Patriots

Curran and Perry address 15 Patriot questions that need answers

Patriots

Once the dust from the Patriots' free agent land rush settled, all focus went to the draft. And once the Patriots drafted a quarterback with the 15th pick, focus swung to that position. And there it’s stayed.

Is there any angle left unexplored? Cam and Mac. Mac and Cam. Maccam. Cammac. What’s Cam gotta do to fend off Mac? How ready is Mac relative to Cam? What if Cam stinks in the preseason? What if Mac is a savant? We’ve spitballed about as much as we can on how things might go between those two at that spot.

Maybe for a minute we look elsewhere at some of the other interesting questions that could use answering.

Our Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry answer 15 remaining questions that are still facing the Pats entering the summer.

What if Jarrett Stidham is good?

When camp starts, the best arm there will be dangling from the right shoulder of Jarrett Stidham. What if he makes the leap in this offseason that he failed to in 2020’s truncated offseason? We all know that players make their biggest leap in the offseason before their second year. Stidham didn’t really have one. Nor was he high on the learning curve when the Patriots drafted him out of Auburn.

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His quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer discussed this saying, "The gap he had to make up (from college to the NFL) was the most significant gap I’ve seen. Out of anybody I’ve trained for the NFL Draft -- and I’ve trained over 35 guys and 10 of them started as rookies, I do this every year -- I’ve never seen a gap like that.”

The critique when he was coming out that Stidham has “inconsistent reactions to pressure” still applied last year. How much did that have to do with the lack of an offseason, the lack of high-end talent, the pressure of coming on in mop-up situations? Dunno. But if he’s better this year, that’s a good thing. Right? -- Tom E. Curran

Which second-year player makes "the leap"?

Kyle Dugger will be the stock answer for most here. But I'm going to go with Josh Uche. I believe he has a little more room to grow -- Dugger already looked like a starting-caliber strong safety last year -- and Uche showed impressive flashes last year that indicated he could be a consistently disruptive player with more time.

In the weeks he was available (Weeks 8 through 16) he was third in the NFL among all edge rushers in pass-rush win rate, according to Pro Football Focus. No. 1 was Joey Bosa of the Chargers. No. 2 was Samson Ebukam of the Rams. Then Uche. TJ Watt of the Steelers was fifth. Pretty good company. As a versatile inside/outside linebacker, Uche could be a valuable piece in Bill Belichick's front-seven in 2021. -- Phil Perry

Is Dont’a Hightower still Dont’a Hightower?

A pissed-off Dont’a Hightower is a force of nature. When the Patriots were getting run over, around and through during their 2019 regular-season meeting with the Ravens, Hightower blew a gasket on the sideline and then went about demolishing Baltimore’s offense and Lamar Jackson for the next little while. Tyler Higbee found out in Super Bowl 53.

He’s one of the NFL’s most underrated players. And he missed last season after opting out. Now he’s back, at 31, and in my opinion immediately becomes the Patriots best front-seven player. If he’s the same player he was before opting out – and my suspicion is he will be – the Patriots defensive brain has its prefrontal cortex back (that’s the part used for decision-making … yes, I googled) and its amygdala (aggression). -- Curran

What would it take for Mac Jones to start Week 1?

As Bill Belichick said on draft weekend, "Someone would have to play better than he does." The "he" there was Cam Newton. And that's not out of the realm of possibility. If Newton looks the way he did late in camp last year -- he had an eye-opening stretch of inaccuracy and slow decision-making in late August -- then the door would be open for Mac Jones or someone else who's performing well. Easy as that.

 

Additionally, first-round quarterbacks play these days. Of the 32 drafted in the 10 drafts before 2021, the vast majority were playing around the middle of their rookie seasons, and only four -- Jordan Love, Patrick Mahomes, Johnny Manziel and Jake Locker -- were given something resembling a "red-shirt" year. Teams generally want those high-end investments to yield results. And quickly. The Patriots won't be any different if the options ahead of Jones aren't competitive enough. -- Perry

Is this N’Keal Harry’s last roundup?

To me, one of the sadder moments of 2020 came in the third quarter of the Patriots blowout loss to the Rams. Already down 17-3 and doing little offensively, Cam Newton completed a 30-yard pass to N’Keal Harry on a second-and-20. You’d have thought it was the Lynn Swann catch from Super Bowl X. But that’s how low the bar for the 2019 first-round pick has been set.

