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Curran: If Pats want to succeed in 2022, these players must step up

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Since the end of a 10-8 season (including playoffs) which saw them go 1-4 down the stretch, here -- in order of importance -- is a partial list of what the Patriots have lost.

  • Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator
  • J.C. Jackson, cornerback
  • Shaq Mason, offensive guard
  • Kyle Van Noy, linebacker
  • Ted Karras, offensive guard
  • Assorted offensive coaches

And here’s a list of new-to-them additions.

The Patriots re-signed a raft of their own free agents to maintain the status quo. 

  • Devin McCourty, free safety
  • James White, running back
  • Nick Folk, kicker
  • Matthew Slater, special teams
  • Brian Hoyer, quarterback
  • James Ferentz, offensive guard

And they have a fleet of players who are now on the market and could flee or return.

  • Dont’a Hightower, linebacker
  • Jamie Collins, linebacker
  • Ja’Whaun Bentley, linebacker
  • Trent Brown, offensive tackle
  • Brandon Bolden, running back

Even if the Patriots sign a big-ticket free agent, which seems a logical probability after clearing out the cap hits of valuable players like Van Noy and Mason, the team is still running a sizable trade deficit since the season ended. And the season ended badly because -- for the third straight season -- the Patriots nosedived in December, a month they previously owned.

Curran: Sorry Patriots fans, you had your free-agent fun last year

So they’re getting worse ... UNLESS!!!!

Welcome to the "lipstick-on-a-pig/whipped-cream-on-turd" portion of the program. Just hear me out!!

What if players the Patriots have already added ... get better? Want a list? Who doesn’t want a list? Away we go.

Jonnu Smith, tight end

This is the easiest place to start because he A) has the most talent B) is making the most money so he’s not going anywhere and C) can’t be much less impressive than he was in 2021.

The plan was for Smith to be a Swiss Army Knife piece in the Patriots offense. He got lost in the junk drawer. He had 28 catches on 45 targets and started 11 of the 16 games he played. He played 51 percent of the offensive snaps and had four drops, two of which turned into picks. All that after signing a four-year, $50M deal with $31.25M guaranteed.

 

Why’d it go so bad? Start with Smith skipping voluntary OTAs, which is absolutely his right. They are voluntary, after all. But the base also gets put down in April and May and Smith passed on showing up for that (as did many, many players in 2021 because of ongoing finagling over COVID rules).

Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne was at OTAs, explaining last May, "The more I can be comfortable in my game within the playbook, the better the team will be and the more successful I will be for the team. So it's just about being comfortable, knowing my assignments to a T where I can play free and play without thinking. This is the time to do it. Just getting my mistakes out now, this is kind of the time. I don't want to be making mistakes during camp."

Tight end Hunter Henry was at OTAs. His reasoning back then?

"I’m new to the team obviously, everyone knows that. But also, I honestly thoroughly enjoy this time of year. I’ve also had a bad time this time of the year too -- one year getting hurt and losing my season.

"But at the same time, this time of the year is great for the team. We get to build team chemistry at a slower pace sometimes early on, and then we get to continue to build. It’s a great time before training camp comes to just get a lot of reps in that maybe we can’t get back. I enjoy being here. It’s fun to be around the guys and to build this team chemistry as we go into the season."

Not only did Smith miss OTAs, he also got hurt the first day of mandatory minicamp. So there went that prep. And he missed more time in training camp.

Jonnu Smith
USA TODAY Sports
Jonnu Smith saw just 24 targets over his final 14 games in 2021.

When the season began, he was targeted five or more times in each of the first four games. But after a horrible game against the Saints in Week 3, Smith’s self-confidence seemed shaky. The Patriots’ confidence may have been too. He was thrown to 24 times in the Patriots final 14 games.

In late November, McDaniels tried to put a positive spin on Smith’s slow acclimation.

"The tight end position, obviously here and everywhere, is unique because you're involved in so many different things -- run-blocking, pass receiving, pass protection, alerts, motion. There's a lot of different things you have to do well," McDaniels said.

