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Patriots Mailbag: Previewing Patriots OTAs, Position Changes and Favorite UDFA

After completion of the NFL Draft, Patriots fans are turning their attention to the upcoming OTA practices and how the team will be rounded out this spring.

5-7-mailbag

The 2024 NFL Draft is now in the rearview mirror as the offseason schedule shifts its focus to OTAs and minicamp. For the Patriots, we're expected to get a glimpse of rookie OTAs this weekend with another media-accessible session scheduled with the vets in attendance for May 20. Over the next month, the offseason program will build to a climax at minicamp, scheduled for June 11, 12 and 13, when three days of mandatory practice will wrap things up until Training Camp kicks off in late July.

For now, we're left to wonder how the draft class will play out and which remaining needs could still need to be addressed. With the Pats roster currently at 90 players, the team looks set for the moment, at least until everyone gets a better barometer in the coming weeks as OTA practices ramp up.

Here's what the passionate Pats fans are thinking about…

Due to Jaheim Bell's lack of blocking and size for a tight end but amazing catching abilities... do you see him staying as a tight end? Maybe move him to a back and use his size as a hybrid power/receiving back or split him outside as a more traditional receiver and let him go to work?
Cody Mayhew

I think you're on the right track but I'd leave Bell as a tight end even if he could assume more H-back duties like you've described. It might be a tall order to expect Bell to develop into a balanced "Y" but that's not a problem if he's able to help "weaponize" the offense and that's why I find him so intriguing. During the draft process, I admittedly gravitated toward blocking tight ends. Why? They're easier to find late in the draft and I felt like that type of player would best complement Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper. However, Bell is in the other direction, he's more of a potential receiver than either Henry or Hooper. I think the team can have some fun with him on offense, his usage breakdown at FSU was as follows: backfield – 138 snaps, inline – 45 snaps, slot – 90 snaps, wide – 28 snaps. Bell and Marcus Jones are some wild card pieces of the remade offense this season who could be used in specific roles, including gadget plays.

Following the 2024 NFL Draft, Brian Hines wrote a piece about Patriots players that he deemed Winners & Losers as an outcome of the draft. It stood out to me that he did not mention Jacoby Brissett. After the draft it appears the Patriot's offense will have 3 main plays: Run Jacoby Run!, Run for Your Life, Jacoby; and Jacoby Just Take the Sack. Do you think Jacoby or any QB can be successful with this offensive line and wide receiver group? Hannah Feldman

While there are certainly questions along the offense line and at receiver I don't think they're so frightening that poor Jacoby Brissett is in danger! Let's start with the receivers because, as Eliot Wolf said, the team feels like there are NFL players there. Do they lack a superstar WR? Sure, but quite a few teams do. That doesn't mean your offense is DOA. Between KJ Osborn and the rookies, there is enough in the mix to find a serviceable passing offense. Along the line, you're expecting high-level play from David Andrews and Mike Onwenu. Those are two good pieces that should make a difference. There is uncertainty at the other spots, but with new OL coach Scott Peters working with an offense he's familiar with, I expect the line to show marked improvement over the inconsistencies of last season, which was a second-straight year of trying to piece things like the coaches, players and offense together the best that they can. That said, there are 17 offensive linemen and 11 wide receivers on the roster. From those groups I expect competent play to emerge that should enable Jacoby Brissett (at the start) to run a functional offense. Maybe they're not breaking 30 points every game, but the protection and the playmaking should be better than the last two seasons. ­

I want to take a break from talking about our new draft picks and ask a question about Tyquan Thornton. What are your real opinions of his role on the team this season? I know he has trouble on his release and playing against press, and there are durability concerns, but he just brings an element of speed that no other WR on our roster has. I hope with the new QB and OL additions, that Maye will finally be able to unlock his downfield potential. With Mac, Zappe, and no time to throw downfield, they were never able to fully utilize his skillset. Jason Wong

Patriots WR Tyquan Thornton
Patriots WR Tyquan Thornton

I wish I shared your optimism Jason, but through two training camps and the games that we've both seen I have yet to truly be wowed by Thornton's play speed. He's had some scattered moments over the last two years, and I do wonder if he'll see his usage changed under Alex Van Pelt, but unless he's gotten a lot stronger at the catch point and more refined in his route running it's hard to see Thornton having a big role. You have to assume that Doulgas, Bourne, Osborn, Polk and Baker are the top-5 locks. Maybe Bourne is delayed as he rehabs and that opens a door of opportunity. But as I see it now, Thornton, Jalen Reagor, Kayshon Boutte and Juju Smith-Schuster will really have to show something this spring if they're going to secure roles with the offense.