He’s played 21 of 32 regular-season games and has 45 career catches. He’s averaged 9.4 YPC. The ability – as we saw on that catch and intermittently during training camp last year – is there. The ability to do it practice-after-practice, week-after-week, game-after-game is not. And it’s not just the injuries – which Harry has been victimized by. Newton described Harry as mentally “battered” by the start to his NFL career and assimilating to the demands of the Patriots operation.

So, as he enters his third season, the question to me is whether Harry can establish enough consistency in camp to keep him on the team. Because peek-a-boo glimpses of his so-far unrealized potential are not enough. -- Curran

What are the Patriots doing with all their cap space?

The Patriots have about $15 million remaining in available salary cap space, even after handing out a record amount in guaranteed dollars this offseason. They won't need that much to handle their in-season expenditures. So are there more moves coming? Could be.

The most obvious area of the roster that could still use addressing would be the receiver position. Outside of Nelson Agholor, they are short on proven starting-caliber wideouts. Keeping some money on hand in case the Jets release Jamison Crowder? Not a bad idea. And if Julio Jones is really going to be available from the Falcons via trade, that's an acquisition the Patriots could consider given the breathing room they have cap-wise.

They'd need to create more than what they have to make a Jones deal work, but that should be doable through restructures or extensions for contracts already on the books. -- Perry

Will the niche Jakobi Meyers carved still be there?

On the other hand, we have Jakobi Meyers. Undrafted in 2019, his presence has actually softened the damage done by Harry’s lack of production since Meyers has produced about as you’d expect a first-rounder to perform in his first two seasons. Last season, Meyers led the team with 59 catches for 529 yards. Buried at the start of training camp, he had one catch in the first five games. And in his next nine games he had 47, outpacing Harry’s career output so far.

 

Clearly, he can play. But do the Patriots believe he produced because he was the only game in town last year? Or do they see him as fitting in nicely with Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and the new tight end crew? I wouldn’t bet against Meyers. -- Curran

Which late-round rookie makes it?

Given the dearth of explosive options at receiver, let's not rule out seventh-round pick Tre Nixon out of UCF. But sixth-round offensive lineman William Sherman feels like the better bet. A durable lineman at Colorado who played both tackle spots, he'll have the ability to kick inside to play guard. Plus, he told reporters after being drafted he'd been working out at center as well.

If the Patriots are interested in keeping an eighth lineman who gives them some versatility behind Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown, Shaq Mason, Mike Onwenu, David Andrews, Ted Karras and Justin Herron, it could be Sherman. The recent acquisition of interior lineman Alex Redmond could thwart Sherman's chances at the roster, but he feels like a decent bet compared to Nixon (drafted 50 picks later) and safety Joshua Bledsoe (drafted earlier out of Missouri but trying to crack a deep defensive backfield). Fifth-rounder Cam McGrone will likely begin the season on a reserve list after tearing his ACL last season at Michigan. -- Perry

Is Kyle Dugger ready to be the enforcer?

The two best hitters on the Patriots defense last year were rookie Kyle Dugger and linebacker Terez Hall. Plucked from Lenoir-Rhyne in the second round, Dugger bucked the trend of second-round defensive backs selected by the Patriots who go belly-up. He’s dynamic, aggressive, smart, polished and still on a very steep upward trajectory as he starts mastering the intricacies of NFL safety. And he’s spent this offseason so far studying the work of his strong safety predecessors Patrick Chung and Rodney Harrison.

“Those guys, there’s definitely some similarities in the positions they were playing in their careers, and the type of game style they played,” Dugger said this week. The physicality of the sport – unembraced as it sometimes is in 2021 – is elemental. And Dugger brings it in throwback style that could soon make him a tone-setter for the team. -- Curran

What's the end game with Stephon Gilmore?

Said this before the draft. When thinking about Bill Belichick's team-building approach in 2021, it's good to start with this thesis: He wants to win right now. Keeping with that thought, it would make sense for the Patriots to do whatever they can to keep their No. 1 corner. That means it's time for an extension. In my opinion. He won't want to play on a $7 million base salary for 2021. But would he accept an extension that would pay him $62 million over four years (an average annual value of $15.5 million)? One that guarantees him almost $36 million?

