If you ask any NFL executive what the best thing an organization can do for its young quarterback on the field, the answer will probably be the same: protect him at all costs.
Building a strong offensive line, or failing to do so, often dictates the success or failure of so many quarterbacks that have walked in Mac Jones’s shoes as highly-touted first-round picks.
Most first-round quarterbacks have the physical tools to succeed, but how they handle pressure and overcome deficiencies upfront can make the difference. Even huge success stories, such as Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and Chiefs MVP Patrick Mahomes, came up short when the protection broke down (see: Super Bowl LVI and Super Bowl LV).
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has always emphasized keeping his quarterback upright. For years, legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was a massive part of that. But even in a post-Scar world, New England’s O-Line has performed well using Scarnecchia’s system.
After a shaky start to the 2021 season, the Pats stabilized the offensive line by inserting veteran Ted Karras into the starting lineup, which coincided with Trent Brown’s return at right tackle.
New England finished fourth in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking efficiency by the season’s end, with only 20 sacks surrendered (eighth-best) and the fewest QB pressures allowed in the NFL by the offensive line. PFF also ranked the Pats as the eighth-best run-blocking unit.
Despite their success down the stretch a year ago, the Patriots made some significant changes both personnel-wise and on the coaching staff this offseason to the offensive line room.
New England declined to match a three-year, $18 million deal given to Karras by the reigning AFC Champs, lowering their offer at the last minute to push the high-IQ vet to Cincinnati.
Then, Belichick surprisingly traded standout right guard Shaq Mason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a fifth-round pick, which created another hole in the starting five.
Trading the 28-year-old Mason was an avenue to free-up cap space and opened a starting spot for 2021 sixth-round pick Mike Onwenu, who has put out impressive tape in his first two seasons. The Pats were still short one guard, though, which led to the Cole Strange selection in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
After the roster shuffling at guard, the Patriots reported to minicamp last week with a major change at tackle. In these early stages, flipping tackles Trent Brown (moving to left tackle) and Isaiah Wynn (moving to right tackle) could be seen as experimentation. But the Pats harp on continuity and try getting as many reps as a five-man unit in their starting spots as possible.
Along with the roster turnover, offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo followed Josh McDaniels to Vegas, so senior football advisor Matt Patricia and assistant coach Billy Yates are taking over.
The Patriots have big questions to answer this summer once the pads go on and live contact begins in training camp, which is when the evaluation process truly begins in the trenches.
First, is projected starting tackle Isaiah Wynn’s move to the right side because the team thinks it’s what’s best for the offense, whether that’s getting a better version of Wynn, Brown, or potentially spreading out the beef and athleticism a bit? Or is Wynn a potential trade candidate with a $10.4 million salary on his fifth-year option this season?
The Patriots could be foreshadowing a Wynn trade by preparing Brown to play left tackle now, where he played in 2018, which means they’re only displacing one position if they trade Wynn.
Plus, if the team is counting on Brown to protect Mac Jones’s blind side, can he stay healthy for an entire season after failing to do so in each of the last three seasons?
Second, will Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu upgrade New England’s guard spots, or will the interior line take a step back with the ongoing youth movement?
Strange’s athleticism was on full display during the spring, but questions remain about his playing strength and pass protection technique. As for Onwenu, one could argue that he has better tape at tackle than guard in the NFL after he was benched last season for Karras.
Lastly, and this is an ongoing theme for the offense in general, will a new-look offensive line get the quality coaching it needs to gel with so many moving parts up front?
As we wrote after minicamp, New England’s quarterback and offensive skill positions showed out this spring in a positive way; Jones’s deep ball is improved, his pass-catchers led by newcomer DeVante Parker and potential breakout candidate Tre Nixon are improved, and a streamlined offensive system is creating more downfield opportunities.
However, for the Patriots to successfully open up the offense for Jones to hunt more explosive plays in year two, he’ll need a sturdy offensive line in front of him to keep him clean.
If there’s one concerning area about the Patriots’ offense following spring practices, it’s how New England’s rebuilt offensive line will hold up once they face a live pass rush.
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag as the Patriots head into summer break:
Any idea who will be calling the plays ??
— #Patriotsalldayeveryday (@DpopWilliams) June 15, 2022
Despite reports that Patricia is the front-runner, my money for play-caller duties is still on Joe Judge. Why? I thought Mike Lombardi outlined well on a recent podcast. Unless Billy Yates huddles with the offensive line during games, having the offensive line coach call the plays is pretty unprecedented. The O-Line coach has his hands full on game day, discussing adjustments on the sideline with the offensive line. If Judge is the guy working with Mac and the rest of the skill players during the week and sitting with Mac to break down stills during games, he should be the one with the play sheet. You don’t have one guy working with the quarterback Monday-Saturday (Judge) and then pivot on Sunday to the offensive line coach (Patricia) calling plays. It doesn’t work like that.
From what you saw with Mac so far this year, does he fit that throw in to Agholor vs buffalo without the chance of an INT?
— Kent Beaulieu (@Beelio24) June 15, 2022
I like how this question makes us think about Mac’s development as a downfield passer. But I’d push back on the notion that Micah Hyde intercepted that pass because of arm strength. The ball placement could’ve been better (outside shoulder). Still, the biggest reason Hyde had a chance at the ball was because Jones stared down Agholor with a pump fake to sell the double-move without holding Hyde in the middle of the field. Jones’s eyes brought Hyde to Agholor, which meant the throw had to be perfect. To answer the question, there’s a better chance now at a perfect throw from Mac based on what we saw in minicamp. But the most important aspect of that play was his eyes.
