5 early questions for the Patriots offseason

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Just a few hours after the Patriots’ stunningly-lopsided 47-17 playoff loss to the Bills in Buffalo, Bill Belichick described the mismatch as “the least competitive game that we played last year.”

Certainly he was right, but it was also worth noting that by the morning after he’d already clearly put the loss and the 2021 season in the rearview mirror.

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In true Belichickian fashion, the coach and his team are on to 2022.

Just like that, it’s indeed the offseason. The NFL Combine, pre-draft process and free agency are on the horizon. There is much to be done and decided regarding a New England team that rebuilt itself enough last season to return to the playoffs, but now must find a way to take the next step to get back to true Super Bowl contender status.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the five biggest questions Belichick and the Patriots face early on in the 2022 offseason process.

1—Coaching staff changes?: A strong argument can be made that this was the most poorly-coached Patriots team of the Belichick era, even before the playoff collapse in Buffalo. Certainly there are likely to be some changes to the coaching staff. Despite his limited experience, Jerod Mayo is a suddenly hot head coaching candidate with an interview for the open Broncos job already reportedly scheduled while meetings with the Texans, Raiders and Bears, at the very least, have been rumored. Mayo could very well be moving on. Josh McDaniels is always seen as a would-be option for teams looking for an offensive-minded head coach with experience. While those two could be candidates to head elsewhere this winter, Joe Judge’s firing in New York could make him an option to return to the New England special teams unit that struggled mightily in 2021, including having three punts blocked. Aging veteran running backs coach Ivan Fears seems to be year-to-year at this point. Matt Patricia could be a candidate for a role change, maybe a more hands-on role on the New England defense. Belichick’s role on the staff – he’s seemingly focused the bulk of his attention on game days on the defense in the last couple years – as well as the makeup of his staff of assistants is a key first step in building toward a better 2022.

2—Retirement plans?: The Patriots have at least three key veteran contributors on the roster who have to be seen as potential retirement candidates in Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower. All three are also free agents, so they could be departures even if they don’t decide to retire. The vocal leader and potential Hall of Fame special teamer Slater certainly sounded in the immediacy of the Buffalo loss like a guy who might be ready to call it a career. McCourty and Hightower both looked like they’d lost the proverbial step this season. If some combination of the three vets leaves the Patriots, which feels likely, it will be a major blow to the team not only on the field but maybe even more importantly in terms of the leadership hierarchy for Belichick’s squad. They will need to be replaced in some form or fashion both on the field and in the locker room.

3 – J.C. Jackson’s franchise future?: New England’s No. 1 cornerback is set to hit free agency this spring coming off a season in which he made further strides toward proving himself one of the best in the game.
Jackson earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro status thanks to another eight interceptions. If he reaches the open market, he certainly will be in line for a huge payday that will average north of $15 million a year. New England could try to delay the big-money decision on Jackson by using its franchise tag on the playmaking corner, even if to just extend its negotiation period. Or, might Belichick we willing to ink his top defensive back to a long-term deal to slide into the contract slot previously held by Stephon Gilmore prior to the former Defensive Player of the Year’s trade to the Panthers last season? If the Patriots don’t keep Jackson in the fold, it will leave a huge hole in the back end of the defense for a team that’s always had a true No. 1 cornerback when it’s reached its most successful defensive heights under Belichick over the last two-plus decades. Jackson’s future with the franchise is the biggest personnel/financial decision this offseason.

4 – Find Mac Jones a go-to target!: Jones is coming off a very impressive rookie season in which he led his team to the playoffs. He did so without the benefit of a No. 1 target or Pro Bowl-caliber option among his pass catchers. That will have to change moving forward for Jones and the Patriots as a team to reach their full potential. It won’t be easy but whether it’s via free agency, trade or the draft, Belichick needs to try to find a No. 1 option for his young quarterback. If he does that, the rest of the relatively impressive roster of complementary targets at Jones’ disposal will likely be even more productive and the team will have far more upside potential.

5 – Find more speed and athleticism on defense, especially at LB: The Patriots looked big, old and slow at linebacker at points this season. Certainly Hightower and Jamie Collins’ best days are behind them. While Belichick has invested draft picks on the edge and at linebacker in recent years, it hasn’t led to much production. Chase Winovich was a healthy scratch in Buffalo and an overall non-factor throughout his third season. Josh Uche didn’t enjoy the Year 2 Jump that many hoped/expected. Anfernee Jennings hasn’t found a role in two seasons. Ronnie Perkins and Cameron McGrone are unknowns, especially the latter after missing his rookie year to injury. Young, versatile, speedy, athletic linebackers can transform a defense and feel like a necessity against today’s offensive attacks. New England is behind the curve in getting such players on the roster and on the field. Belichick needs to find a way to catch up with the times at the second level of the New England defense.

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