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Patriots Mailbag: Finishing the Final Four Games and Taking a Glance at 2024

With a third win under their belt, Patriots fans are wondering what the final four weeks will have in store and how much change is in store for the offseason.

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Coming off a Thursday Night Football win and a long weekend break, the Patriots should be rested and refocused on their final four games of the season. After the completion of Week 14, New England remains in the second overall draft position, while a number of four win teams grabbed their fifth win this weekend, giving the Pats some breathing room in the Top Five. How will these last games play out and how will the Patriots approach a fascinating offseason? Here are your questions!

This is more of an observation than a question. I liked when the Pats played with a fullback. James Develin was one of my all-time favorite Patriots. Loved the 4th and one conversions, great blocks and key catches. He played at 6-3, 255. Guess who else plays at 6-3, 255? Jakob Johnson. A coincidence? I think not. He's on the Raiders practice squad. Pick him up. The running game will get significantly better, opening holes. Also, I like Pharoh Brown. Dude is nasty. He blocks and can catch the ball. He's really the only TE on the roster. Henry and Gesicki are big wide receivers (so is Travis Kelce, but I digress). Run the ball, and throw to the big WRs. Pats can win some games. Thoughts? -Frank Bean

I understand the desire for a more smashmouth running attack but the Patriots made an active decision last season to go away from the predictability of the fullback as part of the offensive transition under Matt Patricia. I even think you saw the Raiders make that decision by releasing Johnson as soon as McDaniels was fired. There just aren't a lot of teams interested in a throwback fullback anymore. If you wanted to go the more H-back/Kyle Juszczyk route I think there's more of a conversation to be had because those kinds of backs can be used in multiple ways, including as a receiver, than players like Johnson who are primarily battering rams. I agree on Brown, and his usage signals how much the team needed a tight end who is a plus blocker. As effective as Henry has been, blocking is not his strength, though he's improved and is better than Gesicki, who has played just 25 snaps in the last two games and does not have a catch in either. Overall, I think they've run the ball fairly effectively in recent weeks, since Week 10 they're ninth overall in rush EPA. But with only Rhamondre under contract for next year out of all the running backs and tight ends, it's a good bet the ground game will have a lot of new faces involved next year. Wouldn't be surprising if Pharoah Brown is one of them, but I would be very surprised if they went back to an old school fullback.

Should Zappe and Mac be on the 2024 roster? Unless Belichick (or our future coach) publicly states that Zappe is the 2024 starting QB, I don't believe he should not be on the 2024 roster. -Will Keller

Tough call at this juncture, but if Zappe continues to progress I don't see how he isn't on the roster to at least compete for the back-up role. At least in the first half against the Steelers he looked capable of executing the offense at a sound level. But that said there's still four games to go and I think we have a lot to learn about Zappe through these games. He's got two very good defenses coming up in the Chiefs and Broncos, we'll see how he handles those games. As for Mac, it's a tough call. On one hand he's still on an affordable rookie contract and you have to wonder if seeing Zappe have success could be the spark he needs to break him out of the funk he's been in for most of this season. Will Mac get another chance? Again, Zappe's got some tough ones coming up, where it wouldn't be crazy to see him turn the ball over a couple times and inspire the team to go back to Mac. Maybe that's still a long shot, but there are plenty of folks out there that still think Mac can be an effective NFL player. The wild card in it all is the locker room dynamics, especially if a highly drafted rookie enters the room. What's best for that player? When Mac arrived he had Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer… a good combination of players to both support and compete with the youngster. From just a rebuilding standpoint, my instinct is to at least let everyone on a rookie deal compete. Is there a world where Mac transitions to the back-up? Hard to see, but I wouldn't rule it completely out.

Have you noticed that, throughout the years, BB has been willing to bring back former assistant coaches that left and become available again (McD, Judge, Patricia, Scar), but he never seems to be willing to bring back former personnel staff that left and then become available again? Just curious if you have an opinion on that. -Tim Fisher

Maybe a little bit, although he did bring back Mike Lombardi for a couple years after Lombardi had been with him in Cleveland. Most of the other guys in Cleveland that came to New England earlier did in fact go on to other teams never to return. So yes, from Scott Pioli to Floyd Reese to Nick Caserio and quite a few others, those in personnel usually have not returned, including more recent guys like Thomas Dimitroff, Jon Robinson, Monti Ossenfort (still with Cardinals) and Bob Quinn. It's an interesting observation, obviously as a coach I think Bill Belichick feels that position can be a little bit more recycled. Maybe this offseason will provide a chance for one of those former personnel people to return.