Do you think there will be defensive scheme changes to get more safeties on the field regularly this year? Seems like there are 4 starting caliber safeties in Dugger, McCourty, Phillips, and Peppers but some questions remain at CB.
— Pen (@likeuwritewith) June 15, 2022
I’m fully expecting the Patriots to have a dime package that includes four safeties on the field this season. My guess is that it won’t look that different structurally since they’ll probably have safeties playing at a linebacker alignment on the second level. With four safeties on the field, the post-snap rotations to change the coverage shell on the fly could create tons of confusion. Smoke and mirrors rather than shutdown man coverage. We could also see more even fronts (four DLs) to cover up the offensive line to keep the smaller second-level clean with zone coverage behind it. The Pats will never completely walk away from their man coverage roots, but as they found out last season, when you don’t have high-end coverage talent, you need to play more zone to rely on deception and sound structure.
Hey Evan! Really pulling for Tre Nixon. By all accounts seems like a great kid and, of course, love the Ernie Adams connection to his story. Do you see any similarities to his game that remind you of our previous slot guys (Welker/Edelman/Amendola)? Does his have their quickness?
— Wayne Frechette (@WayneFrechette) June 15, 2022
I’ve been trying to find a good comparison for Nixon because he’s different from those guys. There’s some underneath quickness developing in his game, but he’s not a traditional New England slot in the jitterbug mold. Instead, Nixon is more of a vertical slot who is a downfield threat. We are talking about skill sets here and not comparing production. But maybe closer to Deion Branch or Troy Brown? Again, not saying Nixon will produce at those levels. We are just talking about how they play the game, body type, route tree, etc.
I know the year 2 jump at many positions is a big deal (like QB), but is it a thing for defensive linemen? What should we hope/expect from Barmore this season in terms of development?
— Sam (@Sam4Cs) June 15, 2022
The year-two leap qualifies for all players. Mostly, we are talking about the mental side of things and rounding out your game. For defensive lineman like Barmore, that means improved block processing, better consistency against the run, and more nuanced technique. I fully expect Barmore to be an every-down player this season that sees a substantial increase from his 55% snap usage as a rookie. He was a boom-or-bust player against the run in year one, so hopefully, he finds a more sturdy anchor with his technique to play in all situations.
Which DBs do you see making the Roster? Specially at Safety the Patriots got more depth during the Offseason despite not losing any starters from last season (at least not up to my knowledge)
— ◢ ◤ Gamer4️⃣all ◢ ◤ (@Gamer4allreal) June 15, 2022
I did a “way too early” roster projection based on minicamp earlier this week. Until we see an outside corner opposite Jalen Mills take that starting job by the horns, it feels like the Patriots will mix and match their way through the season at corner. With that in mind, I kept seven corners on my initial projection: Mills, Butler, Mitchell, Wade, Jon Jones, Marcus Jones, and Jack Jones. At safety, we went chalk: McCourty, Dugger, Phillips, and Peppers. You can read a more in-depth explanation for those decisions here.
I read your roster projection. One exception. They must keep a 3rd TE. Those position(s) (TE & H-back) must have depth.
Question: Asiassi, Keene or both hut PUP list?
— Stevie G (@SG88297274) June 15, 2022
Although it’s unconventional to carry only two tight ends on the initial 53-man roster, the new practice squad rules make it more manageable to stash depth there (everyone is eligible for the practice squad, three standard elevations, etc.). Who is claiming Dalton Keene or Matt Sokol? Maybe they lose Devin Asiasi. But he’s likely a healthy scratch on game day regardless unless there’s an injury. I don’t see any of those three having a significant role on Sundays, with the Pats shifting to a wide receiver-heavy offense if Hunter Henry or Jonnu Smith goes down. With that said, Asiasi is clearly the leader in the clubhouse for TE3, and injuries and unforeseen developments likely produce a roster spot for a third tight end.
Ok question about Lil Jordan. Seems like the pats have no depth at TE behind smith and Henry. Before OTA’s Mike reiss floated that Harry may have to play TE if he wants to make the team. Clearly he doesn’t want to be on the team. But could they be considering Lil J as a move TE?
— Dave (@ChefdDds89) June 15, 2022
I view Humphrey as a player with a skill set to back up DeVante Parker as a “big” X for when the team inevitably moves N’Keal Harry. Honestly, I’m not sure what the difference is between a big-bodied X and a “move” tight end. We are splitting hairs at that point. They are blocking and making contested catches. In theory, a move tight end might run more routes out of the slot as a detached receiver, which could get them matchups on safeties rather than corners. But there’s already overlap in terms of blocking responsibilities and route tree. It’s not going to magically make Harry or Humphrey better football players.
What’s the update on D’onta Hightower for the 2022-2023 season? Has he officially retired? Would you like to see him in a Jerod Mayo role in the near future?
— Andres (@TheAndresBlog) June 15, 2022
My understanding is that Hightower is still undecided on playing next year, but the door remains open on both sides for a return. If things aren’t going well for McMillan, Wilson, and McGrone early in camp, expect Belichick to make a push for Hightower to return. This could mean he joins the team after training camp gets underway.
Hi Evan, Any updates/news on Trey Flowers?
— ashley1992 (@ashley1992__) June 15, 2022
None. Flowers is likely still working on getting healthy so he can work out for interested teams.