Good draft overall, especially Drake Maye and the two WRs. Some caveats: I think they should have gone for the best LT available in rd2, the best available WR in rd3 (very deep WR class), then Javon Baker in rd4. Polk looks good but I think LT was a higher priority. Not a fan of the Joe Milton pick. They had a good QB room setup with Brissett likely starting (at least initially), Maye developing, and Zappe & Rourke competing for QB3. Zappe has shown potential and could be a good backup if he can minimize his mistakes. Rourke is mostly unknown but some reports indicate he is better than most realize. The addition of Milton seems to throw a monkey wrench into this group; I don't see him as a viable backup to run the offense if need be. Maybe their intent is for Brissett to be QB2 when Maye takes over, and Milton to be a gadget guy? But Brissett (age) is not likely to be around very long, and then they need a reliable backup when he's gone. Selecting Milton seems like an unforced error to me, but I hope I'm wrong. Comments? Larry Logue

View photos of Patriots sixth round pick, quarterback Joe Milton III in action at the University of Tennessee.

I see both sides on the Milton discussion, because really, if you boil it down, the Patriots need an elite quarterback to re-enter the conversation as a contender. We all think and hope it should be Drake Maye, but what if it's not? What if Milton just needed some time and right coaching and suddenly it all clicks for him in a special way? I understand we all want Maye to get every chance to succeed and limiting the outside noise is a good way to protect him. But finding start quarterbacks is rarely a straight line and when you're desperate, taking a couple of different swings could end up paying off in an unconventional way. I guess this is the long way of explaining that I think it will all be clear once we see both of these guys on the field together. Maybe not immediately at a contact-free OTA practice where everyone is just trying to learn the basics. But by the time we get to camp I think it will be apparent and obvious that these are two players on different trajectories. No question though, that first Milton bomb is going to turn some heads, and that isn't such a bad thing. I don't see Milton as a gadget guy or anything other than a really intriguing lottery ticket, the kind I'd hope the Patriots take in every draft at some important, hard-to-find position.

I know I may(e) be in the minority here but I honestly believe this offensive unit is a little underrated. They are coming off such a low base where things couldn't possibly get any worse with injuries, lack of coaching skillset amid locker room upheaval. I don't think it is too much to say that they can get improvement from everyone that was on the roster last year - Rhamondre (should improve with a healthy body), Bourne (same as Rhamondre), Douglas (2nd year improvement), JuJu (can't possibly get worse), Henry (should improve with stability at QB), Thornton (if he is still there, any input is an improvement). The output of the WR rookies is always a mystery however with a new offensive coaching team in place I would also expect an improvement from the O-line. Again, not guaranteed but they couldn't possibly get worse given last years debacle. Overall I think stability in coaching is the key and a fresh new approach should motivate a lot of guys. I'm not saying they can automatically win the division but as a ceiling they should be looking at winning more games than losing. After all that defense is where they will win games with a slight improvement on offense. Or am I being too optimistic? Pete C.

I like the optimism, Pete and I think we have some similar thoughts with how I answered concerns about the OL and WRs above. Just as the 2022 team maybe had a little extra good fortune, the 2023 team had a little less and a return to the mean doesn't seem that crazy to expect. At the very least, you know now that the offense has a bunch of new pieces to play with so if/when the veterans aren't improved or rejuvenated, there's a bench to go to now. The last couple of years it felt like the offense was starting shorthanded at the beginning of the season and really didn't have a lot of new pieces to throw into the fire. At OL, QB and WR, there will be a lot to consider and from there we'll hopefully find a new core emerges.

Maye is clearly a very physically talent player, but is young and (whether Paul wants to recognize it or not) has some question marks around his processing; I've seen just as many draft profile say he works well through his progressions as I've seen those saying he has a propensity to bail out of a clean pocket if his first read isn't immediately open, just to toss an interception due to trying to make a "hero" play. What's the game planning for the team to do what it didn't do for Jones, and actually support their young QB to develop properly? Mike Aboud

Well, I think they're off to a good start by putting him into an offense that he fits into under coaches who know the offense and how to teach it. Then you've thrown more young pieces at the wall at the two most important support positions – offensive line and wide receiver. There are young players in both of those groups that should develop with Maye, earning his trust and developing chemistry that will hopefully pay off under live fire. We'll see how those groups play out this year, but it's not hard to see the Patriots continuing that path next offseason to further secure Maye's long-term protection and provide him with a defense-frightening weapon if one does not start to emerge in 2024. Add in more takeaways from the defense and I think there are some solid elements in place but certainly some players need to emerge as impact NFL players alongside Maye.

What am I missing on the Pats going to wide-zone. Specifically, while I like the idea, we have both new coaches, and a line that's been in-flux personnel-wise. That scenario doesn't seem to be solid enough to throw another change variable in the mix of going to a zone running scheme. Am I off base on that? Am I wrong with the thought you want linemen that are "move" guys. Who on the roster is a move guy besides Cole Strange? I don't get that we drafted Antonio Maffi and Sidy Sow and resigned Ogwenu, whom are all plow horses/big guys that are not seemingly move guys. Are they? And we're talking Onwenu staying at RT on top of that when the prior coaches were pretty adamant he's an interior player, not being agile enough to be on the outside edge in pass blocking. I must be off base. Help me! James Kelleher

