The number one question surrounding the Patriots is still trying to explain why Bill Belichick has been so dormant to start the 2022 offseason.
What are the Patriots doing? Why haven’t they made a concerted effort to add a needle-mover or two in the veteran market? The expectation wasn’t another spending spree, but why this?
When you combine the inactivity in free agency with a coaching staff experiencing significant turnover on offense, the doom and gloom crowd has more sturdy ground to stand on than ever lately.
Are the @Patriots doing enough in free agency?
“Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.” – #WarrenBuffett #NFL @nflnetwork @cfrelund @WillieMcGinest @Mike_Yam pic.twitter.com/BLEdQi8KLl
— Scott Pioli (@scottpioli51) March 24, 2022
If you’re looking for the positive spin coming out of One Patriots Place, former Pats general manager Scott Pioli dropped knowledge on New England’s strategy on NFL Network this week.
“Last year, the entire league was in a depressed market (due to COVID-19), so the Patriots went out and spent two years’ worth of free agency and received tremendous value,” Pioli explained. “If you look at the financial terms, they look very good. They did some of this year’s free agency last year.”
To further Pioli’s point, here’s an example. Last offseason, the Patriots signed wide receiver Nelson Agholor to a two-year, $22 million contract coming off 896 yards and eight touchdowns in Vegas. This spring, Jacksonville signed Christian Kirk to a four-year, $72 million deal following 982 yards and five touchdowns for the Cardinals in 2021.
When you talk to people either in the building or hear from those who used to be in the building, such as Pioli, the spin is simple: the Patriots are expecting their 2021 free-agent haul to improve in year two while they’re setting themselves up for another big splash in 2023.
Arguing about whether or not the Patriots should get a free pass after their spending spree a year ago is a moot point; they’re giving themselves a financial break whether we like it or not.
Instead, let’s outline the three things that absolutely need to happen for the 2022 Patriots to remain competitive within the AFC arms race after mostly staying pat this offseason:
1. Pats Must Unlock Jonnu Smith – you’ve probably heard this one in other places, but Smith must be a more valuable commodity, or his $13.7 million cap hit will be impossible to justify. The hope here is that the Pats’ coaching staff is watching 49ers tape to familiarize themselves with Kyle Juszczyk’s role in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Using Smith as more of an H-Back will allow him to generate momentum into his run blocks, blow past the second level rather than running a fuller route tree, and makes it easier to design touches to get him the football in space (screens, flat routes, etc.). Smith is the Jakob Johnson/traditional fullback.
2. Master the Playbook With Kendrick Bourne – the only reason why Bourne wasn’t featured more in the offense last year was that he was still familiarizing himself with a complex playbook. The Pats’ wideout was by far the teams’ most explosive offensive weapon and produced an excellent 11.4 yards per target. The Pats need to feed Bourne, so his grasp of the playbook must improve.
3. Adjust the scheme or get full buy-in from Matthew Judon – Judon was arguably the best free-agent addition and made an immediate impact. However, he disappeared down the stretch for a multitude of reasons. The biggest on-field setback was that he wasn’t functioning as well within the scheme, pinning his ears back to rush the passer, forcing him to lose contain. Either Judon needs to buy into the disciplined approach on the edge, or the Pats need to tinker with their defensive system to allow him to play a more aggressive style.
Although there would be more external optimism with a splashier free agency, the Patriots hope to establish a veteran foundation and supplement through another strong draft.
For that plan to succeed, the Patriots need their 2021 free-agency class to justify the logic that they spent for two offseasons a year ago.
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag filled with your Patriots offseason questions:
seems like WR is a lock as a premium pick this year. With $ WRs now getting on 2nd contracts and as FAs, can we expect Bill to start investing prem pick at WR more frequently to cost control position? I think even if Harry was a hit, they’d still draft a WR high this year.
— Steve L'Heureux @NHLBruins 🥃 (@Bruin238) March 24, 2022
Steve, I think you’re onto something here. For years, the Pats didn’t chase wide receivers at the top of the draft because the position has a high bust rate, which they learned the hard way with N’Keal Harry. However, the WR landscape is making productive wide receivers on rookie contracts a huge bargain. Teams can trade substantial draft capital and sign star receivers to record-setting deals (Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill), overpay average receivers in free agency (Christian Kirk), or draft and develop. Which one presents the best value? There’s inherent risk involved, especially for a team that doesn’t have the best track record with scouting wide receivers in the draft. But smart teams like the Patriots could start taking multiple swings in the draft at wide receivers to avoid the ridiculous price tags in the veteran market.
Who do you think will call the plays? and are you expecting some major differences in this year's offense?
— Lucas (@lt_sep) March 24, 2022
Speaking to a longtime NFL scout and coach, I got some insight recently into how Bill Belichick approaches his coaching staff. I asked my source if he could see Joe Judge calling plays, and he said, “I don’t think Bill would do that. He values the experience you get just from being involved on the headset. Judge had that for one season of play-calling with McDaniels. I’m sure [Nick] Caley has charted all of Mac’s games and been in the room for the film review, so he has that context to work with, Judge doesn’t.”
That’s just one man’s opinion, but it makes sense. Caley is a more familiar face for Mac Jones and worked on McDaniels’s staff for years. He was in those game plan meetings, on the headset, and worked with the key figures on offense last year. Based on Belichick’s track record, Caley makes the most sense.
