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Replay: Best of the Week on Patriots.com Radio Thu Jun 20 - 02:00 PM | Tue Jun 25 - 09:55 AM

Patriots Mailbag: When Should Drake Maye Start, Grading Eliot Wolf's First Offseason, Available Free Agents, and More 

Although there's an argument to be made that the Patriots should sit Drake Maye, plenty of successful quarterbacks also started as rookies. 

wolf-mailbag

The Patriots are two weeks into phase three of the NFL offseason program, where head coach Jerod Mayo's squad has held seven organized team activities so far this spring.

During phase three, there's no contact in unpadded practices, but teams can run non-contact drills resembling real football (7-on-7, 11-on-11). The Patriots have opened two practices to the media, with one more open OTA scheduled before New England holds a three-day mandatory minicamp from June 10-12. The spring will end with Tom Brady's Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on 6/12/2024 (airing on Patriots.com).

We are telling you all this scheduling minutia to give you proper context into how often we've seen rookie quarterback Drake Maye practice as a Patriot to make an obvious point: it's very, very early.

Although knee-jerk reactions after three (including rookie minicamp) exposures to Maye in a Patriots practice are hasty, the early returns on the Pats rookie are positive. Maye is repping third in the current quarterback rotation behind expected starter Jacoby Brissett and Bailey Zappe. For now, New England is getting Brissett ready to be under center for the start of the 2024 season when the Patriots visit the Bengals in Week 1 (Sept. 8). However, it's also evident that Maye is a priority.

For example, the Patriots ran a 7-on-7 period in last Wednesday's practice, where Maye was alone on the right practice field while Brissett and Zappe split reps on the other field. In the drill, Maye got 14 competitive reps (12-of-14), whereas Brissett and Zappe got seven each. As a rookie, Mac Jones similarly repped with the two's and three's throughout the summer. But he took far more reps than Cam Newton, who was the "QB1" based on the order. On roster cutdown day, the Pats released Newton and went with Jones as the starter.

Many often base their practice analysis on the number of reps and completion rates during team drills, but there's also the eye test. Maye is already showing the confidence and leadership of a starting quarterback. Furthermore, the sloppy footwork and inconsistent accuracy pundits spoke about ad nauseam during the pre-draft process are improving.

Maye connected on several passes that caught the eye in last Wednesday's session. The first was a pretty deep ball to speedy wideout Tyquan Thornton, and then he manipulated a zone coverage structure with a well-executed pump fake to open a passing lane to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Maye wrapped up the 7-on-7 period by coming off his first read to hit an in-rhythm juke route into a tight window for a completion.

In 11-on-11s, Maye's no-look pass to rookie tight end Jaheim Bell made the rounds, while he also got applause from teammates, including Brissett, for getting to the proper answer against a blitz. After practice, Maye has stayed late with rookie receivers Ja'Lynn Polk and Javon Baker for extra work with the two wideouts he hopes to grow with him.

Maye's time to be the Patriots starter is on the horizon. It's too early to say how soon that day will come, but this scribe believes Maye is ahead of schedule. There are arguments that Maye should sit, maybe even for his entire rookie year, like Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers (Brady is not apples to apples. He was a sixth-round pick who was never starting in 2000). The same people will also say, even if Maye is ready, will the rebuilding Patriots offense be able to support him?

However, the rebuttal is a longer list of successful quarterbacks who saw the field as rookies. Two-time league MVP Lamar Jackson started eight games in year one, including playoffs, while Lamar was still developing as a passer. Josh Allen had more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10) in 11 rookie-year starts. Joe Burrow tore his ACL after making ten starts as a rookie playing behind a bad offensive line and before Ja'Marr Chase's arrival – all three are MVP-caliber quarterbacks.

Trevor Lawrence had the most tumultuous situation possible in his rookie season during Urban Meyer's stint in Jacksonville, and Lawrence is on the verge of signing a $50-plus million a year extension with the Jags. Dak started all 16 games, Tua started nine games, Justin Herbert made 15 starts in LA, Stroud also made 15 starts in his offensive ROY campaign, and any Patriots fan should be happy if Maye is as good as those guys.

