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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue May 21 - 02:00 PM | Thu May 23 - 09:55 AM

Patriots Mailbag: What Does the Super Bowl Matchup Say About How the Pats Should Rebuild the Roster? 

With two different roster-building strategies squaring off in Super Bowl LVIII, which path should the Patriots take this offseason? 

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As a spectator on Conference Championship weekend, it's human nature to use the NFL's final four as a barometer for where your team is deficient.

As the Chiefs and 49ers were punching their tickets to Super Bowl LVIII, my mind went in a million different directions for the Patriots. At first, it was Lamar and Mahomes trading blows to the point where it felt necessary to have an MVP-caliber quarterback. In response to Mahomes having a perfect first quarter, Lamar spun out of a sack to extend the down for rookie receiver Zay Flowers to go off-script for a 30-yard touchdown. To win, you need a quarterback who can do that, right?

Then, the NFC title game saw two good, not elite, quarterbacks in a tale of two halves. Lions QB Jared Goff had Detroit in the driver's seat, throwing from clean pockets and handing off to an explosive first-round running back and a blazing-fast second-year wideout. The Lions also dominated the trenches, using right tackle Penei Sewell as a chess piece.

As the 49ers comeback began, the all-around roster talent in San Francisco overwhelmed Detroit, who certainly contributed to their own downfall. Still, the bottom line didn't change: Brock Purdy and Jared Goff aren't on the AFC quarterback's level but were playing for the same prize.

Although the Chiefs and 49ers have reached a combined ten final fours since last meeting in the Super Bowl, they've built their rosters differently. Kansas City is tinkering around a franchise QB, their trump card, by leaning on the best defense of the Mahomes era to play ball control football. The defense is driving the bus. However, Mahomes ups his game in high-leverage situations, like icing the AFC Championship Game on a 32-yard completion on third-and-9.

For the Niners, San Francisco has an envious amount of support around Purdy to elevate his game beyond what anyone could've expected from Mr. Irrelevant. Purdy deserves credit for his clutch play in these playoffs, but between the offensive play-caller and playmakers, he's set up for success better than any quarterback in the NFL.

As the Patriots watch at home with the third overall pick and roughly $70 million in cap space, the question is how should head coach Jerod Mayo and company rebuild the roster? Both avenues aren't easy to obtain, whether it's the generational talent at quarterback or a stacked roster. Still, to win at the highest level, the Patriots must match the NFL's elite in one way or another.

From this vantage point, the quickest path to relevancy is through the quarterback. New England should, first and foremost, look to improve their margins by upgrading at the most important position. Having the quarterback covers up more holes, whereas the roster needs to be near-perfect around a more middling talent at QB to win a championship.

However, as the Niners and Lions can attest, it's not the only path. If the quarterback isn't in this draft, the Pats are better off making their roster more quarterback-friendly rather than forcing a quarterback pick. The 49ers-Lions model could push New England toward WR Marvin Harrison Jr., or Notre Dame left tackle Joe Alt at the top of the draft.

Although the NFC strategy might be washed away to a degree if Mahomes wins his third Super Bowl, the 49ers are proving you can compete either way. For the Patriots, it'll soon be decision time.

Let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag heading into the Senior Bowl and Super Bowl bye week:

Q: Evan, have you written about why Josh McDaniels should not be hired as Patriots OC? I'm trying to understand why that isn't a wise decision. - @FleuryMusic

It's certainly fair to wonder why the Patriots aren't bringing back McDaniels to run the offense. The former Pats OC coached the unit to multiple Super Bowls with Tom Brady, maximized the Cam Newton offense, and had Mac Jones playing his best football during his rookie season. McDaniels is a good coordinator: excellent run game, a great feel for marrying concepts and sequencing plays together, and is lauded for attacking opponents' weaknesses in a game-plan-oriented manner.

At this point, McDaniels's experience and track record are enticing to pair with a first-time head coach. My biggest concern with the Patriots current setup is inexperience. They're rolling with a 37-year-old head coach, a collaborative front office that has never had the final say on personnel, and a first-time defensive coordinator. Let's say they add another first-time coordinator in Nick Caley; that's a lot of learning on the job.

The flip side is that McDaniels is a Belichick loyalist, something the organization may want to avoid, and will run the same offensive system that needs updating. For those reasons, Mayo might be moving in a different direction. But, an experienced coordinator like McDaniels who could head coach the offense would pair well with a brand new coach whose specialty is defense.

