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Replay: Best of the Week on Patriots.com Radio Thu Jul 18 - 02:00 PM | Tue Jul 23 - 11:55 AM

Season in Review: 25 Thoughts on 25 Players on the Patriots Offense 

Before we turn the page to the offseason, here is a thought on every contributor to the Patriots offense and final grades for each position group in 2023. 

Huddle

The Patriots are heading into the offseason with major questions about the direction of their offense following a disappointing season.

While looking back at the offensive personnel, we must also discuss the coaching staff's future. New England finished the season 31st in scoring average (13.9 PPG) and 29th in total DVOA and pass DVOA on offense. Those results aren't up to anyone's standard, and it's only fair to put the microscope on the coaches as well as the players.

On the coaching side, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's return didn't go as planned. O'Brien was held back by his personnel and lack of control of the assistant coaching staff, forcing him to strip down the offense to three primary buckets: duo/trap runs, quick-game/screens, and isolated deep shots. Without a functional offensive line, the Pats struggled to pass protect play-action and couldn't hold up long enough in the drop-back pass game to run full-field progression reads the way O'Brien wanted. He also couldn't completely Alabamafy the Patriots offense with downfield RPOs out of fear of poor blocking execution (illegal man downfield).

With that said, it doesn't absolve O'Brien of the poor on-field execution for the Patriots offense. Furthermore, we need to have a bigger-picture discussion about the scheme as a whole.

Assuming the Patriots are dipping back into the draft at quarterback, it's a legitimate concern to worry about another young QB developing in this system and rookie skill players around him, too. The Patriots offense is often compared to calculus. Detailed pre and post-snap decisions must be made on the fly, where the play can adjust significantly based on the defense's coverage structure. There's also an alert system at the line where the quarterback has full control of the blocking schemes.

Those details have often bogged down new players trying to learn the system in the past, even veteran players who have experience in other NFL offenses. Former OC Josh McDaniels made it work with Mac Jones as a rookie, and O'Brien adjusted the scheme in Houston for a young Deshaun Watson. Still, dropping Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, or Jayden Daniels into the Patriots current offense doesn't seem realistic.

Along with the mental side, the old-school scheme might be contributing to the lack of receiver separation and big plays, with the Patriots ranking last in generating 20-plus yard pass plays (37). Most of that is on the personnel, but watching other offenses around the NFL, you see significantly more space created by the scheme at times.

As the Patriots do an audit of their football operations, they should take a long look at their current playbook on offense. Is it as simple as upgrading the personnel to make the scheme look closer to the Brady years, or is the scheme outdated? New England's offseason priority is building a modern offense, so everything needs to be on the table.

Here are 25 thoughts on 25 players who played significant offensive snaps in 2023:

Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4).
Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4).

Quarterback - Final Season Grade: D-

Positional Grade: the overall quarterback play was "F" worthy for most of the year. But wins over the Bills (Mac), Steelers (Zappe), and Broncos (Zappe) were bright spots, while both QBs were operating in arguably the worst situation in the NFL. The latter saves them from an F.

Mac Jones - contract status: signed through 2024, fifth-year option deadline in May for 2025

If you think Jones was done dirty by the team, you're not alone. The Patriots played the hits on how to ruin a young quarterback: three OCs in the years, a league-worst offensive line undone by their personnel missteps, and they never surrounded Mac with high-end receiver talent. The Patriots player development is as much to blame for needing to restart at quarterback as Jones's shortcomings.

As the situation around him eroded, it permeated Jones's play to the point where he was unplayable in the final weeks of his third season. Mac is a pocket passer who needs pass protection to be on time within structure to play to his ceiling. He doesn't offer mobility or off-script playmaking, and his arm talent is limited when he can't set his base due to pressure. For those reasons, he began turning the ball over at an alarming rate, and the Pats 32nd-ranked pass-blocking win rate broke Mac. There was a world where Jones was a passenger with a really good supporting cast who could distribute the ball to his stud playmakers, but we learned he can't drive the bus. The Patriots will likely decline his fifth-year option and could look to deal Jones in a fresh start for both sides.

