Patriots Mailbag: Spotlighting Draft Sleepers, Sneaky Needs For Pats

Plus: How will DeVante Parker's arrival impact Nelson Agholor?

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With less than three weeks remaining until the 2022 NFL Draft, the latest edition of NESN.com’s New England Patriots mailbag features a hearty helping of draft-related questions.

From cornerback sleepers to first-round offensive line priorities to one under-the-radar roster need, we tackle it all and more this week. Let’s get right into it:

@jdevingo29
There were a lot of rumors about Ivan Fears retiring at the end of last season. Has he officially done it?
The Patriots have yet to announce Fears, their longtime running backs coach, is retiring, and it’s unclear if he’s still working. He could be staying on through the draft, like Ernie Adams did last year, but that’s just a guess.

Given how important and beloved Fears has been within the Patriots’ organization — he’s the only assistant whose tenure predates Bill Belichick’s — the team surely will want to publicly celebrate him when he hangs up his whistle for good.

If Fears does retire, as he reportedly is expected to, he would be the fifth offensive position coach to leave the Patriots’ staff this offseason, with former offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo, wide receivers coach Mick Lombardi and assistant quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree all joining Josh McDaniels in Las Vegas.

It’s still unclear exactly how New England will fill all of those vacancies, but Belichick has said Joe Judge and Matt Patricia both will have prominent offensive roles.

@smithandjeff
Does Nelson stick around with Parker or does Parker replace him?

Maybe the Patriots find a trade partner for Nelson Agholor — dealing him would clear $9.9 million in cap space with $5 million left behind in dead money — but if I had to make a prediction, I’d say he stays on the roster this season. Expect a different role for him, though.

Agholor played almost exclusively as a perimeter X receiver in Year 1 with New England, lining up outside on 691 of his 757 offensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus (91.3%). He moved around much more earlier in his career, splitting time between wide and slot alignments throughout his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles and playing inside on more than half of his snaps in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

With the newly acquired DeVante Parker a strong candidate to take over as New England’s new starting X, we’ll likely see a more versatile role for Agholor as he splits reps with Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne and whichever receivers the Patriots add between now and Week 1.

Team owner Robert Kraft also made some interesting comments during the NFL Annual Meeting, telling The Athletic’s Jeff Howe he wants more out of the Patriots’ underperforming offensive free agent pickups (clearly Agholor and tight end Jonnu Smith, though he didn’t single them out by name) and that the Patriots are “making changes to take advantage of what they do best.”

It’ll be very interesting to see how those changes manifest. Agholor and especially Smith are coming off uninspiring seasons after signing big-money contracts last spring.

@bradyrupp
Should the Pats still be looking to add young WRs given that Parker is 29 and only on a 2-year deal and both Meyers and Agholor are only under contract for 2022?

I’m very interested to see how the Parker acquisition impacts the Patriots’ draft strategy. I could see them now focusing on other positions in the early rounds, with wideout lower on their priority list. That said, I do still believe drafting a receiver would be a wise move for the reasons you laid out, even if they wait until Day 3 to do so.

I could see the Patriots targeting a quicker slot option, since that’s something they’ve lacked since Julian Edelman retired. In NESN.com’s latest mock draft, I have them grabbing UCLA’s Kyle Philips in the fourth round. Shifty, tough, good college production (team leader in receptions in each of the last three seasons; Pac-12-best 10 touchdown catches in 2021), punt-return experience, played under a friend of Belichick (Chip Kelly) — he checks a lot of boxes.

Rutgers’ Bo Melton is another Sunday option who should be on New England’s radar — and likely is since his college coach was Belichick buddy Greg Schiano.

Adding Parker makes the Patriots’ offense better — potentially significantly so if he can stay healthy — but there’s room for a young talent with upside in this receiving corps.

@SquirrelTheWR
what do QBs and WRs/other targets actually work on when they do these offseason throwing sessions? Is it ball placement and velocity/timing, is it route running, is it understanding the playbook, is it more just fitness + building chemistry?

All of the above, I’d say.

There’s definitely a “knock the rust off” element to these workouts, with guys trying to stay fresh as spring practices approach. But the chemistry and timing between a quarterback and his pass-catchers are massively important factors, and that can only be developed on the field.

