Tempered expectations. That might be the best way to describe the vibe as the 2022 Patriots head to training camp this week.
There’s a bit of a bridge-y feel to things. Tight to the cap, they pretty much sat out free agency while saying "see ya" to some really good and/or really veteran players -- J.C. Jackson, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Shaq Mason to name a handful.
They led off the draft by taking an offensive guard. The operating philosophy for the post-McDaniels offensive coaching staff seems to be "What the hell, let’s try it and see how it goes ..." All from a team that -- after 13 games last year -- was the top-seed in the AFC before cratering down the stretch.
A slogan like “2022: Watch Us Recalibrate!!!" isn’t going to put fannies in the seats. But with six guys carrying cap hits of more than $10 million this year and just three next year (with a projected $60 million in cap money as it stands today), that’s kinda what it is.
All the things that need figuring out are front-and-center for the top storylines heading into camp. And the intrigue starts at the top.
Heat's up on Bill
In late March of 2021, owner Robert Kraft lamented the Patriots' poor draft record in recent years and hoped for better results with a more collaborative approach. Bill Belichick and his staff delivered with Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson as headliners.
In March of 2022, Kraft lamented the lack of postseason wins over the past three seasons. Will Belichick deliver again? More importantly, how does the most accomplished coach in NFL history respond to not-so-subtle pokes of "What have you done for me lately?" It’s not like Belichick is unaware the team hasn’t won postseason games.
But moves and decisions made -- huge money for Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith, not having a McDaniels succession plan, trading down from potentially helpful defensive players in the first round -- are all under scrutiny this year and that’s all set against the constant backdrop of Tom Brady continuing on as one of the best quarterbacks in football long after the Patriots were antsy to move on from him.
How's the offensive setup look?
We can drop the shell game. Matt Patricia is the acting offensive coordinator. He is title-less because A) Belichick loves being mysteeeeeerious about who’s doing what, B) Patricia can dodge weekly media access periods that named offensive coordinators would normally be subject to, thereby allowing Belichick to keep the "one voice" approach he desires C) naming him a coordinator would mean the Patriots would have to pay him like a coordinator and why do that when the Lions are still paying Patricia through the end of the 2022 season?
So what will offensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s operation look like? My guess? It won’t be nearly the disaster being forecast. He’s certainly no dummy. He’s a maniacal worker. And -- Detroit disaster aside -- players truly enjoy him. Plus, people learn things from failure. One would expect Patricia is a better coach now than he was when he left the Patriots in early 2018 because we evolve in our jobs.
As for quarterbacks coach Joe Judge, he’s got a "Don’t screw it up ..." mandate with Jones. Judge is, in my experience, a really good guy but he is extremely intense and given to sermonizing. Witness some of his late-season press conferences in New York last year. Less may be more with Mac who is hard enough on himself. The Jones-Judge chemistry will be a major factor in Jones’ development from Pro Bowler as a rookie.
Down on the corners
I understand why the Patriots said goodbye to both Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson in the past calendar year. I don’t understand why drafting a corner earlier than the fourth round this year wasn’t a priority. Maybe Jack Jones will be Asante Samuel 2.0 -- it appears he’ll have every chance to make a case -- but there’s no way to look at the current corner depth chart and feel awesome about it dealing with the artillery the Bills and Dolphins are rolling out.
Especially because, with Jackson, the Bills dined well on the New England secondary. Camp will be where we get our first indications whether Malcolm Butler can roll back the clock, Jalen Mills can go from steady to outstanding or Joejuan Williams can change the conversation around his disappointing arc since being drafted in the second round in 2019.
Let’s flip to a fun and optimistic topic.
Despite the Patriots not having that one impossible-to-deal-with wideout, they have a lot of players who can be a problem. Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, DeVante Parker, minicamp surprise Tre Nixon, second-rounder Tyquan Thornton and Agholor are a very interesting mix of players who -- combined -- check every box necessary with the exception of run-after-catch terror.
So how does the pecking order unfold? Will Parker be what N’Keal Harry couldn’t be? Will Bourne take another big step forward after an outstanding 2021? Will Agholor be a tad more surehanded and give the Patriots the production he gave the Raiders in 2020? Can Nixon be the waterbug?
During minicamp, we saw fifth-year offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn flipped to right tackle with Trent Brown taking reps at left tackle -- Wynn’s customary spot. Why? Was that a one-off or a permanent thing? And what kind of offensive shift may be forthcoming because of that tweak if it does indeed become a permanent thing? We got the eyes on it.
Life is transactional. I give you something. You give me something. The Patriots are giving Jonnu Smith a lot of something (money). In 2021, he didn’t give much back. His fault? Their fault? Nobody’s fault? Doesn’t matter.
Bottom line is, the team needs more bang for its buck from a player who has the versatility and explosiveness to be an offensive centerpiece. Smith can’t be a major factor in September and October without first building in July and August. This camp is critical for him.
Who's on third (down)?
The Patriots offense works best with a smart, tough, productive and dependable third-down back. Kevin Faulk. Danny Woodhead. Shane Vereen. James White. They are the oil in the engine. With White coming back from a hip injury and nearing the end of his career, somebody needs to step into the role. Ty Montgomery? J.J. Taylor? Rookie Pierre Strong? Maybe even Stevenson? Somebody with soft hands, blitz-pickup ability and some shimmy to find the sticks is vital.
There’s smoke everywhere that the Patriots are switching things up a bit on offense. Is it just simplifying terminology and shelving stuff that’s no longer relevant post-Brady/McDaniels? Or will there be a sea change to a simpler, more user-friendly offense and away from the sophisticated but demanding offense that was so reliant on post-snap reads by quarterback and receiver? We may not get the answer during camp because if the Patriots are switching things up, they’ll keep it under wraps when we’re watching. But we’ll be looking for signs.
Linebackers in flux
With Hightower, Collins and Van Noy gone, the Patriots have a whole lot of institutional knowledge, success and production to replace. Who do they finger to do it? How effective will the approach be? Will it be linebackers doing the second-level work or will they be using hybrid safeties even more? If the defense is going to perform better than it did at the tail end of 2021 this group of untested unknowns is going to have a huge say in it.