Bailey Zappe - contract status: signed through the 2025 season

Since we gave Jones the benefit of context, it's only fair to mention that Zappe was playing with even worse supporting talent due to the season decay on the roster. Zappe didn't have Kendrick Bourne, barely had Rhamondre Stevenson, and lost linemen throughout his six starts. With the sample size growing in his second season, Zappe is boom-or-bust, with his big-time throw rate (4.6%) in the same ballpark as his turnover-worthy play percentage (4.0%). Zappe is not fast enough through his reads or accurate enough with his ball placement to function consistently in the offense. He made them more explosive with his deep ball and escapability to extend plays, but there were still off-platform moments where you wished for more arm talent. Zappe is a more natural passer than Jones, who can move around to make plays. However, his decision-making, processing speed, and middling arm talent are backup-caliber. Zappe could be a good backup if he accepts that role. He can win you a game or two to keep the season afloat while the starter gets healthy.

Patriots running back Ezekiel Elliott (15).
Patriots running back Ezekiel Elliott (15).

Running Back - Final Season Grade: C+

Positional grade: Elliott and Stevenson made plays when the blocking created adequate working conditions, while Zeke performed like a back who wasn't washed like many thought when the Cowboys cut him. The backfield had a solid season, with the poor run blocking and lack of third-down back being Bill the GM issues, not on the players themselves.

Rhamondre Stevenson - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Stevenson's regression this season was a perfect example of why running back value has declined league-wide. After breaking out with 1,462 scrimmage yards in 2022, Stevenson averaged a full yard per carry (5.0 to 4.0) less and saw his yards after contact average drop by a full yard (3.81 to 2.81). On the surface, Stevenson wasn't as elusive as he was in year two. However, it was primarily due to blocking regression.

Stevenson benefited from 1.2 yards before contact per rush in 2022. In the first eight weeks of 2023, that number dropped to 0.7 yards before contact per rush. When the number went back up to 1.9 in Weeks 9-13, Stevenson averaged 5.3 yards with 3.4 yards after contact per rush. That's a long way of saying that, with NFL-caliber run blocking, Stevenson is still a very productive lead back. His production in the passing game dipped, though, as his hands were less reliable, and route breaks could have been more effective. Overall, I'm still high on Stevenson as the Pats RB1. If you block for him, he will produce as he did in 2022.

Ezekiel Elliott - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

Elliott came as advertised. Although his breakaway speed isn't what it once was, Zeke runs angrily behind his pads with great finishing ability, makes good decisions with his reads, and is a capable pass-catcher. Elliott also received rave reviews from teammates for his attitude and was a willing contributor even after the playoffs were long out of reach. Zeke deserves credit for how he handled this season. He would've been a productive tandem back with Stevenson if the O–Line wasn't in shambles, and the Patriots should entertain retaining Elliott this offseason. The only nitpick here was with his pass blocking, where he was just okay, with two sacks and 12 QB pressures allowed on 95 opportunities.

Kevin Harris - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Harris is a good depth option as a capable early-down power back. He won't break many tackles, with only one forced missed tackles on 18 attempts this season. But he has some downhill burst, while running with good power and a low center of gravity. I won't hold the lack of elusiveness against him. However, it would be nice to see him more creative with his reads to see daylight more often rather than running into contact. If he can develop better vision, Harris could become a low-end RB2 rather than an RB3/practice squad depth player.

Patriots wide receiver DeVante Parker (1).
Patriots wide receiver DeVante Parker (1).

Wide Receiver - Final Season Grade: D (Pop Douglas Saves Group From an F)

Positional Grade: Frankly, this group was a disaster, besides hitting on the Pop Douglas pick and eight games of Kendrick Bourne. They lacked a consistent outside presence, the route details were poor (spacing/conversions), and their two highest-paid receivers were disappointing (Parker, Smith-Schuster). The coaching issues need to be addressed.

DeVante Parker - contract status: signed through the 2025 season

Parker is a one-trick pony as a long-strider who can win above the rim when given the chance. As the Pats most-used X receiver, Parker was 10-of-19 on contested catches, ranking 15th among 80 qualified wide receivers. Parker is an above-average jump-ball threat. But his 60 percent catch rate speaks to his inefficient skill set. Parker also regressed late in the year on first and second-level in-breakers, such as slants, which he needed to produce as foundational routes to set up the fades. The Patriots will have to eat some dead money to get out of Parker's contract extension, which was a partially guaranteed deal for two seasons. It would be worth it if they can upgrade the X spot with a more complete receiver.