Q: Steve Belichick was calling plays, yet HC Jerod Mayo promoted DeMarcus Covington to defensive coordinator. What has Covington done to earn a promotion? - Stan C

The short version is that Covington would've won my award for Patriots position coach of the year after leading the defensive line to an excellent 2023 campaign. Under Covington's guidance, the Pats D-Line spearheaded one of the NFL's best run defenses in yards per carry of the last decade. In a two-gapping odd front system, the top priority for the big bodies on the line of scrimmage, Covington's group, is to stop the run, which they did exceptionally well.

Covington also oversaw a third-year breakout for stud DT Christian Barmore, had LB Anfernee Jennings ready to rise to the occasion with more playing time, and the arrow is pointing upward on 2023 second-rounder Keion White. So, the Pats DC has a knack for coaching up young talent. Speaking to players throughout the year about Covington, his ability to streamline information, motivate his players, and perfect fundamentals and study habits to put his guys in positions to succeed are standout qualities.

The 34-year-old interviewed last cycle for two teams as a potential coordinator hire, meaning Covington would be a coordinator at some point. Rather than having him walk for a promotion elsewhere, it made sense to keep it in-house, with the Pats defense performing well in the final Belichick years, including a 9th-place finish in DVOA in 2023.

As for Steve Belichick, Mayo has stated that Steve has a home in New England if he wants to stay put. However, it won't be as the defensive coordinator, which likely means he won't be the play-caller either. Although his knowledge could benefit the team, it could turn dysfunctional if things aren't going well defensively. Belichick has been calling plays and running the Xs and Os with Mayo as the big-picture motivator. That setup has worked well since the 2019 season, and it's only natural for players to start doubting the coaching if Steve is re-assigned to a different role, like assistant head coach. That's not just a media or fan-driven thing. It happens in the locker room, too. If there are bumps in the road under Covington, it could quickly turn to why not let Steve call plays? Why did we change what was working?

For a first-time defensive coordinator, having Steve looking over Covington's shoulder would be a potentially awkward situation. I'd rather give Covington a clean slate.

Former player and assistant coach Jerod Mayo was introduced as the new head coach of the New England Patriots today, January 17, 2024 during a press conference at Gillette Stadium.

Q: Why is the mainstream Boston media saying it's great to interview McVay/Shanahan disciples so they can flip the offense to a West Coast scheme? Isn't this what they tried to do in 2022? - James K

The intrigue is there internally to mimic the McVay/Shanahan tree because of its success around the league. This season, eight of the top 15 offenses in the NFL by EPA were running a variation of the West Coast scheme birthed by the two former Washington assistants. It's not the only way to structure an offense, but it has objectively been highly successful wherever it goes. Why is it so successful? Here is the cliff notes version:

The system's hallmark is marrying formations and run tendencies with pass concepts to generate explosive plays. The Shanahan tree majors in outside zone while incorporating duo, pin-pull, crack toss, and trap schemes with heavy amounts of motion and condensed formations. The motion isn't just window dressing, though. It also serves a purpose, like changing the formation's strength on the fly to regain the numbers advantage in the run game. They'll then marry those run-blocking schemes with play-action passes, making everything look the same, which creates huge voids of space to generate big plays. In the drop-back pass game, the Shanahan tree uses "grab" routes and multi-level spacing to create voids between the numbers. All these tools allow skill players to play fast in the open field and make the offense easier on the quarterback, who also has less to do at the line of scrimmage in terms of checks/protections than the Patriots current system.

In short, the Patriots tried implementing some of these schemes in the Patricia year. However, they were installing them with coaches who had very little prior knowledge of offense, let alone running this type of offense, which has tons of moving parts and unique elements. It's different to pluck a McVay, Shanahan, or LaFleur disciple from one of the coaching trees and have them bring the system to Foxborough than asking Patricia to do it. Again, it's not the only successful offensive system. But it's mighty appealing if done correctly.

Q: Any thoughts on Kliff Kingsbury? Familiar with the Patriots former head coach with a new offensive system. - Keith B

For the record, I've always been a fan of Kingsbury. He made his mistakes in Arizona that led to his downfall with the Cardinals, and Arizona's offense tended to sputter out post-Thanksgiving. Still, his adapted Air Raid for the NFL was successful when the Cardinals had a healthy Kyler Murray. Kingsbury's playbook is conducive to a dual-threat quarterback with a well-designed QB run/option game. He majors in some of my favorite drop-back concepts, such as mesh, Y Cross, and stick, and adapted to feature more variance in formations/groupings than a typical college-brand Air Raid. If the Pats are eying Jayden Daniels, Kliff should be on their shortlist for OC.

