Patriots Mailbag: Who Is New England’s Most Underrated Player?

Plus, who will return punts and how many tight ends will New England carry?


Sep 2, 2022

Mailbag time! Time to answer a few of your New England Patriots questions as the team heads off for its post-preseason bye week.

Hi Zack! Who do you think is the most underrated player on this 2022 Patriot team
Hello! And great question. The first player who comes to mind there is linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. He’s entering his third season as a full-time starter, has 200 tackles over the last two and probably will be a team captain this year, yet he’s very rarely discussed. Since he re-signed in March, has published exactly one story with Bentley’s name in the headline. Feels like a locked-in defensive starter about whom teammates rave should get more pub than he does.

Other candidates include Adrian Phillips, who was Pro Football Focus’s eighth-highest-graded safety last season and has been a defensive difference-maker since he arrived in 2020, and Jakobi Meyers, who remains New England’s No. 1 receiver even after his position group added Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton over the last 18 months.

Which PS players are most likely to be protected ?
My guess would be none. The NFL introduced the concept of protecting practice squad players two years ago, and the Patriots have chosen to utilize that option exactly once: in Week 18 last season. It’s also worth noting every team had a chance to sign all 16 of New England’s current practice squadders after cutdown day and chose not to.

If the Patriots were in the business of protecting practice squad players, I’d put LaBryan Ray on that list. The undrafted Alabama product was a frequently visible playmaker during training camp and the preseason, and I was surprised when he was left off the 53-man roster. I think he has a bright future if he can avoid the injury issues that wrecked his college career.

Will the Pats elevate Sokol to the gameday roster or roll with 2 TEs?
That’ll be interesting to see. The Patriots typically carried just two tight ends on their gameday roster last season — third-stringer Devin Asiasi was a healthy scratch for all but one game — but they hardly used any two-tight end sets, ranking sixth-to-last in 12 personnel usage (1RB, 2TE). That’s expected to change this year, as we saw Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith on the field together a lot this summer. New England also no longer employs a fullback, so that’s one gameday roster spot vacated.

Carrying a third tight end for depth purposes seems like the safe move, as long as that player can contribute on special teams. It seems risky to design a game plan that heavily utilizes 12 personnel if one injury to Henry or Smith can render that package unusable.

Matt Sokol, who played well in the kicking game in the preseason finale, would be a more likely elevation option that New England’s other practice squad tight end, Jalen Wydermyer. The Patriots also elevate or promote big-bodied wideout Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who’s capable of providing depth at receiver, tight end and in the kicking game.

Ty Updates

The Patriots notably did not place Ty Montgomery on injured reserve when they moved Thornton to IR on Thursday. While they still could in the coming days, that seemed to indicate they expect the versatile running back to return within the first four weeks of the regular season.

Before being carted off with an ankle injury in the Patriots’ preseason finale, Montgomery had enjoyed a strong camp, locking himself into a roster spot and looking like the most likely replacement to retired third-down back James White.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Patriots handle their backfield if Montgomery, who did not practice this week, cannot play against Miami in next Sunday’s season opener. Would they feel comfortable using rookie Pierre Strong as their No. 3 back behind Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson? Or would they opt to elevate the more experienced J.J. Taylor from the practice squad?

The speedy Strong has an intriguing skill set and could be White’s long-term successor, but he did not look ready for a major role this summer after an injury limited him for the first week of training camp.

Rhamondre’s role this season is?

I expect Stevenson to be the 1B to Harris’ 1A to open the season, and I anticipate him playing a much larger role in the passing game than he did as a rookie. My guess is that pass-catching back position becomes more of a shared role than it was during White’s tenure, with Montgomery, Stevenson and potentially even Harris all contributing. It was hard to glean much from the Patriots’ running back usage during the preseason, as they would play each of their top three backs for a full series before rotating to the next for the following drive. (When all three were healthy against the Carolina Panthers, it went Harris, then Stevenson, then Montgomery, then once more through the order before the reserves came in.)

There’s a reason Stevenson has been getting so much fantasy buzz this summer, though. Along with his growing role as a receiver, it wouldn’t shock me if eventually leapfrogs Harris and becomes New England’s top early-down option, as well. The Patriots still have a lot of run-blocking issues to work out, but Stevenson showed legit star potential last season and had a good camp.

Is Myles Bryant mostly a safety this year, I’ve seen him play significant snaps at safety during the pre season
Bryant did play some safety in the preseason and has seen plenty of snaps there in the past. But based on what we saw this summer, I expect him to open the season as the Patriots’ No. 1 option in the slot. He and outside cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones were locked in as the starting trio for the final two weeks of the preseason, with Jones bumping out from the slot role he’s played for most of his career.

Whether Bryant is the best choice for that role remains to be seen — fans will remember how badly he struggled against Buffalo’s Isaiah McKenzie last season — but he seems to have a clear edge over rookie Marcus Jones at this point, erasing the early lead the third-round pick built early in camp.

Plus, the Patriots are incredibly deep at safety with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers and Joshuah Bledsoe all making the roster. I’m sure we’ll see Bryant line up there on occasion this season, but the slot should be his primary focus.

Who is the punt returner?
Either Bryant or Marcus Jones. Jones is the higher-upside option based on how prolific he was in college (NCAA record-tying nine return touchdowns), but Bryant got first ups there for most of the summer and looked solid.

Could we see Demarcus Mitchell on both defense and special teams? His build/skill set is really similar to Trey Flowers and possibly give us a boost off the edge

I expect undrafted rookies Mitchell and Brenden Schooler both to be special teams-first players this season, but Mitchell does have the better chance of the two to contribute defensively. The Purdue product showed some pass-rushing juice this summer, and the Patriots aren’t especially deep on the edge.

Record prediction
9-8. I don’t this season will be the full-blown disaster that some are predicting, but I have a hard time envisioning a better record than last year’s with how much better the rest of the AFC has gotten (on paper, at least). Slightly above .500 and in the mix for a wild-card spot sounds about right to me.

Thumbnail photo via Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports Images
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