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Patriots Unfiltered Mailbag: Targeting a No. 1 WR, looking ahead to the draft and more

Finding a No. 1 wide receiver is at the top of the list in this week's mailbag.


I do not see any pending wide receiver free agents in 2023. No game breakers. In free agency, we can address the offensive line, cornerback and would love Roquan Smith or Marcus Davenport. What receivers do you think would make an impact via trade and who would we give up (player or draft pick), or just address that need via the draft and who should be targeted?
John LaFond

I would agree with you that the class of pending free agent wide receivers is not strong. I feel if the Patriots wish to really improve that group then trade/draft is the way to go. And while I always like the idea of drafting receivers fairly early because there have been so many young ones making an immediate impact, the thought of trading for an established talent is far more appealing. Obviously this is much more difficult to do, but as we've seen in recent seasons it's not impossible. Standouts like Davante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins, Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown have changed teams and there's no reason to believe it won't happen in the future. One guy I have in mind is Cincinnati's Tee Higgins, who will be entering the final year of his rookie contract in 2023. The Bengals have a strong corps of wideouts and it will cost significant money to keep the group intact. It's possible that Higgins will follow the lead of players like Brown, Deebo Samuel and Terry McLaurin and demand a new deal. Samuel and McLaurin got extensions from their current teams but Brown obviously did not. It's possible the Bengals will prioritize Ja'Marr Chase, not to mention Joe Burrow, and work out a trade for Higgins. If that happens I'd have strong interest in bringing him to New England. Higgins would likely cost a first-round pick like Brown did, but I'd still be willing to entertain such a possibility.
Paul Perillo

My question is regarding the secondary. As promising/talented as they are, we clearly need someone who can consistently guard the top dogs of the receiver world. We have watched Jonathan Jones (who I really like) get torched by Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs and we have Davante Adams, Ja'Marr Chase, Diggs again and Tyreek Hill on the menu for the rest of the season. Who can fill the role of a true shut down corner? Or do you think this is more of a scheming issue for our defense.
Anthony Pedota

I don't think it will always be the same approach as not all corners are built to go against all receivers. Jones seems to match up better with Hill than he did with Jefferson, as an example. Both are excellent receivers but Jones physically matches up better with Hill than Jefferson. I expect to see Bill Belichick change things up and use multiple players to match up against these top targets. Adams will be a handful for whoever draw that assignment and I'd be surprised if the Patriots don't use a ton a double teams to try to keep him under control. Too much size and ability to leave someone on an island. But the secondary is a concern going down the stretch for the exact reasons you mentioned – lots of quality wideouts still to deal with on the schedule. Have to hope the pass rush gets back to their early-season ways to help out the back end.
Paul Perillo

We need an offensive tackle and a No. 1 receiver at the draft.
Randy Booker

I'd say I agree with that … I'd also add that a corner and linebacker would help too. But I'd agree that tackle is a major concern and the possibility of losing Isaiah Wynn (pending free agent) makes that position the top priority. Not to mention the inconsistency of Trent Brown as he enters the final year of his deal in 2023. But the draft is a long way off and there will be lots of preparation going on between now and then.
Paul Perillo

Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson (38).
Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson (38).

I'm a little curious, maybe I'm just missing something, but why do you think we don't run more RPO plays? I know Mac Jones isn't really a running threat but Rhamondre Stevenson is our biggest threat on offense. I'd think having the option to hand it off to him would help open things up for Mac to roll out and hit drags and corner routes. Could freeze the linebackers at times and give receivers more time to get down field also. Do you think it's just something they haven't practiced well so they haven't implemented it often?
Blake Norris

First, the quarterback doesn't really have the option to run the ball on an RPO. In general those plays allow the quarterback to decide during the play whether to hand it off to the running back or to keep the ball and throw what is usually a quick slant or out depending on how the defense reacts. Sometimes linebackers get out of position one way or another and this allows the quarterback to take advantage. If the linebackers or safeties creep toward the line, then the quarterback can keep the ball and throw a quick pass. If the defenders remain back, the run is a better option because there are fewer players to block in the box. I don't have official numbers but I've seen the Patriots use RPOs from time to time this season. It's not always easy to identify because on RPOs, normal read option and traditional play action, the offensive linemen need to block near the line of scrimmage so as not to get penalties for being illegally downfield on a pass. Generally the linemen will block as if it's a called running play on an RPO or read option, while trying to stay near the line. On play action, the linemen fire out to sell run but are purely pass blocking. But again, it can be tough to distinguish the difference at times.
Paul Perillo

