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Perry: Who will be Mac Jones' go-to guy in crunch situations?

/ by Phil Perry
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Week 1 is upon so what better time to go through the mailbag ...

The easy answer? He doesn't think he's risking everything.

Is it ideal? No. But Bill Belichick views his secondary as having a symbiotic relationship with his pass-rush. Effectiveness in one area can help make up for a lack thereof in another. It would be logical to assume then that Belichick believes having Matt Judon, Dont'a Hightower, Josh Uche, Kyle Van Noy and Christian Barmore at his disposal up front will mitigate whatever he lacks in coverage.

We'll see how it ultimately plays out. I'm of the belief that teams will target Jalen Mills and target him often so long as he's the No. 2 with JC Jackson bumping up to the No. 1 role while Gilmore is out. But my guess is Belichick believes he can get by for a month and a half with a replacement-level player on the outside.

Patriots Talk Podcast: What to expect from Mac Jones in 2021, plus Kyle Van Noy 1-on-1 | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

The Patriots catch a break not having to see Will Fuller (suspended) in their opener, which should lighten the load on the corner group. The Jets, Saints and Texans -- three more of their opponents with Gilmore out -- don't possess overly-intimidating receiver groups, either. The Jets have former Titans No. 2 as their No. 1 wideout in Corey Davis. They're also dealing with a receiver on the COVID list (Jamison Crowder) and their second-round pick from last year (Denzel Mims) is still going through some growing pains. The Saints will be without star wideout Michael Thomas for six weeks as he begins the season on PUP. The Texans have little in the way of established receiver talent behind Brandin Cooks. It'll be a different story when Tampa Bay (Week 4) and Dallas (Week 6) come to Gillette Stadium. But those other matchups? The Patriots should be able to survive in the secondary with Gilmore out.

 

I think one of them will be Jakobi Meyers. He's been the team's most dependable receiver since the offseason began. And he was their most dependable guy last year. Feels like he's in the trust tree.

I think another will be either Jonnu Smith or Hunter Henry. Not sure which just yet. If I had to lean one way, I'd say Smith. He's the more dynamic of the two, and he's practiced more. Good news for the Patriots is that Henry is out of his red non-contact jersey and should be able to participate against Miami without many, if any, restrictions.

Belichick obviously wants capable special-teamers, HC. And if the question facing him is about keeping a legitimately capable special-teamer on the active roster or a borderline-NFL-caliber player at another position, it's a pretty easy choice for him. A special-teamer who will play is more valuable on the 53-man roster than a position player who won't (and might be a healthy scratch on game days).

Even if that position player plays some special teams -- like receiver Kristian Wilkerson, for example -- he'd have to really excel there to bump Brandon King or Brandon Bolden off the roster. I'm not sure this year's 90-man roster was oozing with so much position-player talent that it demanded Belichick part ways with any special-teams specialists. In fact, the fact that the Patriots didn't have a single player claimed on waivers at the end of camp is an indication of the fact they just didn't have an excess of capable (and therefore desirable) players.

Big-time challenge. Fascinated to see how the Patriots play the early portion of their schedule. Is it an extension of the preseason? Does that mean starters get some down time in September? Are there "pitch counts" to help players stay healthy late into the season? Or is it a cross-that-bridge-when-we-get-to-it situation for Belichick? The games all matter. Hard to dial back and just hope to be healthy when there's only so much you can do to control your injury luck. That's exactly what it is a lot of times -- luck.

The rep division is the one thing I'd say wasn't incredibly odd, James. We tracked it every day. Mac Jones got a smattering of snaps with the starters before the game with Washington. Same thing (though slightly less) in the build-up to Philly. There were days when he got more total reps than Newton. The team was testing him all summer to see if he could get ready.

 

Then we obviously saw what happened after Philly. Cam Newton was out. Mac Jones got all the work. When Newton came back, they split first-team reps. The preseason finale was just a way for the Patriots to balance out some of the first-team snaps from that week. Jones was in the mix from the beginning. But Newton's absence, in my opinion, flung open the doors of opportunity for Jones to waltz right through.