Is there a chance McDaniels returns for a third time? And is it contingent on Billy O leaving? -Chris from Florida

I tend to doubt it but of course it cannot be ruled out depending on how much turnover happens this year. I don't think Josh and Billy O would ever be here at the same time again unless one has another job lined up, so my view is that it's unlikely. Right now I feel Bill O returning is the most likely scenario, especially if the offense continues to improve down the stretch. The bigger question is what happens at head coach because if Bill Belichick is still in NE I'd say it's almost a lock that BOB will return with him. Even if someone like Jerod Mayo were to take over the team, the continuity that Bill O'Brien offers has to be intriguing. I just think if there is upheaval on the staff it shouldn't be just to bring someone like Josh back, it should be to chart a new course, especially on offense if there's going to be a highly drafted quarterback entering the building. They have to get that pick right and surround that player with coaches who fit his style.

Is Browning from Cincinnati available next year? He looks pretty good. Then we can focus on filling holes at WR OT etc. I don't know if the Patriots scout lower level college teams, but they should look at Junior Bergen from Montana. He is an awesome kick returner and receiver. -Karen Drake

He'll be an exclusive rights free agent with the Bengals so it's hard to see the Patriots getting a shot at him. I don't hate the idea, it's the kind of creative offseason maneuvering that I think the Patriots need to engage in more of. Will make a note of Bergen, I'm excited to jump into draft prep this year. The Pats are going to have a lot of ways to get things back on track, but if they can attack the trade market and lock up some of their emerging core members they could set a really strong course for the future.

A question about the bizarre ending of the Chiefs vs Bills game on Sunday. Both coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes were livid about the offside penalty being called. Both said that had never seen such a penalty called throughout their careers. I am sure that I have seen the Patriots penalized for the same infraction for lining up offside on more than one occasion. My question is do the Chiefs have a legitimate beef or is it just sour grapes? -Cam Kelly

Of all the controversial calls I've seen this year this one doesn't really add up to me as Toney was clearly lined up offsides. Not sure how you get that upset that the refs didn't just give you a friendly reminder, Toney should've at least confirmed he was lined up right with the official. He looked up but never acknowledged the ref. Maybe then he would've gotten the "get back" signal from the ref. But this was a huge point in a huge game with playoff implications, every player needs to be locked in and avoid the critical mistake that could cost their team the game. That's what happened here and it was over the top how upset Mahomes was about it, mostly just because it erased a really fun play by Kelce that I'm sure Taylor Swift loved. Must've been fun explaining to her after the game why they were so upset.

We Pats fans are terribly disappointed in this year's results and we care about the future success of the team. So two questions need asking. First, rebuilding is part luck because of the availability of good free agent players in any particular year, and drafted rookies are no guarantee. So with both an early draft choice and a ton of cap space, how do we pursue players? I personally favor second contract veterans and would be inclined to lean in that somewhat expensive direction, but are there good players there next year? Second question involves a consideration not mentioned yet regarding the potential departure of Coach Belichick. If he were to leave for whatever reason, would the Pats not also be in need of a full-time General Manager, thus complicating things? -Ian Hayes

With a huge offseason ahead, there is plenty to unpack. Two main points I want to make. First, the only way out of this is to draft well. Second, the Patriots have to identify their core building blocks then extend them and build around them. Free agency scares me. 2021 was fun in March, but as you said, you're stuck with whichever free agents are available for better or worse. Some, like Judon, Godchaux and Henry worked out well, but even the bump they offered was mitigated by roster holes that were opened when draft picks like N'Keal Harry, JoeJuan Williams and others never emerged. So now we're seeing the returns from that record-breaking free agent class slowly diminish. It'd be one thing if the class of 2019 wasn't a total wash and the class of 2022 had more contributors, but that's the current plight.

