The first order of business for the Patriots offense in training camp is establishing their identity.
After an offseason overhaul at wide receiver and tight end, New England finds itself at a crossroads of two different styles at quarterback; an elite runner in Cam Newton, who has his limitations as a passer, or an inspiring rookie passer in Mac Jones who lacks mobility.
Do the Patriots want to revert to Tom Brady’s offense that led them to six Super Bowls, or morph entirely into a Newton-led operation that dives deeper into the world of mobile QBs?
Looking at recent examples, Lamar Jackson’s Ravens serve as a case study regarding how a full offseason of tinkering the playbook can open up the Newton run game package.
Jackson took over as Baltimore’s starter in Week 11 of his rookie season. At that time, offensive coordinator Greg Roman installed some of the plays designed to highlight the former Heisman Trophy winners’ elite skills as a runner. But it wasn’t until his second season when Roman had more time to design and drill a Jackson-centric playbook into his team, that the offense took off.
The Ravens averaged 24.1 points and 366.1 yards in Jackson’s eight starts as a rookie. Those averages skyrocketed to a league-best 31.9 points and 414.8 yards, with Jackson winning league MVP, leading Baltimore to a 14-2 record in his second season.
Newton won’t have the same production as Jackson in year two with the Patriots, but after so many years with a non-mobile QB in Brady, it takes time to shift the offense.
There are arguments for both approaches. Jones began showing in minicamp last month as a deceive decision-maker and accurate thrower. On the other hand, Newton could lead a potent running game and play-action attack with the Pats basing out of two-tight end sets.
As we head into camp, the onus is on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to figure out which offense and quarterback will yield the team’s best results moving forward.
McDaniels has made it clear in the past that he doesn’t believe in fundamentally changing the roots of his entire system, but that may be necessary to give Newton a chance to flourish.
But with only six weeks and three preseason games to prepare for the regular season, the Pats can’t run two different offenses depending on who is under center for long.
New England must choose a path for their offense quickly and go all the way in that direction.
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the key figures on the offensive side of the ball for the Patriots this upcoming season:
– Cam Newton spent extra time this offseason working with longtime quarterbacks coach George Whitfield Jr. The focus was on keeping his front shoulder closed through the start of his throwing motion and continuing to drill sound footwork. Newton’s biggest issue mechanically last season was breaking the mechanical chain where his feet, hips, and shoulders weren’t in sync. As a result, he lost both velocity and accuracy. Although the results were mixed in minicamp, hopefully, the work pays off this summer.
– Mac Jones did everything he could to make this a real competition in the spring, even out-repping Newton in some of the practices that were open to the media. Jones’s grasp of the offense and ability to see the entire picture is winning over his coaches, and at the very least, the rookie is proving worthy of that first-round selection to date. Speaking to a few of his teammates on the offensive side of the ball, Jones’s accuracy and catchable ball stand out. His mental acumen and consistent ball placement are as advertised, but Jones will need to break down the door to pry the starting job from Newton.
– Jarrett Stidham earned some brownie points for organizing “Pats west” earlier this offseason, where a group of players got together for throwing sessions. Stidham’s competitive side is coming out more, which was a concern last season and a reason why he didn’t earn more playing time. But the Patriots’ intentions are clear at quarterback with the selection of Jones. It’s doubtful that Stidham will ever be truly tabbed the starter. The question now is can Jones earn enough trust to make Stidham expendable in a trade? In 2014, the Pats traded backup Ryan Mallett for a draft pick after a rookie Jimmy G beat him out for the backup job. We could see something similar go down with Jones and Stidham.
– Brian Hoyer’s role with the team is pretty clear: he’s here as a camp arm who can mentor Jones. But how does that role look once the roster is whittled down to 53 players? Could Hoyer stick around as the third quarterback if the Pats find a trade for Stidham? That’s the most likely scenario where Hoyer makes the roster out of camp. He could continue helping Jones and Newton in the QB room while also running the scout team.
– Damien Harris is the best ball carrier on New England’s roster at running backs. Still, when Belichick has multiple capable backs, he usually spreads the wealth. Harris possesses another gear when accelerating into the secondary compared to Sony Michel and proved he can make the necessary reads in the Pats’ schemes. He should be the featured back, with Michel also sprinkling in to keep everyone fresh.
– Sony Michel’s days with the Pats are numbered after the team didn’t pick up his fifth-year option. However, my sense is that he’s very much in New England’s plans for this season. That can change if rookie Rhamondre Stevenson starts to pick things up, but Michel had his most efficient season yet a year ago with Harris’s emergence as a motivator. In fact, despite what the eye test might tell us, Michel’s yards per rush and yards after contact averages were both higher than Harris in 2020, albeit in a smaller sample. Again, Stevenson is the wildcard, but expect both Harris and Michel to get carries in the Pats’ backfield.
