Following a disappointing 2022 campaign that saw a top defense dragged down by inept offense and special teams, the Patriots made some big swings to address their problems while making less-heralded moves to ensure long-term stability. Fans have been understandably critical of some moves, but it’s hard to argue against New England’s offseason approach after massively improving their coaching staff and building good depth at nearly every position.
As expected before a team has even donned pads, there are still plenty of questions left to be answered. How does New England replace Devin McCourty? Will not having an elite receiver doom the offense? Can Kendrick Bourne teach Mike Gesicki how to griddy?
I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve got some bold predictions. Here are five of my spiciest.
MAC JONES WILL BECOME A TOP-15 QUARTERBACK
Having a top-15 quarterback may not move the needle for some fans. But Jones has hovered between the 20-25 range his first two seasons, and regressed last year due to a bad coaching situation and shaky pass protection, so this would be a significant step that makes New England a true playoff contender.
Under Bill O’Brien’s leadership, Jones should become a reliable game manager at worst and a field general at best. New England’s bolstered offensive line should elevate its level of play under new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, which would make Jones’ life significantly easier. And while Mike Gesicki and JuJu Smith-Schuster may not strike fear in defense’s hearts, they’re proven contributors who compliment a receiving corp full of inconsistent veterans and high-upside youngsters.
Jones’ modest physical attributes and lack of a true #1 target will cap his ceiling. But the name of the game is moving the sticks and finishing in scoring territory, and he’s in his best situation since entering the league. If Jones can run O’Brien’s offense proficiently, respect will follow.
MIKE GESICKI AND PIERRE STRONG WILL BECOME FOCAL POINTS
The offense may not have a premiere receiving threat, but Gesicki and Strong are versatile athletes who could force defenses to account for them when they’re on the field.
Remember how I said calling Mike Gesicki a slot receiver doesn't encompass his actual role?
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 15, 2023
Gesicki’s shown his catch radius is too wide for defensive backs, while his speed and route running make him an impossible cover for linebackers. His ability to produce from at any spot will give the offense a ton of flexibility and mismatch potential that should elevate his peers.
Pierre Strong is just an unfair addition to the Patriots’ backfield
They legitimately need a package that’s just running backs pic.twitter.com/EFKwTkmRIg
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 14, 2022
Strong is still a projection, but Patriots backs with quiet rookie seasons tend to take a quantum leap in year two. He had exciting flashes against the Cardinals, showing off exceptional burst, speed, and elusiveness. Strong’s dual-threat potential will be hard to keep on the bench in a running back room desperate for lightning to Rhamondre Stevenson’s thunder, particularly with veteran Ty Montgomery coming off a season-ending ACL injury. Expect Strong to compete for the receiving and change of pace back roles in camp with a good chance to win out.
KYLE DUGGER MAKES THE PRO BOWL
Dugger walked into the league as one of its most explosive and violent safeties, but he’s primed to become a true household name in the final year of his rookie deal. With the team’s continued depth at safety and the addition of coverage specialist Marte Mapu, Dugger can maximize his talent as a ball hawk and human missile rather than masking deficiencies elsewhere. I think he ascends to Vince Wilfork or Dont’a Hightower status, lining up wherever New England suspects the play is going.
Kyle Dugger's use is gonna be a fun case study in 2023
Like McCourty, Dugger can be a chess piece in coverage. Give the ball-hawk as many chances to attack the ball and use his return ability as possible pic.twitter.com/vvBGnM77oH
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 24, 2023
Dugger needs to cut down on the occasional lapses in technique and discipline, but his game-changing turnovers last season showed how far his processing has come since his Lenoir-Rhyne days. If he continues his steady progress, the Swiss army knife should finally earn his flowers as a key playmaker on a loaded defense.
DEFENSE LEADS THE NFL IN INTERCEPTIONS AND SACKS
This isn’t as bold a prediction as some might think, as the Patriots ranked 3rd in both interceptions and sacks last season. But typically you’d expect a regression after such success, and McCourty did tie for the team lead with four of the team’s 19 picks. But the team did an excellent job retaining talent while adding key pieces
Josh Uche still giving people problems with his hesi and swipe moves pic.twitter.com/9qGjiSk9r5
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 2, 2023
Matt Judon and Josh Uche could be even better as a duo than they were last season, a terrifying thought for offenses in obvious pass situations, and Deatrich Wise has been consistently disruptive in his career. The Patriots also re-signed every non-retired defender from their 2022 roster, headlined by co-interception leader Jonathan Jones. While fellow Joneses Marcus and Jack flashed big-play ability last season, Jack wasn’t as impactful down the stretch. Competition for the third corner spot should bring out the best in both second-year players.
The toughest coverage assignment Mapu will likely get as a rookie is taking backs 1v1
He’s got the athleticism to handle those duties easy https://t.co/YgCr13Lgp8
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 29, 2023
New England’s decision to go defense-heavy at the top of the draft may have been a head-scratcher, but it’s hard to argue with the players ther selected. Top picks Christin Gonzalez, Keion White, and Marte Mapu are all slated to make impacts in year one. Mapu was a ball magnet for Sacramento State, showing exceptional instincts and ball skills. Gonzalez’s ball skills are still a work in progress, but he took a big step forward last season and should be in a position to make plenty of plays with his coverage ability. White is an extremely raw prospect, but he’s got the talent and demeanor to wreck protection early as a rotational and rush package defender.
THE PATRIOTS GO FROM WORST TO FIRST ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Punctuated by their awful kick coverage and punting in the season finale with a playoff berth on the line, the Patriots had the league’s worst special teams unit last season.
It was impossible not to notice Brenden Schooler while watching Slater
The rook led NE in tackles on punts AND kickoffs with blazing speed, physicality, and reliable open field tackling
Also has great intangibles like a white hot motor, + awareness, and a ton of passion pic.twitter.com/joVGfBs7x1
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 18, 2023
Jake Bailey missing most of the season devastated the punting situation, and Nick Folk remained consistent on most field goals but was a nonfactor from 50-plus yards out. Marcus Jones, Brenden Schooler, and DaMarcus Mitchell were standouts as rookies, but the fourth phase struggled overall.
New England tackled this issue aggressively, retaining stud veterans Matthew Slater and Cody Davis, signing former Lion and Belichick-favorite Chris Board, and making several special teams-focused picks in the draft. This included both a kicker in Chad Ryland and a punter in Bryce Baringer. Growing pains are to be expected if both first-year legs earn starting jobs, but they have experience in bad weather and were top prospects at their respective positions. The Patriots also took electric return specialist Isaiah Bolden and freakishly athletic special teams savant Ameer Speed.
Joe Judge is off to a rocky start this season, but his return to special teams should help Cam Achord, who’s held down the position since Judge departed for New York, get back on track.