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Perry's Mailbag: How utilizing empty sets under O'Brien could elevate Mac

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The NFL offseason is officially underway following the Kansas City Chiefs' win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. It should be an eventful few months for the New England Patriots as they look to rebound from a disappointing campaign.

Before all of the action, let's jump into some of your mailbag questions...

Michelle! I'll be fascinated to see how things shift in terms of personnel usage now that Bill O'Brien is running the offense. Instead of zeroing in on specific positions, though, I think there are two elements of the Patriots' attack that may become more heavily utilized with O'Brien in the fold -- hurry-up and empty -- and impact how positional groups are utilized.

Coaches familiar with O'Brien will tell you that if he has a matchup he likes, he won't hesitate to force that matchup upon his opponent over and over again until they prove they can stop it. It's what he did when he deployed Aaron Hernandez all over offensive formations with the Patriots, ran the no-huddle, and drove defenses mad since they didn't have an opportunity to adjust with substitutions.

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Was the tight end in-line? In the slot? In the backfield? How would defenders try to check him? Hernandez had a rare skill set, of course. But perhaps O'Brien can go to the hurry-up more often and get more out of someone like Jonnu Smith, who has been a non-factor far too often despite intriguing traits that should make him a queen-on-the-chess-board type.

As far as empty sets go, using them more could be something that helps Mac Jones both before and after the snap when it comes to identifying coverages and potential blitzers. O'Brien won't think twice to use those, either. When the Texans were at their best in 2018 (11-5 record) and 2019 (10-6) under O'Brien, they led the league in empty-backfield snaps, per Sports Info Solutions.

In New England, those types of formations could maximize the passing-game skill sets of players like Rhamondre Stevenson and Hunter Henry, splitting them out wide like receivers. The Patriots ran just 40 empty-set plays last season, which was 30th in the NFL. Not ideal. Particularly since Jones was so adept in those spots. Of the 32 quarterbacks with at least 30 empty-set dropbacks, only two passers were pressured less often than Jones (22.2 percent) -- Mike White of the Jets (20.8) and Dak Prescott of the Cowboys (20.9) -- indicating Jones had the ability to be among his own best pass-protectors, getting the ball out quickly. Jones also had the second-highest rating when working out of empty sets in the NFL last season (118.1), trailing only Jalen Hurts of the Eagles (125.7).

That's a large man, Andrew. There's plenty about him the Patriots would like: his size, of course; his toughness; the fact that he's a product of the SEC; his training at Georgia under Kirby Smart. And he could be the kind of matchup problem O'Brien would love. Is he fast enough to truly threaten safeties? Does it matter?

Bill Belichick has long marveled at players who are "open" even when they're covered. That's Washington. And he was athletic enough to jump over this guy... Even though the Patriots probably aren't moving on from either Henry or Smith any time soon, maybe Washington is the kind of rare specimen at a position -- and from a school -- Belichick loves who would be worthy of a first-round pick.

We sent Peter Skowronski to the Patriots in the first round a few weeks ago. He may be gone before the Patriots pick, though. Good ones at that position go fast. Broderick Jones from Georgia would be worthy of a look in the first round. If they want to move back -- or roll the dice and hope he falls to them in the second round -- Tennessee's Darnell Wright seems to check a lot of boxes for them. We gave him to the Patriots in the second round of the seven-round mock we cobbled together this week.

If the Patriots would rather go out and get a tackle in free agency, I think San Francisco's Mike McGlinchey would be their kind of guy. He's accustomed to a zone-blocking scheme under Kyle Shanahan so if the Patriots want to go in a more gap-oriented direction in the running game, maybe it's not a perfect match. But he'd be a right-tackle upgrade no matter the system. And while he wouldn't be cheap, he'd likely cost less than fellow free-agent tackle Orlando Brown.

Good question, Trygve. And thanks for listening. Jonathan Jones is an interesting guy who's extremely invested in the community. If Devin McCourty retires, I think keeping Jones would be important. But I think retaining Meyers may matter more. Giving Mac Jones a reliable player as they go through another coaching change offensively -- even if he's not a break-open-the-game down-the-field threat -- could pay real dividends. And in a league that is run by teams with elite offenses, keeping Meyers would help them elevate their floor.

