The Patriots’ trading star cornerback Stephon Gilmore for pennies on the dollar brings up a conversation about Bill Belichick failing to maximize trade value.
Gilmore, a former Defensive Player of the Year, joins an exodus of talent that includes Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and we are even going back to Jimmy Garoppolo.
Look, if you’re interested in going after Bill the GM for moves he made four year ago, or the fact that Gronk shut down a trade in the 2018 offseason to Detroit that would’ve yielded multiple high draft picks, or even deliberate for the hundredth time how the team let Tom Brady walk, be my guest.
The far more interesting questions for Bill Belichick now is this: what direction is your team heading in the short and long-term right now? Are you a rebuilding franchise with a rookie quarterback or are you trying to win now because the moves are starting to contradict themselves.
The same week that the Patriots couldn’t bridge the gap with Gilmore, they reunited with 31-year-old linebacker Jamie Collins. Similarly, they spent $156.9 million guaranteed on veteran free agents in March. Yet you can’t find a middle ground with your best defensive player?
Getting every last win out of Brady and protecting himself for the future with Jimmy G made sense at the time. Gronk blocked his trade to Detroit. But the only explanation for Belichick holding onto Gilmore until his trade value was a 2023 sixth-round pick is that the Pats’ head coach overrated his own team.
After Brady left, Belichick should’ve recognized that the Pats were in a rebuild last season and that a then 30-year-old corner wouldn’t line up with the next great Pats team.
With Brady, the Pats were ring chasing. Now, it feels like some moves are about rebuilding while other personnel decisions are more win-now mode thinking. And all of this is lining up for another seven-win season, no playoffs, and the 15th overall pick in the first round, which gets the Patriots nowhere.
Expediting rookie quarterback Mac Jones’s development could bring it all together, but Belichick needs to be more realistic with veterans nearing the end of their contracts because getting caught in between is only hurting the team.
Without further ado, let’s get to your questions and empty the Week 5 mailbag:
What’s the floor for a JC Jackson extension? Guessing between 14 and 16 APY
— slick (@DaSlick23) October 7, 2021
It took me a while to get here, but now I’m squarely in the “pay JC” camp. The contract we projected is in the $16 million range, adjusting Stephon Gilmore’s original deal with the Pats against the projected 2022 league cap. Jackson might get more on the open market. But as a UDFA turned rising star who fits the Pats’ system to a tee, playing in New England for Belichick is where Jackson will be at his best. In a way, he could end up making more money in the long run playing for Belichick.
What do you feel is Jc Jackson’s full ceiling if he ever gets there? And I’m talking about his full potential at its best.
— Marcellous (@mkharrell98) October 7, 2021
Xavien Howard. Jackson is right there with Howard in terms of interception totals. But covering the opponents’ number one receiver every week and still putting up that kind of ball production should be the goal for Jackson. Howard is an All-Pro and one of the league’s best corners. For Jackson, going toe-to-toe with top competition and consistency down-to-down is the next level up in his game. If he gets there, he’ll have a very similar career to Howard’s in Miami.
Love film reviews. Any thoughts on why the run game hasn’t been as productive? Personnel, play calls, execution?
— The Chenz (@VinFolz) October 7, 2021
There’s a big-picture reason why the run game is stagnant and micro issues with the run game. First, when you have a quarterback who is a non-factor as a runner, it puts the offense at a constant numbers disadvantage (playing ten on 11). Since the defense has a free defender, the run blocking needs to be on point to have a good rushing attack with a stationary QB. Each play is a different issue, but clearly, the Pats aren’t getting the push in the trenches that they need to run the ball effectively. And it’s not just the O-Line. The tight ends and wide receivers are also struggling.
As far as play-calling goes, the Pats have a formational tell with their toss plays where they align a wide receiver in a condensed split pretty much every time they toss it (N’Keal Harry above). The blocking needs to improve, but McDaniels needs to break the tendency, or defenses will continue to be all over the tosses. The Pats have talented running backs, but this is why the nerds say run blocking is more important than the guy carrying the ball. If the blockers can’t get the runners rolling, then you can have Barry Sanders back there, and he’ll be less effective. Okay, maybe Barry still jukes out the entire defense. But you get the point.
When will the pats figure out o-line coaching after scar? I know he's an all timer but they always have a huge drop off when he retires. Bring back scar!
— Jim Pecoraro (@jpecoraro10) October 7, 2021
The Patriots’ offensive line is underperforming relative to high expectations. But the narratives about this group are getting a little out of control. According to PFF, the Pats are 17th in pass-blocking grade and 19th in pass-blocking efficiency.
Here’s a chart via Ben Baldwin showing where the Pats rank in PFF pass-blocking grade and ESPN’s pass-block win rate. Again, they are middle of the pack in both metrics. Honestly, it hasn’t been that bad. And a lot of issues the Patriots are having are related to opponents blitzing the crap out of a rookie quarterback and communication breakdowns between the O-Line and backs against schemed rushes (stunts, blitzes). I’m not trying to sugarcoat things. I just want to put them in context.
From what I saw attending training camp and exhibition season Yodny Cajuste was far and away the best swing tackle. Did this hamstring injury before week 1 set him back to #3? If 100% better than current Wynn?
