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Patriots Mailbag: Setting the Table for the Patriots Offseason

With the third overall pick and tons of projected cap space, how can the Patriots rebuild the roster to get back to contention in 2024?

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The Patriots are currently deliberating the future of a franchise that hasn't had questions about their head coach in 24 years.

Patriots ownership's decision regarding Bill Belichick's future as Patriots head coach will set the course for the entire offseason. In his end-of-year press conference on Monday morning, Belichick was open and honest about the current state of affairs at 1 Patriot Place.

"It was obviously a very disappointing season all the way around. Players, coaches, staff, organization, everybody is not anywhere close to what our standard and expectations are. So, obviously, things need to be fixed," Belichick said.

The future Hall of Fame coach told reporters he's under contract with the Patriots. He followed that rare moment of transparency by sounding open to relinquishing general manager duties as the current person with final say on the Patriots roster.

"I'm for whatever, collectively, we decide as an organization is the best thing to help our football team. I have multiple roles in that, and I rely on a lot of people to help me in those responsibilities. Somebody's got to have the final say. I rely on a lot of other people to help," Belichick stated.

Until the Patriots decide Belichick's fate, it's difficult to start discussing the offseason. How do you know if a player is a scheme fit without knowing the scheme? You don't. Still, we can talk in broad strokes about how to tackle the Patriots offseason, where they'll have picks No. 3, No. 34, and No. 68 in the first three rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft and a projected $70 million in cap space to overhaul the offense and continue adding on defense.

Without further ado, let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag heading into the 2024 offseason:

Q: How would you prioritize the Patriots in-house free agents?

Mike Onwenu is my top priority for the Patriots to retain this offseason. The scheme they're running offensively could impact that slightly. If it's an outside zone system, bigger power-blockers like Onwenu might not be a fit. Still, generally, I'm not allowing good offensive linemen to walk for nothing again like they did with Thuney, Karras, and Mason. Onwenu will help this line return to form either at guard or tackle.

Although it might be unpopular after a lukewarm season, I'm still making a competitive offer to retain Kyle Dugger. The Pats drafted and developed Dugger into an above-average starter, which they haven't done very successfully with top picks in recent years. He has warts in coverage, but Dugger is also a highly versatile player with great physicality and athleticism. I'm not giving Dugger the bag, but I'd make a real offer. I'd also make competitive offers to Hunter Henry, Anfernee Jennings, Myles Bryant, and Mack Wilson.

Q: Why did the nearly full 2022 blame pie get thrown at Patricia and Judge by much of mainstream Boston, but Bill O'Brien got left unscathed where the offense was appreciably worse this year? - James K

That's a fair question, James, and one that I've thought about a lot as someone who was very critical of the coaching setup in 2022. For me, it comes down to trusting the players in the locker room. My job is to gather intel from the players about what's happening on the field, and several players spoke openly about the issues on offense in 2022. Maybe they were scapegoating the coaches. But their biggest complaints were a lack of direction and not having their questions answered about why they were doing certain things. The players felt like they weren't given the tools to execute an NFL offense on Sundays by the coaches. They'd call plays in the huddle and not make any pre-snap adjustments, failing to problem-solve on the fly. They were inexperienced coaching offense and were new to the language – like a Spanish teacher teaching Italian. You can't run an offense with zero trust in the coaching.

In 2023, it was less about trust and more about on-field execution. That still relates to coaching in its own way, but nobody was questioning Bill O'Brien's ability to design or teach offense. Instead, it came down to the personnel failing to execute on the field. In hindsight, maybe the players were always deficient, and no coordinator could coach them up, which is where I'll backtrack a bit on Patricia and Judge. But I stand by saying what they installed in the spring and summer compared to the 2022 season was night and day. The execution just stunk.

Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.
Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.

Q: Is Bill O'Brien, with his own hand-picked coaches, the right guy to rebuild this offense? - Chef Dave

Good question. O'Brien is a bright offensive mind, and players want to play hard for him. Ultimately, I don't think he could run the offense he imagined because he didn't have the personnel. The Patriots had to strip the offense down to quick-game/screens, duo runs, and isolated go balls because they couldn't block anything else. Knowing first-hand the variety of O'Brien's playbook, I don't think this group scratched the surface of what he can run from a pace and complexity standpoint. They didn't even run downfield RPOs because they were worried about illegal blocking downfield. Assuming they're upgrading everything, I'd be willing to give BOB another crack at coordinating the offense. He's a good coach.

Q: If the Patriots move on from BB, two names rumored to replace him are Jerod Mayo and Mike Vrabel. Does this make sense despite the league-wide trend to hire offensive-minded coaches? - Ted Z

That's also my biggest concern. Both coaches have things going for them. Current Patriots describe Mayo as a players coach who can relate to the current generation of players, teach the game, and is a great motivator. Plus, he'd keep the same defensive system that finished a solid ninth in DVOA this past season. Vrabel has head coaching experience, is a Patriot Hall of Famer familiar to fans and the organization, and made an AFC championship game (three playoff appearances in six seasons as Titans head coach).

However, with the Patriots likely taking a quarterback high in the draft again, my fear is a defensive-minded head coach will recycle through offensive coordinators as the Patriots did with Mac Jones. The Pats OC coaches up Jayden Daniels or Drake Maye as rookies and gets a head coaching gig, so the OC carousel begins. The more appealing option would be to pair an offensive-minded head coach, like Lions OC Ben Johnson, with a top QB prospect. They can grow together and hopefully be your HC-QB pairing for the next decade. It's not the only successful path but the most appealing one to me.

