2022 New England Patriots Mini-Preview: Mac Jones’ Year 2 development + final ‘re-tooling’ year?

Entering Year 3 of the Post-Tom Brady era, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots enter another season of some uncertainty.

With long-time conductor of the offense Josh McDaniels and many former Patriots offensive assistants now in Las Vegas, New England has seemingly turned to their former defensive coordinator (Matt Patricia) and special teams coach (Joe Judge) to lead the offense this season, which includes assisting in the ever important development in second-year quarterback Mac Jones.

And although things may not change too much schematically on defense, the overhaul at linebacker and cornerback raises many questions.

But most concern is with the offense, which is warranted.

The Patriots have attempted to “streamline” the offense by simplifying not only it’s terminology, but perhaps the overall scheme itself, New England has tried (and unsuccessfully, thus far) to implement a Shanahan-style outside-zone-heavy rushing attack after years of majoring in a power-running gap scheme, usually accompanied by a lead-blocking fullback.

Will the Patriots abandon ship on some of their training camp and preseason offensive endeavors? Will they follow through completely? Or are they just adding to their existing scheme by practicing concepts that are a bit foreign to the structure of the offense that has been in place for years?

Some former Patriots that have seen the offense up close this summer, have their thoughts on the matter.

“The stacks and motions, we all know that’s big in Josh’s offense. We get that every day when we practice here. Their empty (formation package) is the same. I would just say it’s more so how they’re attacking,” forme Patriots (now Raiders) safety Duron Harmon told the Boston Herald during Patriots-Raiders joint practices.

“They obviously can run the ball, and I think they’re making a big emphasis on being able to run the ball because they’ve got really good backs, and they want to get them the ball. And that’s the main difference. Really sticking to bigger personnel, and then when they want to throw the ball, they can go to lighter personnel.

“Physical team. I’d say that’s the main thing. Physical team, they want to run the ball, and do their job, and make plays,” Harmon continued to the Boston Herald. “They want to make plays on the outside. They want to be a physical offense, and they have the personnel to be a physical offense. They did a good job of making us have to stand up to them.”

The educated guess by many smart football minds is that the Patriots will just tinker with their existing offense by adding in new staples.

Some former analysts, including former coaches and players, are confident Belichick, Jones and others will figure things out on offense, while others are bit more concerned, such as former Patriot great Julian Edelman (see tweet above).

Regardless, the games are now here, and there is football to be played.

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On a more personal note with this blog, I think I may switch things up this season, by going with more of a “quick-hits” or notes style pieces each week.

I’ll begin that here in this column. Let’s get right to it, starting with the projected starters on offense, followed by a few thoughts from your.

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Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Mac Jones

RB — Damien Harris/Rhamondre Stevenson (Even split)

X’ WR — Devante Parker

‘Z’ WR/Slot — Jakobi Meyers

‘Y’/Traditional TE — Hunter Henry

‘F’/’Move’ TE/H-Back — Jonnu Smith

LT — Trent Brown 

LG — Cole Strange 

C — David Andrews 

RG — Michael Onwenu

RT — Isaiah Wynn

 

Situational positions: 

Z-WR — Kendrick Bourne

Z-WR/”Speed” Slot  — Nelson Agholor

X-WR/”Speed” Slot  — Tyquan Thornton

Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste/Justin Herron 

* * * * * * *

🏈 It’s clear at this juncture that Mac Jones is much more comfortable and efficient when operating out of a shotgun-spread look, which makes sense for a QB that spent almost no time under center in college with Alabama. Jones is already a pretty good read-and-react operator via quick passing in spread looks. The Patriots need to let him attempt to take over games via passing more often in 2022. In 2021, they too often became clunky and predictable on first and second down.

🏈 At running back, I expect Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson to split time as the team’s primary back, and I actually think Stevenson has the upper hand to shoulder a bit more of a load than Harris come Thanksgiving and on. The second-year back is too talented as a rusher to keep off the field, and is a better option on shotgun, inside zone runs, as well as outside zone runs without a lead-blocking fullback. Ty Montgomery is the clear pass-catching RB for now, and his versatility as a back who can play as a pure WR should come in handy often this season, particularly in any no-huddle attacks in which New England can toggle back and forth between under-center and spread looks.

🏈 Considering the price they are paying for both Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, I expect the Patriots to play a lot more ’12’ personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) in 2022. Last year, the Patriots began the season at home versus Miami, and deployed Henry and Smith often in Singleback-Ace looks where Henry and Smith were opposite each other as in-line tight ends, basically playing the same position. Then after a bad game from Smith in a Week 3 home loss to the Saints, the Patriots seemingly gave up on any creative ways to utilize Smith, as they kept things a bit too simple for the offense under Mac Jones as a rookie. Smith was underutilized last season, which is the Patriots fault. They should look to maximize his YAC-ability this year by putting him in motion pre-snap, having him line up in the backfield, and more. Introducing Shanahan-style concepts into the offense would do wonders for Smith.

