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Patriots Mailbag: Receiver Development, Defensive Changes and a Dark Horse at Left Tackle

Patriots fans are settling in for a month-long break until training camp taking both a look back at the offseason and a look forward to how the new look Pats might come together.

6-18-mailbag

I was surprised that the Patriots didn't seem to push hard for offensive tackle Jonah Williams, given what they ended up with for tackles this spring. Were they in the mix to sign him? Or did they decide he wasn't worth pursuing? -Ken Stickney

Patriots tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (77)
Patriots tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (77)

We'll see how it works out but their decision seems to be Chuks Okorafor at left tackle and retaining Ownenu and drafting a potential swing tackle/starter behind them. Williams played entirely on the right side last season after two years at left tackle for the Bengals that left them wanting more. So the choices were between him or Okorafor flipping to the left, or paying him or Onwenu on the right. The Patriots chose to keep a versatile home-grown product in Onwenu ($38 million guaranteed) and sign Okorafor ($3 million guaranteed), while Williams got $24.5 million guaranteed from the Cardinals to play their right side. So far Okorafor has been a fixture at left tackle for the offense and will be one of the focal points when things start to get more physical in training camp. The protection generally had a hard time without pads in the spring. -Mike Dussault

I've often thought about this and it seems and chicken and egg scenario. Do you think that having an elite defense impacts the development of young offensive players? We have all seen the players who worked in NE. If you looked around the league and alot of teams you would consider elite or have elite CB's have struggled to develop offensive players. I've seen reports from this season that the NE defense had to be told just shadow due to them interrupting every offense snap. Part of me gets it. How can these guys get any rhythm or confidence is QB is sacked every play and the WRs can't even get a catch in practice. I'd love your thoughts. It probably is something that could be discussed to death though. -Shane O'Brien

My first thought is that it's sink or swim in the NFL and no matter how good your defense is, your offense will be in BIG trouble if they can't at least string SOME plays together as training camp progresses. The defense should generally dominate in the early days of camp as they did in open OTAs and minicamp, especially when they have an experienced and talented group like the Patriots do but any worthwhile offense will find a way to make some plays.

However, I also have seen plenty of examples of the first-team offense getting a chance to go against more backup players during periods as well, so it's not like they're going to let Christian Barmore blow up every play. Last week they threw a bunch of backups into the secondary at times to give the receivers different looks. There's also 7-on-7 which takes the pass rush out of the equation and is another view on how well the offense can execute and how well certain players are developing. Throw in one-on one drills for wide receivers and cornerbacks as another piece of the pie. You can't just only consider 11-on-11's solely when it's the 1's vs the 1's.

Ideally, there is back and forth throughout the second and third weeks of training camp, with players on both the offense and the defense consistently making plays. In recent seasons of offensive struggle, there were only brief moments of success, like the last two situational drives in joint practices against the Raiders in August 2022. The Patriots offense looked stymied and frustrated for most of the two sessions in Vegas before scoring touchdowns during the final team periods of the week.

Meanwhile, the defense has continuously harassed every preseason offense they've faced in the five training camps and seven joint practices I've witnessed. Finding a stride, especially as the run game becomes more involved in practice, is vital to projecting offensive promise. -Mike Dussault

How do you see the defense changing without Bill's gameplan input? Did the defense look similar to what you've seen in the past?Sam Buttress

This will essentially be the 25th season running the "Belichick" defensive system but it's hard to imagine it post-Belichick because it revolved around having enough versatility to morph into any gameplan Bill Belichick saw best. Odd front, even front, man, zone… Belichick would spin the dial any way he saw fit and coveted players who could accommodate those jarring transitions. Most of the players with those skillsets still dominate the defensive side of the roster, especially at the safety and off-the-ball linebacker positions. Can Jerod Mayo and DeMarcus Covington identify the same gameplan points that Bill would've and then apply the available defenders to execute that gameplan? It's a lot to ask anyone to replace the depth of knowledge and foresight that almost 50 seasons in the NFL provides.

With some expiring defensive contracts next offseason it will be interesting to see if they become more conventional and not so focused on flexibility as it comes time to address the defensive front. -Mike Dussault

Is Calvin Anderson a candidate to play LT (or RT)? He was last offseason for 2023. If I recall, Anderson actually got some snaps at LT last season when Trent Brown had some issues. I see so many media and fan statements that the only options are Okorafor or Caeden Wallace, with the challenge there being that both are historically RT's only. Calvin Anderson played LT for the Broncos for a while. IR isn't forever! -Jim K

Patriots tackle Calvin Anderson (76)
Patriots tackle Calvin Anderson (76)

You're correct, Jim, Anderson is the most experienced NFL left tackle on the roster with 671 career snaps, and we've seen him taking reps behind Okorafor in recent practices. So yes, he's very much in the left tackle mix, though at this point it still appears that Okorafor is ahead of him. Put Anderson down in the wild card category, at the very least he might be their back-up swing tackle, still an important role. If Caedan Wallace can stick on the right side and allow Onwenu to bump inside to guard the team might have their most promising starting five with Anderson as a strong, experienced sixth man. But who knows, maybe he makes a push on Okorafor as camp progresses. It would appear that he's now second on the depth chart on the left side, ahead of Wallace. -Mike Dussault