We all saw the two games Bailey Zappe started and his first two drives against the Bears. I saw a QB who knew how to move the pocket and stay in the pocket. He had all the offense involved and never got frustrated or scared of the pass rush. Everything looked more natural and smooth. Why did Bill not keep him as the starter? We all saw what we saw and it was better than Mac.
Gary Curiel

What is the point of having two OK QBs? Zappe showed some skill earlier in the season. When does it become Zappe Hour?
Darryll DiPietro

I can understand why some fans are calling for Zappe, and I don't think anyone who feels that way is necessarily wrong. The offense did look good at times under Zappe, but I also noticed you left out the times when it looked the same or worse when he played the second half of the Chicago game. I feel Jones is the better quarterback and that's why Belichick went back to his starter. Doesn't mean Belichick is right, and it definitely doesn't mean I'm right for agreeing with him. I watched some of the success Zappe had and wondered how it would have looked with Jones. I feel it would have been similar if not better given the opponents. Zappe started two games but he played the majority of snaps in four. The Patriots went 2-2 in those four games, losing to Green Bay and Chicago and beating Cleveland and Detroit. But I will say this: I am not opposed to making changes if things continue to look like they have. If the offense can't establish any level of production, then going back to Zappe has to be an option, and allowing him to genuinely compete for the starting job next year should be on the table as well. In my mind, Jones is the better quarterback but stranger things have happened, like with the Jets and Mike White over Zach Wilson.
Paul Perillo

Other teams have deployed this strategy is the past. Do you think it would enhance the Patriots chances of making the playoffs if they moved to a hurry-up offense? Mac Jones appears to be pretty good at play action and the offensive line is a liability. Treating every down as third down could spark the offense and drive the team to success. In my view there is everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Paul Elsmore

I think the hurry-up puts a lot of stress on the offensive line, which has been a liability for large portions of the season. There have also been a lot of moving parts up front due to injuries, and using the hurry-up regularly is hard for players who don't have a ton of experience – like Conor McDermott against the Bills. I am all for using the hurry-up at times other than end of half/game situations but I don't feel like it's the best course of action for a struggling unit. Penalties and negative plays have haunted the offense all season, and using the up-tempo approach is not a great way to avoid those situations. I do agree with you that it can't get much worse, though, so it could be worth a try.
Paul Perillo

Who are some veteran WRs you could see possibly become available for trade this offseason for the team to target? First two that come to mind for me are Chris Godwin if Tom Brady leaves and CeeDee Lamb if the Cowboys decide trying to pay extensions for Micah Parsons, Trayvon Diggs and Lamb is too costly with Dak Prescott's contract already on the books.
Sam Taylor

I don't see Lamb becoming available after Dallas dealt away Amari Cooper last season. They need Lamb as their top target and I'd be stunned if they let him go. Parsons is only two years in so he can't be signed an extension yet, so honestly I don't see Lamb as an option. I answered this question earlier and believe Tee Higgins would make a lot of sense. The Bengals will have a hard time retaining all their talent, and he likely will fall behind Ja'Marr Chase. I'd also put Jerry Jeudy in the mix as a potential wideout on the trade market. I also love your idea of trading for a veteran rather than using just the draft to add to the wide receiver mix.Paul Perillo**

Mac Jones is OK with the QB sneak - why didn't we try it on the first series last game?
Reg Morden

There was nothing wrong with the play call on the first series. The problem was Jones and Stevenson weren't on the same page and the ball handling became an issue as a result. It's not like Buffalo stopped the play. The Patriots stopped themselves, and it looked like Stevenson was too far wide and was supposed to take the handoff closer to the middle.
Paul Perillo

Wouldn't it be wild to see Nelson Agholor, Tyquan Thornton and Marcus Jones all lined up on one side? Speedball package?
Matthew Dickess

In terms of using Marcus Jones, I don't think anything can be ruled out. The coaches are obviously searching for ways to jumpstart the offense, and getting more speed in the lineup could be one way to do it. I like your idea of putting those three on the field together, even when everyone is healthy.
Paul Perillo

With Tom Brady becoming a free agent after this season. I've heard that New England is a possible landing spot though very slim chance. But I just want to say that, I feel if that was to happen, it would do more harm than good to the Patriots. Tom Brady has been pretty clear about not wanting to be a part of a rebuilding team. Plus it would most likely hurt any progress Mac Jones might make. Your thoughts?
Mark Bushnell

