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There’s still plenty for the Patriots to be excited about despite poor 2020 record

(AP Photo / Charles Krupa)

When a team goes 4-6 through the first 10 games of a season after two decades of dominance, it may seem hard to find any positives in the situation.

So, you can’t blame New England Patriots fans for their disappointment in the first year of the post-Tom Brady era, given the resume the team has amassed since the future Hall of Famer replaced Drew Bledsoe back in 2001.

Head coach Bill Belichick put his eggs in Cam Newton’s basket for the 2020 season, signing the quarterback to a one-year deal in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

>>RELATED: Patriots sign QB Cam Newton: Evaluating the low-risk, high-reward move

Through the new-look offense’s first 10 games, the move proved to be hit or miss. Newton and company lost four games by one-possession, with the chance to tie or win on their final drive in each.

The other side of the ball looks drastically different from the Belichick-led defenses of the last few years, with the months leading up to the 2020 regular season wreaking havoc on the roster.

The team is without linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and more as a result of opt-outs related to COVID-19, and lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, and defensive tackle Danny Shelton in free agency.

Add on the injuries to wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back Rex Burkhead, and the year may seem like a lost cause for fans, and potentially even players and coaches.

With all of that said, why is there still so much for the Patriots to be excited about as the team evaluates its future?

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While many wonder about what’s next under center as it relates to Newton’s contract and second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, fans can take solace in the young players that have taken on big roles in the offense.

Starting in the backfield, the Patriots appear to have found a gem with Alabama alum Damien Harris.

The second-year running back didn’t get much playing time in 2019 due to a crowded depth chart, playing in just two games as a rookie and tallying just four rushes total.

Harris’ 2020 season didn’t get off to the best start either, as the 23-year-old started the year on the injured reserve. When he finally got his shot in Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs, however, he both literally and figuratively took the ball and ran with it.

With fresh legs after his time off the active roster, he put up 100 yards on 17 carries on a night where Brian Hoyer started under center for the Patriots.

>>RELATED: If you could only keep one, which of the Patriots’ six Super Bowl wins would you pick?

He came back down to earth the following week with just six carries for 17 yards against the Denver Broncos, and improved with 10 carries for 58 yards in a blowout loss against the San Francisco 49ers.

From there, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided it was time to let Harris loose and feed him the rock. He ran for a career-high 102 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills, and put up 71 yards on 14 carries a week later against the New York Jets.

He then exceeded all expectations in his first Sunday Night Football action as the Patriots took down the Baltimore Ravens in the rain, compiling a career-high 121 yards on a career-high 22 carries in the 23-17 win.

“Damien, I’ve always thought, was a pretty good player,” running backs coach Ivan Fears said. “I mean, it’s just a matter of getting it all in, getting healthy, timing. There are a lot of factors involved, but he’s definitely taking the bull by the horn and is playing really well right now. Really happy with him.”

Another young player who was “taking the bull by the horn” in the first 10 games of the 2020 season was wide receiver Jakobi Meyers.

After a lackluster rookie campaign that saw him record just 26 catches for 359 yards with Brady at the helm, Meyers turned into a top-tier target through the first half of the 2020 season.

The North Carolina State product recorded five more receptions through those 10 games than he did in the entirety of his first season, and put up 391 yards in the process.

The numbers get even better when you consider the fact that Meyers wasn’t targeted in two of the Patriots’ first three games in 2020, and he caught his only target for seven yards in the outlier of that timespan.

“[The relationship with Newton]’s definitely grown over time,” Meyers said. “Honestly, just getting reps with him, and being in the offense, finding my way, finding my fit in the offense took time to grow.”

The fruits of that labor became evident against the Jets in Week 9, where Meyers caught 12 of 14 targets for 169 yards in a 30-27 Monday night win.

“I’ve been one of his biggest fans ever since he’s gotten here,” Patriots running back Rex Burkhead said. “He’s just a playmaker and has no fear, has all the confidence in the world to go out there and make a play.

“For him to be morphing into the player that he is today, it’s just hard work paying off for him,” Newton said after the win.

Harris and Meyers aren’t the only ones putting in the work to improve in their first few seasons with the Patriots, either.

Third-year cornerback J.C. Jackson has emerged into not only one of the team’s biggest defensive threats, but one of the best cornerbacks in the entire league.

>>RELATED: Patriots CB Jonathan Jones continues to move forward, both on the field and with Next Step Foundation

His six interceptions through the first 11 weeks of the 2020 season were tied for the league lead, and his five consecutive games with an interception were a franchise record.

“He has a real good knack for finding the ball,” Belichick said. “Obviously, he has good hands and quick hands, the ability to locate and catch the ball without seeing it all the way in.”

“Those are tough plays and he does an excellent job of that. He has very good ball awareness.”

Second-year linebacker Chase Winovich’s high motor on defense has made him an important part of the new-look defense in 2020, and he proved his worth as a pass rusher with 10 quarterback disruptions against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in Week 10.

Then, there’s a player like Michael Onwenu, who has turned into one of the team’s best offensive lineman through the first half of his rookie year.

“I think he’s done a really good job,” Belichick said. “He’s a smart kid, he’s got a lot of physical playing strength, he’s a good athlete, he’s got good football smarts and awareness and he’s done a good job for us.”

>>RELATED: Joe Andruzzi Foundation helping former Patriots lineman make impact in life after football

Yes, a 4-6 record may take away from some of the efforts, and may lead some to believe that the season is a wash. It may even lead some fans to tune out of the team’s final six games of the 2020 season, as the Patriots try to forge a seemingly-impossible path to the playoffs.

But, in a year full of so much uncertainty as a result of COVID-19, the team’s coaching staff should be pleased with the production that its young players have been able to put up in their first, second or third seasons

Has it all led to the same types of end results that fans have become accustomed to since the 2001 season that started a dynasty? No. Will it even lead to a playoff appearance at the end of the 2020 season? Probably not.

But, even if the Patriots were to go 4-12 in 2020, talented young players like Damien Harris, Jakobi Meyers, J.C. Jackson, Chase Winovich, and Michael Onwenu should pave the way for some excitement when thinking about the future of the franchise.

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