Perry's Five Takeaways from Patriots offseason: Flores Era upon us
FOXBORO -- The Patriots were scheduled to finish up their spring workouts with practices on Thursday and Friday, but after a visit to Fenway Park on Monday and a trip back in time on Tuesday, Bill Belichick opted to send players home until training camp.
While the number of passing-camp practices was cut short - something Belichick has done several times in the last decade - there was still plenty to take away from the sessions reporters were able to attend. Here are five quick-hitting, big-picture notes...
FLORES TAKES CHARGE
We've seen Brian Flores don a headset in the past as the defensive play-caller for the Patriots, but that was only for the occasional preseason game, when everyone knew Matt Patricia would be running the show when the games mattered. This year, Flores will take on defensive coordinator duties (if not the title) with Patricia gone. Though it would be difficult to take anything away from OTAs and minicamp and label it Flores' "style" - he's said he hopes his defense looks like a Belichick-coached defense - it was clear that the linebackers coach had no issue taking charge in the practices that were open to reporters. He pulled players from drills, sent others on laps, and generally carried himself as an emphatic, no-nonsense manager. From what the media saw, Flores never gathered the entire defense around him and laid into his players the way Patricia has in the past, but Flores has long commanded respect from players, and it looks like that will not change even as Flores' responsibilities have.
ANSWER TO EDELMAN SUSPENSION* MAY BE OUTSIDE
Julian Edelman's four-game ban for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy - which he is appealing* - could have a domino effect on the Patriots offense. There is no clear fill-in for Edelman because he has a unique ability to play both inside and out, and his connection with Tom Brady is difficult for anyone not named Rob Gronkowski to replicate. Jordan Matthews may be the biggest beneficiary should Edelman miss time because the former Eagles and Bills wideout has significant experience in the slot. But the best way to patch up the passing game without Edelman could be to have Chris Hogan do his damnedest to fill in for his teammate of the past two seasons. That might then allow Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt or Malcolm Mitchell (if healthy) to take on the outside-the-numbers role typically reserved for Hogan. Is Hogan too high-cut to run Edelman's routes? Not shifty enough? Maybe. But just as the Patriots want their "best five" offensive linemen out on the field in front of Brady, a 1-2 punch in featuring Hogan in a quasi-Edelman role and someone else on the outside might be what allows the Patriots to get their two top wideouts on the field together most often. How the Patriots use their running backs could factor into the equation as well, but I would not expect to see Rex Burkhead take on a full-time receiver role because he's shifty and has dependable hands. We may see more of Burkhead (or James White, or Sony Michel, or all three) but it seems unlikely that any one back would align for dozens of snaps a game to help make up for Edelman's loss. If the suspension is upheld, the Patriots are going to have to find a short-to-intermediate receiver Brady trust. Right now, there's little clarity as to whom that would be.
BOUNCE-BACK CANDIDATES DEFENSIVELY
Even without pads, one of the benefits of watching spring work is getting to see how players who finished the last season injured are progressing. Dont'a Hightower looked athletic and fluid in his drops in the passing game. He played some on the outside but looked to be primarily aligned in the middle of the Patriots defense. During one practice period, he made a quick-reaction deflection of a Brady pass in mini-camp that served as an indication that he was feeling good after missing the last half of last season due to a pec injury. Edelman and Derek Rivers, both coming off of ACL tears last preseason, also appeared to be moving well. Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones and Nate Ebner were limited this spring so we'll track their progress in camp. All three could play significant roles in the kicking game in 2018, and both Joneses could have a shot at sub-package roles in the secondary.
LIFE AT CORNER AFTER BUTLER
How the Patriots replace Malcolm Butler bears watching, but there are any number of candidates at the moment. The front-runners to play opposite Stephon Gilmore still have to be Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty. But we didn't see either of those veterans get much time with the first defense at mini-camp. Rowe played there some and showed good ball skills in one session by forcing a Dwayne Allen fumble and then scooping it up for what would've been a touchdown. McCourty, meanwhile, wasn't given any time with the defensive regulars. Instead, JC Jackson got the bulk of the work in mini-camp. Others - Ryan Lewis (a practice-squad player last season) and seventh-round rookie Keion Crosson - showed up in OTAs with impressive work on the outside. If the Patriots can get what they expect out of Rowe, McCourty and Gilmore, then add to that trio some combination of young cover men for depth, this could still end up as one of the deepest positions on the roster even without Butler.
WYNN AND BROWN VYING TO BE THE NEXT LEFT TACKLE
We covered this in-depth earlier this week, but it bears repeating since Nate Solder's departure via free agency was widely regarded as the most difficult to address. It still won't be easy, but at least the Patriots have options. They picked up both Trent Brown (in a trade with the Niners) and Isaiah Wynn (No. 23 overall) on draft weekend, and it looks as though they'll have the first cracks at protecting Brady's blindside. Because Joe Thuney has missed time with a foot injury this spring, Wynn has taken reps at left guard and Brown saw the majority of the work at left tackle. When Thuney is healthy, though, this could look like more of a straight-up competition between the undersized rookie and the massive, newly-acquired veteran. The Patriots have others with experience in the system who could factor into the competition - Cole Croston and LaAdrian Waddle - but it feels as if it'll be left to Brown and Wynn to duke it out for one of the team's most important starting jobs early in camp.