New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Rebounding Defense Makes Patriots Contenders Again

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Replacing Tom Brady was never going to be an easy task. So why not throw in a global pandemic that stripped the team of half of its defensive starters, too? You know, just for a challenge.

It would be easy to chalk up the Patriots' 7-9 record in 2020, their first losing season in the 21st century, to a complete and utter lack of manpower. On offense, replacing a franchise legend didn't go as smoothly as one might have hoped. New England didn't even sign their replacement starter, Cam Newton, until June 28, prompting a frantic replacement and rewriting of preview pieces and Almanacs across the league. Even under normal circumstances, learning an entirely new offense and gaining chemistry with a new set of receivers in two months would have been a Herculean task; doing it with contact limitations and virtual meetings was beyond impossible. Even if Newton had been able to stay healthy—never a guarantee for a player who hasn't really been healthy since 2016—the Patriots may well still have put up their worst offensive DVOA since 1999.

And on defense? Well, of course the Patriots couldn't match their 2019 highs, and not just because defense fluctuates more year-to-year than offense does. There was some fear that 2020 would see a massive number of COVID opt-outs, disrupting the integrity of the league, but most teams dodged that bullet. Not the Patriots! With a league-high eight opt-outs, three more than any other team, including four presumed starters, the Patriots had to shuffle to refill a defense that had already lost Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts in free agency. The Patriots entered the 2020 season with the biggest net Approximate Value over replacement lost on defense we had ever recorded (since 2003), and then followed that up with a league-high 69.0 adjusted games lost due solely to the pandemic, over twice as high as any other team. With that much loss of manpower, there's no wonder the Patriots couldn't live up to their 2019 numbers.

In fact, some would say, the plan...