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Patriots Mailbag: Projecting the Pats Coaching Staff for Next Season, Surveying Wide Receiver Options

What could the Patriots coaching staff look like in 2023?

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The Patriots are heading into a significant week for their organization following an announcement last Thursday that they'll conduct a search for an offensive coordinator.

Although the announcement for a tight-lipped organization was unprecedented, it was refreshing that a team who often goes left when the expectation is a right-hand turn recognized the problem and is immediately addressing it publicly and privately. It's the right thing to do.

Along those same lines, the right thing to do for the Patriots is to bring Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien back for a second stint running the offense. O'Brien spent the last two seasons putting his spin on the system that Mac Jones quarterbacked to a national championship in 2020. O'Brien, who replaced Jones's college OC, Steve Sarkisian, spent time with Jones in the 2021 offseason to learn the Alabama playbook.

After former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels's first departure, O'Brien took the play-calling reigns and officially earned the offensive coordinator title in 2011. Then, the ex-Texans head coach reinvented New England's offense into a two-tight end spread system, finishing third in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and scoring offense on the 13-3 Patriots.

With O'Brien's now contractually free to pursue his preferred coaching gig, his familiarity with Foxboro's brain trust, the quarterback's roots, and the quarterback himself makes this a no-brainer for the Patriots, just like moving on from the Matt Patricia-Joe Judge experiment on offense.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's career is filled with surprising twists. Some have worked out, while others, like this past season's offensive coaching staff, have not. This time, the best path forward is obvious, and it should be a matter of when, not if, O'Brien's return is made official.

Let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag with the offseason full speed ahead:

Q: Who will be the Pats OC, and how will the staff look? - @ptctransformer

Let's take this as an opportunity to pitch my most-likely coaching staff for the Patriots next season:

- Upper management: Bill O'Brien (OC/QBs), Jerod Mayo (assistant HC/LBs), Steve Belichick (LBs/Defensive Play-Caller), Joe Judge/Cam Achord (special teams), Matt Patricia (Senior Football Advisor)

- Position Coaches on Offense: [insert O'Brien hire] (asst. QBs), Vinnie Sunseri (RBs), Troy Brown/Ross Douglas (WRs), Nick Caley (TEs/run game coordinator), Doug Marrone (OL)

- Position Coaches on Defense: DeMarcus Covington (DL), Mayo/Steve (LBs), Mike Pellegrino (CBs), Brian Belichick (S)

My projection of moving Judge to special teams takes a hit if Caley doesn't return, meaning Judge could move to TEs, or O'Brien could bring in another new assistant to coach the tight ends.

Q: What are your thoughts on rumors about an in-house guy having a shot at the OC position? - Ron

The only true in-house candidate is tight ends coach Nick Caley, who received an interview request from the Jets for their vacant OC position and should have a job in Vegas if he wants. It's very common to climb the ranks as a tight ends coach because they have a heavy hand in run and pass game coordination. Sean McVay, Brian Daboll, and Shane Waldron were all tight ends coaches before becoming coordinators. With that said, my gut says the Pats won't promote Caley. Why? If they felt he was on that track, why not make him the OC this past season? Maybe that thinking changes, but I find it hard to believe that they'll all suddenly believe he's ready.

Q: Who do you think is available as a WR1 for trade besides DHop? Mike Evans since the Bucs might be entering a rebuild? Jerry Jeudy? - @NEPatriotKid

If Brady doesn't return, Evans is an intriguing option because he'll hit unrestricted free agency. However, Evans, and even D-Hop, are getting older, with both playing an age 30-plus season in 2023. They're great players, but I'd rather see the Pats skew younger if they're going to swing big in the wide receiver market.

Looking at the 2020 wide receiver class, the first-rounders will likely have their fifth-year options picked up (Jeudy, Lamb, Jefferson), leaving 2020 second-rounder Tee Higgins. Higgins is set to be a 2024 UFA and will be looking for a new deal this offseason. With quarterback Joe Burrow and top wideout Ja'Marr Chase set to be paid, it's going to be difficult for a smaller-budget team like Cincinnati to keep everyone. Maybe Denver would rather reset some of their cap space by trading Jeudy, but my eyes are on the Bengals and Higgins, who has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and would give the Pats a physical presence on the outside. A younger, healthier, and at this stage, more explosive DeVante Parker.

Q: What does Mac need to work on the most this offseason? A lot of emphasis on the coaching staff, but obviously he needs to improve too. - @woofite

Mac does need to improve. But the biggest area of improvement is poise and having answers versus pressure, which is more of an in-season thing than the offseason. With that said, I'd like to see Jones improve his accuracy and arm strength on the move or off-platform. He'll never be a Josh Allen-like playmaker on extended plays or outside the pocket. Still, he needs to hit shorter throws more consistently on the move to reach the next level in his development. I keep going back to the Hunter Henry third-down throw against the Bills in Week 18. Steps through the pocket to buy time and avoid pressure but throws a low pass in the dirt. He needs to keep Henry on his feet there to set up the YAC opportunities.