– Speaking of fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson, the rookie was placed on the active/non-football injury list on Wednesday after running backs coach Ivan Fears mentioned he was dealing with a few lingering injuries from college. Fears called the rookie a smaller LeGarrette Blount earlier this offseason. Stevenson runs with great power, smooth footwork for a man of his stature, and also flashed decent hands as a receiver. As we know, it’s difficult for rookie running backs to carve out playing time in year one. Recently, Harris and J.J. Taylor were both “redshirted” by the team. Stevenson missing training camp practices due to injury won’t help him get on the field as a rookie, but he can come off NFI at any time. Let’s not overreact until he starts missing practices.
– Second-year running back J.J. Taylor is a player that stands out whenever he has a chance to play. In spring practices, Taylor threatened the defense with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and was targeted deep some by the QBs. He has wiggle, burst, and an explosive element that the bigger backs don’t possess. Plus, he could factor in on kick returns a la Dion Lewis, who is the back that Fears compares Taylor to regularly. It’s a crowded backfield, and if Taylor is going to play mainly as a sub-back in passing situations, he needs to hold up in pass protection as well. But, again, the 2020 UDFA provides a spark every time he’s out there.
– James White had a tragic and challenging year off the field last season, which seemed to affect him on the field, as it would anyone. The veteran has earned a long leash to get back to form, but there’s no denying that he had a down year last year. Some of that was on Newton, who wasn’t as efficient working to his check-down options as Brady. Taylor could dip into some of White’s playing time, but you have to think White will be out there when the game is on the line.
– Brandon Bolden also had a sneaky-good spring where he looked very spry coming out of the backfield catching passes. His role as a reserve running back and core special teamer is likely safe after taking a year off due to the pandemic. Bolden isn’t flashy, but he is reliable.
– We wrote about Hunter Henry’s value to the Patriots offense in our most important Pats series here. Henry is a technically savvy route runner who won’t “wow” you with vertical speed but is quick out of his breaks and understands how to get open. He should blossom into the Pats’ go-to possession receiver and someone who will move the chains in high-leverage situations. When it’s third-and-8, Henry will most likely be the top option.
– Jonnu Smith’s versatility and ability as a ball carrier were the main components of our most important Pats post on New England’s tight end. Smith is a very effective blocker from multiple alignments and a unique weapon who is effective with the ball in his hands. He isn’t on Henry’s level as a route runner, but Smith has more vertical speed, contested catch ability, and creates in the open field. When it comes to blurring the lines between personnel groupings and scheming up offense, Smith will have a huge role.
– Devin Asiasi is another Pats pass-catcher who had a good spring. The second-year tight end was an effective seam runner and red zone threat during minicamp practices. He also started to come on at the end of last season both as a receiver and blocker. The issue for Asiasi is obviously playing time, as the Pats are going to feature Henry and Smith heavily. Still, he projects as the clear-cut number three on the depth chart, and if Asiasi continues to progress, he will be a useful fill-in if there’s an injury. Asiasi is in a difficult situation. It looks like he can play.
– Dalton Keene remains a mystery of a draft pick. He has an unconventional skill set for a traditional Pats tight end, and as a result, Keene doesn’t have a defined role. My theory was that he might transition into more of a fullback or H-Back, which might have some carryover with Smith’s projected role, but Keene didn’t work at fullback at all in the spring. With three tight ends ahead of him on the depth chart, Keene will have a battle on his hands to make the roster. The only thing holding the Pats back could be sunk cost after they traded a decent haul to move back into the third round to select the Virginia Tech tight end in the 2020 draft. Keene is a man without a home right now in this offense.
– Matt LaCosse is another Pats tight end feeling the effects of the two free-agent additions at the position. I’m not sure how he makes this team unless there’s an injury in camp, and although he has practice squad eligibility, he’d probably make a 53-man roster elsewhere.
– The question for Jakob Johnson is, will the Patriots use a traditional fullback enough to warrant keeping him on the roster? Johnson is a good lead blocker that takes another step forward with every rep, but unless the Patriots plan on taking either Henry or Smith off the field or want to unveil a jumbo 22-package, the snaps might not be there. Johnson will need to carve out a prominent role in the kicking game and be ready to contribute in short-yardage situations.
– N’Keal Harry’s trade market is about what you’d expect, which is to say it isn’t very robust. The Patriots are probably looking at a fifth-round pick, at best, right now. The team may be better off making Harry showcase himself in preseason games rather than trade him now. He could come in disgruntled, and that wouldn’t be great for team morale. But the only way they’ll get anything of value for the former first-round pick is if he increases his trade value somehow. Showcasing him in preseason games where he can body backup cornerbacks might do the trick.
– Don’t get too caught up in Nelson Agholor’s stats this season. Agholor is here to stretch the field, preventing safeties from crowding the middle and coming down on the two tight ends. If he can effectively take coverage with him and make teams pay when he’s one-on-one, he’s doing his job. Statistically, Agholor was one of the league’s best deep threats a year ago. Even if he doesn’t have a huge number of catches, his presence will be vital in making this offense work.