— Brian Pelo (@Brian_Pelo) March 24, 2022
As it stands right now, the Patriots need to address four areas of their roster with premium picks in April: wide receiver, cornerback, defensive front seven, and offensive line. Although it’s a cop-out answer, I could see them doing anything with the 21st pick. If a blue-chipper is on the board at one of those positions, my gut says they’ll prioritize drafting someone they feel could be a true pillar of the next regime rather than hoarding picks. They have four selections in the top 127 this year, which, in a deep draft, might suffice to address those four areas of need. With Belichick, a trade down is always possible. But they do that when they feel like a comparable player will be available at the pick they’re moving to, so that’ll be a decision on draft night.
Who else do you see the pats targeting in free agency? Another CB? Maybe Gilmore? Can we get a LG? Trade and draft a WR? What happens with Hightower?
— Cam Gravina (@CoachGrav) March 24, 2022
There are two areas where we could see the Patriots bringing in more reinforcements, which are at edge/outside linebacker and offensive line. The Pats made a legitimate pitch to RFA Ryan Bates, but he opted to go with the Bears on an offer sheet instead. New England continues to look for veteran linemen to give them options at guard and a secure insurance policy at tackle behind Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn. After releasing him earlier this month, the Pats still haven’t replaced Kyle Van Noy with a veteran addition. They may believe Josh Uche or Ronnie Perkins will step into that role, but that’s a lot to ask of two players we haven’t seen consistently. I could see another veteran addition there. The Patriots will forever monitor the wide receiver market as well.
Is the return of stephon Gilmore actually plausible?
— Ebenezer (8) (@bobandy42116) March 24, 2022
After the Patriots brought back Malcolm Butler, I wouldn’t rule anything out, and Gilmore’s situation was far less hostile than how things ended with Butler in his first stint. However, speaking to a league source on Gilmore, my understanding is that he’ll likely price himself out of New England. This is less about hurt feelings and more about money. Gilmore has suitors, especially the Raiders, and wants to cash in again. If the contract isn’t out there, maybe he circles back to the Patriots to see if Belichick will bite on a one-year prove-it deal. But, again, that feels more like fan fiction than reality.
Where the hell is Trey Flowers?
— Gio (@GioSlice) March 24, 2022
After ending last season on injured reserve due to knee and shoulder injuries, Flowers was released by the Lions with a failed physical designation. Those injuries often lead to a slower-moving free-agent market for vets like Flowers until he’s fully healed and can start trying out for teams on free-agent visits. For example, Jason McCourty is going through a similar process with season-ending foot surgery and will likely begin his free-agent tour after the draft. I would expect mutual interest between Flowers and the Pats, but it could take some time.
Best cornerback fits in the draft?
— Ricky (@cochran379) March 24, 2022
I’ll refer any draft positional rankings questions to my annual spreadsheet. But the best fits at corner for the Patriots are Florida’s Kaiir Elam and Washington CB Kyler Gordon. Elam was in a press-man scheme at a program that the Pats like, while his combine checked many boxes. His alpha demeanor and physical playing style in man coverage make him a natural fit. Gordon is another outside corner prospect with good size and tape in a defense that produced Myles Bryant for the Patriots. Gordon has experience in zone and man, if they’re thinking more zone coverage. My personal favorite is Andrew Booth Jr. out of Clemson. But he has some lingering injury concerns and doesn’t have the reps in press-man that others do. He’s more of an off-man or zone corner, which could be the direction they’re going in, so look out for him as well. Trent McDuffie from Washington is their guy if they want to add a great open-field tackler to deal with Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Isaiah McKenzie, and the rest of the speed in the division. Those would be my best fits in the top 50.
Can you give us a refresher on how the Pats can get more production from Agholor?
— Owen Grohman (@Grohman) March 24, 2022
Although the production wasn’t there, the team wasn’t as down on Agholor’s first season with the Patriots as those on the outside looking in. Agholor isn’t a game-changer, but he did stretch the field for New England and wasn’t in a position to see a high volume of targets. Still, it’s natural to want more production. If they want to get him more involved, I’d expect to see more crossers at different levels where they can get him into foot races. Last season, some of his best plays were on shallow and deep crossing routes, but he didn’t run those frequently because others were playing in the slot.
Hey Evan, Hearing anything about this CFL all pro guard they signed to a futures contract in January? Drew Desjarlais. Nice size; had NFL interest in 2019 but decided to stay in Canada and win two Grey Cups. Any chance he could compete for the left guard spot in camp?
— Mitchell Henderson (@Mitch_Hender24) March 24, 2022
Although it’s important to manage expectations here, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about Desjarlais and wouldn’t write him off as an option at guard. He’s a very athletic lineman, which the Patriots like at left guard. He’s in New England on a futures contract, meaning nothing is guaranteed, and he’s basically a camp tryout. But I think he’ll have an equal shot as everyone else to compete for the vacant guard spot, assuming the Pats don’t take a lineman to play there in the first round. Desjarlais got a lot of reps in the CFL, has the athletic profile they like, and shouldn’t be ignored. We’ll see if he can compete in camp.
With the NFL now populated with Sean McVay disciples simplifying the decision making process for WR’s, does this Force Bill to not require his WR’s to be Data Analysts?
— PatsSTH1969 (@PatsSTH1969) March 24, 2022
I would push back on the notion that McVay’s offense is simple for wide receivers. The McVay-Shanahan tree has plenty of options or sight adjustments in their playbook.
For example, the Rams rode “choice stucko” to a Super Bowl this past season, featuring Cooper Kupp on an option series. Above is how it looks in the McVay-Shanahan world—plenty of options and route conversions.