Sunday 7: Is trouble around the corner for the Patriots?

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6 Rings and Football Things
Breaking down the New England Patriots with Matt Light!
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1.) The reality of Training Camp 2022 is almost upon us. Wishing it were here or thinking about it too much brings the already fleeting tenure of summer in New England closes to a close. And we hold tightly to every warm day, every chance to be happy and out of doors for as long as possible in these parts. But fact is we’re about two and a half weeks away from the official start of camp on July 27th. While summer is far from gone it’s time to face reality; football is almost here.

And while we’re facing reality perhaps it’s time we address a potential issue, of potentially many, for this team; the cornerback situation. Fans and media alike have focused previously on as many positives as possible, and understandably so given how this positional group might perform this season. “Jack Jones looks like the real deal!" “Jonathan Jones is back and he’s good in coverage against Tyreek Hill!” “Hooray for the unexpected Malcom Butler reunion tour!” “Wow, look who Jalen Mills is training with!”

All of this is well and good, but not much has been done to truly improve the cornerback position since JC Jackson left for richer free agent pastures in LA. While other elements of the team where new or younger talent is being worked into the fold coalesce (linebacker, O-Line), no unit will either surprise or sink the team faster than corner. It’s perhaps the area of greatest concern, especially if the team goes into more of a zone concept defense. The chorus of people letting their voices be heard about how this could be an issue is now growing with the same volume that any positive Jones buzz (Mac or Jack) came with in June.

ESPN has said cornerback is the biggest weakness of the 2022 Patriots headed into the season. The folks over at Pro Football Focus have said the same thing, as has our own Khari Thompson. Friend of the station and NBC Sports Boston Patriots whisperer Tom E. Curran said this week the defense could hold back Mac’s second year development, a point echoed by our own Chris Scheim on the air just over a week back.

We could cite plenty more examples of alarm locally and nationally, but you get the point. People are concerned about the corners, the lack of an elite or true number one and how this may ultimately affect both sides of the ball.

All this said it seems fair to now say how the corners perform could be the most important development of this team. If they force the Patriots into games where Mac and the offense have to always be in shootout mode it could alter multiple game-plans significantly, potentially stunting his growth or not allowing him and his new cadre of play-callers, if you will, to evolve at a rate they’re comfortable with. With the growing feeling that Mac and the offense may perform better than expected, we might have both eyes on the defense more often than not this summer, from line to linebackers, but especially seeing if there’s growth or trouble around the corners.

2.) Should the Patriots struggle at corner early and often this season the best way to cover up that deficiency? A quality pass rush. And while we’re a hopin’ and a prayin’ that Josh Uche and Ronnie Perkins take a big step forward toward opposing quarterbacks this season, perhaps no one player is more important, and valuable, than edge rusher Matthew Judon. “The dude wit red sleeves” as he became known affectionately, was inarguably the MVP of the 2021 Pats, at least for the first two-thirds of the season, as he played with a nonstop motor and nabbed 12.5 sacks, a career high. Judon tailed off the final third of the season, which might be attributed to COVID, fatigue or team’s focusing protection against him. He is a perfect fit in Belichick’s scheme and on this team, which is why this week selected him as the Non-QB MVP candidate on the 2022 Pats. Judon might even just be the Pats best player overall, which some see as an indictment of their lack of elite playmakers, while others see it as a roster of quality not all-star depth. If Judon can return to the form that made people take notice as he regularly invited himself into opposing backfields last season then we might see the rest of the rush take a step forward, and less pressure on the patchwork cornerback unit.

3.) Hitting on a familiar theme once again; the talent on the 2022 Patriots, particularly the skill positions. It has seemed “dunking on a five year old” easy this offseason to say the Pats lack elite talent or enough talent to keep up with the turbocharged AFC, specifically Buffalo and Miami in the East, and then the wild, wild AFC West. While some of us here at WEEI and close to the team believe the Pats have more talent than others in town or on the beat, it was refreshing to see the aforementioned Tom E. Curran publish a list of the top 20 skill position players in the AFC East. And would you believe that the Patriots, yes, THE New England Patriots, had seven players in the Top 20. SEVEN! The most of any team (Buffalo came in second with five). The same team everyone said lacked the talent to have a winning record, or keep up in the East, or possibly even maybe make a playoff run, has seven of the best 20 skill players in a vastly revamped and likely to be super competitive AFC East. Begs the question as to whether or not people are sleeping on the talent in Foxborough overall, or if Belichick’s assembly of solid middle tier second class skill players won’t make for an overall solid team. Now, we’ll see if some rookies coming into the fold, like Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall in New York, make a difference, as well as how things work out with Macs development and the new play-calling triumvirate. But it seems there are more people outside of yours truly who feel the Pats might have more firepower at their disposal this season than most local media, hot take artists and impossible to please fans might have you believe.

