The NFL is hitting its dead zone. With mandatory minicamps and OTAs in the rearview and training camp a little more than a month away, it’s the calm before the six-month storm of the season.
Aside from the late-June addition of Cam Newton in 2020, what you see with the Patriots roster at this time of the year is usually what you get until camp starts.
Which doesn’t mean they’re done. What they have right now is a rough draft. Tweaks, corrections, additions and subtractions to a retooled defense are coming. Offensively, the team is going through a coaching reboot that will remain in progress through camp.
So what are the biggest questions the Patriots need to get answers to when training camp starts? You came to the right place.
Who is opposite Jalen Mills?
The Patriots have had a Pro Bowl-level cornerback in their secondary since 2012 when the trade deadline deal that brought aboard Aqib Talib was struck.
Think of the high-level corner play they’ve gotten. After Talib it was Darrelle Revis for a year then Malcolm Butler from ’15 to ’17 with Stephon Gilmore aboard from ’17 to ’20 then J.C. Jackson the past two years. A decade-long stretch of having either a shutdown guy (Gilmore, Revis, Talib) or playmaking ballhawks (Jackson, Butler).
Last season, Mills was very capable in his first year with the team after coming from the Eagles. Pencil him in on one side. Butler -- who looked fine in the largely non-competitive OTAs -- is probably the starter opposite Mills right now. But he was out of the league last year and scuffled at times with the Titans. Will he be able to turn back the clock?
One player to watch is the wiry rookie Jack Jones. He got a ton of run during OTAs and minicamp and he’s got a chance to wedge himself into the rotation because of his competitiveness and ball skills. Dakota Randall at NESN did a nice breakdown of Jones. The player he reminds me of? Another fourth-round pick -- Asante Samuel -- who turned into a Pro Bowler then an All-Pro.
The Patriots are still absurdly tight to the cap. Our friend Miguel Benzan, the foremost Pats capologist, has them with about $325K of space which, in relative terms, means they have about enough to buy a roll of Certs.
They need to drop that number by either extending/reworking the contracts of the likely suspects (Nelson Agholor, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, etc.) or by making a deal that would clear space in one fell swoop like the one I theorized they could do with Isaiah Wynn. They’re in this jam because of last year’s free agent splurge which followed failed draft picks at spots like tight end and wideout.
It will be interesting to see how they solve it. With a move that causes almost no impact like a restructure or with a deal that causes roster tremors?
Who is at which tackle?
Bill Belichick pooh-poohed the fact that Wynn and Trent Brown were flip-flopped for some minicamp reps -- Wynn at right tackle and Brown at left tackle. Nothing to see here, just building depth, Belichick insisted.
"We’ve done it every year for 20 years," said Belichick. No doubt. Players take reps at various spots a lot which is why you can see a capable center like Bryan Stork able to play at left tackle for a stretch in 2015.
But the Brown-Wynn flip-flop wasn’t just a brief switch. With Wynn in the final year of his deal and left tackle a premium spot, maybe the Patriots are beginning the transition away from him a year early. Or maybe the Patriots feel they’d prefer Brown next to rookie Cole Strange on the left side rather than Wynn. Or maybe it’s just idle reps building depth. It’s a spot we’ll be watching in July.
The Patriots may have had the league’s worst array of wideouts and tight ends in 2019 and 2020. But within two years time, they’ve done a good job collecting talent at both spots. Wide receiver in particular.
Their two most productive wideouts are Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne. The highest-paid wideout is Nelson Agholor. The wide receiver sparking the most optimism is newly-added Devante Parker. Then there’s rookie second-rounder Tyquan Thornton. And second-year player Tre Nixon, who had a very nice minicamp. And hi N’Keal!
So that’s seven wideouts. Add those seven to a pair of tight ends with ball skills and somebody’s got to go.
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It shouldn’t be Meyers, who signed his RFA tender this week and is reportedly working on an extension with the team. Won’t be Bourne or Thornton (although I wouldn’t be surprised if Thornton does a redshirt year). Agholor’s contract is fat but his salary is almost untradeable. Plus he’s their best downfield threat because Thornton isn’t going to be ready out of the gate. And Parker is a great get who should give the team what Harry failed to.
There’s a lot to sort through and somebody’s going to get boxed out.
The rise of the Uch-Grone? The McGruche?
Josh Uche and Cam McGrone, your time is now. There’s a chance for this pair of Michigan men to make a big impact at linebacker for a transitioning Patriots defense. Uche’s a second-round pick from 2020 who has absurd edge speed and -- as we saw during the spring -- promise as a second-level player in coverage. McGrone was a 2021 fifth-rounder who dropped that far because of injury.
Steve Belichick described Uche as "an important piece of the puzzle" for the 2022 Patriots. Belichick gushed about McGrone’s practice impact in 2021. Just how much will the Patriots be able to put on the plate of these two (and Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Ronnie Perkins and Anfernee Jennings) as they retool their linebacker room?
If the Patriots want more speed on the field -- and they’ve said they do -- Uche and McGrone may be the best guys to bring it. But both are practically unproven, so July and August are vital for both.
Who is the third-down back?
The most critical skill positions in the Patriots offense for the past couple decades (aside from quarterback) have been slot receiver and third-down back. The chain-movers. The mismatch-makers. League-wide, cheeks get flushed at the thought of who WR1 and WR2 is, meanwhile, the Patriots stacked Lombardis because of their little guys.
So we’ll presume that, no matter what tweaks are coming, the slot and third-down back remain critical. We know Meyers is the primary slot. But who’s the third down back? James White is still hobbled by his hip surgery after getting hurt early last year. Brandon Bolden -- who caught 41 of the 49 balls he was thrown last year -- is now a Raider. The obvious "next man up" is J.J. Taylor, a human fire hydrant at 5-6, 185-pounds. But he’s only been used sparingly in his first two years despite looking like a would-be weapon in camp and preseason games.
We’ll keep an eye on how the reps get divvied up between rookie Pierre Strong and Taylor. Strong, a fourth-rounder from South Dakota State, is a bit bigger than Taylor and has similar waterbug traits as a runner. A lot is asked of the third-down back in terms of blitz-pickup and option routes so it’s not a plug-and-play spot. But the Patriots need someone to rise up and take that spot.
What's the offense going to look like?
Bill Belichick let it slip last week the Patriots won’t be running the "Veer" this year, so that landlocked staple of Pop Warner football is off the table. But what will the tweaks look like when the Patriots are done streamlining their offense for Mac Jones and turn the operation over to Matt Patricia and Joe Judge?
Shaking it up a bit does make perfect sense. The Patriots had the offensive equivalent of Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson with Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels for 20 years. The bag of tricks was 50-feet deep with those two -- or even one of the two -- running the offense. It was obviously effective but maybe not so user-friendly. The most important aspect of the offense isn’t the complexity of the playcalls and surprising defenses (which McDaniels majored in), it’s got to be the execution and everyone learning at the same pace. That means coaches and players.
A transition to an offense with similarities to the Niners and Rams wouldn’t be a surprise. The Patriots flushed their blocking fullback. They have multi-skilled tight ends, wideouts who can run it (Bourne in particular) and a supremely smart and accurate quarterback. They have a relatively new quarterback with a new quarterback coach (Judge) and OC/playcaller (Patricia, presumably). Why not have everyone learn the same thing at the same pace?
We won’t really know the depth of the changes until the season starts. They sure won’t show too much during camp and preseason. But a shift seems inevitable.