– Don’t sleep on Jakobi Meyers. He’s still arguably the best route runner on the team and proved he can put up numbers last year. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s vying for the team lead in receptions and targets by season’s ends. Meyers isn’t the fastest or most dynamic pass-catcher, but he’s a technician who knows how to operate in this offense.
– Kendrick Bourne brings a ton of energy and very strong hands to the table. He was snatching passes outside of his frame in impressive fashion in spring practices. Bourne doesn’t run particularly well, but he’s got enough juice with his body control and hands to make it work. It’ll be interesting to see how they use him and if the playing time is there for him. With the two tight ends, Agholor, and Meyers heavily involved, where are Bourne’s targets? I guess we’ll find out.
– Gunner Olszewski is going to make the team as an All-Pro punt returner. Although his spot is safe, can he take that next step as a receiver? In minicamp, Olszewski was getting open and catching the ball more effectively. We know he has the athleticism to hang on an NFL field, but technique and hands are still question marks. If Gunner follows the Edelman/Welker path, now is the time for him to start flashing as a receiver.
– Isaiah Zuber is an intriguing depth player who can absolutely burn. As he enters his second season, a role as the primary kick returner and gadget player could earn him a spot as the fifth wide receiver. The Pats could use a ball carrier for end arounds, jet sweeps, and other motions. Even if Zuber doesn’t get the ball, the threat of him coming in motion will alter the defense. Pre-snap motion is always a good thing when paired with a potent rushing attack and play-action. I’d like to see them use Zuber in a Cordarrelle Patterson-like role.
– Ernie Adams’s guy, Tre Nixon, didn’t make much noise in spring practices. With that said, one wouldn’t expect a rookie receiver in New England’s system to immediately make plays. Nixon is a hard worker, an effective route runner, and has good speed. He could flash this summer and will hopefully stick around as a developmental receiver.
– How high is Michael Onwenu’s ceiling? A move inside to his natural position at left guard should allow Onwenu to consistently unlock all of his raw power while asking him to block in space less, which is a win. Onwenu’s rookie season was impressive, but continuing to stack high-level play year in and year out is a different story. Let’s see if he can keep the arrow pointing upwards.
– Isaiah Wynn’s story hasn’t changed: when he’s healthy, he is a very good starting left tackle, but staying healthy is constantly an unknown. Wynn is a very effective pass-blocker with heavy hands, a strong upper body, and smooth feet to mirror pass rushers. As a run blocker, he led all NFL offensive linemen in run-blocking grade on gap runs where he was often tasked with combination blocks where he’d chip and climb to the second level. The Pats picked up Wynn’s fifth-year option because they’re thin at tackle beyond this season, and it’s a cost-effective deal. If Wynn wants an extension, though, that’ll be a difficult commitment unless he plays a full season. As has always been the case, Wynn’s talent is not in question.
– With Trent Brown, motivation is the critical factor. Brown was terrific at left tackle under Dante Scarnecchia, thanks to Scar’s ability to motivate The Mountain. However, Brown wasn’t the same player with the Raiders because he was unhappy with the operation there. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t a force like he was with the Pats in 2018. Keeping his mind right, and keeping him on the field, will determine if he can return to 2018 form. Brown should be a rock-solid right tackle for the Pats, and he can move over to the left side if Wynn is out of the lineup again.
– Shaq Mason is probably a little underrated at this point, surpassed in the eyes of some by former Pats guard Joe Thuney and Onwenu. Mason is still one of the league’s premier run blockers and pullers on New England’s power schemes. With Brown working alongside him on the right side and Onwenu as a force at left guard, the immense blocking power on this line will be special.
– David Andrews made our most important Patriots list as the glue of the offensive line. Andrews is an athletic center who is capable in pass protection, reaching tough blocks on the line of scrimmage, and getting out in space. Plus, he’s the leader of the entire operation. If Mac Jones is the starter, Andrews’s role as the table-setter before the snap will be even more critical.
– Ted Karras might technically be the sixth man of this offensive line, but his role will be important. There will be an injury or two at some point, and Karras is a starting-caliber interior lineman who will serve as New England’s top backup. With Brown and Wynn absent at times this spring, we saw five-man combinations with Karras working in with the starters, a scenario we could easily see if someone goes down. Wynn gets hurt? Slide Brown to left tackle, Onwenu kicks outside to right tackle, Karras plugs in at left guard, and you still have five NFL starters on the line.
– Between Justin Herron and rookie Will Sherman, the Patriots need to find a steady fourth tackle. Onwenu is the top backup tackle, but the layer behind him and the future of both tackle spots is a secondary storyline to monitor. Herron was solid as a run blocker when he got chances as a rookie. They may have something there, but the question is will it be as a valuable backup, or does Herron have starter potential? He could start on the left side if he improves his initial steps in pass protection and becomes a stronger blocker overall.
– Yodny Cajuste still exists. He’s healthy and ready to compete. The 2019 third-round pick had good tape in college at West Virginia but has battled injuries throughout his football career. He has immense potential thanks to a strong upper body, grip strength, and quick feet. Let’s finally see what he can do.