4.) Key to the Patriots offense and their potentially underrated skill players flourishing this season will be the play of their reconfigured offensive line. And who better to talk O-Line with than 3X Super Bowl champion and Patriots Hall of Famer Matt Light, who was kind enough to join us on the most recent episode of the 6 RINGS & FOOTBALL THINGS podcast. We touched on a broad range of topics, from clubhouse meltdowns to Mac Jones, blocking scheme changes to college realignment and more (he’s not a fan of NIL’s and the super Big 10, FWIW). Matt also shares some wisdom of Dante Scarnecchia and why he was so effective, among many nuggets, and gets fired up for how the Pats might be able to turn some heads with their run game this season. Give a listen, and throw a subscribe our way if you can. Many more guests, Training Camp insight, in-season reactions and more to come.

5.) Maybe the buzziest moment for the Patriots in the 2022 offseason was the news that the red throwback jerseys and Pat the Patriot logo would be returning for the upcoming season. Fans have been clamoring for its return for a decade, especially since the color rush uniforms became the full-time look in 2020. Pats fans might like them but have hoped perhaps there would be some tweaks or alterations, particularly back to grey pants, for home and away, like in previous seasons (though white & blue was the primary combo during the Brady years). Well what an interesting discovery this nugget was come end of the week.

Now mock-ups, fan edits and speculative uniform art flies freely all over social media in the age of photoshop. But there might be some legitimacy to these uniform combos. In addition to the full color rush all navy and white on navy road combos we could possible see a white on grey road uniform and navy on grey home combo as well. Not that fans will be buying the game pants, or that uniform combos will ultimately help the offense score or raise the gameplay of the cornerbacks, but it’s an interesting nugget. We’ll relay word as to whether there’s truth to these potential uniform leaks once we get some here or on 6 RINGS pod.

6.) From the two departments checking in at once department, rarely called upon as it may be, we have the “Former Patriots Doing Well” and “Alternative Football League Positives” departments contributing this pleasantly upbeat update:

Sam, a former sixth round pick of the Patriots in 2018, seemed like he had Sunday talent, or at least enough to stick around a few years, perhaps contribute on special teams. He was placed on injured reserve before the start of the 2018 season (hey, he’s got a ring!) and released before the start of the 2019 season. Since then Sam has bounced around the NFL and most recently the USFL, where he performed well enough with the New Orleans Breakers to earn a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys. As to whether or now Sam is a camp body or has a legitimate shot to earn a spot on the 53 man roster for the Cowboys remains to be seen. But it’s always refreshing to see a former Patriot as well as someone from a developmental league, if you will, get a shot at the big time again, proving that these upstart alternative leagues like the USFL 2.0, and forthcoming XFL 3.0, can potentially be a positive for players looking for a second or fifth chance in Sam’s case.

7.) For as much as Mac Jones gets his tires pumped around here a couple of reminders as to the value of developing a rookie QB and taking care of said precious asset were sent our way this week with one single transaction. The trade this week of Baker Mayfield from the Cleveland Browns to the Carolina Panthers does more than end two disappointing yet once previously promising runs under center; it again points to how difficult playing QB is, and how important good coaching is for helping that QB develop their game. Sure, Mayfield was once the savior of the Browns, ending their winless streak in 2018 on a Thursday night, bringing them back to the playoffs after a long drought and providing something that was almost unheard of in “The Mistake On The Lake”; hope. And yes, the QB he most likely replaces in Carolina, Sam Darnold, seemed to be given a fresh start when he was sent from the NY Jets to the Panthers last offseason, escaping the house of ghosts that plagued him his first three seasons in the league. But injuries and inconsistent play, not to mention a lackluster roster and some suspect coaching, has lead Darnold to fall out of favor with a staff that’s coaching for their jobs. Thus they trade for Mayfield, who was displaced by DeShaun Watson in Cleveland. And Mayfield arrives at a competitive second chance in the reclaimed QB consignment shop of Carolina, accusations of immaturity chasing him on the way. Kind of a mess to say the least, undesirable to see two QBs once full of such promise to be off their spot and in limbo with their futures.

Whether or not it works out, again it should as reminder as to how fortunate the Pats are to have someone as mature and stable as Mac Jones because even when your QB comes in with a hot start or a great rookie season there’s no guarantees. And so much of it is stability as Darnold and Mayfield dealt with multiple coach and coordinator changes. Jones will be dealing with his second coordinator in as many seasons, but there’s no denying his poise and maturity are two keys to his potential long-term success in this league, not to mention the guidance from the greatest coach of all-time. Plus, as illustrated above Mac Jones is already one of the best decision makers in the NFL, something that Pats were counting on when they drafted him 15th overall in 2021, and will be leaning on once again this season, a season that could see him develop more into a star and solidify his spot in Foxborough and not be dealt away as a once promising yet now diminishing asset now fighting for reps in Carolina.

Featured Image Photo Credit: USA Today Sports