Thu, 18 Aug 2022

Patriots Mailbag: Will second-year free agents make a jump

New England Patriots
29 Jun 2022, 20:34 GMT+10

As the long summer void begins, Patriots fans are wondering which new faces might take a big step forward in 2022.Mike Dussault

I have heard lots about the disappointing first year Nelson Agholor, Davon Godchaux and to a lesser extent Jonnu Smith all had. For cap reasons, it seems all will be on the roster this season. I am wondering if what we saw last season is what we will get this year, or if there is hope for significant improvement now that they are all more familiar with the team. Have the Patriots seen other players obtained through trade/free agency show a big year one to year two improvement? -Doug Thompson

Quite a few factors to consider here, so let's start first with Mac Jones as he relates to Agholor and Smith. It's hard to compare to the past, i.e., when Brady was here, because he was already embedded in the offense. So if players didn't really click in the first year with him, it's was probably unlikely that they would suddenly get on Brady's page in Year Two. Last year, they were all figuring it out together with all the new veteran weapons and the rookie quarterback not only digesting the playbook but understanding how each other like to play. So from that angle, as it regards to Mac, I think there are reasons to be optimistic. Both Smith and Agholor looked very involved and active in OTAs and that's a good early sign. But I'd also temper those expectations on those players as well, because while I think both can be better, I am not sure either is going to reach All-Pro status just because they are more familiar with the offense and Mac now. Add in some new weapons like DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton, and they could eat into Agholor's role a bit, as well as Smith's potential targets that were already taking a hit with the presence of Hunter Henry. That's just a reminder that ultimately it's about the offense as a whole taking the next step, no matter who is making the key plays.

As for Godchaux, I do think there's some learning curve on the defensive line as well, and while I wasn't as down on him as some might've been last year, I do think he can make strides in a second season as he's asked to take on more double teams. But similarly, it's hard to see Godchaux becoming a dominant force inside just because he has some experience in New England. I think he can be a very solid interior role player and the Patriots really need him to be without any significant new pieces behind him to play with. -Mike Dussault

I perceive Bill Belichick as the greatest NFL coach of all-time. Arguably, at least in the top three. His football knowledge is vast, and he is widely considered a defensive mastermind. Lately, there has been much consternation in the media of the Patriots not naming an OC. I do not see this a problem as some see it, for these reasons. Bill Belichick could not be a defensive mastermind without knowing a lot about opposing offenses. He has seen a great many offenses, and devised gameplans to beat them. The two offensive asst. coaches were on BB's staff for years and was schooled by him and had access to vast football knowledge (from him). Although Matt Patricia was a defensive coach, as I mentioned, one cannot be a defensive coach without knowledge of opposing offenses, which Patricia was privy to with BB. Also, both Patricia and Joe Judge were NFL head coaches. One cannot become an NFL head coach without the ability to conceive, design, implement and install an offense regardless whether they come from a defensive or special teams background. Consequently, I see the Patriots offensive staff as one of, if not the most experienced in all the league. I do not see BB as worried about his offensive staff. I would like your opinion of this statement and any added thoughts. -Ken Scott

I think there is some nuance to explore here. You're right, Belichick knows everything there is to know about football and just because he has the reputation for being a defensive mastermind, it clearly ties into the offense where he has just as much expertise and knowledge. It's not much of a stretch to say Patricia and Judge have similar understanding of offensive football given their varied experience in the game as well. So yes, as far as knowledge, it's all there. At this point they are well on their way to installing the post-McDaniels offense whatever that might look like. The previous offense was modeled around Brady, and while Mac has some Brady-like traits, he also has his own strengths and weaknesses around which things should now be tailored to. I have no doubt they understand that and have everything in motion for Mac.

With all that said, I think the concern lies in the heat-of-the-moment playcalling on offense and the strategic punches and counter punches that experienced offensive coaches understand. Especially today, offensive fireworks and hotshot coordinators and schemes are all the rage, with the Kyle Shanahan tree getting most of the attention. McDaniels had that kind of juice. And even though BB and the current coaches understand it all, it's understandable that fans want the offense to make major strides under Mac in his second season and aren't quite sure how even an experienced defensive playcaller in Patricia can tack to the offensive side and know all the right buttons to push when sequencing plays and attacking defenses.