I agree with your view that it would be quite a longshot for Brady to return to the Patriots. I disagree that it would be a bad thing for the Patriots. Brady has proven that he can still play at a high level, and the team would benefit from that. Even if it meant that Mac Jones wouldn't be part of the future, I think it would be worth it to be more competitive in the present while continuing to search for the quarterback of the future. But as you said, it's highly unlikely that such a move would be made.
Paul Perillo

Since Bill Belichick tends to stay in-house, why not make Brian Hoyer the QBs coach in 2023? He's been in this building longer than most and would probably excel in the position. My other thought is once we dump Matt Patricia, let's replace him with Julian Edelman. Jules would be an awesome OC having played for McDaniels and with Brady. I think he'd be a stud OC. The fans would go nuts seeing him again.
Johnathan Occhi

I have no idea what kind of coach either of those guys would be because they've never coached. It's not as simple as being a good player automatically makes you a good coach. And in Hoyer's case specifically, he has said in the past that he has no interest in being a coach. Things can change and maybe now he'd be more interested in making such a transition. But that's not a guarantee. Players make more money than entry-level coaches and spend a lot less time working at the facility, so I can understand why they might not be interested in becoming coaches in the future.
Paul Perillo

In your last mailbag you made a comment that you'd spend our cap money on offense. While I agree that needs a lot of work, especially the OL, WR even RB, I wouldn't overlook the defense, it isn't that good, especially against good teams. We still don't have a real nose tackle that can anchor the defense against the run. We could use another pass rusher. And outside of Matthew Judon our LBs aren't very good. I think our DBs are pretty good, but not sure we really have a No. 1 CB as we've had in the past.
B. Michaud

Unfortunately I agree with both lines of thought – the Patriots need help in a variety of areas on both sides of the ball. That won't be easy to fix in one offseason. I do feel the addition of a top-level wide receiver would help Mac Jones, as would improvements in pass protection along the offensive line. But the defense, as you explained, needs some work too. I'd like a young, talented cornerback to plug in with Marcus and Jack Jones to form a nucleus for the future. I'd also like some athletic linebackers who can make plays in both the run and passing games. Getting Christian Barmore back healthy would improve the look of things up front, but the back end needs some attention.
Paul Perillo

Do you think that a return from Tom Brady in 2023 could help rebuild the Patriots while giving Mac Jones the chance to learn under the GOAT for a few years? What are the odds Mac would want to stay if Brady did in fact return?
Brandon Donahue

I'd put those odds at about .0000001 percent. I've seen too many things happen to say zero, but why would Jones want to sit around for a year or two watching Brady? Jones needs to play in order to put himself in line to earn his next contract. He can't do that if Brady is the starter. And this doesn't even take into consideration the slim nature of Brady wanting to return.
Paul Perillo

In the offseason Robert Kraft said not winning playoff games wasn't acceptable. Is there a scenario where Sean Payton could come in as offensive coordinator and future head coach with Bill moving up to a management/front office position in a year or two or even getting Payton for head coach next year and Bill moving into the front office immediately?
Grant Tedro

I don't see any scenario in which Belichick stays and Payton comes. No way Payton is willing to become offensive coordinator under Belichick. Payton is a very successful head coach and he will take a job somewhere before doing that. The only way I could see Payton coming to Foxborough is as head coach, and I don't expect the job to be opening this offseason.
Paul Perillo

Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (11).
Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (11).

After 12 games, how would you grade the overall performance of this year's draft class? Why is Tyquan Thornton not having more of an impact?
Fitz Read

I hate evaluating drafts immediately, and to be clear I didn't like doing it last year either when Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson all looked like great picks. Things can change quickly with young players, and certainly the 2021 class doesn't look as good today as it did at this time last year. Since you asked I'd say this year's crop has been underwhelming so far. Cole Strange is starting every week but his performance hasn't been very consistent. He's been pulled out of at least three games and has struggled at times. He will improve with some added strength and bulk. Thornton's preseason injury affected his progress. He looks a little unsure of himself at times and hasn't really established a role for himself despite an occasional flash here and there. Not ready to give up on him. Marcus Jones has been by far the best of the class. His instincts as a returner are outstanding. Jack Jones shows potential but also lacks consistency. I like his future. Bailey Zappe looks like a potential backup quarterback with a future. Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris, Chasen Hines, Sam Roberts and Andrew Stueber haven't really had opportunities to show what they can do. In the cases of Strong and Harris, at least they showed some signs of production coming off the bench in Arizona. Maybe that will lead to more opportunities down the stretch and we can get a better idea of their value. Overall, it hasn't been great but like I said before, I don't like evaluating drafts right away. It takes to time for players to settle into roles.
Paul Perillo

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