"Jonnu's tried really hard to do all the things we've asked him to do. I always think the first year that we have an opportunity to have a free agent in our system is kind of a foundational year."

 

Honestly, when you look at Smith’s deal, he was on a cut-rate number in 2021 -- a $1M base and a $5.5M cap hit. But this year, it’s different. Smith has a fully-guaranteed $9M base and a $13.7M cap hit. Next year, $6.5M of his $10M base is guaranteed and his cap hit is $14.75M.

They’re paying Smith to be a Pro Bowl-level contributor this year. Even if he’s twice as productive as last year, he still may not be that.

But he’s got to be better in 2022.

Josh Uche, linebacker

Uche was hilariously unblockable in minicamp. Every single snap, he was buzzing the tower of Cam Newton or Mac Jones to the point I was honestly wondering if he was just going 100 percent when everyone else was going 70. Senator Phil Perry was high on Uche leading into camp saying he could become a Pro Bowl-type player and Uche backed that up with a very good August.

Then the season started and he barely got on the field. Uche had 12 tackles in nine games. He missed four with an ankle injury, but even so, he never played more than 50 percent of the team’s snaps.

Perry: With free agency underway, where did the Patriots' money go?

With Van Noy, Collins, Bentley and Hightower in the linebacker mix ahead of him, you have the reason the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Uche was buried. But given the results, going with old reliables who didn’t prove too reliable may not have been the best plan.

With the linebacker overhaul and what is starting to feel like a shift away to speed over size, Uche’s in position to make a difference this time around.

Raekwon McMillan, linebacker

A second-round pick by Miami in 2017 out of Ohio State, McMillan missed his rookie season with an ACL. In 2018, he had 105 tackles in the middle of the Dolphins defense. In 2019, he had 72 tackles in 13 games. In 2020, he was traded to the Raiders and had 27 tackles as a rotational linebacker.

The Patriots signed him last March and he tore his ACL in August so he didn’t play a snap. He’s 26, 6-foot-2, 242 pounds and is (obviously) a bit injury prone. But unless he gets injured again, his contributions in 2022 will be better than 2021!

Cameron McGrone, linebacker

McGrone is a 6-foot-1, 234-pound linebacker taken in the fifth round last year. He’s from Michigan, just like Uche (and recently-traded Chase Winovich, a third-rounder in 2018).

McGrone missed all of his rookie year because of an ACL tear suffered in November of 2020, so basically, he redshirted. But he’s a skinny, speedy, situational linebacker who hits and covers. You don’t want him taking on guards and fullbacks for 50 plays but he’s got upside. (See below.)

Ronnie Perkins, defensive end

Perkins is a 6-foot-3, 247-pound defensive end from Oklahoma the Patriots took in the third round last year. Like McGrone, he didn’t play a snap. He’s a long-levered, high-energy player who -- if you’re asking me -- looks kind of stiff and not exceptionally fast or quick with his tiny little steps. But he’s in the mix on the edge.

 

Anfernee Jennings, linebacker

Unlike the other guys mentioned, Jennings is a big fella. He’s 6-foot-3, 259, drafted in the third round out of Alabama in 2020. He played in 14 games in 2020 and had 20 tackles.

Then last year was kind of odd. He missed the first three days of camp for "personal reasons." He returned, practiced and ended up on IR by the end of the month for undisclosed reasons.

ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported Jennings didn’t show up to camp in "peak condition" which is probably a gross understatement. So. Who knows. Again, third-round pick who -- if he sees the field -- will do better than he did last year.

Shaun Wade, cornerback

The Patriots traded for the 6-foot-3, 191-pound Wade in late August. A rookie fifth-rounder from Ohio State, the Patriots added Wade to give some depth to a corner spot that was without Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones.

Wade played 11 snaps in three games. He’s a long, skinny corner with really good ball skills who was once projected as a first-rounder but nosedived after his 2020 performance

Of all the players mentioned here, Wade is the sleeper who may open some eyes.

N'Keal Harry, wide receiver

Just kiddin'!!!