We'll all be pondering what the in-game execution will look like until they start stringing together some great plays, drives and games. -Mike Dussault

Do you think that Belichick may be looking at 2022/23 as a transitional and experimental season, with the view being targeting 2023/24 for a credible push for the Super Bowl when Mac Jones is in his third year. My rationale is that there is a great deal that is unsettled at the moment - coaching set-up, linebackers, cornerbacks, what the playbook will look like with the new offensive weapons - some key players have been traded early to look at younger alternatives, such as Mason for Strange, and we have very substantial cap space in 2023 to hit the free agency market again. Is Belichick, whilst he would never admit this, using 2022/23 to look at what works, who are the right players and coaches, and where do we need to finish the team through free agency to be highly competitive in 2023? -Peter Church

I don't think Bill Belichick has enough years in the league left to burn one with two-to-three years down the line being the primary focus. And if he was going to do it, 2020 was probably the year to do it and they kind of did for the most part, getting some young players experience, burning off some old contracts and setting the stage for the 2021 free agency class.

But now you've got all those free agents entering their second season and you also have a collection of younger players, some proven, some not, that are going to take on much bigger roles this season. I know it's easy to look at the roster and see some big questions, especially at linebacker, cornerback and how the offense proceeds schematically without McDaniels, but I believe the standard operating procedure continues to be putting together the best team they can and trying to work around the inevitable questions and holes that might arise.

Remember too that even though we are beyond free agency and the draft and OTAs, there could still be some new pieces in play by the time we get to November and December that make a significant impact. As I see it, the plan right now is the same plan it's always been - put together what they see as the best and most balanced team, get to camp and let competition and injuries sort things out. With Mac on a rookie deal, there's no time to waste. -Mike Dussault

If you were the GM/ Belichick and there were no guaranteed contracts for the Patriots existing players how would you manage the roster under the salary cap? Where would you trim/ invest $$ on the roster? What names would intrigue you as pickups? Follow-up ... extend the analysis to next year as a target for Superbowl contention with this year being tablesetting. -Ned Lynch

The thing that jumps out to me about the current 2022 roster management is just how heavy they are on weapons at the receiver, tight end and running back positions. Essentially everyone at those positions came back and they also added DeVante Parker, Ty Montgomery, Tyquan Thornton and the two rookie running backs. I like the depth and hope that helps the best players emerge but if no one really separates themselves it could make some hard decisions even tougher. Just feels like they have too many numbers at those positions and won't be able to keep everyone even if they wanted to.

So, in that regard, I would trim some salary from those position groups and put it toward the front seven, where I think another impact defensive lineman/edge player is needed. That could include the linebackers too, though it seems like they have some pieces to work with there. I feel similarly to the cornerback spot... it's not a clear slam dunk but there are pieces to compete.

I would carry this into next year when I think they'll need to drill down on the most important handful of weapons that Mac most gels with. If that helps get the offense in a top-10 position, I'd focus heavily on the defensive side of the ball next year. Whether someone on the roster emerges this year or they go out in free agency next year, the need for impact playmakers on defense is glaring. Maybe Bradley Chubb or Devin Bush could make sense. -Mike Dussault

With it looking almost certain that one of my favourite players of all time Dont'a Hightower who is still stranded in free agency and it looking more than likely he has played his last days and best football in New England it got me thinking about how good he was in regards to the all time greatest Patriots linebacker list. With 3 Super Bowl titles to his name, numerous awards, his reliability, cool clutch attitude and team leadership qualities I believe he will walk straight into Canton Ohio without any argument from anybody but I struggled to come up with an exact number of where he would sit(definitely top 5)on the greatest New England linebackers of all time list, can you help me out? -Mark Saez

While I do think Hightower will talk straight into the Patriots Hall of Fame, I'm not sure he'll be headed to Canton, but that shouldn't detract from his outstanding career. It is a bit weird to not hear anything about Hightower this offseason. I'm not sure what his status is. Would he play for the Pats? Someone else? Is he retiring? Usually it's a little more clear with an all-time Patriot.

Though I believe they do need to incorporate the new blood at linebacker, I'd still take Boomtower back. Maybe he's not an every-down off-ball linebacker at this point, but he's still a physical presence who could help set the edge and bring some pass rush juice.

But in terms of stacking him up against all-time Patriots linebackers, I'd have him fifth behind Tippett, McGinest, Bruschi and Vrabel. Clearly, he's the best LB of the second dynasty and there wouldn't be three more Lombardi's in the trophy case without him. I just think he's in hard territory as a player who made some of the biggest plays in playoff history but didn't quite have the longevity of the others or the regular season accolades to help put him over the top. He's kind of Edelman-y in that respect. But obviously both are unquestionably among the best of the best Patriots ever. -Mike Dussault

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