The bigger hurdle is likely convincing Kingsbury to take the job. He's going to get back into the NFL as a coordinator or become a college head coach again eventually, so Kliff probably doesn't feel the need to force a move. It's also not worth the Patriots making any promises about moving up for Caleb Williams, who many think Kingsbury would latch onto as a package deal. Even if you like his offensive mind, the dynamics of a Kingsbury hire are difficult for the Patriots to work through. Frankly, the Pats OC position is not drawing much interest from the top coordinator candidates on the market, which would include Kingsbury.

Patriots linebacker Josh Uche (55) and Demarcus Covington.
Patriots linebacker Josh Uche (55) and Demarcus Covington.

Q: Any chance the Patriots go after a veteran quarterback like Russell Wilson or Justin Fields and rebuild their offensive line and wide receiver corps through the draft? - Daniel M

As you can imagine by the opening section, the Patriots going the veteran route rather than using the No. 3 overall pick on a QB has crossed my mind. That would free up the third overall pick for a tackle or receiver, and the Pats have plenty of cap space to absorb a bigger quarterback contract. Who can be their Jared Goff? I'd be willing to go that route.

However, it's difficult at this stage to find the perfect pairing. I'm out on Wilson due to his age, declining mobility, and struggles to play within the structure of two different offenses. Wilson's superpower was his play creation and deep ball, but with that wanning at age 35, he doesn't fit. I'd want to be closer to the Goff formula than that (younger, more upside). If the Broncos end up cutting him, I'm sure we'll continue talking about Wilson as an option since the price tag will go way down, and you aren't giving up any assets to acquire him. Still, no thanks.

As for Fields, you'd need to answer whether he was never given the proper coaching or can't function at a high enough level as a passer in an NFL offense. Fields has all the physical tools to succeed, but he was an odd fit in Luke Getsy's offense, with Getsy coming from the LaFleur tree of more in-structure quarterbacking. He could thrive if you unlock Fields's legs and let him create late in the down. Still, there will always be a need to make in-rhyhtm throws from the pocket, and Fields might never get there consistently enough.

Of those two options, Fields is the more appealing move, but it would cost at least a third-round pick. Neither are options that I'm clamoring for the Patriots to acquire.

Q: I would like to see the Patriots retain cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino. Evan, how do you view Pellegrino and what is the possibility he's retained? - Marc S

Pellegrino would be high on my list of defensive coaches for the Patriots to retain, and based on Mayo's public comments about the Belichick's, it wouldn't surprise me if the offer is on the table. However, the Pats have shown significant interest in Broncos DBs coach Christian Parker, who is also interviewing for other defensive coordinator openings. New England could pair Parker (secondary) with Covington (front seven). If they strike out on Parker, Pellegrino has a great track record with developing corners and teaching this coverage system to the players. He deserves credit for the diamonds in the rough the Pats have developed during his stint as CBs coach: J.C. Jackson, Myles Bryant, Alex Austin, and others, while 2023 first-rounder Christian Gonzalez was off to a great start before his injury. The Patriots have a real interest in Parker, but Pellegrino should also be welcomed back with open arms.

Q: My feelings are that the Patriots should use the franchise tag on OL Mike Onwenu. Do you agree, or do you see them using the tag on someone else? - David B

It's easier said than done to sign Onwenu to a contract extension, but the franchise tag is too rich for my blood. The tag for offensive linemen is projected to be around $22 million for the 2024 season, and they can't stretch out the cap ramifications with a one-year tag. It's not a wise salary cap move to take up a third of their available cap space on Onwenu. As for other candidates, TE Hunter Henry is a much more doable option. The tight end tag is projected at just north of $12 million. It makes sense to keep Henry in their short-term plans while developing draft picks at the position.

Q: Has Matthew Slater decided if he's going to retire? Given his leadership and being one of the greatest special teams players of all time, do you think he will stick around in some capacity? - Steven M

Although it would be a surprise to see him continue playing, Slater has not officially made a retirement decision. As a football lifer, Slater has been open to discussing other roles within the organization in his post-playing career, whether as a character coach or special teams assistant. My guess is the former would interest him more since it's less time away from his family than coaching. There's also a possibility Belichick's departure lessens his desire to continue in another capacity with the Patriots, but that's not based on anything other than Slater's deep appreciation for his former coach.

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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