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Patriots Mailbag: Rating roster dark horses and question mark positions

Patriots fans are wondering how things are coming together during open OTA practices and what positions are cause for concern at this stage.

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Can the Thornton kid become a good receiver for the Patriots right out the gate? Who would you bet on in a foot race? A young Randy Moss, or Thornton right now?Emory Addison

Tough to ever bet against Randy Moss, but Thornton does share some similarities as far as dimensions and measurables. Obviously Moss was one of the smartest receivers to ever play and that's why he's a Hall of Famer, we'll see where Thornton's at since we know it can be tough sledding for rookie receivers sometimes. Thornton is really a wild card of the receiver group. On paper they're better than last year simply by adding DeVante Parker to the mix. He's a proven outside receiver, likely the spot where Thornton will be spending a lot of his time eventually, but how soon will the second-rounder make a push? His speed is certainly intriguing but we'll see how well it translates to the NFL game field. At least in theory, that kind of outside threat should help stretch out defenses and make things a little easier inside for the slot receivers, tight ends and receiving backs. Plus, there's the trickle-down effect with Agholor who has been at his most productive from the slot over the course of his career. The presence of Parker and Thornton could allow him to shift to more inside routes. I'm excited to see how Thornton looks once camp gets going but for now it appears he's very much in the getting his feet wet phase and it's hard to see him quicky jumping to the top of the depth chart considering the vets above him. -Mike Dussault

I'm interested in a few players that never seem to get mentioned. Drew Desjarlais was an All-Star in the CFL but never seems to get mentioned. Clearly the CFL is a lower level of competition but is there a chance he could break into the rotation? The addition of Sokol puts a lot of pressure on Asiasi and Keene, is there any chance one of those two could transition to a FB role since Jacob Johnson is gone? And finally, while, barring injury, Wilkerson doesn't seem to have a way onto the 53 man roster, do you think he will slip through waivers so he can stick on the practice squad or do you think someone else will grab him? -Rickand Stacy

Desjarlais has had a chance to get a jump on the NFL after signing with the team early in the offseason but he's got a pretty tough road ahead to win a roster spot. Perhaps a practice squad spot is more realistic. Right now, I'd see James Ferentz, Will Sherman and rookie Chasen Hines as his primary competition for reps. I don't see Sokol as much more than a camp depth body, but I still see plenty of pressure on Asiasi and Keene to carve out a role in their third seasons. Admittedly, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry kind of have them buried, but Asiasi did flash some athleticism last year during camp that could be something that helps his cause. Keene is someone to keep an eye on when it comes to the supposedly defunct fullback role. I always viewed him as more of an H-back kind of player, so if there is a scheme evolution, Keene could be one of the pieces that brings a new twist. Finally, Wilkerson continues to stick around but given the additions at receiver, he'll have a tough task of getting onto the 53-man roster without injuries. Practice squad certainly seems like an option again where he and Tre Nixon will battle it out. -Mike Dussault

What's going on with Hightower? Is he over-valuing himself or thinking about retiring, do the Pats simply not want him back, or what? I haven't even noticed that he made any visits to teams. He may have slowed down, but I still think he could be an experienced backer/leader for them. -Michael Rose

According to reports earlier this spring, Hightower was still figuring out what he wanted to do. All signs point towards a shift at linebacker happening this season, with Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson appearing to be prime candidates for significant roles on defense. But there isn't much more proven depth, especially along the edge where it's Matthew Judon and a collection of young unproven Patriots draft picks like Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins. I do believe the youth movement is necessary for the Patriots defense to get on track, but I also still think there's a role for Hightower on this team if he wants it. It might be less than what it was last year, but he's still an all-time leader and physical presence who can set the tone. Perhaps in a more specific role he could be more consistent and effective than he was in 2021. -Mike Dussault

WR Tyquan Thornton
WR Tyquan Thornton

Hey guys, my question is about the WR room. More specifically the one receiver nobody seems to be talking about. Yes, we traded for Parker, great move. Yes, we drafted the speedy WR in Thornton. We have Meyers, Bourne and Agholor, but what about last year's late round pick Tre Nixon? I know he was injured last year and his injury pushed him down the draft board, but has there been any developments with him. I'm hoping for a surprise year from him but worried he might not have a chance due to depth at the receiver position. BB usually keeps 5, 6 at the most. That would be Parker, Meyers, Bourne, Agholor, Thornton, and who else? I mean with Montgomery, Wilkins, Nixon, Perry and a couple others, do you see Tre Nixon making the team? -Leif Santana-Perez