— PatsSTH1969 (@PatsSTH1969) October 7, 2021
Cajuste was a popular question this week. Unfortunately, we aren’t allowed to watch practice during the regular season, so only the coaching staff knows how Cajuste is progressing. The issue for the 2019 third-rounder is a lack of live reps. Cajuste hasn’t played much football over the last few years outside of camp and the preseason this summer. He had great flashes in August and is a plus athlete. But drilling techniques and fundamentals take time, and we are now in the portion of the season where padded practices are limited. The team feels Cajuste isn’t ready. From what I’ve heard, the coaching staff is essentially viewing this as a redshirt year for Cajuste as he gets back into football shape. I wouldn’t expect to see him unless it’s an emergency.
Do you think Pats try to upgrade the OL via trade? Is there a player they could target?
— Ana Lia (@Talrain79) October 7, 2021
Offensive tackle is the thinnest position in the NFL right now. Due to the lack of depth, good tackles hardly ever become available via trade or free agency unless they’re unhappy in their current situations. If that’s the case, it’s usually a star tackle with a high cap hit (example: Trent Williams). On the interior, the Pats need to trust that Onwenu-Andrews-Mason will play better as a trio. All three are solid NFL linemen, so it’s hard to envision a trade acquisition upgrading those spots. On the whole, Onwenu and Mason have been fine. Andrews, on the other hand, needs to pick it up. Maybe the Pats’ center is dealing with something? He hasn’t looked like himself this season. The best the Pats can do is hope that the O-Line gets healthy and finds their stride.
— Brian Pelo (@Brian_Pelo) October 7, 2021
The Pats feel like they’re a back short if they aren’t going to trust Stevenson and Taylor in larger roles, or at all. But the only move that makes sense is trading for Rex Burkhead. Burkhead knows the system, which is the most important factor here. Belichick spoke about how challenging a job it is to learn blitz pick up in New England’s dual-read system, making it extremely tough for a back who hasn’t been here to step in mid-season and make an impact. Houston has plenty of running backs, so maybe Nick Caserio will throw his old boss a bone.
Both Damien Harris and Brandon Bolden played some pass downs last week and both players allowed pressure – 2 hurries for Harris but a QB hit allowed by Bolden.
How important do you feel pass protection is in determining which player picks up the snaps vacated by James White?
— Andrew Cooper (@CoopAFiasco) October 7, 2021
Blitz pickup is the most significant factor in determining who will replace White. Damien Harris and J.J. Taylor are talented ball carriers who can create yards after the catch. But if they can’t pick up a blitz, they won’t play in passing situations. Again, the Pats run a dual-read system where the back usually needs to make a post-snap decision based on who presents the biggest threat to the quarterback. Essentially, they’re blocking inside out. Finding who to block then making the block is difficult, especially with defenses blitzing Mac at a high rate. They need to find a back who will consistently pick up blitzes.
Is Dont'a Hightower still playing at an elite level? Do I need to watch him closer or has there been a noticeable decline since 2019?
— Mick Baulch (@tacowaldon) October 7, 2021
My concern level with Hightower is pretty high at this point. To answer the question directly, no, he is not playing at an elite level. Hopefully, it’s a matter of getting into football shape after a year off, but he hasn’t been the same player we saw in 2019. He’s processing things slower and isn’t coming off blocks as quickly. Hightower defeats blocks with a head-on approach, meaning his goal is to press the blocker off of him rather than go around him. Right now, there are too many instances where you don’t see the usual “pop” into engagements that used to get Hightower free to make plays. He’s getting blocked way too easily. Again, hopefully, he’ll play his way back into football shape and improve as the season progresses.
What does a successful Patriots offense look like to you by the end of Mac’s 1st year? Ideal world
— AJ (@woofite) October 7, 2021
The word I’d use is identity, and the Pats seem to be getting closer to finding that identity. By the end of the season, they need to know what they’re good at, what Mac is good at, who is good at running that offense on their roster, and adjust accordingly. Right now, the shotgun spread approach is working best. But maybe that changes by the end of the season. Either way, learning what’s successful and what isn’t with Jones at quarterback is a must this season. Then, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can add things into the playbook over the offseason to make that style of offense even more productive.
Are Duggar, Harris & Meyers the only young players on the team who haven’t regressed? Wynn, uche, Wino, Onwenu, Herron, Johnson, Gunnar, Williams, Harry, Taylor all worse. Rest can’t play at all. Is this a coaching issue? Where is the jump for these players?
— Dave (@ChefdDds89) October 7, 2021
Please stop with the lazy narratives that Mike Onwenu is regressing. Despite adjusting to left guard this season, Onwenu has been the Pats’ most consistent offensive linemen. He has allowed only five quarterback pressures on 67 true pass sets and wasn’t benched for performance reasons against Tampa (he had one legit holding call and one bogus penalty on the same drive, but he wasn’t benched). Dugger gets better with every rep in coverage, Uche was tremendous in camp and one of the NFL’s most productive edge rushers in the first three weeks, Mac and Barmore are two of the better rookies in 2021 class so far. Harry and Joejuan were never good (talent evaluation issue, not player development). Wino and Gunner are who they are in the league. The expectations for Herron’s ceiling were as a third tackle. Johnson is a fullback. Taylor is a UDFA who was overrated based on preseason games (we said as much all summer when he was doing nothing in camp). I’m just not seeing the the issue here with player development outside of Wynn.