To me, he's a no-brainer. Assistants should undoubtedly be considered. Coordinators and offensive line assistants, especially, in my opinion. Those coaches who work with blockers in the trenches make up what has become almost its own niche industry, yet those individuals can make or break your chances as a Super Bowl contender.

Do the Eagles get to the Super Bowl this year without Jeff Stoutland? Nope. Do the Patriots win all the Super Bowls they did without Scarnecchia, who regularly got the most out of unheralded players (and often helped them earn massive contracts elsewhere)? There should be a place in Canton for someone who mattered as much to the dynasty in New England as Scarnecchia did.

Speed. Strength. Toughness. Football IQ. Durability. I've had a few long conversations over the years with Matthew Slater about the intricacies involved in the full-speed hand-to-hand battles that occur between players on punt coverage. Because TV cameras are typically trained on punters and punt returners, folks rarely get to see all Slater has to do to get into position to make as many tackles as he's made over the course of his career. But what he was able to do in those moments helped elevate him over his peers.

Let's hit a few more quickly here...

The more good receivers, the better. But I'm not sure Keenan Allen, at this stage of his career, is the kind of strike-fear-into-a-defense player the Patriots could use. He'll be 31 in April. He missed seven games last year. The injury risk you incur as an interested team would be based entirely on what you guarantee him salary-wise. If it's not much, go for it. But he may have multiple suitors. Then you start to do the math and wonder if adding him (if he's available) might prevent you from signing someone like McGlinchey.

Meyers likes it in New England. But, especially as an undrafted rookie four years ago, he can't be faulted for signing with whichever team makes him the most attractive offer.

What's it look like? Did they win 10 games and miss the postseason? Did Mac Jones perform well and the defense experienced a letdown? Was it a repeat of last year? Suffice it to say, this is a big year for Jones. The team will want to have a clearer picture of what he can be -- and they'll get that with O'Brien in the fold after what amounted to a wasted Year 2 -- so they can make an informed decision on whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option. There's evidence to suggest that with a more experienced coach in his ear, he'll show he's worthy of that kind of investment.

I'd roll with the known commodity, the way the Eagles did when they traded for AJ Brown.

I wouldn't look at how they spend and make conclusions on how the Patriots feel about the long-term future of Mac Jones. The reason?

There's urgency within the organization to win right now. No matter what they feel about Jones' long-term future, they should be pulling whatever levers they can to improve this offseason.

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So if an offensive player gets a long-term deal, it's not necessarily because they know they have a long-term answer at quarterback. And if, on the flip side, they don't spend significant money on offense, it's not necessarily because their questions about Jones' long-term viability have made them timid.

They don't have time to function that way. Like him or not -- and it's worth noting that Robert Kraft went on the record last week saying he believes in Jones -- they'll do what they can to surround him with as much talent as they can. No time to waste. It's been four years since their last playoff win and ownership's patience was wearing thin a year ago.

If Brady wants to. It's not a priority for Robert Kraft, though he has shared his feelings on the topic more than once after being asked about it. I initially believed Brady would balk at something like that. But he has a hard time saying no to people he respects, and Kraft would certainly fall into that category. The two are in a good place, and I think both parties will be open to a variety of different types of celebrations of Brady's career whenever the time is right.

Not sure any of those names would impact Belichick's draft strategy in the third or fourth rounds. After that? Maybe. By then you're typically looking to fill out your roster with what are essentially long shots to make the roster. I think that's how I'd characterize just about all of the players you've mentioned when it comes to their chances at real roles in 2023. Perkins, a third-rounder two seasons ago who dealt with injury last season, might be the exception.

We'll bother Dane again in the near future. Tremendous resource for us. Huge brain.

Appreciate that, my friend. Prototypical Patriots pieces will start to drop in March. We'll have plenty of bags and mocks between now and then, too. Stick with us. Fun time of year.