PATS REPORTER

Perry's Mailbag: Should Pats pay up for an upgrade at receiver?

PATS REPORTER

*Editor's Note: Every Friday during the NFL season, Phil Perry will answer your Patriots questions. Submit your questions to Phil via Twitter @PhilAPerry or via Instagram @philaperry.

Matt! You are the voice of a region. Seems like everyone wants to know if there's a chance the Patriots can add to what currently looks like a receiving corps lacking juice.

Let's eliminate Odell Beckham Jr. from the equation right off the bat -- for now, at least. His team just won a division game and he played well. The offense looked much better, and the quarterback looked somewhat competent. Don't think they'll be itching to deal one of their most talented players. 

That leaves Allen Robinson, who I think is the more intriguing fit anyway. Consider who Robinson has had throwing him footballs over the course of his career: Christian Hackenberg at Penn State, Blake Bortles in Jacksonville and Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago. We know he's a tremendous talent . . . and yet we still don't know just how good he is because of the quarterbacks to whom he's been tethered.

Is a Robinson trade realistic? Our Bears Insider JJ Stankevitz says they really have no other option than to extend Robinson. He's their best offensive player. He's 27. Their roster isn't really on schedule for a tear-down rebuild -- which trading Robinson for a draft pick would signal -- because they have big-money deals tied up in defensive players Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson and Robert Quinn.

 
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General manager Ryan Pace said recently that a cratering cap in 2021 won't "permit us from doing the things that we want to do." And it shouldn't. Star players like Robinson aren't likely to be impacted by the cap falling. It's the middle-tier vets who will likely be squeezed tightest.

How about on the Patriots' end, though? They have more than enough cap space to handle the prorated portion of Robinson's 2020 base salary that would travel with him in a trade. And because Robinson has just this year remaining on his contract, Chicago's asking price probably can't be exorbitant (another reason why it'd make sense for them to extend him rather than accept pennies on the dollar via trade.) 

Would the Patriots be willing to go to the lengths required to get Robinson? Give up a second-round pick -- the price they paid for an inferior player (albeit with an additional year on his contract) last season in Mohamed Sanu -- and perhaps more? Depends on how they view their team. 

If this is a rebuilding year, as our Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran has argued, then dealing away draft capital and shelling out big money to keep Robinson around long-term might not be the wisest course of action. The Patriots remain one of the league's oldest teams. And while the 2019 draft class showed out in Week 1, they need to continue to build up their foundation of young talent through the draft. 

I don't see this as a rebuilding year, though.

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The Patriots have the best coach and quarterback in their division. They have the best offensive coordinator and offensive line in their division. They have the best defensive player and best secondary in their division. This should be a playoff team.

And Robinson may fill their most glaring need -- an explosive-play threat who can win one-on-one matchups in obvious passing situations. There's a case to be made that paying for that player with a draft pick (or two) and then with a new contract -- particularly when the Patriots are scheduled to be among the league leaders in cap space in 2021 -- is worthwhile. 

It'd be an all-in kind of move, which the Patriots have already tried at that position with Sanu and Antonio Brown before him in 2019. But this may be the kind of year where an all-in move makes sense.

Next year could actually look more like a rebuild than this one. There's no guarantee Cam Newton remains in New England (though the Patriots could hand him the franchise tag) and Stephon Gilmore's contract will need to be reworked for next season. Other key players like Joe Thuney, David Andrews, James White and Lawrence Guy -- a franchise-tag player and three 2020 captains -- are set to hit free agency.

If this is the team's last best chance to be a title contender, and if Robinson can solve the most glaring question on the roster, that's a deal worth pursuing.

 

I thought both players played well in Week 1, Sean. Byron Cowart flashed some real power at times. Bill Belichick called him one of the team's most explosive players earlier this offseason, and that was on display against the run.

Deatrich Wise had, by my count, three pressures and a run-stuff. Rock solid. Still looks quick despite gaining some weight this offseason to handle more run responsibilities.

Much different challenge this week, though. The Patriots will have to "crush rush" and collapse the pocket around Russell Wilson, using their power to drive blockers back rather than knifing through the offensive line and opening up potential escape lanes. That's the defensive key, to me.

We know Belichick's secondary is great. But if Wilson can scramble -- either for yards or just to buy time to throw -- even an excellent set of defensive backs will look vulnerable.

I actually had Cam Newton down for just one scramble the other day, Justin, but your point is a good one. Can't really control that scramble number.

If the Patriots want to drop his overall number of rushes, they'll just have to call fewer quarterback sweeps, draws or goal-line runs. Another way to reduce the number of shots Newton takes? Call fewer option plays.

All he's going to do on those is take what the defense gives him. If an edge defender sells out to stop the running back option at the mesh point, that's going to lead to a Newton carry. So, as Josh McDaniels said earlier this week, had some of Newton's Week 1 option runs turned out differently his number of carries could've been cut in half.

But when a pass play breaks down, if there's no one open, and if there's a running lane . . . why shouldn't he take off? Even Tom Brady would occasionally take those scramble opportunities.

It's worth noting that against the Dolphins, when Newton scrambled, there was so much space he was able to get out of bounds untouched. That's obviously ideal.

Optimistic rock star? From Seattle, no less? Aren't you guys supposed to be, y'know, angsty?