🏈  The Patriots will run their fair share of both 12 and ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 1 WR) this season. They’ll mix and match receivers, but I see newcomer Devante Parker and the trusty Jakobi Meyers as two that will play the most snaps this season. With the way Mac Jones talks about Meyers, it’s clear he (maybe along with Hunter Henry) is among Jones’ close friends and trusted targets on the team. Even though Nelson Agholor is a speedster, and Kendrick Bourne is certainly more dynamic, it’s Meyers who edges them out as the starting Z-receiver in 12 personnel. In 11 personnel, Meyers would usually move into the slot, but the Patriots could leave him as an inside-outside hybrid, allowing Bourne, or even Agholor to play in the inside as a “speed” slot option. Moving Agholor around the formation — now that Parker is the team’s primary boundary X-receiver — is the smartest option. But if the Patriots are to reach their potential on offense, they’ll need good play from their two newcomers, the veteran Parker, and rookie Tyquan Thornton, who should be back from injury later this year. Thornton can play on the outside, or even as a vertical slot option, utilizing his 4.28 speed and route-running to create separation. Before his preseason injury, Thornton looked like the real deal.

🏈 Although still one of the league’s better units — meaning a starting group that would be in the top half of the league, — the Patriots offensive line is one of many units going through a transition. Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn switching spots at tackle is likely a good thing, as Brown has had success at left tackle in New England in the past, but Wynn is in the final contract year of what has mostly been an inconsistent run in New England. After that, the team is lacking some depth, with Yodney Cajuste and Justin Herron as capable, but uncertain backups. In the interior, David Andrews is still manning center, as Michael Onwenu is now filling in for Shaq Mason, and rookie first-round pick Cole Strange is now on the left side. If New England gravitates largely toward an outside-zone rushing scheme, rookie Strange, and the athletic big man Trent Brown are best suited for that style. Brown is probably more so best in New England’s traditional gap scheme. Onwenu (6-foot-3, 375 pounds) is a massive, mauling run blocker who is a stud at gap schemes, but has struggled to adapt to the outside zone over the summer. Originally projected to be a NFL guard, Onwenu has actually played a bit better at right tackle in his career, which makes the future of Wynn an even more interesting case.

🏈 Over the summer, the conversation surrounding the Patriots offense has largely gravitated to “which coach is going to be calling the plays?” The conversation was discussed so often that I am not as interested in it as I once was. What I am interested in, is how the Patriots offense looks as a whole this season, schematically. In a perfect world, they’d incorporate some new wrinkles into the fold to benefit versatile players such as Jonnu Smith. As previously mentioned, they’d also benefit by putting the game in Mac Jones’ hands (or arm) more often. He’s shown flashes of greatness in Tom Brady-style, spread-out-sling-it scenarios. It’s time for the Patriots to let him grow, and I think they will. Lastly, the running game should still be a big part of this offense, as the trio of Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Ty Montgomery should be in for a big season.

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Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior/Nose Tackle — Davon Godchaux

Interior— Lawrence Guy

Interior/EDGE — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

EDGE (stand-up) — Matt Judon

LB — Ja’Whaun Bentley

LB — Raekwon McMillan 

CB1 (boundary) — Jalen Mills

CB2/Slot CB (boundary) — Jonathan Jones

Slot CB — Myles Bryant/Marcus Jones

Strong safety/Box safety— Kyle Dugger

Deep safety — Devin McCourty

 

Situational positions:

Interior pass rusher (de-facto starter) — Christian Barmore

3-4 Nose Tackle — Carl Davis

EDGE/pass rusher — Josh Uche 

EDGE (early down, edge setting) — Anfernee Jennings

Sub LB (passing downs) — Mack Wilson Sr. 

Boundary CB (top backup)— Jack Jones

Box safety (Big Nickel/Big Dime) — Adrian Phillips 

Dime Back/Quarter — Jabrill Peppers

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🏈 Despite the overhaul at linebacker, and the addition of new-age box defenders at both linebacker (Mack Wilson Sr. , Jabrill Peppers), the Patriots continued to run their usual 3-4-style concepts (Nickel 2-4-5, etc.) throughout the summer. New England will still likely run a pure 3-4 or 2-4-5 versus lesser teams (Jets, etc.) or clubs that like to get heavy in personnel and run the ball (Browns, Colts, etc.). But New England is also now well-equipped to get funky on defense. Four safety lineups with the likes of Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers can be used to help muddle the field, and QB spy Josh Allen at the line of scrimmage when the Patriots play the Bills. Speedy linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. will likely take the QB spy and shallow zone duties versus the likes of Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson and others this season. Belichick always has a plan for each different style of offense, but getting faster on defense was a top priority.