When you look at the top-10 passers in QBR last season, seven started games as rookies (Purdy, Dak, Allen, Lamar, Herbert, Stafford, Tua), with six of the seven making up the top-six passers in QBR. The Patriots shouldn't rush Maye, especially with a functional bridge already in place with Brissett. Still, if Maye is destined to be a star, starting him as the Patriots best chance to win games this season won't ruin him.

Without further ado, let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag as the offseason program continues:

Q: How would you rate Eliot Wolf's performance so far? I rate him a 5-out-of-10 because he didn't upgrade the offensive line (left tackle) or vet receivers - Badax M

That grade is a little harsh, and that's not to go easy on Wolf. Rome wasn't built in a day. Although the Patriots had decent draft capital and cap space, it was still unrealistic to think Wolf would acquire a QB1, WR1, and starting left tackle in one offseason. He did the right thing by prioritizing the quarterback, while Baker and Polk are intriguing rookie receivers. The Patriots also maintained their salary cap space to keep all avenues open to acquire that coveted WR1, whether via trade or free agency.

Sure, left tackle is a fair gripe. But, again, you only have so many options on the open market. Would we be sitting here saying they're all set at tackle if Jonah Williams or Tyron Smith were Patriots? They'd be in better shape for 2024 but still in the same boat long-term (Full disclosure: I would've paid Williams as a stop-gap OT. We'll see).

My grade for Wolf would be a solid 7.5-out-of-10. They're maintaining a nice core of holdovers they liked from Belichick's final years. Plus, Maye and the receivers give the offense hope. They're off to a good start while acknowledging that they need more difference-makers offensively. Gotta have some patience in a rebuild.

Q: Do you see the Patriots making any late additions to the roster? Gilmore, Simmons, OT, Sutton trade? Why or why not? - Jason M

This is understandably the most popular question we're getting in the mailbag, but my take might be unpopular. Removing a Tee Higgins/Aiyuk-level trade, it's hard to sell a draft-and-develop team-building philosophy if you aren't going to let the kids play in most spots. The Patriots have one year without much pressure to be competitive while Mayo and Wolf build their program, so my expectation is they'll let things play out internally to assess the roster.

Could Gilmore, Simmons, or Sutton help? Sure. But they're signing to play starter-level snaps, taking opportunities from younger players such as the two rookie WRs, Marte Mapu, Alex Austin, Isaiah Bolden, Marcellas Dial, etc. If you're touting yourselves as a draft-and-develop team, draft and develop rather than add veterans who have been available for months.

My lone exceptions are at offensive tackle and running back. If an immediate upgrade at left tackle presents itself, that's a move worth making, while the Pats might need more proven NFL bodies at RB behind Rhamondre Stevenson and Antonio Gibson. If healthy, I'd have some interest in David Bakhtiari and will have a close eye on Cleveland's OTs. The Browns have three starting-caliber OTs in Jedrick Wills, Jack Conklin, and Dawand Jones, so they might look to move one.

Q: Why are we sitting on so much cap space? Aren't there players we could use that are still available on the open market? - Mike R

The Patriots currently have $46 million in cap space (via @PatsCap), which is not totally unprecedented but a large number. Some will spin that as ownership's reluctance to spend, but there's also a value play here. Could they start signing available free agents to eat up cap space? Yes, but those players are available in early June for a reason. Why not hold out for better talent? I understand fans are clamoring for immediate returns. However, my read is the Pats opted to pass on overpriced vets to maintain cap flexibility to land bigger fish down the road.

My guess is that Wolf is opting to roll over cap space into the 2025 offseason to give himself the utmost flexibility to chase high-end talent. The talent pool this time of year is nowhere near as good as it will be next offseason, so why spend the money on lesser players? Remember, teams can roll over 100% of their unused cap space, and with Drake Maye on a rookie deal, New England will likely lead the NFL in cap space entering the 2025 offseason. I'll begin criticizing their lack of spending if they don't spend it in 2025. For now, I can see why they'd rather roll it over than sign players who don't fit into the bigger picture.

Q: Considering how much of this new offense is built off the running game, if the running game struggles, could that be a concern in terms of the rest of the offense's success? - AJ T

This has been a popular question here and on our pods (Catch-22, PU), so let's address it. There's some truth to the fact that the family AVP's offense is from is run-heavy. In his four years as the Browns OC, Cleveland's ranks in rush rate were 17th, eighth, sixth, and fourth. The Browns were also a mostly efficient rushing offense during his tenure, ranking 21st, fifth, fifth, and 11th in EPA per rush since 2020.

