Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Patriots 2022 Off-season, Part 1

Hello all,

The Patriots were quiet in free agency this year, especially contrasted with their blockbuster 2021 haul. (I think they spent $250 million on free agents last year.) There were some losses, some new faces, some players who decided to return, and a few still in unsigned limbo.

And despite what you've heard, they haven't gotten worse. Other division teams have traded for splashy receivers (Tyreek Hill) or signed defensive studs (Von Miller). But the Patriots are better than last year, even when you consider the free agents who left.

I won't go over every signing, there's plenty online if you want details on all of it. What I will do is look at the totality of additions and subtractions with an eye toward how they might change how the team will be constructed and how things will look different when the season beings.


Comings & Goings:

The team traded offensive lineman Shaq Mason and let center Ted Karras go, so they are left with three good players and one mediocre one (Isaiah Wynn) to fill four positions. Michael Onwenu was a backup last year, but was a top-rated O-linemen in Pro Football Focus' rankings, so he should be fine.

At running back, the departure of Brandon Bolden is easily offset by the return of James White. White's injury was a huge loss last year, especially as an outlet receiver for rookie quarterback Mac Jones. If White stays healthy, that group won't miss a beat. However, they don't have anyone to replace him if he does go down for any significant amount of time.

(BTW, full back Jakob Johnson's loss is not a loss. He didn't play well last year, and can likely be replaced by a back with good enough hands to be a potential threat out of the backfield -- something missing since James Develin left a few years back.)

Perhaps their highest level addition was at receiver, where longtime Dolphins starter DeVonte Parker was acquired in a trade. He is a big body who will fight for every throw and every yard after the catch, and he's a good blocker in the running game. He allows the rest of the receivers to slide down a notch, putting them in better position against lesser corners.

How It All Fits Together:

With White coming back, expect the Pats to run more four- and five-receiver sets. Bolden was decent in relief of White, but he will never be as good as "sweet feet." Going four-wide with White in the backfield is the Patriots best alignment, so expect to see a lot of it this season.

Jakobi Meyers is currently unsigned, but he's a restricted free agent who I believe will be back. That would give them Meyers, Parker, and Nelson Agholor at receiver, with Hunter Henry at tight end and White in the backfield.

If they can protect Jones as they did in the second half of 2021, they should be in excellent shape on offense.

Draft Expectations:

With an eye toward protecting the QB, watch for the Pats to take one or two offensive linemen in this weekend's draft. In fact, they could grab one with their first-round pick. Aside from that, they could take a faster wideout if the right one is available.


Comings & Goings:

J.C. Jackson's departure to the LA Chargers is easily the biggest loss of the off-season. He wasn't a shutdown corner, but he was by far the team's best, and they will miss him. They brought in corners Terrance Mitchell and local hero Malcolm Butler, along with safety Jabrill Peppers.

They traded off linebacker Chase Winovich and added Mack Wilson (from Cleveland). And at the moment, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are unsigned -- and honestly I don't see either of them coming back.

How It All Fits Together:

Given how the AFC has changed this off-season, with multiple teams adding huge offensive talent (Denver, Miami, Las Vegas, Cleveland... the list goes on and on), here is what I expect from the Patriots.

They will face multiple mobile quarterbacks this year: Buffalo and Miami twice, Cleveland (Deshaun Watson), Green Bay, Baltimore, and Arizona. Additionally, if they expect to go anywhere in the playoffs, they'll likely have to face Denver (Russell Wilson) and/or Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes).

Given all that, I expect the team will play vastly more zone defense than man-to-man. Their recent runs of success were all based on man-defense. But it requires that your defenders turn their backs to the quarterback, and as we saw with Josh Allen specifically, they will kill you with their legs.

The key to playing zone is getting to the quarterback quickly. So I expect a 4-3-4 (or even a 4-2-5) alignment, with two huge dudes inside and two speed-burners on the edge who will be empowered to race to the QB. Their depth at corner, rather than being top-heavy on shutdown guys, also indicates this change.

To pull that off they need speed at linebacker, and frankly they don't have much. Matt Judon and Josh Uche were their quickest LBs last year, with Hightower and Ja'Whaun Bentley the slower bangers inside.

Draft Expectations:

To make zone work, they'll need more speed at linebacker, so I expect they will draft one or two of them this weekend. They will likely go after corners, too, but those could come undrafted, as quantity will be important. (Quality is great, but I'd expect them to work the LB angle for quality and just throw bodies at corner.)

Special Teams

Comings & Goings:

Gone are return man Gunner Olszewski, coverage guy Brandon King, and special teamer Brandon Bolden. Free agent signee WR Ty Montgomery could return kicks, but it'll be tough to replace King in coverage. In my opinion he was as good as Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel, even though Slater gets the accolades.

How It All Fits Together:

I expect special teams to be better simply because last year was Cameron Achord's first as a special teams coordinator, so he should improve. Remember, for all the praise Joe Judge got as a special teams coach here, he wasn't good his first year. He replaced Scott O'Brien that year and the drop-off was noticeable.

So just as Judge improved, expect improvement from Achord, too. Hell, if he can just keep Nick Folk on-task and get Jake Bailey back to his rookie punting averages the team would be much improved right there!

Draft Expectations:

The team has too many holes on O and D to spend any draft capital on special teams.


Comings & Goings:

Josh McDaniels took a head coaching job in Las Vegas, and he took wide receivers coach Mick Lombardi and offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo with him.

There are also rumors that longtime running backs coach Ivan Fears will retire, although nothing official has come out yet.

In response to the massive loss of McDaniels, the Patriots brought back Joe Judge to run help on offense and declined to name an OC. They also don't have an official DC for the second consecutive year.

How It All Fits Together:

Honestly, it doesn't. Judge has worked very little with offensive players, and reportedly when he did, players called him out for not knowing as much as they did. If Fears leaves, they will be woefully under-experienced on the offensive coaching side of things.

On defense, it's like Bill Belichick doesn't want to promote the obvious leader, Jerod Mayo, because two of his sons are in line for the DC position. If either of the kids has shown anything, they'd have the job. So the fact that they don't have the title shows you they aren't progressing they way they need to.

Remember that in the past when OCs or DCs left the team often struggled the next year. The only exception I can think of is when Matt Patricia left and Brian Flores got more out of the defense and they won the Super Bowl.

But when Eric Mangini left, downturn. When Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis left, it took years to rebuild their knowledge base. So don't expect much in the way of great coaching to overcome a talent gap -- not this year, at least.


If I'm being forthright, I'd say the Patriots are using 2022 to build for 2023 and beyond. They see the landscape and have to know that their talent can't match up with Kansas City or Buffalo. And if the Wilson signing in Denver works well it's another team they'd be chasing.

So this feels like another year of the build-up to true contender status. Jones will improve, the offensive talent is better, and special teams should be better. But the defense is in transition, having lost Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson in one calendar year. The move to zone-D won't be seamless, but it's their best move given the teams they face.

It's possible they will be better than last year and end up with a worse record. But I don't see them contending for a Super Bowl berth this season, not unless there are injuries to opposing QBs and the post-season schedule falls just right for them.

It'll be entertaining, it always is. But I'm not reserving a room in Glendale.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

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