Patriots Nation entered the 2023 draft expecting the team to acquire offensive talent early on, namely weapons for Mac Jones and an offensive tackle or two. But New England had other plans, focusing exclusively on defense in the first two days before bolstering the offensive line in Rounds 4 and 5, with an emphasis on beefing up the interior.
The team did address tackle by selecting Sidy Sow and taking a flier on a pair of 6th-round wide receivers, but it’s fair to question if more could have been done. That said, the Patriots seems happier with its offensive pieces than most after loading up on tackles and signing a trio of skill players in free agency. This supporting cast is also comparable, and arguably better than the one Jones had his rookie season when New England made the playoffs before being escorted out by an unstoppable Josh Allen.
This likely speaks to the organization’s confidence in new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien and new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. Turning last season’s offense into a playoff contender may seem like a lot to ask of two coaches in their first stints back with the team, but both are known for running tight ships where expectations are high. This leadership was severely lacking in 2022 and largely contributed to the offense becoming a liability in some games.
Here’s my take on the Patriots’ depth chart post-draft, with most rookies defaulting to the bottom of their respective groups until they earn their stripes in training camp and preseason.
Quarterback: Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe, Trace McSorley, Malik Cunningham*
All signs point to Mac Jones being the Patriots’ starter in 2023, and he should have a career season under O’Brien.
Zappe showed he can hold things down as a top backup last season and McSorley provides veteran leadership as the position’s longest-tenured player.
Undrafted free agent and dual-threat Malik Cunningham mentioned he’s open to switching positions, but he has the tools to stick at quarterback and could push his way up the depth chart down the road. His immediate value is as a dynamic talent on the scout team who can simulate the league’s more athletic passers.
Running Back: Rhamondre Stevenson, James Robinson, Kevin Harris
Change of Pace/Receiving Back: Ty Montgomery II, Pierre Strong Jr., J.J. Taylor
Rhamondre Stevenson remains the clear-cut top back for New England, but the situation behind him is a bit murky. With Ty Montgomery landing on injured reserve after the season opener and Damien Harris battling injuries throughout 2022, Stevenson was forced to carry an unsustainably large load ahead of two rookie backs and lost steam toward the end of the season.
James Robinson is projected to take over Harris’ role as the top workhorse backup and showed explosive ability with the Jaguars. But he’s still a projection after suffering a torn Achilles in late December 2021 (which he bounced back from remarkably quickly), dealing with knee injuries last season, and ultimately disappearing behind a bad Jets offensive line before missing the last month of the season.
Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong Jr. flashed when given touches late last season in Arizona, but each will have to set himself apart with established veterans ahead of them on the depth chart.
J.J. Taylor is a hard worker and seems well-liked, but he’ll probably have to fight for a practice squad spot again.
Left Tackle: Trent Brown, Calvin Anderson
Right Tackle: Riley Reiff, Conor McDermott, Yodny Cajuste, Sidy Sow*, Andrew Steuber
Trent Brown will look to bounce back from a 2022 campaign plagued by mental mistakes and a tumultuous coaching situation, which included brand-new terminology that players reportedly struggled with. But Brown’s rare size and knowledge of how to use it make him one of the league’s most formidable blindside protectors when he’s on his game. Adrian Klemm should help get the former Pro Bowler back on track.
It’s fair to be skeptical of the Patriots’ situation across from him, however, especially with New England waiting until day three to address a spot that seemed to like a short- and long-term need. But as their free agency and draft strategies have shown, the team may not view things the way we do on the outside.
Projected starter Riley Reiff is 34 years old and lacks the foot speed to keep up with more explosive, refined edge rushers consistently. That said, he’s a smart player who brings toughness in the run game and improved down the stretch for the Bears last season. If given chip help like the team afforded its carousel of right tackles last season, he should be a slight upgrade at the spot.
New England also hedged their bet by re-signing Conor McDermott, who performed admirably as a starter in the final six games of 2022, tendering restricted free agent Yodny Cajuste, and taking experienced tackle/guard Sidy Sow in the 4th round. Director of player personnel Matt Groh also alluded to Andrew Stueber as an extra draft pick after last season’s 7th-rounder spent his rookie year on the reserve/non-football injury list. Add in Calvin Anderson’s return to Foxborough as the projected backup behind Trent Brown, and the Patriots have enviable depth with a nice mix of veterans and young players.
Left Guard: Cole Strange, James Ferentz, Sidy Sow*
Right Guard: Mike Onwenu, James Ferentz, Bill Murray, Chasen Hines, Atonio Mafi*
Center: David Andrews, James Ferentz, Kody Russey, Jake Andrews*
Mike Onwenu played at a Pro Bowl level in his first full season at guard, where the Patriots have been adamant he will be staying in a contract year. His ability to move bodies in the run game and dominate nearly any pass rusher 1-on-1 make him a valuable young cog on the offensive line.
David Andrews may be nearing the end of his career, but he’s one of the position’s smartest and most reliable players. The team captain also showed he’s got enough gas in the tank to pull on outside zone plays.