JuJu Smith-Schuster - contract status: signed through the 2025 season

If the Patriots hang on to Smith-Schuster, it's probably worth doing a deep dive into why his first season in New England was such a failure (29 catches, 260 yards). The immediate thought is that Smith-Schuster was never 100%, with a lingering knee injury compromising his explosiveness. Early in the year, the Pats were also trying to involve him in schemed touches, which has never been his game. JuJu is a big slot that wins with body positioning, strength at the catch point, and contact balance after the catch. His best routes are in-breaking slants and digs or seam/fades where he can box out at the catch point and then run away from coverage after building up speed. We saw that for one game against Pittsburgh, but Smith-Schuster couldn't replicate that the rest of the season and then was shut down due to an ankle injury. Is Smith-Schuster washed, or did he need a year to reset his body while the Patriots had to figure out the best way to use him? We'll see because it's hard to get out of his contract.

DeMario Douglas - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

This season, a sixth-round rookie was the one beacon of hope in the Patriots wide receiver room. Douglas led the Patriots in receiving with a skill set that is a breath of fresh air: explosiveness off the line, dynamic route breaks, and ranking third, 7.0 yards after the catch per reception. Douglas cut down on the mental errors as the season wore on and was starting to see inside bracket/double coverage by the end of the year. If the Pats can get more dangerous on the outside, it'll open up more space for Pop to operate. The only nitpicks with his game are taking better care of his smaller frame and getting vertical quicker in YAC mode. Douglas operates in high-traffic areas, so he needs to limit the body blows while learning the best path forward: getting downhill ASAP. The last one is a true nitpick, but Pop needs to keep himself healthy.

Kendrick Bourne - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

Before a disappointing end to a breakout season, Bourne was averaging a career-high 50.8 receiving yards per game. Bourne's totals across 17 games before tearing his ACL in Week 8: 78 catches, 864 yards, and nearly nine touchdowns – those are WR2 numbers. Bourne does well to threaten coverage in his stem, is efficient at the top of the route to create separation, is savvy to find zone voids, and has a good top gear in YAC mode. His season-ending ACL injury occurred in late October, so the hope is he'll be ready to go for training camp next season. Bourne has also shared on social media that he'd be open to returning to New England. The Patriots should want him back to pair him with Pop Douglas and a big fish acquisition at wide receiver. Tee Higgins, Bourne, Douglas. Who says no?

Jalen Reagor - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

Although it says something about the Patriots wide receiver depth chart, Reagor made some plays down the stretch as a go-ball threat, return man, and gadget player. Reagor's acceleration off the line makes him a threat on vertical routes, but you wish he could break down more efficiently to create separation at the first two levels. Due to his limitations on horizontal cus, Reagor adds occasional value as a field-stretcher and on schemed touches, which is a limited role in an offense. That said, between his skills as a receiver and his abilities as a kickoff returner, Reagor has enough game-day value to be rosterable as a WR5.

Tyquan Thornton - contract status: signed through the 2025 season

Thornton is one of the most disappointing recent draft picks to come through Foxborough. He has struggled to stay on the field throughout his first two seasons, starting both years on injured reserve and ending this season inactive in Week 18 (ankle). The injuries were a concern due to his slender frame, and as intriguing as the speed is, you can't make the club from the tub. Thornton also has real limitations as a route-runner, both in his route conversions and taking multiple false steps to break down and cut through the break point. The straight-line speed plays on film, but Thornton has too many holes in his game to make an impact. Thornton will need to compete for a roster spot in year three if he's not moved.

Kayshon Boutte - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

Boutte only caught two of his seven targets this season in 117 snaps, so it's a small sample size. His struggles working the sideline as a perimeter receiver pigeonholed him to the slot/Z role, creating a logjam with Bourne, Douglas, and Smith-Schuster. That made it difficult for Boutte to get on the field, and when he did, his burst and separation quickness weren't very noticeable on film. I'm not expecting much from Boutte as a pro.

Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85).
Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85).

Tight End - Final Season Grade: C+

Positional grade: Hunter Henry is a savvy vet who can still get the job done between the numbers and in the red zone, while Pharaoh Brown was a good late-summer addition. A combination of limited skill set and poor QB play made it tough for Mike Gesicki to get involved, though. This isn't a group of impact difference-makers, but they're above-average pros.

