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Patriots Mailbag: Evaluating the Future for Key Patriots as Regular Season Winds Down

With three games remaining in the regular season, what does the future hold for these key Patriots figures heading into the offseason?

2022-Mailbag-16x9-(2)

The Patriots are in a difficult situation regarding head coach Bill Belichick's status as the guy in charge of all things New England Patriots.

We don't need to lay out Belichick's resume: he's the greatest head coach in NFL history. If you want to make a case for keeping Belichick, it's easy. He prepares his team better than anyone, his defense is still in the top half of the league, and there are moments where he'll remind you, "holy crap, this guy knows more about football than anyone on planet Earth."

With potentially his 25th season as the Patriots head coach on the horizon, we understand fans who think it's ridiculous even to consider parting ways with Belichick. However, the other side of the coin is a 28-35 record since Tom Brady went to Tampa Bay. Even with Brady, the Pats finished 2-4 down the stretch in TB12's final season, so they're 30-39 since Week 13, 2019. The last time they won a playoff game was 2018, and in a four-year rebuild post-Brady, they have one winning season. The Patriots failures over these past four seasons come down to three things:

1. Draft Evaluation and Player Development

The Patriots inability to draft and develop blue-chip talent to build up the top of their roster has been a nearly decade-long struggle. It's the reason why this team doesn't have many elite players, and it's a two-pronged issue relating to both talent evaluation and player development.

Look no further than at quarterback. Whether Mac Jones had "it" or not to be a successful NFL QB, it's a misstep by Belichick; either it was poor talent evaluation of a first-round pick or mismanagement of a prized asset. Jones was on his way to, at worst, a career as a game-managing quarterback who his supporting cast could prop up. Instead, the Patriots stunted his growth with their 2022 coaching staff and didn't add talent around Jones, creating one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL. Not to mention the unsettled approach to it publicly, where Belichick consistently declined to name Jones his starter and benched him during games, with all of it coming to a head in Germany. No matter how you slice it, they've mishandled the quarterback position. The struggles to identify and develop players permeate the whole roster.

2. Offensive Philosophy and Failing to Add Blue-Chip Offensive Talent

The game has shifted to speed, space, and stars on the offensive side of the ball. The Patriots haven't shown much interest in competing at the top of the market for premium skill talent, they've neglected offensive tackle for years, and they've become outdated in how they try to put points on the board. While other teams generate explosive plays through scheme and talent at the skill positions, the Patriots are struggling to score.

For example, take the sweepstakes for DeAndre Hopkins's services this past offseason. The Patriots had Hopkins in for a visit but reportedly didn't have an offer on the table that was equal to the Titans. Hopkins has nearly as many receiving yards in Tennessee this season (919) as all of the Patriots healthy receivers combined (1,119). Hopkins is just the tip of the iceberg. The Pats have passed on several big-name wideouts who have changed teams in recent years.

New England doesn't seem interested in adjusting their roster construction strategy to build around offensive playmakers like the rest of the league. Instead, they play games with a razor-thin margin for error with a team built around defense and simply managing the game on offense. They've been close with that formula at times. But the lack of star power on offense continues to cost them in big moments.

3. Salary Cap Management

The Patriots were once ahead of the curve in managing the salary cap, using back-loaded contracts and not likely to be earned incentives to push money out to future years. However, they have fallen behind the times now regarding cap manipulation. They mostly spend to the cap every year. But they aren't aggressive cap managers like other teams using void years and salary-to-signing bonus conversions. Ever wonder how the 49ers keep adding to their roster despite having so many stars? They find ways to maneuver the cap. Whether that's a cash spending, a management issue, or both, the Patriots can't manage the cap this way and be poor drafters. That's how you end up without talent on the roster.

Ultimately, the Patriots issues are mostly tied to Belichick's role as the football czar in New England, with many of you probably reading this as issues with Belichick the GM, not the coach. Still, the head coach has to develop players with a vision for how the team can compete in the current landscape.