Q: Now that it's confirmed where the Patriots are picking in the draft, who is your current favorite for them with the third overall pick? - Melbo B

I've done a deep dive into the top-four quarterbacks and will start soon on MHJ, Joe Alt, Olu Fashanu, etc. As I said, the Patriots need to go quarterback with this pick. It's your best opportunity to get your own create-a-player at the position, and you have two other top-100 picks and $70 million in cap space to build around him. The Pats might not have a better chance at a Mahomes, Allen, Burrow, or C.J. Stroud-level prospect.

As for which quarterback they should take, I'm leaning toward Jayden Daniels. I don't think any of the top three, Daniels, Maye, and Williams, are your typical precision pocket QBs. Williams is discount Mahomes with his improv skills, my current comp for Maye is Josh Allen, and Daniels is Lamar-lite. Assuming it's between Daniels and Maye, I'd lean toward Daniels because his throwing mechanics are more consistent, and he's the better runner. Maye has the bigger arm and frame, but Daniels is a more accurate passer. He has great upper-body mechanics, a snappy release, and a good understanding of tying his eyes and feet together. Maye's accuracy and ball placement can be sporadic. I'm taking Daniels.

Q: I'm putting you in the role of Mr. Kraft. Bill is gone. What is your first move: hiring a general manager or a head coach? - Rob F

I'm not sure the order matters much, but I would say that the general manager is more important than the head coach right now. I'm confident the Patriots have good coaches in the building. They have Bill Belichick, an all-time great coach, their defensive staff is loaded with up-and-coming talent, and Bill O'Brien can coach offense. Who is picking the players is the most important decision this organization has to make this offseason. They need someone to build a modern offense who will prioritize offense with their top resources.

Unfortunately, I'm not confident Belichick ceding GM duties would work in the long run. Adam Peters (my top GM target, 49ers assistant GM) could pick talented prospects, but then he's handing them off to Belichick, who will decide when and where they play. Plus, his coaching staff will develop those players. It's either going down with all of Belichick or none of Belichick.

Q: Would you retain O-Line coach Adrian Klemm? What about other assistant coaches? - Wayne S

According to reports, Klemm is dealing with a legitimate health issue that led to hospitalization. I wanted to share that before commenting on his future as a coach because a person's health comes first.

With that said, I didn't love the things I was hearing about Klemm as a coach before the medical issue arose. It seemed like he was on different pages with O'Brien throughout the season, and the Boston Herald reported he had an altercation with Matt Groh as well. Although he was right to be pissed about the personnel he was given, Klemm's approach didn't seem to be working here, and that was reflected on the field for the first nine weeks. I'd already have Carmen Bricillo (Raiders) on the horn to see if he'd come back to coach the line next year.

As for the other assistants, the Patriots need to have a tough conversation about Troy Brown. The coaching for wide receivers hasn't been good for two years. Brown was a great Patriot and is a good returners coach, but the wide receiver group isn't producing under his coaching. You can say it's about talent, which it is somewhat, but Brown has been on my radar for a while. I'd be looking to make a change, even though it's a tough pill to swallow.

Q: Evan, thanks for everything this season. My question is if Bill left, who would you personally like to see as head coach? - Spike R

First, thank you for reading and following along this season. It means a ton that you all remained engaged throughout a difficult season. As for my pick as the Patriots next head coach, I'd be open to the idea of Mayo replacing Belichick. He's not my first choice, but I think he's a different breed of coach than Belichick while being mentored in the Xs and Os by BB. I've spoken with over a dozen players about Mayo recently, and they all describe him as a modern Belichick – someone who can relate to current players but still give hard coaching and game plan at a high level.

As for external candidates, Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson would be my top pick. Johnson has an awesome run game with a twist on the Shanahan tree, featuring more downhill concepts but similar play-action designs that create huge passing lanes. He has made Jared Goff viable, and outside of Amon-Ra St. Brown, that's a young/unproven offense in many areas is humming. You would need to build the Lions O-Line, which would be the hardest part to make Johnson's scheme work.

Q: If the Patriots were to trade down from the third overall pick, what would a realistic trade package look like to trade down? - Butch P

Trade down packages are a little tricky because it all depends on who the team trading up is targeting and how far down you're willing to go. If they are targeting a quarterback, and there is a bidding war, the price goes way up. Maybe it would also go up this year if it were for Marvin Harrison, Jr. The Cardinals received the following package to move from No. 3 to No. 12: No. 12, No. 33, 2024 first-rounder, and a 2024 third-rounder for No. 3 and No. 105. Nine spots is a long way to go, and that was for a pass-rusher (Will Anderson). But that's a general idea.

Q: How about bringing back Matthew Slater as a character coach? This seems to be right up his alley. - TD Mike

I think bringing back Slater as a character coach is definitely on the table. Slater has spoken about having interest in a post-career role with the organization, and that would be a great fit for him. The Pats already have a team chaplain, but I'm sure they'd be willing to work together in that role, while Slater's experience as a player certainly adds helpful guidance. I could also see Slater chipping in as a coach/mentor on special teams. If he retires, I think Slater will be around the team in some capacity.

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