The Patriots have taken the first step toward returning to the playoffs in 2023 by re-stabilizing their offensive coaching staff, bringing Bill O’Brien back as offensive coordinator and hiring an actual offensive line coach (Adrian Klemm) to get things back to something resembling normalcy.
But Bill Belichick’s squad won’t truly have a chance to make postseason noise without a few roster upgrades at key positions, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
New England boasts the resources ($28.5 million in effective cap space and the 14th overall pick in the draft) to land impact players that can improve the team’s fortunes this coming fall. The question now is where (and who) to allocate those resources to.
In particular, there’s some debate about whether the Patriots should be focused more on shoring up the offensive tackle spot or targeting a game-changer at wide receiver.
To be sure, tackle was far from a strength for New England in 2022. Though Trent Brown was largely okay last year, his low points, whether from playing through illness and injury or simply not being engaged enough, were uncharacteristically bad. The other side of the line was an absolute dumpster fire between Isaiah Wynn, Marcus Cannon and Yodny Cajuste before Conor McDermott played passably at right tackle to finish the year.
But the Patriots also didn’t have any wide receivers teams felt they needed to stay up late to prepare for, with only Jakobi Meyers (804 yards) topping 500 yards receiving on the year. That lack of explosiveness, combined with subpar coaching, made the passing attack a punchline for too much of the season.
Of course, New England absolutely should address both areas of the offense. Mac Jones isn’t yet the kind of quarterback that can play around poor protection, and we’ve already seen what investing in top-notch wide receivers does for third-year quarterbacks, including Jones’ ex-Alabama teammate Jalen Hurts.
But what’s more important for the Patriots: offensive line or receiver?
Some advanced statistics might help answer that question.
For the last few seasons, Pro Football Focus has tried its hand at value statistics like WAR (wins about replacement) to quantify which positions teams should invest in during the NFL draft and free agency.
Not surprisingly, quarterback remained far and away the most important position at the college level and in the pros. Having a great one is simply a cheat code. The second most important offensive position at the college and pro level aside from that, though, has consistently been wide receiver.
This might be part of the reason the Bengals insisted on taking Ja’Marr Chase with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft instead of tackle Penei Sewell (aside from the fact that Joe Burrow and Chase played together at LSU). No one can argue with how well that’s turned out for Cincinnati. That desire for copycat success, as well as the ballooning of receiver contracts, led four receivers to come off the board within the first 12 picks of the 2022 draft.
According to PFF’s metrics, Davante Adams, regarded by many as the best receiver in football, posted a slightly higher WAR value than Trent Williams, the league’s best tackle, during the 2021 season.
Of course, one could argue Adams and Chase are extreme examples. Receiver and tackle are clearly both premium positions, which is why you still saw three offensive tackles taken in the first 10 picks of last year’s draft. It’s hard to throw to those receivers without solid protection.
Interestingly, though, PFF’s WAR ranges for positions also suggest that even just "good" receivers, like San Francisco’s Brandon Aiyuk, account for more wins above replacement than a "good" tackle like Baltimore’s Ronnie Stanley.
The bottom line: while both are important, investing in receiver appears to yield more bang for your buck than offensive tackles, which says a lot given how necessary a good tackle can be to an offense’s success.
This does not mean the Patriots should neglect their tackle position and go all-in on selecting and signing wide receivers this coming spring. The best teams build at both spots.
But it does suggest New England should be willing to splurge on a trade-and-pay situation for a player like Tee Higgins or perhaps even take a receiver like Jordan Addison at No. 14 overall than rather focusing solely on the offensive line and bargain-hunting for second-tier players at receiver later in free agency or the draft. After all, elite offensive tackles still aren’t eligible to catch passes, and a great receiver can make a middling offensive line (or quarterback) look better.
If the Patriots want to get better, they do need better play from their offensive line. If they want to be great, though, they need to upgrade their weapons around Jones. Only then will this team really see how far it can go.