How Bill Belichick has thrived when Patriots turn to 'next man up'

How will opt-outs impact the Patriots? (2:10)

Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon react to the Patriots losing multiple players for the season and explain what it means for the rest of the league. (2:10)

If anyone can survive the unusual offseason the New England Patriots have had, it's coach Bill Belichick. He has built a dynasty with the "Patriot Way," a winning, team-first culture backboned by the "next man up" mentality.

The 2020 NFL season might be Belichick's toughest test yet. The offseason, including the opt-outs of six Patriots players this week (most notable is linebacker Dont'a Hightower), has led to lower expectations -- at least according to Las Vegas. New England's pro football championship odds are at 20-1 according to Caesars Sportsbook (through July 30), its worst preseason odds since 2002.

The Patriots' roller-coaster offseason has included some massive changes. For example:

  • They return 57% of last season's snaps, the second lowest percentage in the NFL, behind the Panthers (47%).

  • Eight of their top 15 players, in terms of snaps, who played last season are not returning.

  • Four of their eight longest-tenured players are not returning (kicker Stephen Gostkowski, quarterback Tom Brady, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and Hightower).

Consider this adversity another opportunity for the Patriots' "next man up" mentality to thrive under Belichick. Here are what some numbers from past Patriots' seasons reveal:

  • Someone always steps up: Under Belichick, they have had 141 different players score a touchdown, third most in the NFL since 2000 behind the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, per the Elias Sports Bureau

  • There is value to be found: In the past 10 seasons, they have had the most snaps by undrafted players (55,620) in the NFL. That includes players such as center David Andrews, cornerback Malcolm Butler, wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back LeGarrette Blount.

  • They can overcome losses at the most important position: Since Brady's first career start in 2001, QBs not named Brady have a 13-6 record for the Patriots. That includes starts from Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett

Has New England's system been perfect when it comes to replacing important contributors? Of course not. Consider:

2019 -- Benjamin Watson/Matt LaCosse: If you want to make a case for the Patriots struggling in 2020, look at how they replaced tight end Rob Gronkowski last season. Patriots tight ends combined for an NFL-low 37 receptions in 2019 following Gronk's retirement. It was one of the many reasons New England finished 17th in offensive efficiency, the team's only ranking outside the top 10 since the metric's inception in 2006.

2009 -- Patriots' defense: They had traded defensive end Richard Seymour and Vrabel, and safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi retired. The holes on defense became exposed against the Ravens in the AFC wild-card game. Baltimore running back Ray Rice went untouched for 83 yards on the first play of the game, and Baltimore put up 234 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground in a 33-14 win.


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Rare examples aside, the mentality, which has been a constant in New England, has been a hallmark of its sustained success under Belichick. For two decades the team has been able to overcome injuries, win despite some controversial personnel decisions and find hidden gems and castoffs around the league.

Check out more examples throughout the past 20 years of how the Patriots have fared when turning to the "next man up":

2017 -- Amendola/Chris Hogan: Amendola and Hogan saw their roles expand in 2017 after wide receiver Julian Edelman suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. Their biggest contributions were in Super Bowl LII, when they combined for 14 catches and 280 yards, a game that also saw Brandin Cooks leave with an injury.

2016 -- Trey Flowers: Flowers, a fourth-round pick in 2015, was pressed into action after Belichick traded defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals. Flowers emerged with a team-high 7.0 sacks in 2016 after he had played one game in 2015.

2016 -- Garoppolo/Brissett: The Patriots started their Super Bowl season 3-1 when Brady served a four-game suspension because of the Deflategate investigation. Garoppolo won his first two starts before injuring his shoulder, and Brissett won his debut, 27-0 against the Texans, in place of Garoppolo.

2015 -- James White: White stepped into Shane Vereen's role, catching passes out of the backfield, once Vereen signed with the Giants. White had 14 receptions and the game-winning OT touchdown in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons.

2014 -- Butler: The undrafted free agent from Division II West Alabama will be immortalized for his interception in Super Bowl XLIX. Butler also emerged as the No. 1 cornerback in 2015, following Darrelle Revis' departure in free agency. However, the "next man up" mantra burned the Patriots in Super Bowl LII when Butler was benched and New England lost 41-33 to the Eagles, allowing a season-high 374 passing yards.

2014 -- Blount: The running back was conveniently signed one day before Jonas Gray infamously missed Patriots' practice following his 201-yard, four-TD game. Gray didn't play the following week and Blount was the beneficiary. He ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game, a 45-7 win.

2013 -- Julian Edelman: Before Edelman became Brady’s go-to guy and a Super Bowl MVP, he was a special-teamer who occasionally filled in for Wes Welker, and even played some cornerback when the Patriots were thin at the position. Not to mention, he was a seventh-round pick and a former college quarterback. He burst through in 2013 after Welker signed with the Broncos, shattering his previous career high (37 catches in 2009) with 105 receptions.

2010 -- Rob Ninkovich: A journeyman who was released by the Saints and Dolphins, Ninkovich ultimately filled the hole left by Mike Vrabel at linebacker. Ninkovich won two Super Bowls and led the Patriots with 45.0 sacks from 2010 through 2016.

2008 -- Matt Cassel: The quarterback stepped up when Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 of the 2008 season. Despite entering the season with 39 career pass attempts, the 2005 seventh-round pick led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. Cassel ranked ninth in the NFL in Total QBR (63), ahead of the likes of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, San Diego's Philip Rivers and Dallas' Tony Romo.

2007 Wes Welker: Troy Brown passed the torch to Wes Welker as the team's slot receiver. Welker, another unheralded player acquired by Belichick, had five 100-catch seasons in New England and was a perfect complement to Randy Moss during the Patriots' historic 2007 season.

2005 -- Asante Samuel/Ellis Hobbs: Belichick made a controversial, cost-saving move in 2005 when he released future Hall of Fame cornerback Ty Law. The move led to the emergence of 2003 fourth-round pick, Asante Samuel, who became the team's No. 1 corner, and rookie third-rounder Ellis Hobbs.

2004 -- Troy Brown: The Patriots coach moved veteran wideout Troy Brown to slot cornerback midway through 2004 with cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole injured. Brown picked off three passes during the regular season, including one off former teammate Drew Bledsoe. He also played a key role on defense in the Patriots' 20-3 win against Peyton Manning's Colts in the playoffs.

2003-04 -- Vrabel: Belichick loves versatility and Vrabel, a linebacker by trade, is a great example. Vrabel caught 10 passes from Brady in his career, all touchdowns, including go-ahead scores in Super Bowls against the Panthers and Eagles. The Patriots have had 13 different players catch Brady's 18 touchdown passes in Super Bowls.

2003 -- Eugene Wilson: The first high-profile example of a controversial personnel move by Belichick was team captain Lawyer Milloy in 2003, who Belichick cut a week before the season to save salary-cap space. Harrison, a free-agent signing at safety earlier that offseason, stepped in for Milloy. But it was Wilson, a 2003 second-round pick, who added much-needed depth. Wilson had four interceptions his rookie season.

2001 -- Brady: The quintessential example of next man up is Brady. The 2000 sixth-round pick stepped in for an injured Bledsoe, making his first career start in Week 3 of the 2001 season. Brady was thought of as a game manager that year, but consider that his five game-winning drives in the fourth-quarter/overtime (including Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams) were tied for most in the NFL. Six Super Bowls later, the rest is history.