Q: Your DMac Replacement both on the roster and available free agents? I can see maybe Marcus Jones or JJones (if signed) playing back there. My free agent wish would be Jessie Bates. - @JscanCoach

I've seen suggestions to move one of the Joneses full-time to free safety, and I don't love it. They have speed and range, but my big concern is their size in center field. When you play that position, you need to hand out some hits and be able to elevate to play the ball at the catch point. McCourty has at least a few inches on both the Joneses and longer arms to compete for the ball. I'd rather see Jalen Mills try to convert from corner to free safety.

If the offseason doesn't fall their way in terms of replacing DMac, I could see them playing more split-safety coverages next season with Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Mills, Jon Jones/Myles Bryant, and potentially Jabrill Peppers returning. That group feels more realistic as half-field safety options in cover-two or quarters than true single-high defenders. McCourty may also not retire. He could be convinced to play another year, and maybe you draft his replacement while he's still in the building.

Q: This past season, the Pats did away with the fullback position. Results for the running game were definitely down due to a variety of reasons. Do you see the Pats possibility bringing back that position? - David

My vote would be to bring back the fullback. The biggest area where the Pats missed the lead blocker is in what Football Outsiders categorizes as "power" situations, including short-yardage and goal-to-go situations. The Pats went from fourth to 27th in power success rate without a fullback. That's also probably why they were in shotgun so often in short-yardage plays. The fullback helps the offense gain numbers in the running game, power short-yardage runs for first downs and goal-line touchdowns, and you can use the fullback to sell running plays on play-action. There are so many schematic advantages to having a fullback that the Patriots missed this past season.

Q: With Jakobi Meyers being the top WR this season and entering free agency, do you think the Patriots will put a franchise tag on him? - Marc

Based on early estimations, the wide receiver franchise tag will be nearly $20 million for the 2022 season ($19.7M). There's a slim chance the Pats will tag Meyers because that's significantly more than his market value. Still, I'm not ruling out New England retaining Meyers. He's a homegrown talent that has improved each season in their system, one of a few at the position recently who can claim that. Plus, Spotrac estimates an average annual value for Meyers at $12.5 million, putting him at high-end WR2 money. That seems realistic, with the Pats allocating the rest of their budget at the position to a WR1. Meyers told me he didn't completely clean out his locker at Gillette Stadium after their season ended, so he's hoping that door will remain open in free agency.

Q: Do you think it's wise for the Patriots to pay both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry? Seeing as tight end is the highest-paid position on the roster. - Gage

That is a fair question with the Patriots allocating nearly $34 million to tight ends in 2022. Here's the kicker: it's challenging to get out of Jonnu Smith's contract, who, production-wise, should be the one to go. Henry has an out in his contract that would save the Patriots over $10 million. However, he's a steady, reliable presence in this passing game. It seems unwise to part ways with that. Smith could be a post-June 1 designation to save the cap space eventually, but they'd need to carry Smith's cap number until June 2. In other words, they couldn't budget that money right away for veteran acquisitions. Based on the cap ramifications, it's likely that both tight ends will still be on the 2023 roster. Maybe a new OC can get more out of Smith.

Q: The Patriots have two players (Yodny Cajuste and Myles Bryant) scheduled to be RFAs in March. What do you expect the Patriots will do with them? Tender them? Let them go? Reach a deal with them? - @PatsCap

Sadly, the guy nobody wants to see around anymore is Myles Bryant. Although the Pats should upgrade his spot as their starting nickel, I don't mind rostering Bryant as a sixth or seventh DB. They could use the right of first refusal tag on Bryant, a projected $2.6 million, but my guess is they'll pass on tendering him and hope to reach a team-friendly deal for multiple seasons. As for Cajuste, if he couldn't play down the stretch over Connor McDermott, I'm not sure what his role is on this team. I don't see a tender for him. He may get a cap-tryout deal to compete at right tackle.

Q: Chasen Hines and Andrew Stueber from last year's draft didn't feature this season. Can either be seen as potentially filling an O-Line need? - @belfastpatsfan

This was a popular question. It's probably a long shot for either to start next season, especially Hines, who doesn't have a clear path on the interior (Strange, Andrews, and Onwenu returning). The Pats could have an open competition at right tackle, though, so Stueber at least has a chance to see playing time. I'm not sure about Stueber's starting potential, mainly because we have yet to see him in an NFL practice. But Hines's ability to block on the move with power is very Shaq Mason-like. It's more realistic to expect both to serve as backups at their respective positions.

Q: What's been your favorite interactions since joining Unfiltered? Is there a take from @pfwpaul that you liked and what is your best disagreement with him so far? Is [Marine Matt] as cool as he seems in real life? Is @MikeDusault19 really that nice in real life?

My favorite interactions are when Fred and Paul bicker with each other. It's hilarious. Paul's takes on clock management and end-of-game coaching are great. I get lost in the Xs and Os that I often ignore that stuff, so it's impressive that he's able to recall all those details. Our best disagreement by far is Tua vs. Mac because I got Paul to admit I was right (he was right about Justin Jefferson vs. the Pats). Matt is as cool as he seems and is the MVP from behind the glass. And yes, Mike is that nice in real life, and sometimes I implore him to say something mean. It's refreshing to be around someone so positive, but we need mean Mike! It's a great crew that I'm thrilled to be a part of, and I'm not just saying that. They've welcomed me with open arms. It means a lot.

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