🏈 At cornerback, the Patriots are unheralded, with Jonathan Jones seemingly moving from the slot to the outside opposite Jalen Mills. New England would probably like for rookie ballhawking perimeter cornerback Jack Jones to emerge this season, so Jones can move back inside full time. Myles Bryant should begin the season as the starting slot cornerback. Bryant is a capable zone defender as a cornerback/safety hybrid, but as a man-coverage defender in the slot, he’s lacking, as evident by Buffalo’s Isaiah McKenzie’s performance versus him last season. Rookie Marcus Jones is a fast, dynamic defensive back that should see time early, but is still learning the ropes. By the end of the season, both Joneses should have more playing time than Myles Bryant.

🏈 To sum up the defensive backs, because of the state of the current cornerback group, the Patriots have no choice but to mix in more zone coverage, as well as two-deep looks. The latter was a tool used to slow down Patrick Mahomes and other top offenses last season. The Patriots have a ton of read-and-react guys in Dugger, Phillips, Peppers, Wilson and more that they can employ in the middle of the field in two-high looks. But none of that works without the defensive front garnering pressure on four-man fronts, which brings us to our next note. `

🏈 Up front, Matthew Judon is primed for a great “full” season in 2022 as New England’s main cog up front. Opposite him on the EDGE, as stand-up options, are Anfernee Jennings, who missed all of last season, and Josh Uche, who will likely play mostly on obvious passing downs. Because of the lack of experience opposite Judon, New England has dabbled with sort of a 3-3-5 front this summer that features Judon standing up on the edge on one side, and Deatrich Wise Jr., a Belichick favorite, on the line opposite him. Considering Wise Jr.’s ability to stop the run, that’s likely how they’ll begin Week 1, with Jennings mixing in depending on the look. In the interior, Davon Godchaux, fresh off a contract extension, will be placed next to Lawrence Guy on early downs. In pure 3-4 looks, Carl Davis may see time at nose tackle, which would kick Godchaux out to 3-4 defensive end. The Patriots found some success defending the run with those looks at midseason last year. Then, there’s Christian Barmore. Along with Judon and maybe Devin McCourty, Barmore may be the second-best player on the team right now, considering his potential. There are only six to seven pure consistent winners as interior pass rushers in the league. That list starts with Aaron Donald, and I believe Barmore will be part of the other five to six in that group by midseason. He may already be there. His ability to stop the run will factor into his ability to see the field as a “starter” on base downs, but Barmore will likely see starter playing time anyhow.

🏈 At linebacker, the team is going through a bit of an overhaul. Dont’a Hightower and LB/EDGE Kyle Van Noy are gone. Ja’Whaun Bentley remains as the team’s “thumper” at off-ball linebacker, with Raekwon McMillan next to him. McMillan is closer to New England’s preferred size at linebacker (6-foot-2, 245 pounds), but he has speed and range as a bigger defender. His presence, along with Mack Wilson Sr., should help not only in pass coverage, but in the Patriots ability to defend the outside zone run, which is sweeping through the entire league as a heavily-used trend.

🏈 Ultimately, Belichick is a defensive guru who likely figure things on this side of the ball come Thanksgiving. There are some real concerns with this unit, as well, but we should trust the Patriots to find solutions faster on defense, than offense. This unit usually gets off to a slow start, but this season, there’s less room for error versus a four-game slate against quality opponents and franchises (at Miami, at Pittsburgh, vs. Baltimore, at Green Bay).

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Projected record: 9-8 (Miss playoffs)

I’m higher on these Patriots than most, but I can’t block out some of the clear concerns that present themselves when looking at the state of the team. Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh likely do have a vision for this team, but this feels like New England’s final “re-tooling” year in a post-Tom Brady world. New England is projected to have the third-most cap space in the league this next offseason ($54 million, according to Spotrac), which puts them in position for another spending spree in 2023, to set up the rest of Mac Jones’ rookie contract years, and perhaps, the final years of Bill Belichick’s tenure.

Until then, the Patriots will be working with a defense in the midst of a re-tooling, and an offense perhaps going through a mid-overhaul. Jones is a promising young quarterback, but even with the addition of Devante Parker, the Patriots receiving core is lacking in speed and dynamic play compared to some of the deeper pass-catching groups elsewhere in the league. But Jones’ ability, and a solid running game, could come a long way in making the Patriots offense better than most project.

After a slower start, the Patriots should find themselves going on an early midseason run similar to last season, due to their more favorable October and November schedule. But they seem one more season away from returning to any sort of contender status in the AFC.

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