It won't be incredibly painful for them so long as their tight end group stays healthy. With two backs or two tight ends on the field for a large percentage of snaps, the Patriots really only need two wideouts to lean on. They have three they really like. If injuries hit Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne or Jakobi Meyers, that would be an issue. Until then, their depth there should be OK.

Sony Michel played a lot as a rookie, you'll remember. When rookies don't play it's because there's someone very capable ahead of them on the depth chart. Unfortunately for Stevenson, that's the case with Damien Harris. I believe this could look like 2019, Harris' rookie year. He would've played had Michel missed time. Michel didn't miss time. If Harris stays healthy in 2021, Stevenson's role could be miniscule. That said, Stevenson has two things working in his favor: 1) his hands and 2) his special-teams ability. He can cover kicks. That may get him into uniform and on the field more frequently than some of his rookie running back predecessors in New England.

I'm a simple person, Andy, so the logic behind that statement was simple. Points are up. The best teams in the NFL are usually the highest-scoring and often the best at passing the football. I think the Patriots will be a good team this year, and for them to reach that level, they'll probably need their quarterback to have statistics that are better than Brady's were in 2001.

Could the Patriots defense be a wagon? Could their running game move the chains and eat clock? Of course. And as a result, the Patriots could win games by scoring in the low 20s (as they did in 2001) and keep Jones' passing numbers low. All that is possible. But even the run-happy Ravens and Titans have much more efficient passing attacks than the one Brady directed in 2001. Lamar Jackson averaged 7.3 yards per attempt last year. Ryan Tannehill was at 7.9. Brady was at 6.9 in 2001.

You can run the ball a lot and have a good offense in today's NFL. It's possible. But you still need to be very efficient through the air to win. Jones may need to be more efficient than Brady was in his first year as a starter in order for the Patriots to end up where they want to go. The style of play in 2021 -- not to mention the rules -- should help Jones quite a bit in that regard.

 

Yes.

The latter, I think. I view Taylor as more of a hybrid player -- like Dion Lewis -- than a replacement for either James White or Damien Harris.

Quite possibly. Only the Ravens blitzed more often than Miami (41 percent of opponent dropbacks) did in 2020. They'll bring five, six and seven-man pressures. To go from the relatively vanilla world of preseason football to Brian Flores and the Dolphins in Week 1 will be a real test for Jones.

He could be a No. 4. Particularly since he brings value to the table as a return man. But he needs to find more consistency with his hands. Drops have been an issue.

I don't think that's unfair. Jones is such an unknown it's hard to peg him. 

I think they'll try to do what they like to do (play man-to-man) when the matchups make sense. But there could be several weeks of action with Gilmore out that man-to-man doesn't make sense. Does it benefit the Patriots to have Jalen Mills or Joejuan Williams or Shaun Wade shadow Mike Evans in Week 4, for instance? Probably not. They'll adjust week-to-week, and series-to-series, as they always do.

Hard to say at this point in the year, John. But if they can figure out a way to get Elandon Roberts on the field and throw in his direction -- out of 12 or 21 or 22-personnel packages -- that might be one area of the Miami defense the Patriots target.

Thanks for reaching out, Murph. I don't think so. I think this style of play -- heavier personnel sets that can take advantage of smaller, faster defenses across the NFL -- is what Belichick would be looking for regardless of his quarterback's skill set. The reason? Going heavy works with any style quarterback, so long as that quarterback can handle all the under-center aspects of the game. Most college quarterbacks are more accustomed to spreading things out and playing out of the shotgun -- Jones included -- but the rookie first-rounder seems to have those aspects of the Patriots offense smoothly. 

That's a pretty good group right there, Doug.

They're expecting that will be Nelson Agholor.

Put me down for the local guy, DJ. Our buddy Bob Glauber has convinced me that, even if Zach Wilson shows promise, his team isn't going to win many games.

 

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