However, the Stefanski/AVP philosophy is that their run game is there to set up explosive plays through play-action passes. The Browns have historically married the run game to play-action passes to hunt explosives through the air by getting defenses into run-stopping defensive calls. It helps if there's a threat of a potent run game, but more importantly, making the blocking schemes look the same can serve as bait to defenders biting on play-action. The real damage is done off play-action with route concepts aimed to create single coverage opportunities as teams commit resources to stop the run.

If the Patriots can stay ahead or close to opponents on the scoreboard, the run-pass sequencing in this system is potent. The traditional drop-back pass game has made or broken these teams, either coming from behind or in the clutch, when the smoke and mirrors from the play-caller are less effective. At that point, it's more about the players making big-time plays than the scheme. We'll see if the Pats can find those players.

Q: Which offensive lineman on the Patriots are good fits for an outside zone scheme? Do you need smaller, quicker blockers? Am I making too big a deal out of this? - Jim K

No, you aren't making too big a deal out of this. I've been thinking about this since the Patriots hired Alex Van Pelt. If he wants to build the offense off outside zone runs, does New England have the personnel along the O-Line to execute at a high level? Historically, the Pats have targeted more mauler types with good power in the run game to fit their downhill style, so their offensive line skews toward that style. Now, they might need athletes.

At tackle, Mike Onwenu's fit at right tackle in an outside zone-heavy system is questionable, and Chuks Okorafor is not considered a high-end athlete either. Although his play strength is a standout trait, Sidy Sow posted a 9.72 relative athletic score at the '23 combine, so he's a plus-athlete for a guard, while David Andrews will be fine in any scheme. From an athletic standpoint, Cole Strange would be a great fit, but since he's unlikely to start the year healthy, vet Nick Leverett or fourth-rounder Layden Robinson could start inside, and both are more maulers than athletes. So, at best, you have 2-3 good fits with 2-3 iffy spots to fit the scheme, with both tackle spots as areas of concern for this system.

Ultimately, it'll be on AVP to adapt the scheme to fit the personnel. You can't force it with players who don't fit outside zone, and FWIW, the Browns didn't last year when they pivoted to more gap schemes with different personnel due to O-Line injuries. As this regime moves forward, it'll be interesting to see if Wolf changes their scouting philosophies to target more athletic offensive linemen to fit an outside zone system.

Q: Can you tell us anything about the defensive scheme? Four-down lineman base? Mapu's position? - Alex L

Admittedly, my main focus has been on the offense, with my partner in crime, Mike Dussault, focusing more on the defense in OTAs. I haven't noticed any major changes to their base defense during team periods. Although you can expect them to still be multiple, with plenty in their bag to morph week-to-week as a game plan defense, my early impression of DeMarcus Covington's plan is to remain a base 3-4 scheme with various pass-rushing fronts on third downs. We'll see if that changes once we get into training camp.

Q: Is Pop Douglas the most overlooked wide receiver on the Patriots roster? Where does he fit into the mix with the crowded receiver room? - Jack H

In some ways, yes. Douglas is still the best pure separator and the most dynamic run-after-catch player on the roster. If you watch Drake Maye's tape from the 2022 season with Josh Downs in Chapel Hill, it's an intriguing pairing for Maye to target another jitterbug slot receiver. However, it's fair to wonder if Pop has the size/durability (5-8, 180) to be a high-volume playmaker after dealing with some bumps and bruises in his rookie season. Ideally, he's a guy they gear toward generating explosives more than focusing on volume through schemed touches and as a man coverage beater on third down. Maybe he will be more durable in year two, but I'm wary of feeding Douglas 100-plus targets. The volume guy in this offense should be Ja'Lynn Polk, with Baker and Pop as big-play/single-coverage beaters.

Q: Are the Patriots going to bring in any other kickers to challenge the two we have? - Robert B

If this is a Jake Bates question, I'm here for it. Bates has been nails for the UFL's Michigan Panthers. He's 15-of-19 overall while going 6-of-9 from 50-plus yards with a long of 64 yards (and another make from 62 yards). Bates will get an NFL opportunity once his UFL contract expires. I'd expect him to be in an NFL camp this summer.

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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