When people look back at how Bill Belichick’s tenure in New England ended, no one can ever say it had anything to do with his coaching on the field.
In the end, it ultimately came down to how woefully constructed the roster was, especially in what has quickly become an offense-driven league.
Compared to both the rest of the NFL and even teams within their own division, Belichick’s club had been badly left behind. That’s also essentially what led to the team’s downfall the last two seasons, with 2023 seeing it all crash down following their 4-13 finish.
With Robert Kraft parting ways with Belichick to begin this offseason, the personnel department appears to be an area where New England continues putting a significant amount of focus. With new head coach Jerod Mayo beginning his tenure, he has an offense that is badly in need of a complete rebuild from top to bottom. He’s going to be relying on the people around him to help stock a current Patriots roster that is missing a lot of pieces and also has a significant amount of players on that side of the ball hitting the free-agent market just over one month from now.
While Kraft had said during the press conference following Belichick’s departure that they would “appoint someone” to make player decisions, it appears we finally have a feel for who that person is.
As it currently stands, Elliot Wolf has been the person most involved as the club began building its coaching staff. Wolf, who is the lone person in the building with any real contacts outside New England, has seemingly led the way as the club has rounded out its offensive staff.
Wolf had relationships with new offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and offensive assistant Ben McAdoo, along with offensive line coach Scott Peters. All three are experienced coaches who should be able to begin setting a foundation and both Van Pelt and McAdoo have had success developing quarterbacks.
The hiring of Peters seemingly closes the door on Adrian Klemm’s return. Klemm departed the team midseason for health reasons, and his status to this point had been unclear. However, a reported internal blow-up between Klemm and Matt Groh last season likely didn’t help that situation.
However, Peters is an experienced coach with a MMA background, which should make him an interesting hire for a team that had difficulties up front for most of last season. He’ll have some young talent to develop in 2023 Patriots draft picks Atonio Mafi and Sidy Sow, both of whom contributed at various points last season. He’ll also hopefully help with the continued development of 2022 first-round pick, Cole Strange.
Still, their biggest issue remains at tackle, with the club likely targeting that position in April. That will be a big test for Peters, who will face the challenge of getting whoever they select up to speed as quickly as possible.
The team also hired Alonzo Highsmith, who operated alongside Wolf in Green Bay and has worked in personnel for nearly 10 years, which gives Wolf someone else he’s comfortable with to navigate these waters this offseason.
But the key question is going to be whether or not Wolf can help end the nearly two-decade streak of New England’s inability to draft skill players.
The changes within the personnel department, and Wolf’s elevation, will hopefully start to see some improvement. For the longest time, with Belichick seemingly calling the shots, it didn’t appear to be a collaborative effort between Belichick and the people he relied on who spent all year scouting players.
Various reports have had Belichick overriding their advice, which, if those reports are accurate, has been followed by the club experiencing a horrendous stretch where little talent was squeezed from their various drafts. However, the biggest issue has most notably been on offense as it pertained to skill position players.
Coming off their Super Bowl-winning campaign in 2018, the Patriots were in dire need of help at receiver heading into the 2019 season. They ended up doing something completely out of character, taking wide receiver N’Keal Harry with the 32nd overall selection.
Harry struggled mightily in his first season. The former Arizona Standout was brought in to be an explosive big-bodied downfield threat, but it never panned out. He struggled getting separation and, to make matters worse, never gained Tom Brady’s trust.
His struggles, coupled with Brady’s lack of a go-to guy (Rob Gronkowski retired that offseason, and Antonio Brown was released after one game due to off-field issues), submarined New England’s opportunity to give the offense enough to compete down the stretch.
Despite their 8-0 start, the club ended up finishing 4-4, including losing three of its final five games and was ousted in the Wild Card round at home against the Titans that year. Brady departed to Tampa Bay that offseason, which began the beginning of what, to this point, has been an unsuccessful rebuild.
Following the signing of Cam Newton ahead of their 2020 season, it seemed like Harry had some support from his new quarterback. Newton seemingly had a good relationship with the young receiver (Newton jokingly nicknamed him ‘Dough boy’), yet the veteran’s eventual struggles didn’t stop Harry from quietly being frustrated to the point where his trainer eventually spoke out. He put the second-year wideout’s troubles on Newton, believing that had Brady still been in the fold, things might have been different.
Anyone who saw how frustrated Brady was with Harry in 2019 likely knows that isn’t true, albeit Brady’s demands when it came to hard work and effort may have forced Harry to at least be better about his preparation.
In 2021, the latter part was evident as being an issue. It was tough not to put the blame on Harry since, while he had developed into a solid blocking receiver, he was unable to offer anything in the passing game.
One of the most irritating moments came in Week 6 after Harry lined up wrong and had to be corrected by a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones. That tells you everything you need to know when a third-year receiver still doesn’t know where to line up within the offense and the rookie QB knew it better than he did. He was also frequently one of the last wideouts off the line on the snap.
Harry would ultimately be traded that offseason, ending his tenure and the Patriots acquired a 7th round pick for 2024 as a result of the move.
New England tried to recreate their previous success when the club selected tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez back in the same draft in 2010, with both going on to be effective in the Patriots offense.
The Hernandez off-field issues notwithstanding, the club had gotten it right, at least from a talent perspective. Both had been productive players, with Gronkoski obviously putting together one of the best careers we’ve ever seen in the NFL.
However, despite going to the well twice again by drafting third-round picks Devin Asiasi (who New England traded up to select) and Dalton Keene in the 2020 draft, it ended up turning out to be a disaster.
Neither player panned out, and the Patriots ultimately released both ahead of the 2022 season. That ended up being significant as their lack of development led to the club addressing the positions through free agency, having to spend significant money with the additions of both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry the previous offseason.
Instead of having three young prospects (including Harry) to move forward with at a low price tag at key positions on offense, which is critical in today’s NFL, the Patriots came away with absolutely nothing to show for them.
The Patriots appear to be at a critical point with 2022 second-round pick Tyquan Thornton, who, through two seasons, hasn’t worked out.
It’s unknown who was behind that selection. Groh was the one who appeared to be high on Thornton, seeming extremely excited about adding a “fast” player to the offense after taking the speedy Baylor receiver with the 50th overall selection in round two.
However, injuries have plagued Thornton thus far, and he appears to be the next skill position player headed out the door at this point.
These swings and misses can’t continue, especially as New England addresses the quarterback position for the third time in three years. Jones was selected 15th overall in 2021, and the club followed that up a year later by selecting Bailey Zappe with the 137th overall pick in round four.
Zappe has shown enough to be a capable back-up, but hasn’t quite been able to seize the starting role to this point. That will likely see the Patriots add to their quarterback room again this offseason, and it’s probably just a matter of when they’ll address it.
At the same time, the lack of talent on offense certainly didn’t do either player any favors. The departure of Jakobi Meyers last offseason took away New England’s most productive player from its offense, with no other player being able to step up in those “gotta have it” moments last season.
What happens this offseason, both from a free agent standpoint and the draft, will obviously decide the direction of the team moving forward. Whether or not that will include any additional skill position players remains to be seen, with Wolf and his staff now set to play a key role in how things ultimately play out.
For now, he appears to be the one who has earned Kraft’s trust and what happens in the coming months is certainly going to be critical to the Patriots future.
With an empty cupboard and a lot of cash to “burn”, we’ll see if Belichick’s departure and Elliot’s new role at least solves one area they’ve struggled so badly to get right in recent years.
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