The Patriots will begin the organized team activities in one week, with the first voluntary OTA practice at Gillette Stadium on May 23.
Phase one and two of the offseason program that began on April 18 are limited to strength and conditioning and light football-specific drills against air. In other words, there isn’t real football going on until the end of this month, when the team transitions into phase three.
As Bill Belichick’s team begins phase three, NFL teams can now line up offense against defense in non-contact 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. Schematically, phase three, which also includes a mandatory minicamp, is when the basic installation of the playbook takes place.
With the Patriots laying the foundation for their 2022 playbook soon, the question becomes, what will New England look like offensively?
After longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s departure, New England’s new offensive brain trust, including Belichick, is tweaking things to adapt to the Pats’ newer personnel. Along with Belichick, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge are expected to have a large influence on the offense, with Patricia as the likely play-caller.
Although it won’t be a complete departure from what we’ve seen over the last two-plus decades, Belichick and Robert Kraft hinted that scheme shifts are coming.
“We’re making changes to take advantage of what they do best,” Kraft said about Mac Jones’s year-two progression and getting more out of the pass catchers from the 2021 free-agent haul.
“Ultimately, it’s my responsibility,” Belichick said of the schematic shifts offensively. “Adjusting to new personnel, building, obviously with Mac, building [the scheme] now that we know who are some of the players we have back.”
With adjustments on the way for the Pats offense, it’s noteworthy that Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was in Foxborough last week, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss.
Most of the league expected Belichick to pry O’Brien out of Tuscaloosa to replace McDaniels as his offensive coordinator, but O’Brien will remain at Alabama for at least one more season.
Former Pats coaches or even just friends of Belichick’s popping in for a visit happens regularly, especially this time of year. However, this O’Brien appearance feels different.
As he and McDaniels did with then Oregon coach Chip Kelly in 2012, Belichick has meetings to talk ball and pick coaches’ brains from the collegiate ranks to keep their schemes fresh.
As the Pats adapt their scheme around Mac Jones and their new offensive weapons, borrowing elements of the Crimson Tide’s smash mouth spread offense is the most likely schematic direction.
New England could incorporate more spread elements, better spacing and vertical passing schemes, two-tight end sets a la O’Brien in 2010-11, and marry their current power run schemes with Alabama’s RPO and motion designs.
Along with helping Jones reach the next level in his development, those play designs will unlock more from Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith, and even the 2022 draft class coming from a much different schematic viewpoint at places like Chattanooga, Baylor, and South Dakota State.
The Patriots’ top draft picks on offense come from new-age systems that majored in outside zone run-blocking schemes and spread the field in the passing game.
First-round pick Cole Strange’s Chattanooga offense almost exclusively ran outside or inside zone, and the same goes for running back Pierre Strong, who is built for a zone system as a 4.37-runner with great one-cut and breakaway speed.
At Baylor, second-round pick Tyquan Thornton ran a vertical route tree in offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes’s outside zone scheme that uses bootleg action and Shanahan-style elements.
As younger players find their way to Foxborough through the draft, the offensive systems in college football don’t resemble the old Pats playbook. For example, college offenses don’t typically use downhill run game systems with fullbacks, complex route trees, and sight adjustments.
If they’re going to make the transition easier to get the best out of their recent draft picks on offense, the Patriots need to recognize that shift, and it appears they are doing just that.
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag as phase three of the offseason program approaches:
I'd love to hear from an insider like you how you feel the Patriots linebacker room breaks down. A lot of us on the outside see it as a huge question mark/need area, but it seems that inside Gillette they believe in the youngsters they have. What roles do you foresee?
— Drew12122 (@sonny12122) May 11, 2022
My read on New England’s approach at linebacker is twofold. Their biggest takeaway after self-scouting the developmental issues over the last few years is that the young guys need to play. Otherwise, how do you know what you have? Adding more depth in the draft, even if it’s projected starting-caliber talent, only makes the pond more crowded. My other takeaway is that the Pats don’t foresee playing much base defense with three or four linebackers on the field at once. With nickel and dime as their base, they only need two off-ball linebackers, leaving Ja’Whaun Bentley as the early-down MIKE (table-setter/run-stuffer) and a more athletic WILL linebacker such as Mack Wilson, Cameron McGrone, or Raekwon McMillan. That weakside linebacker competition will sort itself out in camp, and then they’ll fill in the rest with their four-headed monster at safety (McCourty, Dugger, Phillips, Peppers). Rather than drafting a traditional linebacker, that’s the plan to get more speed on the field.
Is it more likely they trade Agholor or extend him?
— Joshua Mitchell (@jcm142) May 11, 2022
The best thing for the Patriots this season is to keep Agholor. Thornton is a rookie in a complex offense, DeVante Parker is injury prone, and many in Foxborough feel that Agholor’s tape was better than his production last season. I also believe Agholor when he says that he’ll play faster in year two in the system since other speed guys have told similar stories of the route conversations slowing them down. If Thornton is an instant contributor, great. The Pats haven’t put that kind of speed on the field at once in years. Agholor, Thornton, and Pierre Strong in 11 personnel? Are the Pats actually fast on offense? Sign me up.