Nobody should ever question Belichick's place in Patriots or NFL history. He deserves special treatment on his way out and celebrations to the nth degree when the time comes. However, the Patriots need to ask themselves whether or not Belichick is the right coach to lead them in this era.

Let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag heading into Week 16 of the NFL season:

Q: What has Zappe done right in the first half that hasn't translated to the second half of his starts? Has he shown enough to be considered a serviceable backup? - Adam D

The last two second halves for Zappe were similarly underwhelming statistically but slightly different when grading the process rather than the results. In Pittsburgh, it felt like the Patriots sat on their lead with their play-calling, and the Steelers played more coverage rather than blitzing. On Sunday, the Chiefs relentless pressure in the second half seemed to nuke any drop-back passing game the Patriots had, while speeding Zappe up by the fourth quarter. Either way, the results weren't good enough. Still, the only carryover is this: when the Pats/Zappe got out of the opening script, and the opponent adjusts, they're not adjusting well enough themselves to continue playing well offensively.

Although that's a problem, Zappe is winning me over as a functional backup/spot-starter who could keep the seat warm for a first-round QB if necessary. He's got a playmaker gene to him with his style of play, he moves around the pocket well, and does the little QB things when he's protected (reads/progressions, pump fakes, eye manipulation, etc). The physical tools are only average, and defenses figure him out eventually, which is why he's not a long-term starter. But the Fever can stay as QB2 as long as they're drafting someone with franchise QB potential.

Q: Evan, should the organization choose to keep Bill as head coach, what offensive coaching/system changes would you like to see going into next year? - Derek M

There needs to be an audit in the offseason on their protection/alert system and route trees. With another young quarterback likely to take over soon, the Patriots need to determine whether or not the mental stress on the quarterback is too much for a player on a rookie contract. The Patriots ask quarterbacks to control everything at the line of scrimmage, from checking into plays to making protection calls. All the pre-snap responsibility has bogged down both Jones and Zappe, and you have to figure that it leads to some overthinking. They need to determine whether or not any quarterback not named Brady can run the show the way this offense needs them to.

Second, which is related, is the mental stress their passing system has on young players. How much of their lack of development at the receiver position is on all the route conversions/option routes? Both Demario Douglas and Tyquan Thornton have struggled to run routes in this system from a mental standpoint. Is that slowing down their young playmakers? This offseason, the Patriots need to decide if their playbook being like calculus is doing more harm than good.

Q: With the offensive line in disarray, how much of it comes down to coaching vs. player execution (including injuries)? How is Klemm doing? - Noel P

Klemm is not with the team right now due to health reasons, so Billy Yates has been running the offensive line room since the Germany game. With that said, this O-Line group has concerns with player development. For example, rookie Sidy Sow continues to get beat by post-snap movement by the defense (stunts, blitzes) and hasn't shown much improvement in that regard. Besides injuries, Cole Strange has shown improvement this season. But there are still mental errors in his game that you'd like to see coached out of him.

Ultimately, I have a tough time putting the bigger piece of the blame pie on coaching. Instead, I'd chalk more of their shortcomings to lack of talent and continuity. Due to injuries, the Patriots didn't have good continuity along the line from the jump, while one of their biggest offseason missteps was thinking they addressed OT by signing Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson. You get what you pay for, which wasn't much of anything from those two. The worst position group on the field for the Patriots in the 2022 season was offensive tackle, and there's a strong case to be made it is one of their worst again this season. That's on Bill the GM for not shoring up a need with real resources. Anderson, Reiff, and three interior linemen on day three was their response to having the worst right tackle situation in the NFL last season – not good enough.

Q: Do you think Ezekiel Elliott will be back with the Patriots next season? - Andres

Elliott is not having a good season in the eyes of the advanced metrics. Among 47 running backs with at least 75 carries, Elliott ranks 38th by adding 2.61 yards after contact per rush and has lost 55 rushing yards over expectation (39th). Although the stats say he's having one of the worst years of his career, the film suggests he's been solid. Elliott has churned out some difficult yards this season, ran hard when given a chance in short-yardage, and has been a plus receiver (minus in pass-blocking).