So first, I'd be looking at considering extensions for Stevenson and Peppers a year early to demonstrate who we're building around. I'd be looking to reallocate funds to the tackle position and would think long and hard before investing in a guard, designated pass rusher or a strong safety who isn't quite the playmaker that Peppers is, if you catch my drift. Hard choices have to be made. I like taking some shots in free agency, but only on potential star players. Otherwise it's all about the draft.

Patriots defensive back huddle in Pittsburgh.
Patriots defensive back huddle in Pittsburgh.

Is it worth trying to invest in Jabrill Peppers long term, i.e like a Devin McCourty? He'll be 29 after next season but seems like a perfect fit in this defense both skill and leadership-wise. Gonna be hard keeping both him and Dugger though. -@flano0

Mentioned this idea above but expanding upon it here, Peppers is just one year older than Dugger but does have another year on his contract. So it wouldn't be crazy to just let him continue to play it out and put some investment into Dugger. Or… I think extending Peppers early sends a message to the team that this is a guy we want to build around. I'd be fully on board with that. And maybe then you look more toward a traditional free safety in place of Dugger. Draft someone with some back-end range to complement Peppers and allow him to play more in the box instead of on the back end. The unknown is that if the defense changes this offseason it's possible that a new DC wouldn't want a bunch of strong safety types anyway. I will say Dugger played maybe his best game of the season against Pittsburgh so it's a bit harder for me to pitch letting him walk in the wake of that.

Do you think the patriots take a CB in the draft? If so, how high? Bonus question, who do you think will still be here next year from the DBs? -@AdamDiez

I think slot cornerback should be a consideration. Gotta love what they'll have in Jonathan Jones and Christian Gonzalez on the outside, but Myles Bryant in a free agent and Marcus Jones hasn't proven he can be a reliable slot defender. Not a huge priority and likely one that could be layered with a Day 3 pick. Jon Jones himself was a rookie free agent so those players are available later and after the draft, usually because they're going to be smaller than outside corners. I'm also excited to see Isaiah Bolden return, he showed promise last year before getting hurt in the preseason against the Packers. Overall, those three are a good place to start so I'm not all that worried about it. Maybe just bring back Bryant and you're pretty much set to roll.

What are your thoughts on the following offseason acquisitions, sign Jimmy G (if released) to a 2 year team friendly deal, draft Jayden Daniels, sign Tee Higgins, draft highest rated available tackle with 2nd round pick, draft highest rated available WR with 3rd round pick, draft highest rated available TE with 4th round pick, draft highest rate available players at any position rounds 5 - 7, and use salary cap money to sign Dugger, Onwenu, Henry, one of the best available CB and one the best available T? Jimmy G makes sense because he knows the offensive system, most likely won't cost much and can be a bridge to Daniels, Daniels is the most dynamic QB in the draft and has the highest ceiling, and Higgins can threaten defenses on all levels. If these offseason additions or something comparable are made, do you think we legitimately compete for the playoffs next year? Of course, Belichick would be coaching this roster! -Mel Buford

Lots of interesting stuff to ponder here, some of it I like more than other parts but this is the fun of the offseason and why I truly enjoy the team building portion of the NFL calendar. I'm going to be honest, I haven't truly developed my opinions yet on this draft class, even the quarterbacks at the top. Of course I'm familiar with them and in that regard I am all in with Jayden Daniels being the top choice. I know there will be plenty to consider at the top but the quarterback is the most important piece and until you have that you're going to be spinning your wheels. Higgins will be tough to get, I'm not sure he'll hit free agency but if he does it makes sense for the Patriots to pursue him, they have the space. As you laid out for the rest of the draft… OT, WR, TE… absolutely those are positions of major need. I'd be aggressive to fill them. I'm out on Jimmy G. It's a waste of money. He's not going to lead them anywhere and he's still going to cost a chunk of change to bring in. I'd rather just take my lumps with Mac or Zappe until the rookie is ready. Of the three internal free agents I'd roll with Henry first, there's no one else around him at tight end, whereas at least it's feasible to see how they could overcome losing Dugger and Onwenu. As I wrote earlier, investing in two true tackles is a priority. Maybe they will pay Onwenu as a guard and try to keep him there, but if we're trying to get the cap balanced there's an argument to just roll with Sidy Sow in Year 2 at the right guard spot and use the Onwenu money for a true right tackle.

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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