The position group does feel like it has pretty good depth with, as you wrote, maybe one spot up for grabs, although that role could be swept up by the cornerback spot with Marcus Jones potentially taking over the returner duties that wide receiver Gunner Olszewski held last year. Nixon looked quick in the only practice we've seen thus far, making a couple nice little catches but it's hard to really say he stood out or looked much different than the limited glances we got of him last season. But with Agholor and Meyers entering the final years of their deals, the long-term need at the position remains, despite the additions this season so I think it would be great to see Nixon emerge on the inside. He has a good athletic profile and skillset and could be a dark horse during training camp this summer. For players in his position it's all about consistency, staying on the field, getting a little better each time he's out there. If he does that he could make some noise. -Mike Dussault

It seems that everyone that watched the draft were certain to draft a linebacker! When they didn't draft one were your first thoughts, we're doomed or are you confident in the linebackers that are already in the queue? I think there is a lot of potential, but may need to add some more experienced LBs. -Brad KG

Admittedly, I was really focused on Nakobe Dean and Devin Lloyd through much of the spring, but as we got closer to the draft I became more and more concerned with the edges of the defense rather than the off-the-ball linebacker spot. After seeing an OTA practice it appears that the team has plans for Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson, with a ripe opportunity there for Cameron McGrone. That group, led by Ja'Whaun Bentley with additional depth in Jahlani Tavai and Harvey Langi, isn't in the terrible shape it might've been made out to be. So I wasn't totally surprised they didn't draft an inside linebacker, but I continue to be concerned about the edge…someone with length to be an early-down run stopper taking on offensive tackles. -Mike Dussault

LB Ja'Whaun Bentley
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley

The term "positionless defense" has been thrown around a lot. In addition to the young, unproven LBs we have, do you think the presence of Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, and Jabrill Peppers likely influence the lack of LBs drafted this year? Should we expect to see Phillips and Peppers covering a lot of TEs and playing tight to the line with McCourty/Dugger playing the deep-high traditional safety position, rather than expecting Uche, Jennings, or Perkins suddenly be tasked with covering the like of Dawson Knox or Mike Gesicki? -Jeff Nollner

This feeds into the last answer, and yes, the safeties are arguably the defining feature of this new-look defense right now. We've grown accustomed to the three-safety looks but now they've got four legitimate ones, so it has to play into the linebacker group at least a bit. I think you're dead on with the running back and tight end coverages, but again, who's setting the edge? Who's taking on the best outside receivers like Stefon Diggs? Overall, the middle of the defense has some promise but along the edges and on the outside, there are a lot of questions. -Mike Dussault

Hello and thank you for your take on all things Patriots. I know that talent is a must for any NFL player but I have been at a loss as to why NE has failed to stop the run or at least slow it down in many games. Is the problem scheme? Lack of talent? Technique, or lack of, or a combination of all. Perhaps I was spoiled with Seymour, Washington, Wilfork, Warren and their superb run stuffing abilities. -Hugh Sager

It's a good question but a complicated one because when you look at some of the stats it makes the Patriots run defense look a little better than we might believe it was.

Patriots Run Defense DVOA

  • 2016 – 5th
  • 2017 – 31st
  • 2018 – 19th
  • 2019 – 7th
  • 2020 – 32nd
  • 2021 – 9th

Now, when we get into specifics this gets even more confusing. The 2018 team turned in one of the best Super Bowl defensive performances of all time despite being 19th. 2019's team had no answers for the rushing attacks of the Ravens and Titans, while the 2020 team was a skeleton COVID-19 season squad that just didn't have the pieces. 2021's team shut down the bad offenses but still had trouble getting key run stops against good teams. I'm just not sure there's any one explanation for all of it, but I will say there are huge questions still this year. The defensive tackles are mostly the same, the turnover at linebacker and edge left even more uncertainty. There's no question they need to be better this year and have to start making more plays behind the line of scrimmage. -Mike Dussault

Very interested in how the two rookie CBs will be used this season! Both seem capable of special teams but do you see either playing a lot on defense? -Bob DeCelle

At a minimum I'm expecting Marcus Jones to take over return duties, where he should immediately provide a boost, but projecting them into the defense right out of the gate is tough. On paper, both look like inside cornerbacks because they're quick and sticky but lack the length to matchup outside/downfield. That said, they both played outside in college so it's not crazy to think they might be able to compete for a spot outside. It's certainly less complicated out there with fewer route options to work through. Both are willing tacklers and could be good in the slot, but there's a lot of those guys on the roster, starting with Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant. If one of them could enter the fray at outside corner it would be a huge boost. Otherwise, they seem heavy on the small, quick interior guys and light on the long, physical outside guys. -Mike Dussault

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