That’s especially true with a newcomer like Parker, who joined in for the second of this week’s two sessions, but can benefit all of the Patriots’ pass-catchers — and, of course, Mac Jones. There’s a reason Tom Brady continued to throw in the summer with guys like Edelman, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski even after playing with them for years.

Gathering teammates for these unofficial workouts also illustrates how Jones is taking on a more prominent leadership role as he heads into his second pro season, which he’d said was one of his offseason priorities.

@DanKelley66
If the Patriots address offensive line early in the draft, do you think it is more likely they grab a tackle like Trevor Penning (and move Isaiah Wynn inside) or draft a guard such as Kenyon Green or Zion Johnson?

Guard is the bigger immediate need, but I think tackle in the first round is more probable. It wouldn’t shock me if the Patriots drafted someone like Northern Iowa’s Penning or Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann to both give them necessary depth behind the injury-prone Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown and be groomed as Wynn’s eventual replacement, since he’s entering the final year of his rookie season.

It’s possible the Patriots could grab someone like Johnson or Green at or around No. 21 to replace Ted Karras (assuming they plan to plug Mike Onwenu into Shaq Mason’s right guard spot), but I think they’re most likely to take a replacement guard on Day 2 or early Day 3. Tackle has a substantially higher positional value, and there are other needs like cornerback and linebacker to consider.

The Patriots haven’t used a first-round pick on an interior O-lineman since Logan Mankins in 2005, and all of their full-time iOL starters since Mankins left have been mid-to-late-round draftees or undrafted players:

Dan Connolly: undrafted
Ryan Wendell: undrafted
Bryan Stork: fourth round
Tre’ Jackson: fourth round
Shaq Mason: fourth round
David Andrews: undrafted
Joe Thuney: third round
Ted Karras: sixth round
Mike Onwenu: sixth round

@Supersmooth619
Assuming we don’t take a corner rd 1 who’s some “sleepers” you like that we should keep a eye on? I really like Cam Taylor-Britt & Jaylon armor davis as guys I feel like Bill could get the most out of

Anyone who’s followed along with my mock drafts knows I’m a big Zyon McCollum guy. If you haven’t brushed up on the 6-foot-2, 199-pound Sam Houston State product, familiarize yourself. He checks a lot of Patriots boxes and is projected as a third- or fourth-rounder.

Another name to know: Houston’s Marcus Jones, who visited the Patriots this week. At just 5-8, 174 pounds, he’s likely a slot-only defender, but he was an explosive ball hawk in coverage and a phenomenally productive return man, with NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein comparing him to former Kansas City Chiefs dynamo Dante Hall. He had nine return touchdowns in college — six on kickoffs and three on punts.

And then there’s the fact Jones also played receiver for part of his final season at Houston, winning the Paul Hornung Award as the “most versatile player in college football.” We all know how much Belichick and the Patriots value versatile players.

Jones’ health is a big question mark, however, as he’s coming off surgery on both of his shoulders that prevented him from testing pre-draft. Vetting that injury could have been part of New England’s motivation to host him for a visit.

I’ve had Armour-Davis as a Day 3 in one of my mocks, too. He needs refinement as a just a one-year college starter, but he showed promise at Patriots factory Alabama and has enticing traits.

@Cardopena
Hi Zack, Do you think that Edge or DE could be an option with the 21st pick (If someone like Karlaftis, Johnson are still on the board instead of a DB/CB, OT, LB or WR

Edge rusher is a sneaky need for the Patriots heading into this draft. They have Matthew Judon on one side — and hope he can recapture the form he showed for the first three-quarters of 2021, before his game fell off a cliff late — but who’s the other starting outside linebacker now that Kyle Van Noy is gone?

It could be Josh Uche, who found himself buried on the depth chart after a standout training camp. It could be Ronnie Perkins, who redshirted his entire rookie season despite being healthy for most of it. It could be Anfernee Jennings, who didn’t distinguish himself as a 2020 rookie and then missed all of last season with an injury.

The Patriots might have full confidence in one or more of those players to take on larger roles in 2022, but this position is a definite question mark. Van Noy, who was cut last month, played 75.1% of defensive snaps this past season.

As for whom they could target, it seems unlikely, based on pre-draft projections, that Purdue’s George Karlaftis or Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson will fall into their range, but Minnesota’s Boye Mafe and Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie are potential options who should be on the board in the late first or early second round.

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