Overlap in Strong & K Harris' skill sets? Expect both to "redshirt", or, can either play a significant role rookie yr a la Rhamondre? (asking as most seem to be speculating Strong = potential replacement for James White w K Harris more of a D Harris type)
— G Francis (@GEOSTORM59) May 11, 2022
I’m all aboard the Pierre Strong hype train. He’ll need to prove he can get the assignments down in blitz pickup, but he’s a capable pass blocker, receiver, and ball carrier. The team drafted him to produce more explosive plays with that 4.37-speed, and the feeling here is that Strong will make it difficult for the coaching staff to keep him in the garage for long. Harris, who does project into that early-down back role, isn’t guaranteed to make the roster and is a perfect redshirt candidate. He played last season after recovering from back surgery, so a year off when he’s not going to play anyways could benefit him. Harris is a prime Foxborough Flu candidate.
In your opinion, did any of NE’s offseason moves signal to you an uptick in more zone-heavy defensive gameplans this year?
— Brian Phillips (@BPhillips_SB) May 11, 2022
During free agency, their moves were gearing more towards zone coverage; Mack Wilson, Terrance Mitchell, and Jabrill Peppers felt like zone coverage additions. But reading schematic tea leaves in the draft is a more accurate reflection of their long-term plans, and Marcus and Jack Jones are man coverage defenders. They wouldn’t draft two corners under six feet tall if a seismic shift to zone was coming. Like last season, I still think they’ll play more zone than we saw when they had peak cover talent in 2018-19. However, the long-term view shows a team still buying into and majoring in man coverage.
Is there a big run stuffing NT out there that you could see them targeting? I know Linval Joseph is out there but I don’t know how he played last year. I like Davis but more as a depth piece. I’d still love to see them add Hicks and Flowers to reinforce the Line as well
— Dave (@ChefdDds89) May 11, 2022
My post-draft takeaway on nose tackles is that the Patriots might not often play with a traditional nose tackle next season. The 2022 rookie class was loaded with two-gapping nose tackles from the top (Jordan Davis, first), day two (Travis Jones, third), and middle rounds (D.J. Davidson, fifth) to UDFAs such as Marquan McCall, and the Pats passed on all of them. They didn’t even show interest in McCall as a UDFA, who has great potential as a block-eating nose tackle. It could be a sign that they feel good about what they have in Davon Godchaux and Carl Davis. But it could also mean they’re shifting to more even (4-3) fronts.
We could see them line up in a 4-3 over base. You’d have Matthew Judon in the backside designated pass-rusher role, Godchaux as the shade or one-technique, Barmore as a penetrating three-technique, and Deatrich Wise or Lawrence Guy as a two-gapping defensive end (could be Trey Flowers, too). They used this look some last year and found success with it. Barmore is a natural playmaker as a three-technique, and so is Judon in that LEO/REO role. It also takes the pressure off Godchaux by playing him shaded into the A-Gap rather than straight up over center, and it’s easier to play smaller linebackers (safeties).
Who do you see lining up at outside CB in nickel and dime packages? They don’t have a lot of size at that spot
— Alex Clauss (@ajclauss3) May 11, 2022
We are looking at Jalen Mills manning one outside corner spot and Malcolm Butler duking it out with Terrance Mitchell for the other boundary corner role. Ideally, you’d have a younger player such as Jack Jones or Shaun Wade emerge in camp while the vets are there to bridge the developmental gap. I’m a bigger believer in Jones’s ability to play on the outside than Wade’s, so my early front-runner to take that spot by storm would be the Pats’ fourth-rounder. I expect the team to give the young corners as many reps as possible to sell the coaching staff on playing them over the vets.
In my opinion one of the most overlooked things with this current Patriot roster is not having a true edge setter. Do you agree?….and if so what are some of your solutions?
— Jeff Scanlon (@jscancoach) May 11, 2022
Along the same lines as the linebacker and nose tackle discussions, there’s a real possibility that the Pats will put more of the edge-setting responsibilities on their defensive line rather than the linebacker group. Based on what’s still out there, it’s more likely they will add a defensive end in the Trey Flowers mold rather than a standup linebacker who can set the edge (Kyle Van Noy mold). If that answer is in-house, look out for Ronnie Perkins. Unlike Uche, Perkins has better size and playing strength at the point of attack. The hope could be that Perkins is ready to take on more responsibility now that Van Noy is LA bound. For what it’s worth, the Pats never reached back out to Van Noy after the draft. They weren’t interested in bringing him back, even after they didn’t draft a linebacker.
Where is James White, health-wise? Is the team optimistic that he'll be able to contribute?
— Matt Cederholm (@TheBigHurtHQ) May 11, 2022
Unfortunately, I haven’t heard many positive things about James White’s recovery from hip surgery. The team wouldn’t have re-signed him if they weren’t optimistic he could contribute, but I’d be surprised if White starts the season on the active roster. At this point, it sounds like he’ll begin the year on the PUP list. There’s a chance that White tries to give it a go towards the end of camp, makes the initial 53-man roster, and then they decide whether or not to place him on injured reserve. The league is going back to the pre-COVID rules for injured reserve, so it’s no longer unlimited returns (back two per team), and players will need to sit out at least six games. Here’s to hoping that White surprises with a speedier recovery.
Do you think the Patriots end up adding veteran or 2 to the roster that ultimately make the team? (i.e. not a camp body)
— Chris Jacobsen (@Skinnytiedcpa) May 11, 2022
The Patriots only have 86 players on their 90-man roster, so more veteran additions are coming. They’re most likely to add at edge rusher (Trey Flowers) or offensive line. A vet lineman who can play tackle or guard would fill out their depth chart. The Pats have 16 offensive linemen on the roster, but half feel more like camp bodies than contributors. It would be nice to have more insurance for Cole Strange (if he’s not ready to start by Week 1), Isaiah Wynn, and Trent Brown.