Hunter Henry - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

The three tight ends who played significant snaps for the Patriots are all free agents this offseason. Starting with Henry, he has emerged as a captain in this offense because of his steady presence on the field and in the facility. Henry is a pro. He's a savvy route-runner who uses efficient footwork, body positioning, and great work at the catch point to wall off defenders. Having a reliable security blanket between the numbers and in the red zone would go a long way for a young quarterback, making Henry a priority to re-sign. Henry isn't an impact run-blocker, though, which is an area this entire group needs to improve in 2024.

Mike Gesicki - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

We could've listed Gesicki with the receivers because that's how the Patriots used him, with over 81% of his snaps coming detached from the formation. There was probably more production on the film than landed on the box score with Gesicki, as the Pats QBs couldn't consistently get him the ball in the red zone or on seam runs. Still, his tweener skill set makes you wonder where he fits in the offense. His perimeter blocks are fine. But there isn't enough juice in his routes to make up for his inability to block in the trenches. Gesicki is a good teammate who was accountable and upbeat during a tough season, so I'm not trying to pile on the guy. Finding a high-volume role for a one-way tight end is hard.

Pharaoh Brown - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

You can only hope to contain Pharaoh Brown, a big-play weapon. In all seriousness, the Patriots signed Brown to the 53-man roster on Sept. 4, and he was a pleasant surprise. Brown nearly went the whole season catching every ball thrown his way with 13 catches on 15 targets, while six of his receptions gained 15-plus yards. He added an element of explosiveness as a seam runner and YAC threat that was shocking for a guy bouncing around the league. Brown was also their best run blocker, but he had some issues holding up in the run game as an in-line blocker. Again, that's an area where the Patriots must improve at tight end. Overall, Brown was a fun addition who would be a good third tight end.

Patriots center David Andrews (60).
Patriots center David Andrews (60).

Offensive Line - Final Season Grade: F

Positional Grade: Andrews and Onwenu deserve better. But when you rank dead-last in pass-blocking win rate and 22nd in rush EPA, it's a failing season. The Patriots tackle play, an issue they caused with their personnel moves, was some of the worst in the NFL, and the inexperience at guard did them in on the interior. The offensive line was the biggest issue with this team this season. As a result, the Pats could have a new O-Line coach in 2024.

C David Andrews - contract status: signed through the 2025 season

Another rock-solid season for the captain who shouldn't retire with plenty left in the tank. Andrews played every offensive snap with an absolute mess going on around him. His pass protection dipped with six sacks allowed, but so much of that was trying to cover up for inexperienced guards playing alongside him the entire year. As a run blocker, Andrews was terrific, still possessing the foot speed and play strength in year nine to make dynamic blocks. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick called Andrews "as good as I've seen" as a leader. In a year of suck for this group, Andrews was a positive. They should welcome him back with open arms.

G/T Michael Onwenu - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

Following offseason ankle surgery, Onwenu started the year slow but returned to form in the final 11 weeks. Although his technique isn't as consistent in space, Onwenu still only allowed three sacks in 11 starts at right tackle, which is extremely impressive for a player built like a guard. His foundational traits of strength, inside-out leverage, and hand power allowed him to at least force rushers to turn the corner to beat him in pass protection. Onwenu is also a punishing run blocker with countless plus reps on double teams and can easily kick out edge rushers. My concern with his long-term fit at right tackle is a lack of length and redirecting in space with guard-like strides rather than covering the necessary ground as a protypical tackle. That became problematic at times against better competition. Overall, Onwenu gives you starting-caliber snaps at right tackle or elite guard play. Either way, the Patriots can't go wrong with that, making Onwenu my top priority among their in-house free agents.

G Sidy Sow - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

Sow's film at right guard was encouraging. If he takes a year-two leap, he cold be a starter at guard. The fourth-rounder allowed four sacks and 25 QB pressures across 479 pass-blocking snaps at right guard – not bad for a rookie. Sow was also noticeably caving in and moving the line of scrimmage, working with Onwenu on double teams on the right side, and should develop as a decent puller. Sow has the foot speed and power in his base/lower body to play guard in this league. The next steps are improving his awareness/recognition of line movement and becoming a more advanced hand fighter. It's not surprising that those two areas are a work in progress, given he played college ball at Eastern Michigan, where he didn't see as nuanced pass-rushers.

