PATS REPORTER

Perry: These five players need to step up now for the Patriots

PATS REPORTER

FOXBORO -- As stray remnants of trash and peanut shells blew about Gillette Stadium days after the New England Patriots loss to the Dallas Cowboys, it wasn't hard to envision the game-day crowd pouring out of the gates and toward the parking lots uttering, "Why don't they trust Mac?"

Bill Belichick opted to punt in overtime ... He opted not to go for it on three separate fourth-down situations in regulation ... The Patriots offense went away from passing on early downs after finding early success on those plays...

And while one could argue that protecting a rookie quarterback in certain situations might have some merit, the reality is that there is another position group on that side of the ball in New England that is very clearly having a hard time winning the head coach's trust: the offensive line.

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That's where we start as we dive into a list of five players from whom the Patriots need more. And quickly.

Isaiah Wynn

The Patriots picked up Wynn's fifth-year option back in May, fully guaranteeing him $10.4 million for 2022. For a starting left tackle, that's looking like a top-20 deal. Wynn is scheduled to have the 16th-largest cap hit among left tackles next season, per Over The Cap.

 

But at this point, that's looking like an overpay.

Wynn missed two weeks of practice on COVID reserve yet took the field anyway against the Cowboys. He replaced starting left tackle Justin Herron at the same time that starting right tackle Yodny Cajuste was pulled in favor of Mike Onwenu.

Wynn's role was short-lived. He played nine snaps, was overpowered by Randy Gregory for a sack, and that was that. His night was over, and he was replaced by Herron. 

Asked Wednesday if a week of practice would lead to a more regular role for Wynn against the Jets in Week 7, Belichick said, "We'll see."

Wynn is the 58th-ranked tackle in football with at least 100 snaps, per Pro Football Focus grades. He's allowed 14 pressures and committed three penalties in 274 snaps, and PFF's pass-blocking efficiency metric ranks him 62nd among NFL tackles.

Unless they want to continue to play Herron, the Patriots really don't have many other options at left tackle -- unless Trent Brown (injured reserve, calf) plays there once he returns to action. 

The offensive line has been holding this offense back, impacting in-game decisions by putting the young quarterback in harm's way, and the player scheduled to be the team's highest-paid lineman in 2022 deserves his fair share of criticism.

Until then, it's up to Wynn to play better. Plain and simple. The offensive line has been holding this offense back, impacting in-game decisions by putting the young quarterback in harm's way, and the player scheduled to be the team's highest-paid lineman in 2022 deserves his fair share of criticism.

Nelson Agholor

Agholor came to the Patriots as one of the most productive deep threats in football in 2020. He averaged 18.7 yards per catch and racked up 896 yards on 48 catches for the Las Vegas Raiders. He'd been used as a slot receiver with the Philadelphia Eagles but seemed to breathe new life into his career by threatening defensive backs outside the numbers in Vegas.

This year, though, he hasn't been able to impact the deep passing game in New England in a significant way. Yet. Among 32 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, Jones ranks 22rd in deep completion percentage, 28th in adjusted deep completion percentage, 24th in yards per deep attempt and 26th in rating.

Jones' deep numbers have improved a bit in the last two weeks -- thanks in part to a deep 27-yard reception by Agholor against the Cowboys. Agholor had a 30-yarder against the Bucs and a 20-yarder against the Texans. But he's averaging just five targets per game and 13.2 yards per catch. He's on pace for 46 catches and 634 yards in 2021. Not inconsequential, but he's being paid as a No. 1 receiver, and his production to this point hasn't matched his salary.

Jonnu Smith

Fifteen tight ends have more targets than Jonnu Smith this season. Nineteen have more catches. Twenty-one have more touchdowns. Twenty-six have more yards. Only three make more on an average annual basis.

The Patriots made use of their tight ends against the Cowboys in a way they hadn't all season. But Smith ran only 10 routes, one week after running six in Houston. He has been in the game as a run-blocker on a whopping 55 of 79 snaps (70 percent) over the course of the last two games. 

 

If the Patriots offensive line was performing better, Smith might be too. Maybe the team wouldn't need him to be used quite so often as a run blocker. Maybe he wouldn't be needed to chip pass rushers every so often. But the Patriots are 24th in the NFL in points this season. They need more production from one of their highest-paid players to slowly work their way up that list and compete with more explosive opponents.

Josh Uche

Uche is only in his second year. He's not a starter. But the Patriots are right in the middle of the league in terms of sacks (13, 14th in the NFL), and they're 19th in the NFL in EPA allowed per opponent dropback. Until their offense shows it can keep up with the cream of the NFL crop, the defense is going to need to better than a middle-of-the-road group.

Stephon Gilmore practices with Panthers on first day eligible

The secondary has some talented pieces, but they're banged up. And Matt Judon has been a force as a pass rusher, but no one on the roster has even half as many pressures as he does (28). He could use a running mate. 

That's where Uche could come in. 

The 2020 second-rounder out of Michigan has just eight total pressures this season, but six of those came against the Jets in Week 2. He's only hit the quarterback four times this season, and he's had one pressure in the last three games.

There are games when Uche isn't a go-to player in the plan. He saw just 14 snaps against Houston and rushed the passer nine times. But if the Patriots are going to have more of a play-making unit defensively, if that side of the ball is going to be able to help an offense that's relying on a rookie quarterback and five new weapons, they need more from Uche when he does get an opportunity to burst into the backfield.

Jalen Mills

When Mills was signed in the offseason, the assumption was it would be his versatility that makes him a useful piece in Belichick's defense. Instead, he's been parked at corner because the team has needed him there.

And he's performed well in spurts. He was the one shadowing Chris Godwin in Week 4 when Godwin caught three of five targets for 55 yards. 

But if this is the hand that Mills has been dealt, if he's going to be the No. 2 corner for this team moving forward, the Patriots need more. It may not be fair -- he was moved from corner to safety in Philly because he was better suited as a jack of all trades -- but it is what it is, as a certain coach says.

Of the 71 corners with at least 150 coverage snaps this season, Mills has the 18th-highest quarterback rating allowed (108.3). He's one of 15 corners with that many coverage snaps who has fewer than two forced incompletions, per Pro Football Focus. 

 

In today's NFL, when the most competitive teams have more than one capable boundary receiving option, the Patriots need Mills to rise to the occasion. Unless or until Shaun Wade or Joejuan Williams or someone else shows they can play on the outside with any kind of consistency, it's his job.