The Patriots offseason plan is starting to declare itself after their latest tight end addition on Friday morning.
Gesicki is a move tight end who spends most of his time detached from the formation, either out of the slot or out wide as a mismatch playmaker. Although he's an explosive straight-line athlete and an excellent contested catch target, Gesicki is a jumbo slot receiver operating on a vertical route tree.
Before discussing Gesicki's on-field fit in Bill O'Brien's offense, the big-picture plan is starting to make sense. The Pats are using free agency to fill out their depth and replace while hopefully upgrading recent departures (Meyers & Smith out — JuJu & Gesicki in), setting themselves up to go shopping for luxury items the rest of the way.
The Patriots headed into the 2022 draft needing a starting left guard after trading away Shaq Mason and failing to retain steady Ted Karras. Their roster did not have a viable option, meaning the hole was glaring. The vacancy forced the Patriots, a team needing top-end talent at premium positions, to take guard Cole Strange at the end of the first round.
Whether Strange was a reach or not is a moot point now, but the Patriots forced themselves into taking an interior offensive lineman that early out of necessity – if the season had started on a Sunday in May, New England did not have a starting left guard on the roster. Rather than the needle-moving selection they needed in the AFC arms race, they took a guard.
For the rest of this offseason, the Patriots can turn their attention to searching for the cherries on top rather than having their backs against the wall at a non-premium position. That doesn't mean they can be done adding in the veteran market. It just becomes a hunt for a bonafide number-one receiver, a shutdown corner, or a franchise left tackle. Those players don't grow on trees, but with the 14th overall pick in April, it's the best player available instead of a forced hand.
Returning to the Gesicki acquisition, the Patriots seem to be steering right into going full 2011 mode with O'Brien returning to orchestrate the offense. No, Henry and Gesicki aren't as dynamic as that duo. But it's spread formations to create pace and space, finding matchups in the middle of the field, and likely gun-runs into sub-package defenses coupled with play-action or RPO sequencing.
New England could still target a traditional in-line blocking tight end. However, the necessity to add that skill set is overblown from this vantage point if the plan is to spread things out. Plus, the team trusts Henry on low-stress blocking assignments to hold his ground.
As for Gesicki, let's get into his film with the Dolphins to project his role into the Patriots offense:
Before head coach Mike McDaniel's arrival in Miami, the Patriots new playmaker aligned as a detached receiver from the formation more than any tight end in the NFL. In 2021, 82.2 percent of his snaps were out wide or in the slot, leading all tight ends in that category.
However, Gesicki played the most in-line snaps since his rookie season in McDaniel's west coast system, which resembles Kyle Shanahan's offense in San Francisco. Due to the scheme change and target-magnet Tyreek Hill's arrival, Gesicki's production plummeted from 73 catches for 780 yards to 32 receptions for 362 yards last season. He also ran much fewer pass routes with McDaniel. In 2021, Gesicki ran the fourth-most routes of any tight end with 496 compared to 337 pass routes this past season.
Under former head coach Brian Flores, Gesicki had career seasons in a Patriots-style system, including with former Pats assistant Chad O'Shea in 2020, so there's a familiarity there.
Stating the obvious after the reported agreement, the Patriots feel like moving the athletic pass-catcher back into their offensive system will bring out the 2020-21 version of Gesicki. So what is that exactly, and how will Bill O'Brien tap into his receiving potential? Let's see.
SEAMS, CROSSERS, SKINNY POSTS, AND CORNERS
The Patriots newest addition's size (6-5, 250 pounds) and vertical speed (4.54s) make him a legitimate big-play receiver when he's unlocking his straight-line explosiveness.
Gesicki's most efficient routes throughout his career have been on a vertical plane where he can run through zone coverage, use his burst off the line to get behind linebackers and utilize that same initial quickness and a large frame to shield the catch point against man coverage. Gesicki is not known for his YAC ability, with just one broken tackle all last season, but he still creates big plays as a vertical threat.
Gesicki was money on crossing routes where the Dolphins often used play-action to create foot races for the tight end between the numbers. According to NextGen Stats, Gesicki caught 11 of his 13 targets on crossers for 84 yards while generating a passer rating of 119.2 on those plays.
