The Patriots are set to kick off the 2022 season in less than a week when they take on the Dolphins in Miami. It will mark the third straight year the teams will meet in the opener, but this one takes place in the South Florida heat box that has been so unkind to Patriots teams of the past.
In an effort to alleviate some of the problems the humidity causes the Patriots spent the bulk of the week in Florida, taking off Tuesday afternoon and practicing in the very conditions the game will be played in. While the weather wasn't the only factor in Bill Belichick's decision to leave early – Gillette Stadium's concert schedule makes practicing more challenging – it was certainly one of them.
The choice to spend the week in Miami was interesting for a number of reasons but the one that stuck out had me thinking about the contrast of Belichick's comments heading into past trips to Miami. There were years when the coach refused to even utter the word "weather" let alone embark for a road game four days earlier than normal in an effort to combat it. His message seemed to follow the old coaching adage that said if you give your team an excuse to lose it often takes it. In other words, if we talk about how hot it is, the players will surely succumb to the elements.
Now Belichick not only acknowledges the humidity – he also traveled to Las Vegas to practice in the desert heat – but he seems to be accepting its potential impact if not prepared for it.
But that wasn't the only change in course that caught my eye, or ear, last week. Belichick also acknowledged that he considers the early part of the season as an extension of the preseason, which stood in stark contrast to the days when Targeting September T-shirts were worn by every player, coach and member of team personnel during training camp at Bryant College back in 2002.
That season followed the magical run to Super Bowl XXXVI the year prior, and Belichick wanted to avoid the 1-3 start that team worked so hard to overcome. So, he focused on a quicker start, complete with T-shirts with targets on the back featuring equal quadrants filled with logos of the Steelers, Jets, Chiefs and Chargers, the Patriots first four opponents that season.
The result was a 3-1 start with a loss at San Diego in Week 4 the lone blemish. But despite succeeding in finding a faster start, that team ultimately finished 9-7 and became the only club quarterbacked by Tom Brady for a full season not to make the playoffs.
Now Belichick isn't necessarily looking for a faster start but instead would like to buck a recent trend of weak finishes. In 2019 the Patriots went 12-4 but went 4-5 in its final nine games including the playoff loss to the Titans that ended Brady's tenure in New England. The following year under Cam Newton the team went 7-9, including a 1-3 finish. Last year the team lost four of its last five including the playoff shellacking in Buffalo.
Beyond any changes in philosophy for Belichick, one thing that has consistently remained of utmost importance is finding a way to improve as the season evolves. That hasn't happened in a while, but the pieces may be in place for the Patriots to improve down the stretch this season. Mac Jones now has a season under his belt and a better understanding of the physical and mental hurdles needed to be overcome in order to ensure a strong finish. His development alone will be the top overall factor in determining the season's success.
In order for that to happen the offensive line will need to be sorted out, and in turn the running game will need to be productive – whether that means figuring out how to properly produce in the much-discussed outside zone schemes or continuing the gap concepts that Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris had success with a year ago. And the pass protection will need shoring up as well.
If that's the case the addition of DeVante Parker should give Jones an added dimension in terms of a guy who can rise above defenders, create space and come away with 50-50 balls downfield. That element was lacking in the offense in 2021 and could be huge for this year's group.
On defense the old guard is gone but some youthful speed has emerged in its place. Can Mack Wilson, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings create some pressure and help contain the mobile quarterbacks and pass-catching running backs that caused so many problems in the past?
That will be important as the Patriots face major transition in the secondary and hope to integrate rookies Marcus Jones and Jack Jones into the mix. Given the murder's row of receivers on the docket – Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill to open things up – forcing young corners to cover too long is a recipe for disaster.
There are a lot of unknowns heading into every season and given the tumultuous nature of the summer in Foxborough perhaps more so this year than any in recent memory. If the offensive line works through their issues and Mac Jones settles in, then the Patriots should remain competitive and in playoff contention. If the struggles up front continue, and Jones can't find his rhythm, then it's hard to imagine the offense having enough firepower to keep up with some of the elite groups New England will face.
My take? Probably something in the middle where improvements are made but inconsistencies still plague the group, and given the improvements around the suddenly loaded AFC a playoff spot will be hard to come by. Something along the lines of 8-9/9-8 seems right, but if there's consistent improvement along the way there will be hope moving forward.
Some other thoughts/predictions …
*I feel Stevenson will emerge as the team's lead back, and that's largely due to his ever-improving skills in the passing game. He's shown soft hands and savvy route-running on the practice field and Belichick has hinted at the desire to have backs who can perform on all three downs. Stevenson has more explosiveness than Harris, who will also get more than his share of work, and therefore I see him as the top dog when it's all said and done.
*The lead receiver is a tougher gauge. Kendrick Bourne appeared to be coming on last year but then had a tough summer and at times looked like the forgotten man. Parker will get some chances to make plays down the field and in the red zone, but his injury history is a concern. Nelson Agholor enjoyed a fine camp and looks more comfortable in his second season in the system. But Jakobi Meyers remains Mac Jones' preferred target and I feel he will once again lead the way. Meyers is incredibly reliable and consistent, and Jones looks his way most often when a play is needed.
*Matthew Judon talked a lot about improving his offseason regimen in an effort to remain productive all season. He should benefit from that and be more productive down the stretch.
*If Jack Jones works his way into the mix on a regular basis he will give fans their money's worth. Jones likes to play with an aggressive style and often breaks on passes while cutting underneath the receiver. This will lead to some standout plays and perhaps an interception or two, but it also will lead to big plays going the other way. Rookies will learn when to take chances and when to play it safe, but based on the summer Jones only knows the former at this point.
*Christian Barmore is a beast and he needs to take part in more snaps. It appeared as if Belichick was starting to give him more opportunities on early downs as the summer progressed so it will be interesting to see if he opens the season as a three-down player. He's so disruptive up front that it's hard to imagine him not being in the lineup on a full-time basis. He will be the team's defensive MVP.
*Marcus Jones is my pick for the team's rookie of the year. He appears poised to get snaps out of the slot on defense, and although he was a little shaky in his ball security as a punt returner, if Belichick shows some faith I believe it will be rewarded with some big plays during the season. He's electric with the ball in his hands.
No games played yet so no need for any changes to our opening Power 5.
- Buffalo – Slight concern with off-field issues but Sean McDermott's club appears poised for greatness.
- Kansas City – The Chiefs have a tough division and player turnover to deal with but still demand respect.
- Tampa Bay – Things haven't looked right in Tampa this summer but I'm not betting against Tom Brady.
- Green Bay – The Pack have personnel questions of their own but a weak NFC should help.
- L.A Chargers – The Chargers seem to disappoint annually but the roster has improved significantly.