Each and every summer Patriots head coach Bill Belichick emphasizes the need for each and every member of the New England organization, players and coaches alike, to reestablish their role.
Football is, after all, supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy. As players like to say, you get in where you fit in.
While many successful Patriots teams of the past were built upon the consistency and continuity of both players and coaches, New England’s 2022 squad is not in that mold.
With little more than two weeks to go until the start of training camp, many Patriots players and coaches are winding down the final days of summertime freedom about to embark on what could be a critical year in their respective careers.
As a team, New England is considered by most to be well back in the pack of a highly competitive AFC. Plenty of analysts and the Vegas win-total prognosticators believe even just a nine-win, barely better than .500 season would be a success for the Patriots.
On an individual level, there is plenty to prove for many men in Foxborough. From young players looking to make their mark or take their games to the next level to aging veterans trying to compete for key roles on a retooled roster, the competition in New England will be under the microscope this summer and fall. Without getting too dramatic, careers could be made or broken, reputations battered or buffed up in the coming months.
With that in mind here’s a pre-training camp look at the 10 members of the Patriots organization who have the most to prove in 2022.
10 – Matthew Judon: Arguably New England’s best defensive player in his first season with the team last fall, Judon has gone to the Pro Bowl in each of the last three years. He’s got a big contract and a big personality. It might seem that he is what he is at this point in his career. But Judon’s production fell off mightily over the latter part of last season for the New England defense that fell apart as a whole. Judon needs to prove he can be a key, elite edge defender for a full 17-game season against a formidable slate of opposing quarterbacks and offensive attacks. Given the uncertainty at the cornerback position and questions around Judon on the front seven, the veteran needs to prove he can be even better and carry even more of the load in 2022 if the defense is going to be good enough.
9 – Jonnu Smith: Some may have already given up on what was supposed to be one of the impact additions from New England’s big 2021 free agency spending spree. Despite his massive paycheck and a huge investment of practice time trying to make him a key part of the passing attack, Smith was a huge disappointment last fall. He never looked comfortable. He never had the breakout game he and teammates talked about. He never produced anything close to what was expected. Maybe Smith will never be what many (this guy!) hoped and expected he’d be. But the veteran tight end could still prove himself at least a complementary athletic option in the passing game if he can find a way to find a more consistent role in the offense.
8 – Cole Strange: There was a lot of chatter about the Patriots selecting Strange, an FCS guard, in the first round of the draft this past April. Did they reach for a guy who might have lasted on the board a round or two longer? That doesn’t matter anymore. Now it’s all about whether Strange is ready to compete at the NFL level, because based on spring practices the starting job at left guard is very much his to lose. The Patriots don’t have a ton of depth on the line beyond their starting five. If Strange isn’t ready for the role he’s being penciled in for it would be a first blemish up front and an early mark against the key draft class.
7 – Cam Achord: New England is coming off an historically bad year on special teams. It wasn’t just the three punts the team had blocked, there were seemingly endless penalties and mental mistakes in the third phase that contributed to losing. As the leader of the special teams it’s on Achord to ensure that an area that has always been considered a priority and strength in New England returns to that level. Were the 2021 struggles more about the players than coaching? It doesn’t matter, it’s on Achord to field a bounce back year this fall.
6 – DeVante Parker: One of the big narratives last season and into this offseason was that New England lacked a proven, No. 1 option in the passing game. Parker is a big body who once upon a time put up big numbers (1,200) yards with the Dolphins. The veteran looked impressive during spring practices and certainly has the chance to take the lead role atop the wide receiver depth chart. First, though, he must prove he can stay healthy enough to stay on the field and then try to produce at a high level.
5 – Malcolm Butler: In less than a year New England has gone from having two No. 1-caliber Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson to seemingly not even having two starting-caliber corners. Versatile veteran Jalen Mills returns to try to hold down one starting spot while the former Super Bowl hero/Super Bowl controversy Butler returns to New England after a one-year retirement to compete for a starting job. Butler looked good physically this spring, but at the age of 32 and after a year out of the NFL he has a lot to prove in a cornerback room that has a lot to prove as a group.
4 – Joe Judge: In case you haven’t heard, Josh McDaniels is no longer running the Patriots’ offense. With McDaniels taking residency with the Raiders in Las Vegas, New England is left with a rather non-traditional offensive coaching staff that includes the former special teams coach and Giants boss Judge coaching the quarterbacks. This isn’t a question of whether Judge is a smart man, good coach or a hard worker. This is about whether he’s capable of being a high level offensive mind and molding a franchise QB. Whether he ends up calling plays or not, Judge must prove his offensive chops.
3 – Matt Patricia: The second part of the dubious plan to replace McDaniels on the offensive staff, Patricia takes over the offensive line coaching duties after spending the last 15-plus years as a defensive coach and then failed head coach with the Lions. If spring practice is any indication, Patricia is also at least in the mix to be the primary play-caller on offense, a role he previously filled on defense in New England. In some form or fashion, both Patricia and Judge are going to have key roles concocting the Patriots offense. If the offense struggles, the duo will be in crosshairs of criticism.
2 – Mac Jones: Under McDaniels’ expert tutelage, Jones had a Pro Bowl rookie season in which he was good enough for the Patriots to return to the playoffs. That’s created high expectations heading into his sophomore season. Is Jones on track to develop into a true franchise QB in an AFC that’s loaded at the quarterback position? Or is he destined to become one of those middle-of-the-pack passers who just don’t have the total package of skills to be elite? Jones looked good this spring, but non-competitive action in shorts is a far cry from regular season competition. With a curious coaching staff and still-developing weapons around him, Jones probably has built in excuses if 2022 doesn’t go as he probably hopes it will. But we all know that quarterbacks get too much credit for winning and too much blame for losing. Fair or not, Jones’ play and development will be the story of the season in New England.
1 – Bill Belichick: In case you weren’t aware, Patriots owner Robert Kraft reminded us all this spring that his team hasn’t won a playoff game in the last three years. While Tom Brady is living the good life in Tampa Bay, Belichick is trying to appease his boss and the masses by getting the Patriots back to contender status. Winning and losing? That’s on Belichick. Getting the most out of a key draft class and trying to expand the contributions of last spring’s massive free agent spending spree? That’s on Belichick. Proving that a special teams expert and a defensive mind are the best way to coach a young franchise QB and overall offense? That’s on Belichick. While his spot in Canton and overall legacy are set, for the here and now Belichick has more to prove than any member of the Patriots organization. And that’s probably just the way the 70-year-old man who still “wears every hat” in New England likes it.