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Curran: Minicamp will provide first full look at overhauled Patriots

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Bill Belichick

A couple of years back, NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah -- a former scout with the Ravens -- shared a wonderful relic on Twitter.

It was Bill Belichick’s 1991 summation of the attributes he wanted to see at each position on the offensive side of the ball.

It wasn’t just a recitation of ideal height/weight/speed/hand size as Belichick was starting with the Cleveland Browns. Belichick’s wish list also included toughness, smarts, leadership and other intangibles. In his 23 years in New England, we’ve all seen players who fit those profiles flourish here.

Long story short, Belichick has "a type." Or "types." Physical. Mental. Play-style. Measurables. Some of those types evolve, as Belichick noted last week when I asked him about the Jeremiah tweet.  

“We change that every year,” he said.

Of course they do. Because the game does not remain static. While the Patriots of 2022 could definitely use an exact replica of Eric Metcalf on their roster, there’s no call now for a Touchdown Tommy Vardell.

For instance, the Patriots of the early aughts leaned heavily on giant space-eating defensive linemen and hulking linebackers.

At the start of the 2010s, the game morphed a bit as defensive linemen became a little more streamlined, linebackers got smaller and teams (the Patriots included) began deploying five or six defensive backs with regularity.

Still, in 2012, Vince Wilfork took 81 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps. He was one of the best players in football, to be sure, but a decade later the game’s evolution continues. Speed is the coin of the realm. And the 2022 Patriots are embracing this.

 
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The team that hits the field this week for mandatory minicamp represents a bit of a shift. Offensively, the team’s been adding speed for the past two seasons. Kendrick Bourne. Nelson Agholor. Second-round pick Tyquan Thornton -- the skinniest, fastest wideout the Patriots have ever taken.

The 2018-to-2021 Patriots did a nice job zigging while the rest of the league zagged with a run-based offense that bullied slimmed-down defenses. (The video highlights for this would be James Develin in Super Bowl 53 running over Rams linebacker Mark Barron, anything Cam Newton in 2020 or the wind game win at Buffalo in 2021).

But their best offensive weapon the past two years had been offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Many of the Patriots' biggest plays and most explosive games were thanks in large part to McDaniels’ scheming. The Patriots are trying to address their dearth of speed.

This week, we’ll see the first of what will be many iterations of what the Patriots think they ought to become in order to both keep up and get ahead.

Tom E. Curran

The transformation is even more pronounced on the other side of the ball. Kyle Van Noy (75 percent of the defensive snaps), Ja’Whaun Bentley (64 percent), Dont'a Hightower (59 percent), Josh Uche (22 percent) and Jamie Collins (18 percent) were the off-the-ball linebackers who got the most run last year. The Patriots released Van Noy and have yet to re-sign either Collins or Hightower.

Bentley is back -- he’s a capable run-stopper and played better in 2021 than he gets credit for -- but the other linebackers added or being counted on to fill the void are smaller and faster than we’ve seen in the past. Meanwhile, the Patriots keep adding talented safeties who can play at the second level.

Circling back to the Jeremiah tweet, I mentioned to Belichick how Thornton’s measurables were an example of the changing body types necessary for success.

"And their values," Belichick added. "Like, what a third receiver was when that was written and what a third receiver is now. And for a corner, for example, or a fullback, positions that are higher percentage play times versus lower percentage play times. That significantly changes the value; you see that in salary structures. We look at that as well at the end of the year. What positions (are being paid the highest), how does that look just economically? That is a sense of the value, league-wide."

"We can do whatever we want to do, but it certainly gives you perspective on how the league values certain positions," Belichick added. "I understand that the quality of the player at that position has a lot to do with (how much he’s paid), but you start to average it out, different three-year cycles, five-year cycles, 10-year cycles and see what the value of players is league-wide and we can look at what it is with ours. ... Yeah, we're constantly adjusting."

 

The adjustments so far in 2022 have been pretty profound. This week, we’ll see the first of what will be many iterations of what the Patriots think they ought to become in order to both keep up and get ahead.