The countdown to Patriots training camp 2022 has officially begun with the team announcing that it will hold its first public practice of the summer on July 27 on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
Soon enough football will be back!
While New England is currently in the deadest of dead periods on the NFL calendar, with players and coaches alike getting some vacation time in before the marathon season begins in training camp, the issues Bill Belichick’s team will face this fall are anything but out of mind.
What are those issues? Which questions facing the Patriots are most pressing in regards to determining success and failure this fall?
The33rdTeam.com offered up a list of burning questions for every NFL team this week and not surprisingly the choice for the Patriots was Belichick’s choice to not yet name a play-caller in the “gamble” he’s taking with his new-look offensive coaching staff.
The latest edition of the WEEI/Audacy “6 Rings” podcast used that 33rd Team story as a leaping off point to discuss the questions still very much facing the Patriots in this down time leading up to the hectic race to get ready for the regular season that will kick off in late July.
Here’s a look at the significant issues still percolating in Patriot Nation that the “6 Rings” fellas came up with as Belichick tries to put together a team and game plan to keep pace in the star-driven, ultra-competitive AFC.
1 – Can a curious offensive coaching plan actually succeed?: Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct answer. This is one of those times regarding the biggest question facing the Patriots. Josh McDaniels’ departure leaves a major hole on the New England offensive coaching staff and in the plan to develop second-year QB Mac Jones. Former special teams coach and Giants boss Joe Judge is working with the quarterbacks. Former defensive coordinator and Lions boss Matt Patricia is working with the offensive line. Both have had shots calling plays during spring practice action. Belichick may also be in the mix to call plays. The roles, responsibilities and production of the Patriots offense are going to be a huge issue in training camp practice, preseason action and then well into the regular season. This isn’t just the biggest question surrounding the Patriots, it’s one of the biggest questions in the NFL heading into the 2022 season.
2 – Is the cornerback spot covered?: New England decided to let Pro Bowl interception machine J.C. Jackson leave via free agency. The dubious plan to replace him this spring included veteran journeyman Terrance Mitchell, former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler and rookie draft picks Jack Jones and Marcus Jones. Jalen Mills is back after stepping up to serve as the No. 2 corner last year. Jonathan Jones returns from injury as the veteran slot guy. But New England has a big hole to fill in the No. 1 CB void. In a pass-happy NFL and considering the elite quarterbacks and wide receivers the Patriots will face, this is a major concern. Sure Belichick may once again cover the back end issues with plenty of zone coverage and lots of safeties in the mix, but that doesn’t ensure opposing targets won’t be open, especially elite options like Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams and others. New England’s defense may only be as good as its ability to figure out a way to cover in the back end.
3 – Will the starting five on the offensive line get it done?: On the surface the offensive line looks like it could be a strength of the Patriots, even after the team lost Ted Karras via free agency and chose to trade away veteran guard Shaq Mason. There is certainly talent in the new-look starting five up front. But there are also plenty of questions with the group, its durability and its lack of depth. Based on minicamp action New England’s starting line, from left tackle to right, could include Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Mike Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn. Right tackle is a new spot for Wynn, the former first-round pick having been on the left side when healthy in his four prior seasons. Health is a major question for both Wynn and Brown, who’ve struggled to stay on the field in their careers. The first-round pick Strange is being given the left guard spot, but obviously must prove he’s up to the task making the jump from FCS Chattanooga. PFF favorite Onwenu must show he’s a good-enough guard after being relegated to backup duties a year ago and his best NFL work having come at tackle. That’s a lot of questions for a starting lineup, especially one that doesn’t have many backup options to point to. If everything works out, the line could be the foundation of the offense. But it’s not too often that everything works out in the NFL when there are this many questions involved.
4 – How painful will the growing pains be in the linebacker youth movement?: The fact that Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are no longer in New England is, pardon the pun, old news. Everyone in Foxborough claims to be “excited” about the team’s young linebackers. Steve Belichick called third-year option Josh Uche a big piece of the puzzle on defense and his boss/dad agreed with the assessment. Cameron McGrone is back from a red-shirt rookie season to theoretically bring speed to the group. Ronnie Perkins and Anfernee Jennings are in the mix. Coming off a torn ACL that derailed his first season in New England, relatively young veteran Raekwon McMillan could have a big role. Ja’Whaun Bentley is the experienced veteran in the middle of it all. There’s certainly some potential for the young linebackers to be a breath of fresh air and competitive playmaking. There is also the potential for the group to look young, unproven and flawed in the middle of the defense. Linebacker may have the least predictable talent, playing time and roles on the New England roster at a position where Belichick has benefited from reliable, known veteran options for nearly the entirety of his tenure.
5 – Do the Patriots have enough star power?: New England is not without talent at a lot of positions. But the team is lacking in terms of much star power. Jones and Matt Judon are returning Pro Bowlers. But neither would be considered truly elite. There are a lot of complementary options to choose from at receiver, but none appears to be a high-end, go-to playmaker.
New England’s dynasty was established on the idea that building a team is not the same as collecting roster talent. This year’s team may be molded in the same fashion. But those dynasty teams also had plenty of Hall of Fame talent on the roster as well. Will Jones take his game to the next level in Year 2? Can Judon put together a full season as an impact pass rusher? Might Christian Barmore break out as a dominant, versatile force on the defensive line? Is Hunter Henry or Kendrick Bourne ready for even more than they brought to the mix in their positive first New England seasons? More and more the NFL seems to be a league where star power drives the top teams. Do the Patriots have enough star power and where, exactly, will it come from?