In this week’s New England Patriots mailbag, we’re tackling the curious case of Isaiah Wynn, Year 2 expectations for Jonnu Smith, the potential for a seismic shift at running back and more.
Let’s dive in:
I may have missed it, but what?s up with Isaiah Wynn. Is he okay? Holding out for a new deal? Upset at the team?
Wynn’s absence from these voluntary practices has become one of the biggest storylines of Patriots OTAs.
We have yet to see New England’s starting left tackle on the field this spring, and at this point, the reason for that remains unclear. He’s set to enter the final season of his rookie contract, with a guaranteed salary of $10.4 million after the Patriots exercised his fifth-year option. Could he be angling for a new deal, as he’s scheduled to hit free agency next spring? Perhaps.
But the Patriots might not view Wynn, who’s been hounded by injuries throughout his four-year career, as a long-term answer. And given their current salary cap situation — less than $2 million in available space, per OverTheCap — they could consider trading the 2018 first-rounder, as doing so would wipe his entire salary off their books.
It was notable that, when Wynn sat out the team’s first OTA last week, Trent Brown was the Patriots’ first-team left tackle, with Justin Herron playing on the right side. Brown has experience at both spots — he was the starting left tackle on New England’s 2018 Super Bowl team — but exclusively played right tackle last season.
When Wynn and Brown both were absent in the Patriots’ second open OTA, Herron stayed at right tackle and Yodny Cajuste slotted in at left tackle. That was interesting, too, as Herron has been much better as a left tackle over his two pro seasons, struggling mightily on the right side when he saw action there early last season.
Herron, a 2020 sixth-round draft pick, played less than half of his 2021 snaps at right tackle but allowed 13 of his 16 total pressures from that alignment, per Pro Football Focus.
Trading Wynn would be a gamble, though. Brown also has a lengthy injury history — including a calf issue that sidelined him for half of last season — and the Patriots don’t have much proven depth at any offensive line position. Playing Brown at left tackle and Mike Onwenu at right tackle would be an option, but then they’d need a new right guard, as Ownenu is projected to replace Shaq Mason there.
The Patriots also could trade Wynn and sign a veteran free agent to play right or left tackle. Duane Brown, Eric Fisher and Riley Reiff are among those still on the market. It’s worth noting, though, that the 6-foot-2, 310-pound Wynn wouldn’t fit every offensive scheme, as many teams desire taller tackles. His injury history and inconsistency also could spook potential suitors.
Assuming he’s not currently hurt, Wynn should be in attendance when the Patriots’ three-day mandatory minicamp kicks off next Tuesday. But this is a story we’ll be closely monitoring throughout the summer.
Will Jonnu have an expanded role in 2022?
I believe the Patriots will attempt to find new ways to utilize and maximize Jonnu Smith’s skill set after the tight end’s thoroughly underwhelming debut season in New England. He has the fourth-highest salary cap hit on the team ($13.7 million), so it would be a major waste of resources if they can’t get him more involved.
Exactly what form that will take remains to be seen, but I’m expecting more two-tight ends sets from the Patriots after they jettisoned the traditional fullback from their roster this offseason. Those looks were strangely infrequent in 2021 despite New England’s hefty financial commitment to Smith and Hunter Henry, with only five teams running fewer plays out of 12 personnel (1RB, 2TE).
Though his overall stats were disappointing (28 catches, 294 yards, one touchdowns in 16 games), Smith remained one of the NFL’s best at generating yards after the catch last season, ranking first among tight ends and third overall (behind Deebo Samuel and Mecole Hardman) in average YAC per reception, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The 26-year-old has been a full participant in offseason workouts after skipping last year’s and said he’s already seeing the benefits.
“I definitely missed some quality time here, man, and I recognize how valuable that time is,” he said last week. “I’m just trying to take advantage of that.”
Will this end up being a “redshirt” year for Thornton and Strong?
The Patriots would be rightfully criticized if they full-on redshirted Tyquan Thornton after trading up to draft him in the second round. I do think they expect the rail-thin wideout to contribute this season, as long as he stays healthy.
But with four proven veterans above him on the depth chart, I’m not predicting a big rookie year from the Baylor product. A question in last week’s mailbag asked me to project Thornton’s Year 1 stat line, and I said something in the neighborhood of 25 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns.
I’d say fourth-rounder Pierre Strong is a more likely redshirt candidate given the Patriots’ history with rookie running backs and their depth at the position, but I also could easily envision him having a substantial role if James White is limited in his return from hip surgery. Strong put up huge rushing numbers at South Dakota State and is a capable pass-catcher and pass blocker, giving him intriguing dual-threat potential.
Are either of the 2 RBs drafted this year the replacement for James White?
My money is on Strong.
Do you think that with the addition of both Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris in the draft along with Ty Montgomery in FA that there is a chance Damien Harris is traded this preseason since he is entering the last year of his deal and there are now potential replacements?
Yes, I do think there’s a chance Damien Harris is traded before the season. Would I predict that right now? No. New England is a better team with Harris in the backfield.
But though he’s a very good player, he’s entering the final year of his rookie contract. If the Patriots like what they see from their two rookies, believe second-year pro Rhamondre Stevenson can be their No. 1 back and don’t plan on paying Harris next spring anyway — it’s become clear that handing out big money to running backs typically isn’t a wise move — they could view it as good business to flip him now and acquire an asset.
A lot of that will depend on how Strong and Kevin Harris look in training camp and the preseason and whether the Patriots, who traditionally have taken things slowly with rookie rushers, believe they can be trusted with early playing time.
And one note on Montgomery: He’s only practiced with the wide receivers in the team’s two open OTAs, though Vinnie Sunseri said he’s done work with the running backs, as well. The versatile veteran has played both positions in his career but is more likely to crack the Patriots’ roster as a core special teamer.
In your opinion who is the best fit opposite judon on the edge? And could you see them making a move for trey flowers?
I think Josh Uche is the most likely candidate to fill the other starting outside linebacker spot opposite Matthew Judon. Bill and Steve Belichick both have said they expect Uche to be a “big” part of the Patriots’ defensive plans this season, and he could fill the Kyle Van Noy role as an edge rusher who also can play off the ball.
I’m curious, though, whether the Patriots might shift more toward a four-man front after their offseason overhaul at linebacker. They always deploy multiple defensive looks each game, but they’ve primarily been a 3-4 team for the past several seasons.
Judon has not been present at voluntary OTAs, so we’ve yet to see what the Patriots’ current defense looks like with him in it. That should change next week in mandatory minicamp.
And yes, as I’ve written in several previous mailbags, I still think bringing back Trey Flowers would be a logical move. The veteran defensive end has yet to catch on with a new team since being released by Detroit in March.
The Patriots currently have less than $2 million in available salary cap space, however, and haven’t even signed their entire draft class, so they’d need to shift some money around through restructures, releases or trades in order to add any external assistance.
How’s Barmore looking so far? I’m expecting him to make a big leap this year
Ask me again next month. You learn next to nothing about defensive line play during non-padded practices, and the Patriots can’t strap ’em on until training camp begins in late July. I am high on Christian Barmore, though, and believe he has a good chance of building on his impressive rookie season.
Barmore said last week that his main focus as he enters Year 2 is to “finish the quarterback” more consistently. He was the Patriots’ second-best pass rusher behind Judon last season but managed just 1 1/2 sacks.