Here, Miami runs a Patriots staple where they mimic a run action by pulling the backside guard. With the defense in a two-high zone structure, the blocking scheme influences the MIKE linebacker to gravitate toward the run action, and Gesicki crosses behind him for a chunk gain.
The Dolphins would hit Gesicki on play-action crossers using pullers and their bootleg actions. With one false step by the linebacker level, he could take advantage. There's also evidence that Gesicki presents a mismatch against man coverage on crossing patterns by winning leverage battles at the release and using his frame to box out smaller defenders.
In this play, Gesicki gets matched up against Ravens nickel corner Damarion Williams in a clear size mismatch. Gesicki gets the inside track with a smooth release and, with Williams on his back, uses that 6-5, 250-pound frame to shield the catch point to haul in the pass.
Along with being an effective target on crossing routes, Gesicki uses his speed and catch radius effectively on seam patterns where he'll find opportunities in O'Brien's offense.
This time, the Jets fall into a Tampa-2 structure where the MIKE linebacker is matched up with Gesicki running up the seam to split the two-high safeties. Gesicki will win his fair share of these foot races against linebackers and uses strong hands to extend for the pass.
It becomes a simple game for Gesicki when offensive coordinators draw up skinny posts, or five-step posts, for him as well, where he once again can sneak between zones and get inside positioning on linebackers and safeties with his size-speed combination.
Lastly, Gesicki presents a quarterback-friendly target on corner patterns where the Dolphins often dial up things like smash concepts or three-receiver flood combinations. With the Dolphins creating pockets of space for Gesicki along the sideline against zone coverages, he effectively found soft spots between the zones to make himself an option.
With O'Brien's calling card presenting favorable matchups in the middle of the field, Gesicki instantly becomes another chess piece for the Pats offensive coordinator in that vein.
RED ZONE PRODUCTION
Along with his explosiveness on vertical routes between the 20s, Gesicki gives the Patriots another avenue to improve a red zone offense that struggled mightily in the 2022 season.
Although mostly scheme-related, New England ranked dead-last in red zone efficiency a year ago by converting just 42.2% of their red zone trips into touchdowns. Gesicki has 16 red zone touchdowns in his five seasons as an above-the-rim target for quarterback Mac Jones.
In the high red zone, Gesicki can work on the vertical route tree on seam runs and fades to climb above the defense with a huge catch radius. Above, he creates that vertical separation by simply leaping above the last line of defense for six.
Gesicki will also present a red-zone option on quick posts and "sit" routes between zone defenders, where he can offer a big target to claim space and box out in the end zone.
The Pats might also detach him from the formation in the slot or as a pseudo-X receiver when they get inside the ten, allowing him to run high-point fades against single coverage.
With Gesicki now in the fold, the Patriots have significant size at the receiver positions that they can hopefully utilize to greatly improve their red zone efficiency from a year ago.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE PATRIOTS AT RECEIVER?
By adding Gesicki and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Patriots, at least on paper, have upgraded their skill positions at two spots they typically feature heavily in the passing game.
However, head coach Bill Belichick shouldn't stop here. Gesicki and Smith-Schuster are nice puzzle pieces. But neither brings that true number one skill set that will dictate coverage and create downfield separation against man coverage, which they need to find next.
Internally, the Patriots might believe that second-year wideout Tyquan Thornton can bring a speed and separation element as a perimeter receiver on the outside. Thornton has the physical tools, and certainly the speed, to occupy deep safeties and run by cornerbacks. Still, his film from his rookie season, albeit in a challenging situation, doesn't offer enough optimism to count on Thornton to emerge as the outside receiver New England's offense is missing.
During an episode of Patriots Catch-22, I floated the idea of the Patriots reuniting with former speedster Brandin Cooks who is on the trade block with Houston. Cooks would take some pressure off Thornton to be that guy while mentoring him and pass the torch if Thornton emerges.
If the Pats don't want to invest the capital in Cooks, they could also hedge their Thornton bet with another top 100 draft pick, such as Boston College's Zay Flowers or Oklahoma's Marvin Mims, who would fit that speed and separation mold.
As we've seen in the past, the Patriots should have zero issues operating primarily between the numbers, and that's what's best for their third-year quarterback, too. But they still need an outside threat, even just to draw coverage away from the middle of the field.
The Patriots bolstered their passing attack with the Gesicki addition and are inching closer to having a legitimately difficult offense to defend.