Most importantly, Elliott has been a real pro on a losing team. He's had a great attitude and has been a great teammate. Zeke easily could mail it in on a 3-11 team, but he wants the Patriots to feed him carries with Rhamondre Stevenson out. I'll take Elliott on my team any day, especially as an RB2 behind a lead-back like Rhamondre. They would've been a productive duo with better blocking and more favorable game scripts.

Q: What is going to happen with Matthew Judon once he returns from injury? His situation appears similar to Stephon Gilmore's a few years ago. - Dave L

First, here's a quick refresher on the Stephon Gilmore trade: The Patriots traded Gilmore during the 2021 season in the final year of a five-year contract he signed with the team in 2017. After giving him a salary advance in 2020, Gilmore began the 2021 season on the PUP list due to a quad injury, but it was reported at the time that it was more of a hold-in due to contract demands not being met. Gilmore wanted a raise or a new deal to play for the Pats in 2021. When the two sides couldn't agree on a salary, Gilmore was traded to Carolina.

The Patriots used a similar contract sweetener as Gilmore in 2020 to end a hold-in by Judon this past summer. Judon's biceps injury complicates things, but the series of events follows the same script as Gilmore. Judon will enter the final year of his four-year contract in 2024, where he's set to make well below market value ($7.5M). Most likely, the Patriots will return to the negotiation table with Judon in the offseason.

As for how it will all play out, that depends on how impactful Judon's torn biceps injury that caused him to miss nearly the entire season will impact his value. Judon is entering his age 32 season and is coming off a major injury, but he will still need his contract adjusted. Although it's hard to say without knowing who is making decisions for the Patriots, my current guess would be that Judon will be playing elsewhere in 2024. But that's just a hunch based on prior history.

Q: Alex Austin said he found out he was starting right before the game. Is that typical, or does it show the dysfunction with the team? - Jordan

As reported by others, Jackson was slated to start for the Patriots but was unavailable for personal reasons. Jackson's absence was not planned and surprised everyone in the building, so there wouldn't have been any time to notify Austin earlier. If they knew Jackson wouldn't be available, he would have been inactive, clearing a game-day roster spot for Shaun Wade. Based on their actions, it's clear Jackson's absence surprised the team.

To answer the question, no, it's not normal. However, it would be unfair to categorize this as a sign of dysfunction for the team. The Patriots were put in a difficult position here and handled it the best they could. As for Austin, I'm intrigued by his physical tools and cover talent. He's a bit grabby in coverage and is still learning the game mentally, but he has the athleticism to be on an NFL roster. We'll see where it goes with Austin, and we are hoping for the best for Jackson.

Q: Is Mike Borgonzi a legitimate candidate as the next GM? Would think he might want to return to New England. - Len B

For those unfamiliar with Borgonzi, he is the Chiefs assistant general manager who has been with Kansas City for the past 15 seasons. Borgonzi's main responsibilities with the Chiefs are overseeing pro and college scouting. Borgonzi is originally from Everett, Massachusetts, and attended Brown University, so he is a New England guy. Many in the Chiefs organization consider Borgonzi a key cog to their success as a shrewd talent evaluator. He'll be one of the top general manager candidates each cycle until he takes a job and is on my short list of candidates if the Patriots need a GM. Does he want the job? Who knows. Adam Peters (49ers) and Borgonzi are the top candidates on my wish list.

Q: Who would be your number one target in free agency? Is tackle or receiver the priority? - Adam B

I'd say the priority is offensive talent, and the Patriots would be wise to follow the board rather than overpay for a mediocre player at a position of need. With that said, Tee Higgins remains my top free-agent target. I'd also add that I'm far more interested in vetting the trade market for receiver and offensive tackle help rather than boxing the Patriots into just free agency. They ended up overpaying for mostly mid-level talent in 2021 because they went shopping in free agency, rather than via trade.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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