You have excellent concerns James, unfortunately. It's something we've talked about on PU, how this isn't a light, athletic line like the ones usually running a wide zone attack. Alex Van Pelt has talked plenty about adapting scheme to the players but I agree with you, it feels like this group is a mishmash of types, including the two OL they drafted, who again seem more in the gap-scheme model, big people movers who won't be asked to run to the sideline multiple times per drive. I wish I had a good answer. I feel like most likely they'll be more balanced with gap, duo and power runs than we might expect from a heavy wide zone team just because those runs fit their personnel too well. We'll see how it plays out, this is a very good question to watch unfold. ­

I liked the Pats resigning some of their young players, I think that's a wise decision. I know we can't sign everyone we want and it takes two to tangle; but we signed a RT who was cut by Pitts and he's our NEW starting LT. Then we draft an RT who is athletic and should be able to make the switch to LT. Instead of taking Polk in the second round would trading down and taking one of the ACTUAL LTs have made more sense? Further, we had the cap space to sign either Tyron Smith or Jonah Williams and I recommended signing both guys to upgrade the OL. I know Smith signed for 1yr/18M Guaranteed, but could we have gotten him with a 4Yr/50M with 25 guaranteed (basically a 2-year deal)? And Williams who can play both RT and LT, and has done so in the NFL signed for only 3 years/45M. Could we have gotten him for say 4yrs/62M with 35M guaranteed? Am I overpaying? Maybe, but when you are DESPERATE you do what it takes. In this case, I WOULD NOT draft a rookie QB and put him behind the worst passing blocking line in the NFL. No one should be surprised if we have Mac Jones 2.0 in 3 years. We added Polk and Baker in the draft and people are excited about them, but we could easily have added Jerry Jeudy (trade) and OBJ (he just signed a 1 yr deal for 8.25 including incentives). Which would have been the better option? It just seems this new management team doesn't understand how BAD this team really is! Badax Michaud

I'm sorry, I don't see how end-of-the-line Tyron Smith or okay starter Jonah Williams, who is also better on the right side, changes the long-term equation all that much. Would Smith even ever block for Maye? And yes, Williams was one of the only good young tackles on the market but again, he's got questions too. So, while I agree that missing out on a true left tackle was one of my few draft gripes, I think they're managing things well with the long term in mind. The hope is that Brissett can manage until the starting five OL develop some continuity and (hopefully) one of the wild card tackles makes an impressive leap on the left side. Then Maye steps in behind some experience and continuity. It's not perfect but honestly once we got past Tyler Guyton at 29th overall there was a real dropoff in immediate potential. At that point you were going into developmental territory whether you took Patrick Paul or waited for Wallace. I struggle to find an easy and realistic scenario this offseason where they really messed up and missed out on a great player who could be a long term answer at left tackle.

With Jerod Mayo's mission statement of intent about connecting with his players on a personal level and building a close relationship with them first before he coaches them hard, an approach that sounds to me like an excellent idea in the current NFL context and reminds me of the way that successful young coaches like Mike McDaniel and Kyle Shanahan prefer to go with which allows them to nurture and develop their new age players before they are aggressively molded into the best version of themselves. Do you feel as encouraged as I do Mike about this approach coach Mayo has decided to go with or do you prefer the old school style of a coach being strictly a coach and maintaining a bit of distance between him and his players? Marc Saez

I do, but I think Mayo is just being himself which is the best thing to do regardless. Speaking with coaches this offseason, there's no question that today's athletes have changed and are harder to coach. That doesn't mean a tough coach couldn't still get the job done, but I'm excited to see the response to Mayo's leadership. Clearly players respect coaches who played the game and now the Patriots staff has quite a few of those, including Mayo and Alex Van Pelt at the forefront. The vibe is different but the bottom line is winning football games. I just hope this is a scrappy, competitive team that is hard to beat. They got away from that vibe last year.

Do you think there is a chance Mapu plays more LB this season as opposed to SS? I don't think he is quite fast enough to play a center field FS, but his speed is more than enough to play LB, and he is even a little bigger than a previously very effective linebacker for Jacksonville in Telvin Smith. He could add some much needed speed to the middle of the defense and free up Dugger or Peppers to make plays. And who is your dark horse on defense to watch as OTAs approach? Thanks! Chris James

I don't see it, any more than just a second-level coverage role on third down. I think Mayo will keep the linebacker spot in the hands of bigger guys like Bentley and Tavai, with their ability to slide to the edge at times as well. Adrian Phillips gone I expect we'll see more Mapu this year but I think he'll continue to be more of a strong safety type. Like you, I just don't see a pure free safety in this group and I wonder if that hurts them. Figuring out how to balance Dugger, Peppers and Mapu will be a big question for this defense. They need to make more plays and without D-Mac last season, only Peppers continued to force turnovers at a good clip.

Who is your udfa pick to make the team? Mike Murphy

Charles Turner, center from LSU. I know that position is pretty well stocked with David and Jake Andrews, but hearing Turner's OL coach rave about him makes me think he could find a way to sneak on the roster. Running back Deshaun Fenwick could have a chance too but he'd have to beat out Kevin Harris, who seems penciled into a legitimate role on offense, at least at this point.

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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