While the Patriots have largely focused on retaining some of their key free agents, they have not been very active in the feeding frenzy in the early days of free agency, which is not a surprise.
With a dearth of salary cap space, we didn’t expect the team to be nearly as active as they were a year ago. Still, many members of the fan base were incensed (helped by a healthy dose of gas-lighting by some media members), that Bill Belichick has seemingly lost an ability to build a roster.
This has been a recurring theme for most of Belichick’s tenure as the head of the Patriots’ football operations. Yes, there are major holes to be filled, but the team-building phase of the season is just in its infancy, so hold back on the queue at the Tobin Bridge for now.
Linebacker – A couple of weeks ago, in our Sunday column, I wrote that the additions of some of the off-the-ball linebackers (Raekwon McMillan, Cameron McGrone), appear to be addressing the issues that the linebacking corps has been suffering from, notably a lack of speed and athleticism.
In that piece, we questioned that if indeed that is the goal, to get the team more athletic, and faster at the position, that Bill Belichick may very well be tweaking the defensive philosophy a bit. In his 3-4 system, the inside backers have to take on guards in the running game. McMillan, McGrone, and the newly acquired Mack Jones are not physically equipped for that.
Coupled with the team not having offered free agents Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, or Jamie Collins a contract yet, along with the release of veteran Kyle Van Noy, has the earmarks of major changes at the position.
The Wilson-Winovich trade was a win for both teams and both players. Each of them needed a fresh start elsewhere after getting off to early nice starts of their careers stalled. Wilson is an undersized (for NE), off-the-ball backer, who could compete for meaningful snaps inside. He’s got good speed and athleticism and can cover tight ends and backs out of the backfield.
While there are definitely questions, and more moves at linebacker coming, they seem to be moving to a smaller, quicker group and it is time to see what they have in some of the guys they’ve brought in the past few years, such as Josh Uche, McMillan, McGrone, Ronnie Perkins, and Anfernee Jennings.
Cornerback – The loss of J.C. Jackson in FA, going to the LA Chargers in a 5-year, $82 million dollar deal that was frontloaded to keep the Patriots from matching, leaves a hole at the cornerback position the size of a meteor crater.
The boundary corner position is barren of depth. The team made one minor move in signing former Texans cornerback Terrance Mitchell in a one-year, $3 million dollar deal. There are more moves to be made here, both in free agency and the draft.
But with the mobile quarterbacks in both the division and in the AFC, it would seem that the team will be playing more zone coverage in 2022. Many of the upper-tier QBs were seen struggling against the “rush 3, drop eight” coverages a year ago. Bill Belichick was arguably ahead of that curve, using that tactic against Patrick Mahomes. But that particular tactic requires the pass rush to get home.
Offensive Line – The changes coming for the defense are mirrored by the offense as well. The team lost LG/C Ted Karras in free agency to the Bengals, and then shipped RG Shaq Mason to the Bucs for a 5th round draft pick, in a salary dump situation. With RT Trent Brown a free agent, it places the offensive line as a critical area of need.
One of the guard positions will be filled by Michael Onwenu, who was a starter in 2020 and began 2021 as the starter before being supplanted by Karras. The team re-signed James Ferentz (for now) as the other starting guard with William Sherman, a 6th round pick last year as another option. Justin Herron, Yodny Cajuste, and Yasir Durant are the options for now at the other tackle position. Look for the team to add another guard and tackle in either FA or the draft.
Running Back – The running back position lost both fullback Jakob Johnson and running back Brandon Bolden in FA to the Raiders. Bolden filled in nicely for James White as the team’s 3rd down back last year and has always provided a great value on STs. He’ll be missed for both his on-field contributions and leadership.
Johnson was a very good blocker in the running game, however, it wasn’t a shock that the team didn’t offer him a contract. He didn’t offer much as a pass receiver and it took one of the team’s tight ends or wide receivers off the field.
I would expect his role as a blocker to be taken over by Jonnu Smith. Smith was a guy that wasn’t used as much as was expected a year ago. The team can play with more of the two-tight end look on the field, moving Smith into or out of the backfield creating matchups beneficial to the offense. While many believe that role may fall to Dalton Keane, the feeling here is that it won’t happen. He didn’t appear a fit for that last year.
With Devin Asiasi still on the team, it would give the coaches the opportunities to use all three tight ends. Getting James White back, if he’s healthy, is a major plus for the passing game out of the backfield.
The team needs additions at tackle, guard, and still needs a wide receiver, so there remains a lot of work to be done.
Yesterday, Derek Havens and I discussed the early hours of free agency on our Patriots 4th & 2 podcast.
Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]
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