Cole Strange had his share of rookie struggles last season, including getting benched against the Colts’ fearsome interior. But he showed resilience and didn’t allow any pressure in three of his final five games. If Strange adds good weight to better hold up against power and learns to use his hands independently against more technical rushers, he should build on that strong finish.
James Ferentz still projects as the top backup at each interior spot, but the 33-year-old’s days could be numbered with the influx of young talent acquired during the draft.
Matt Groh essentially called top-day-three pick Jake Andrews a guard with experience at center, so he could be viewed as a more versatile player than initially anticipated. Andrews lacks the length and athleticism to inspire much confidence at guard, but his intelligence and toughness could make him the veteran Andrews’ possible successor in the middle of New England’s line. 5th-rounder Atonio Mafi seems like potential Mike Onwenu insurance as a massive road grader with untapped potential, though he needs refinement as a pass protector. Sidy Sow could also fit into the mix after playing left guard in college, where he was a monster when given chances to block in space.
Former defensive tackle Bill Murray showed great athleticism at guard last preseason and even earned a brief call-up to the active roster. He’s still understandably raw, but his development could be fun to watch. Chasen Hines is a strong run blocker with good athleticism but needs a lot of technical work. He landed on injured reserve in the middle of last season. I thought Kody Russey showed promise last preseason, but Jake Andrews’ selection makes me wonder how confident the team is in his future.
“X” Receiver: DeVante Parker
“Z” Receiver (2-WR): JuJu Smith-Schuster
“Z” Receiver (3-WR): Tyquan Thornton, Kendrick Bourne, Tre Nixon, Kayshon Boutte*
Slot Receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Lynn Bowden Jr., Demario Douglas*
DeVante Parker is the only receiver with the size and speed to consistently line up on the boundary as an X, which is concerning given his injury history. That said, the Patriots’ offense runs through its off-ball receivers and others can also fill in if necessary based on the situation.
Free agent signing JuJu Smith-Schuster projects as the team’s top Z receiver to the tight end’s side in 2-receiver sets, where his size can be an asset as a blocker and over the middle on play action passes. In 3-receiver groupings, I anticipate Smith-Schuster will assume his natural position in the slot with Tyquan Thornton taking over outside.
Thornton stalled out after a promising start to his rookie campaign was derailed by injuries, but he flashed the speed and quickness that made him a 2nd-rounder. Adding muscle to his frame and discipline to his routes should make a big difference in the receiver’s sophomore season. Expectations seem to be high for Thornton given his draft status and how extensively he was used in Jakobi Meyers’ old role last preseason, so a bigger role is likely in store.
Kendrick Bourne has looked like the offense’s most dangerous playmaker at times, making highlight grabs downfield and ripping off chunks of yards on underneath touches. But after failing to become a top receiving option over the past two seasons due to inconsistency and issues with last year’s coaching staff, this could be a make-or-break season for Bourne with his contract expiring in 2023.
Historically, Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas are as likely to be cut as they are to make the roster as 6th-round picks. But both players dropped, despite productive college careers, due to off-field concerns (Boutte) or size and small-school status (Douglas). Boutte can provide 1st-round production if he buys into the Patriots’ system and recovers from an ankle injury that hurt his performance at the NFL combine. Douglas has discount Josh Downs potential as a smaller receiver with exceptional speed, twitch, and route-running ability who plays bigger than his size.
Ernie Adams pick Tre Nixon has shown potential as a vertical threat, but hands and consistency have held him back. Lynn Bowden Jr. is an electric do-it-all player with a locker next to Mac Jones, but as of now, he’s more of a practice squad candidate.
“Y” Tight End: Hunter Henry, Scotty Washington, Matt Sokol, Jeremy Lumpkin*
“F”/Joker Tight End: Mike Gesicki
Despite a drop in production after being misused in last season’s offense, Hunter Henry is one of the Patriots’ most reliable receivers and Red Zone threats. He’s also strikingly similar to Jakobi Meyers when comparing their schematic use, so I’m expecting the tight end to reemerge as one of Mac Jones’ favorite targets. Henry may not be a dominant blocker, but he’s a serviceable Y tight end and has shown remarkable toughness the past two seasons, playing through serious injuries without missing a game.
Mike Gesicki may be more receiver than tight end, but he still affords a lot of schematic flexibility and forces coordinators to make tough calls on how to defend him. He’s an outstanding athlete with phenomenal hands and the ability to line up anywhere in the formation, inside or out. Expect Gesicki to bring more of a vertical element to the middle of the field while offering a reliable set of mitts on critical downs.
Journeyman Matt Sokol was called up from the practice squad a few times last season but struggled in active duty. Scotty Washington filled in admirably against the Bengals before landing on IR the following week. He was actually the one who batted the Hail Mary pass that Meyers recovered for an improbable touchdown. Jeremy Lumpkin is a bit of a mystery, but at 6’5″ 265 lbs, it’s safe to assume he will compete for a spot as an in-line tight end and Red Zone target.