OT Trent Brown - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

There's a lot of baggage to unpack with Brown. His motor runs hot and cold, and although he battled through injuries this year, it's disheartening to see a player with his talent level not always playing to his potential. Whether he wants to admit that or not, it's what he's putting on tape. When Brown is on, he uses his length and size to eclipse the quarterback in the pocket, challenging even elite pass-rushers in one-on-one situations. Brown can also be a bulldozing run-blocker, but he needs to work to play with sound leverage and balance due to his height, so he'll fall off blocks in the run game when he's not going full tilt. Ultimately, the inconsistencies in Brown's game make him a difficult player to hitch your wagon to: when he's on, he's on. But he has to want it.

G Cole Strange - contract status: under team control through the 2026 season

The frustration with Cole Strange began with the pick itself in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, an absolute stunner for many around the league. After battling through injuries early, Strange was starting to find it in his final three complete games. His pad level and core strength improved, allowing him to withstand power better on the interior. Foot speed and range have never been an issue, but he would get pushed around by stronger IDLs with good length because he's built linearly for the position and has processing issues to ID schemed pressure. That was improving as the season wore on for him to hold his own in those power matchups, and he's a willing grappler who plays through the echo of the whistle. Still, the pick will always be a reach in the first round, and the jury is still out on Strange's ceiling. Is he a starting-caliber guard? Right now, not consistently, and durability has also become a concern.

G Atonio Mafi - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

Mafi was a day-three rookie forced to play 458 snaps in his first season. The bottom line is he wasn't ready to be out there, which isn't on him. Still, you have to be honest with the assessment. Mafi was second on the team with 32 quarterback pressures allowed and five sacks despite only playing 43.7% of the offensive snaps. His lateral agility to slide with pro interior rushers is an issue he might not be able to overcome, while he never seemed to be improving his recognition of stunts/twists. There are some tools for a wide body with the power to dig out IDLs in the run game, but Mafi will need to dramatically improve his foot speed/awareness to develop into more than a backup.

OT Vederian Lowe - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

Lowe is another player who ended up playing too many snaps for a team that completely botched its tackle situation. He allowed a team-high 38 quarterback pressures and tied for the team lead with six sacks allowed. It was better in his first two starts at left tackle, but he regressed with seven QB pressures and two sacks allowed in Week 18. Lowe's short corner and inability to sync his punch with his slides in pass protection make him an easy target for opposing edge rushers. Lowe cannot be in the Patriots top-three OTs next season if they're taking the position seriously.

OT Conor McDermott - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

McDermott could be in the running for the Patriots swing tackle role next season. In six appearances and five starts, McDermott allowed just two sacks and 14 quarterback pressures, which isn't terrible. In some ways, his height works against him, leading to leverage issues in the run game and struggles setting out to speed rushers. There's only so much sinking and driving a 6-foot-8, 310-pound man can do as a run blocker. McDermott will always fight limited range and higher pads, so he's not considered a starter. But you can do worse in terms of depth in the NFL nowadays.

OT Calvin Anderson - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

For me, easily the most disappointing offseason addition along the offensive line. Anderson's film in Denver last season was encouraging, showing a sudden mover with the range/athleticism to play in space against NFL edge rushers. His season was over before it started in 2023, with a severe illness holding him out of camp. In two starts at right tackle, Anderson allowed a sack and nine quarterback pressures with several non-competitive reps. Anderson's footwork was completely out of whack without the practice reps, shortening his corner and ending up on the ground far too often. He then was placed on injured reserve due to another illness that ended his season. I'm hoping for better things with a full spring/summer in 2024, but it's hard to expect much from Anderson.

G/C Jake Andrews - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

Andrews only played 47 snaps, with one start in the season finale, so the sample size is limited. However, the film showed some positive traits. Andrews has the wrestling background show up with his balance, grappling, and ability to feel IDLs's body weight transition to torque them into the ground. He was understandably overwhelmed by tempo and schemed pressures, with four hurries allowed in Week 18, and his compact frame without much length lends itself to center more than guard. Some encouraging work thrown into the season late for a rookie, who could be the successor to David Andrews at center.

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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