evolving defensive nuclei, he also had Brady backing those efforts. As much as Belichick provided Brady with defensive stability his quarterback peers lacked, Brady’s consistency allowed New England’s head coach more freedom to change personnel on defense. Without Brady, this Patriots defense will need to be even better.
Examiners of preseason strength-of-schedule lists commonly find the Patriots near or at the bottom. This year, their .537 opponents’ win percentage — based on previous-year standings — tops the league. Last year’s 12-4 team feasted on a typical Patriot schedule (save for the Bills’ improvement). They beat four teams that held a top-five draft pick, caught the NFC East in one of the worst years in the division’s history and compiled their usual two wins over the Jets. That helped the Patriots lead the league in scoring and total defense. By Week 17, that unit could not stop the built-to-lose Dolphins from a 27-point outing that cost the Pats their 10th straight playoff bye.
Offensively, the troops that helped Brady’s QBR sink from sixth in 2018 to 17th last year are back — with little offseason augmentations. At receiver, Julian Edelman is now 34, disappointing trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu will be 31 in Week 1, and 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry is coming off basically an injury-redshirt year. The Pats drafted two tight ends in Round 3 but still have no certainty at this position — after last year’s group contributed little during Rob Gronkowski’s sabbatical. Famed offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia’s second retirement will not help matters for an offense that consistently features a strong front five.
None of this will add up to an easy time for Brady’s replacement. And if/once Stidham — a 2019 fourth-round pick who did not exactly dominate at the college level – takes the reins, the COVID-19 pandemic keeping him away from coaches and teammates this offseason will hinder his development. Although bypassing an Andy Dalton or Jameis Winston signing lowers the Patriots’ floor, Belichick’s ability to churn out high-end defensive play will likely prevent them from falling too far. But they are not built to extend their NFL-record run of 10-win seasons to 18.
Packers | 13-3 in 2019
MUELLER: Most every football fan is at least passingly familiar with one of the NFL’s truisms: Every year, there will be turnover. Each year since 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs after failing to make it the previous season. Normally, this dynamic is viewed through the lens of positivity; the chatter is about what these turnaround teams got right. The funny thing about math, however, is that for four new teams to make the postseason, four incumbents must backslide. No team is more likely to do that in 2020 than the Packers.
Identifying the Packers as a regression candidate is easy. Their point differential — plus-63 — was more in line with a 10-6 or 9-7 record, per Pro Football Reference’s expected win-loss metric, as opposed to the 13-3 mark they posted. They beat the Chiefs when Kansas City did not have Patrick Mahomes, scraped by woeful Detroit twice by a combined four points and overall won eight of their 13 games by one score or less. The Packers were surprisingly good on defense — ninth in points per game allowed — but middling on offense, ranking just 15th in the league in points per game. Aaron Rodgers played conservatively in his first year under new head coach Matt LaFleur, and had only one great receiving threat in Davante Adams.
Did Green Bay fix those problems in the offseason? Nope. The Packers instead made waves when they drafted Utah State quarterback Jordan Love 26th overall and did not spend a pick on a wide receiver, instead taking Boston College running back A.J. Dillon with their second-round pick and Cincinnati tight end Josiah Deguara in the third. Adams should be good again, but where is his help? No other player on the roster topped 500 receiving yards last year.
Moreover, what exactly is the plan? The Packers’ draft strategy suggests they are trying to become a power running team, but that takes the ball out of the still-talented Rodgers’ hands too often. Add to that the fact that Detroit should have a healthy Matthew Stafford and an improved defense, and that the Vikings had a bountiful draft that saw them grab LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson with the 22nd overall pick, and the NFC North figures to be a much tougher division than it was last year. If the Bears get out of their own way, there won’t be an easy division game on the schedule; the Packers will be hard-pressed to go 5-0 like they did at the end of the 2019 regular season.
Top all of that off with the potential for tension between Rodgers and LaFleur, and there’s plenty of cause for pessimism among Packers fans. Green Bay had a chance to maximize its winning window while Rodgers’ skills are still near their peak but chose to plan for the future. That decision might help the Packers for the next decade, provided their evaluation of Love is sound, but it does them no favors in the present.
Rams | 9-7 in 2019
NANIA: Formerly known as an offensive machine, the Rams' identity flipped upside-down this past season. Wade Phillips’ defense lifted the team to success, while Sean McVay’s offense was merely decent. Los Angeles placed ninth in defensive DVOA and ranked second with seven games allowing 13 points or less, going 7-0 in those contests.
The 2020 offseason has not been kind to that improved defense. Phillips is out as defensive coordinator as are key passing-game contributors Dante Fowler, Cory Littleton and Nickell Robey-Coleman. Fowler ranked 11th among edge rushers with 65 pressures in 2019. To replace him, the Rams picked up Leonard Floyd, who ranked 46th with 39. Littleton led linebackers with 22 pass deflections from 2018-19. Robey-Coleman allowed the third-fewest yards per target out of the slot in 2019 (5.2).
Yet with all of these losses, the only notable replacements added were the mediocre Floyd and run-stuffing nose tackle A'Shawn Robinson. The Rams added only one defensive player in the top-100 of the draft, and that was not until No. 84 overall (Alabama LB Terrell Lewis).
On offense, the Rams did nothing to fix an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranked 31st overall. The only money spent on the position in free agency went to re-signing the 38-year old Andrew Whitworth, who dropped below his usual top-tier status in 2019. Whitworth had a career-high 14 penalties and was only the 15th-highest graded left tackle at PFF, posting his worst grade since 2008.
Los Angeles' current projected starting five on the offensive line is made up of players who were key pieces of the team's atrocious 2019 unit, which was largely responsible for sinking QB Jared Goff and Co. to huge production dips. Just as they did with their major defensive holes, the Rams ignored this key need in the draft. They picked only one offensive lineman and that was with the 250th overall pick (Clemson G Tremayne Anchrum).
Running back Todd Gurley, now with Atlanta, may not be the player he once was, but his replacement is slated to be Malcolm Brown, who has career averages of 3.9 yards per carry and 3.1 receiving yards per game.
Ultimately, the Rams opened up a ton of holes on both sides and did an incredibly poor job of patching them. After already seeing a four-win dip in 2019, the Rams could see another one in 2020.