 

That's the kind of deal that Migue Benzan (@patscap on Twitter) laid out earlier this offseason as a reasonable extension for the former Defensive Player of the Year. That AAV would slot Gilmore behind Byron Jones and ahead of Xavien Howard, both of the Dolphins, as the sixth highest-paid corner in football. Reasonable. It would still have him behind Philly's Darius Slay, which Gilmore may not love. But at 31 years old? Coming off an injury? Might be hard to pass up. -- Perry

Is the offensive tackle situation stable?

On paper, the Patriots have to feel good about the potential of their tackles. Isaiah Wynn is on the left side. When he’s on the field, he plays at a level that justifies his first-round selection. Trent Brown is on the right side. When last seen in a Patriots uniform, he was helping win a Super Bowl and earning the right to sign a contract soon after that would potentially make him the highest paid offensive lineman in NFL history.

The issue? Wynn has played in just 18 of 48 regular-season games thanks to an assortment of injuries. And Brown is back with the Patriots after the Raiders decided to cut ties after two disappointing seasons in which he played 16 games due to injuries. If they are who the Patriots thought they were, New England has the best offensive line in football. Arguably. If they aren’t the Patriots are dipping into depth and that’s going to be an issue. -- Curran

Is there still room for a fullback?

I think so. Even though the Patriots didn't really use a fullback in their offense the last time they featured two tight ends, there should still be room for one on the roster. This Patriots running game has evolved since the days of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez teaming up as the best tight end duo in football. It's evolved since Sammy Morris got 64 run-blocking snaps in 2010 and Lousaka Polite saw 17 run-blocking snaps in 2011.

This is a power-running game with massive offensive linemen like Mike Onwenu and Trent Brown as well as one of the best run-blocking guards in football in Shaq Mason. It's a team that leaned on Jakob Johnson for an average of 16 run-blocking plays last season. In 2019, Johnson, James Develin, Eric Tomlinson and Elandon Roberts combined to help the Patriots average almost 12 snaps per game with a fullback. In 2018, Develin was a lead blocker on a whopping 339 snaps including playoffs. He never had fewer than 200 run-blocking snaps in a season from 2013 through 2018.

They want to be a bully offensively. I believe the fullback -- a position many defenses aren't accustomed to preparing for these days -- will have a place in that type of scheme. -- Perry

Is the offense about to roll back the clock?

The Patriots have collected two of the league’s best tight ends and paid handsomely for each of them. They re-signed behemoth right tackle Trent Brown, drafted a massive, Blountian back and have a quarterback who runs it twice as well as he throws it.

 

So while the rest of the NFL creeps closer to 7-on-7 style football, the Patriots are getting big, bigger, biggest on offense.

This embrace of 80s style football predated Cam Newton. It’s what the team started doing in the latter half of 2018 and continued through 2019. Then it was by necessity. Now it’s by design. -- Curran

How often can the tight ends REALLY play together?

Back in 2011, the only season in which both Gronkowski and Hernandez each played over 1,000 snaps, both were on the field for the vast majority of New England's offensive plays. Gronkowski played almost 95 percent of snaps that year. Hernandez, meanwhile, was on the field for more than 77 percent of plays. If both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry are able to stay healthy -- even though neither are quite the physical talents that Gronkowski and Hernandez were -- they may duplicate that kind of usage. If they do, they'd annihilate the marks set by top 12-personnel offenses last year.

The Titans and Eagles both deployed two tight end sets with two receivers and one back on 35 percent of their offensive plays in 2020. On third down, those 12-personnel numbers for Philly (23 percent) and Tennessee (26 percent) dropped significantly in favor of more receiver-heavy sets. Whether or not the Patriots feel as though they can do the same, given their personnel in the receiver room, will be one big-picture storyline to follow through the early portion of the 2021 season. Their best pass-catchers are tight ends, but can an offense thrive using heavier sets in obvious passing situations in today's NFL? -- Perry

Can more be put on Gunner Olszewski’s plate?

It’s worth noting that last summer, the Patriots tried to bring Olszewski along as a receiver. But the leap from Bemidji State cornerback to beating NFL corners while catching passes from Jarrett Stidham and Cam Newton was a bridge too far. He really struggled to catch the ball.

But bet against Gunner at your own peril. Last season, he was in a decision-making slump as a punt/kick returner and then - down the stretch of the season - he was so good he wound up being an All-Pro.

So could Olszewski make a jump as a wideout? Again, best not to rush the judgment. -- Curran