I'll take this opportunity to mention, though, that I really felt like a 2018-type of performance was within reach for Newton if he was healthy. Through the first eight games that season, under a new coordinator who taught a timing-based passing offense, he was in the MVP conversation.

Remains to be seen whether or not Newton has enough in the way of weaponry to exhibit that kind of efficiency as a passer this season, but through one week? So far so good.

Hello, Megan! Believe it or not, Ryan Izzo played all but one snap on Sunday. He's their No. 1 tight end at the moment, with his experience level in the offense helping him take on a much more regular workload than his rookie teammate Devin Asiasi (10 snaps).

 

Outside of quarterback, I've heard NFL coaches say tight end is the toughest college-to-pro transition there is. The reason? Volume. Intricately involved in both the run and pass games.

Is Izzo the most talented player in that tight end room? I don't think so. I'd give the nod to Asiasi there. But Izzo's 25-yard catch against Miami was a really savvy play where he understood he was covered, understood Newton would see that he was covered, and broke off his route to find open space. I'm not sure the rookie -- either of them, Asiasi or Dalton Keene -- would see that situation similarly.

What got Izzo into trouble last year was that his blocking really blew up plays before they could even get going at times. If he's better there (Belichick has said he's healthier than he was as a rookie or second-year player, which has led to real improvement), then he could continue to rob snaps from Asiasi.

But I look at this matchup as one where Asiasi could play a key role, even if it's a lightly-used one. The seams down the middle of the field are typically a soft spot in Seattle's Cover 3 defense. We covered that in greater detail here.

Let's rip through a bunch of these, lightning-round style...

Gilmore's deal looks like an advance on his 2021 salary. So yes, I think it makes it more likely that next season they're at a contractual impasse.

They'll have cap space aplenty so they certainly could get something worked out. But this move doesn't make it more likely he sticks for next year.

I'd start with better effort. The Celtics lost their minds well before they started screaming at each other in the locker room after the game. Looked checked-out. Can anyone explain to me how that happens in the conference finals, exactly?

I know, Brett. We're all upset. Maybe asking for questions right after Game 2 wasn't the best idea...

Good to see Twitter remains as logical and well-reasoned as ever.

Probably because there hasn't been a more interesting team in pro sports over the last 20 years?

I said 9-7 before the season. Have to stick with that for now. So under. But check back in a month. Or after the trade deadline.

What's fascinating about Wilson is that the Seahawks don't run him on designed runs all that often anymore. He had a 28-yarder on a read-option play Sunday and finished the day with 29 rushing yards (their leading rusher).

Last season he took off on just 11 designed runs total. Newton exceeded that number in Week 1 alone.

So the Patriots don't necessarily have to be ready for a wave of zone-read or power-read plays the way the Seahawks will be against Newton. But the Patriots have used a "spy" plenty against mobile quarterbacks in the past. They're helped in that they're so good, usually, in man-to-man coverage that they can get away with going one-on-one across the board with one safety playing center field.

 

Six players, one for each eligible receiver and a free player. That's the essence of their Cover 1 scheme. That leaves five more to play with. In a four-man rush scheme, one player (a "robber" coming from the secondary or a "rat" from the linebacker level) could be used to take away intermediate routes. Or he could spy.

Against Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, at times, the Patriots would send a linebacker as part of the rush initially and then have him drop back to peek at the quarterback. You're sacrificing your rush numbers when that happens, but you're guarding against a potentially-explosive run play. I'm anticipating we see something similar Sunday.

Strong guy. Ridiculous balance. Good explosiveness at the second level. He's probably healthier, too.

A Cam Newton raise wouldn't surprise me. Guaranteeing him his incentives -- to pay him about Marcus Mariota money this year -- would make sense. An extension? Not sure, given his injury history and age.

I'll go with JC Jackson for now. His talent is obvious. And if there's any uncertainty as to just how long Gilmore remains in New England, he wouldn't be a bad insurance policy.

He might not be Gilmore, who had one of the best corner seasons in recent NFL history last year. But the team believes Jackson has top-end ability. 

Matchup. Spread team. Receiver-heavy. An ankle injury may keep Josh Uche out this week as well. The Seahawks are also a receiver-heavy offense.

No team used 11 personnel (three receivers) more often than Seattle last year. (The Rams were tied at 73 percent.) So even if Uche was healthy, this might not be an ideal matchup for him to make his pro debut.

Think you'll see a rotation with those players early on. Winovich played really well in his 42 snaps. I thought he was their best front-seven defender.

But conditioning is going to weigh on early-season playing-time decisions. Particularly with no preseason, and particularly with an outside linebacker group -- with Winovich, John Simon, Derek Rivers and Shilique Calhoun -- that has plenty of capable players.

If Winovich continues to flash, though, he could be in line to play even more than the two-thirds workload he received Week 1. 

False! Too early!

Did what the kids call a "deep dive" on this earlier this week. Similar concepts in the run game, but I'd expect wrinkles. Passing-wise, it'll have to look different. Zone team. Miami was a man team. Details on how I see the offensive Xs and Os playing out here.

Think this will continue to be sprinkled into Patriots offensive game plans. The Seahawks are no strangers to those concepts, though.

The Niners and the Rams run them above as much as anyone. But even if they're ready for it, doesn't mean they can stop it. They ranked 28th in run defense last season and they allowed 6.0 yards per carry against two-back runs in Week 1.

 

Could be another big day for Newton, Jakob Johnson and Patriots backs.