Kickoff and punt returners seem to have slightly different skill sets. Punt returners have to have that really quick first step and great hands, while pure speed and ability to break or avoid tackles are KO return skills. Do you see that changing at all with the new setup? -Ed Liebfried

It's a great question and one that I believe the entire league is curious to answer as we get into the preseason. We've seen the Patriots special teams experimenting with some different styles of kickoffs and it does appear that the skillset of the returner could be evolving a bit though the same returners continue to line up for reps at the position. From what we've seen there is a buffer zone between where the returner catches the ball and where the rest of both his teammates and opponents are. In that regard, it would appear to be harder to open up seams because the blockers have no natural depth or leverage. Instead, blockers will have to peel back to establish those angles and as a result it's a lot murkier for the returner to find the holes. Later agility and explosiveness seem like key traits now, because returners will have to quickly find the holes and then get downhill more like a running back than an old kickoff returner who knew which hole to hit much sooner. It's going to be a fascinating play in August and September, then we'll see how teams adjust. -Mike Dussault

Do you see all the 2024 draft picks making the team? Thanks. -Bob Freeman

Simply because of the positions they're at the only two potential cut/practice squad candidates of the eight-man rookie class I could maybe see would be Marcellas Dial and Joe Milton. Cornerback and quarterback are deep positions right now and Dial had an injury setback that has kept him out of competitive periods, so it's hard to tell how he's stacking up despite ample opportunities for roster roles for a fourth, fifth and maybe sixth cornerback. Jerod Mayo said the team would go with four QBs into training camp but it's a safe bet that they won't carry four into the regular season. Milton and Bailey Zappe both had extremely limited reps in minicamp and will have to make the most of their opportunities. Zappe's experience is valuable, especially if Jacoby Brissett were to suffer an injury before the team is ready to throw Drake Maye into the fire. A situation like that could determine how the team handles their third and fourth signal callers this summer. -Mike Dussault

Considering how closely Jared Mayo's appointment came before the draft; how much input did he have in the selections vs his own preconceived notions of his future team's personality? I guess I'm saying how much can we blame him for the upcoming season now that the dual-role BB legend is gone. -Vic Marsch

With just one defensive player drafted and Mayo putting the blueprints for the offense primarily in Alex Van Pelt's hands, in my opinion, Mayo didn't have to put his hands all over this draft. Certainly he met with Drake Maye and must've had plenty of input about the kind of person and player Maye seems to be. Let's face it, that's the most important part of this draft so if Maye is successful, Mayo does deserve credit. But I'd guess his input was lesser as we went down the draft board when looking at offensive guys. You're right though, Mayo's stamp on the player at least from a personality perspective has to be important and I'd bet he met with most if not all the players they selected before the draft. But overall I bet he let Eliot Wolf and Alex Van Pelt do the heavy lifting when it came to scouting the offensive linemen and receivers they took later on. I'm sure he had plenty to say about Dial's tape however. Maybe next year Mayo gets to have a little more fun on the defensive side of the ball. -Mike Dussault

After watching the Brady retirement ceremony, I cannot but see that Mr Kraft also needs to make an executive decision and enshrine Bill Belichick as soon as possible. -Stephen Libby

Yeah, I had similar feelings, at least about what a Bill Belichick enshrinement could look like. Obviously, it would be hard to pull off something as big as what Brady got, but a return to the usual induction outside the Patriots Hall of Fame doesn't quite feel like enough. Bill also doesn't seem like he'd want it to be an epic production either. My early instinct is that you make it about the players and the coaches that meant the most to him sharing their perspectives on what made Bill the GOAT coach. No frills, just football greats talking football. That seems like Bill Belichick. And if they want to put up a second statue near Brady's they'll hear no complaints from me. -Mike Dussault

Not a single OL-man is athletic enough to be used in a wide-zone scheme, yet are big enough for the gap scheme, still, Pats coaches are installing the former. I remember how BB & Co once adapted with a lack of receiving options and bullied the opponents towards the SB. Why not this approach especially with a rookie QB and questionable pass defense? -Stan C.

It's a fair point, especially when you consider Onwenu who is exactly the kind of gap blocker you're talking about. However, I wouldn't get too carried away in what we think the offense is going to be, i.e. just assuming it will be all wide zone and that stretching the defense horizontally is their key goal. Zone blocking schemes aren't just about getting the edge and I'd bet that the Patriots maintain some of their versatility on offense with some gap blocking schemes also incorporated. Either way, it seems clear that Scott Peters and Alex Van Pelt have a plan and know what they're going for, and have said they'll build the scheme around the players not vice versa. We'll see how the offensive lineman truly fit once the pads come on. -Mike Dussault

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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