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Patriots Unfiltered Q&A: Players' potential, camp competition, and more

Fans' questions answered in our weekly mailbag. 


Two-part question: 1) What first- or second-year player are you the most hyped about, and 2) what current long-shot to make the team is going to surprise us and make the opening roster? Josh Ferreira

Fantastic questions to start us off this week, Josh. Obviously, we're all anxious to see what QB Jarrett Stidham can do as he enters his second season and the first as the de facto starter. However, I'll give you another name to consider: RB Damien Harris. There's a lot we still don't know about Harris' abilities, but I'm intrigued by the idea of his potential in this backfield. He could give incumbent Sony Michel a serious run for his money (no pun intended) as the back who gets the most carries and also contributes significantly in the passing game. This will be one of the more interesting competitions to monitor this summer.

Your second question is a little harder to pinpoint. Normally, at this time of year, we'd have seen a handful of spring practices and would thus be somewhat familiar with younger, inexperienced players' skills. However, given the COVID-related lockdown, we haven't been able to see any players on the field, and that's left us to speculate based solely on other variables. WR Jeff Thomas has been a popular subject in the media this offseason, but I'll give you another undrafted rookie option: DL Bill Murray.

Frankly, I don't know much about him, on or off the field (heck, we don't even have a headshot picture of him on the team's official website roster). However, given the need at his position, coupled with his measurable (the BB-desired 6-4, 265 sweet spot), I'll go out on a precarious limb and say he'll be at least one unheralded player who finds a spot on the active roster. Erik Scalavino

What do you think of N'Keal Harry? How do you think he could turn out if things go well for him as opposed to them going poorly? I see his ceiling being an Anquan Boldin-type receiver, and his floor being David Boston. I think he has all the tools to be great: big, solid hands, strength, big catch radius, and a solid vertical. I'd love to see "Stid the Kid" and N'Keal grow together and dominate. Jesse Caron

This is an important year for Harry. He had the misfortune of missing half his rookie year due to injuries, but when he returned, he made a few plays that gave me hope that he can be a solid player. The one that stands out most, ironically, is the diving touchdown reception he made late in the year that was incorrectly ruled out of bounds by the officiating crew. If, as you say, he turns out to be a player of Boldin's caliber, I'll take that in a heartbeat, but for now, I'm taking a more cautious approach with Harry.

First, I'd like to see him stay healthy and on the field. Then, I'd like him to make plays on a more consistent basis. Ideally, a first-round receiver should be your No. 1, but I'm not yet convinced he is one. However, as long as he's at least a reliable No. 2, I'll be satisfied. Erik Scalavino

The [Patriots'] running game was very effective when they had a fullback and blocking tight end (Rob Gronkowski's last season and his most effective year as a blocking TE). Once [now-retired fullback James] Develin went down and Gronk retired, there was nobody to lead-block effectively for any of our up-the-middle RBs. The running game became almost non-existent and we were back to passing to guys out of the backfield, which doesn't work out well when you can't spread the field. Is there any reason why they would not return to this format to allow Sony [Michel] some room to move in the gap? Mike Sheeran

I agree with your observation about the effectiveness of the running game with a fullback and blocking tight end. However, Mike, it's not as if New England abandoned that approach last year. When Develin was lost, the club tried to replace him with not one, but two players. Youngster Jakob Johnson looked like he was off to a promising start before he, too, went on IR. Still, the Patriots employed a fullback by recruiting LB Elandon Roberts to perform double-duty.

Meanwhile, they had a couple of tight ends who were little more than blockers in Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo, yet neither was going to be as effective as Gronkowski, one of the best ever in that regard. So, you see, the Patriots never gave up on the tactic of using fullbacks and tight ends to help out in the running game. They just didn't have sufficient production from the people that took over for Develin and Gronkowski last season. Hopefully, with the addition of some new players at both spots this offseason, the competition and the results will improve. Erik Scalavino

When will the Patriots name a new Offensive Line Coach after losing Dante Scarnecchia to retirement? And any chance they will fill an open vacancy at Defensive Coordinator, or will they stick with Belichick? Thank you. Larry Pearce, Harrisburg, PA

I'm astounded by how many times we've had to address this specific question this offseason. The answer remains the same as it has been throughout the past several months.

Firstly, the Patriots, under Bill Belichick, almost never announce who's on their coaching staff, or what they're actually coaching. With time, those answer reveal themselves when the team takes the practice field and we get to see which coaches are working with which groups, as well as when the official training camp rosters are distributed, on which the coaches' names and position responsibilities are usually listed.

That said, the names we've most often heard associated with the o-line coaching position (from player interviews conducted this offseason) are Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich. The former served as a coaching assistant in 2019, his first campaign in Foxborough, while the latter has been a coaching assistant for several years before taking on assistant running backs coach duties last season. Both men have prior experience working with the offensive line in a support capacity, so, even before players mentioned them, they were obvious candidates to assume Scar's vacated role.

It's possible that both Bricillo and Popovich will work with the o-line this year, or that only one of them will ultimately be in charge. We just won't know till we get into training camp, I'm afraid. Same goes for the DC job. We're on a wait-and-see basis. Erik Scalavino

Do you think the Patriots should consider bringing back Demaryius Thomas? I know he never clicked with [QB Tom] Brady, but he and Stidham worked well together last year in the preseason. Mike Oswald

No, I don't. New England needs young, healthy receivers to improve its offense, not older, frequently banged-up ones. And don't be fooled by anything you see in fourth preseason games. Remember, most of the players taking part in those games don't end up playing in the league the next week. Thomas did, of course (he eventually played for the Jets in 2019), and you're right, he made a few nice plays that August night at Gillette, but keep in mind the competition level he was facing. If I were you, I'd be more focused on the likes of Harry, Jakobi Meyers, and some of the new additions at wide receiver. Erik Scalavino

Tampa Bay is cashing in on gear and season tickets now that Gronk has joined Brady. Any rumbles from inside the administration about what they did and if there are regrets? I know my heart sinks every time I think about Brady retiring with Tampa Bay. He will always feel like "Our Tom." The same with Gronk. Pamela Rasa

Sure, it's tough to see those two players in another uniform, but it does you no good to dwell on their departure. I've not heard anything in the way of regret from anyone internally, which doesn't mean they aren't disappointed that those players are elsewhere now. However, I'm pretty sure the club is prepared to move forward with the players they have. Wasting time living in the past won't help them win games in the future. Erik Scalavino

With the players that left in free agency and the contracts they signed and no major signings, I'm guessing the Patriots are going to get multiple compensatory picks again next draft. What's the early prediction? Also knowing that Bill loves compensatory picks, might this have had a small impact in the decision to tag Thuney so that a compensatory pick could be rolled into the following year as the Patriots might be already going to close to the maximum number in 2021? Len Carmody

At the moment, New England is projected (by those who take the time to calculate such things) to have three compensatory picks in the 2021 NFL Draft – a third-rounder and a pair of fourths. Whether that winds up being the case, of course, we won't know for certain until the league announces them next offseason.

But no, I don't believe the decision to franchise tag left guard Joe Thuney had anything at all to do with compensatory pick considerations. I think the club really likes Thuney and wants to work out a long-term arrangement with him. That's why he was tagged, in my estimation. Erik Scalavino

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