Patriots Mailbag: Why Pats Offense Needs More Kendrick Bourne

Plus: How Cole Strange fared in his debut


September 16, 2022

It’s Friday morning. You know what that means: time for a fresh New England Patriots mailbag.

Let’s jump right into your questions ahead of Sunday’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Will Kendrick Bourne get back up the depth chart
Was I surprised that Bourne didn’t have a major role in the Patriots’ Week 1 loss in Miami? No. Things seemed to be trending that way for the last several weeks between his lack of production in training camp, the joint practice ejection, the surprise preseason benching (which we now know, per multiple reports this week, was punishment for being late to a meeting) and his increasingly frequent demotions to the second-team offense.

In the Patriots’ hierarchy of pass-catchers, Bourne was clearly behind fellow receivers Jakobi Meyers, DeVante Parker and Nelson Agholor and tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to open the season. So it wasn’t surprising to see him play less than all five of those players.

But I didn’t expect Bourne to be on the field for just two measly snaps against the Dolphins, with both of those coming on the Patriots’ final possession of the game. Even after a lackluster summer, he’s too talented and valuable of a player to be glued to the bench for 54 straight minutes, especially when the guys above him aren’t bringing the big-play potential he’s proven he can provide.

Mac Jones has just two 15-plus-yard completions in the loss, and one of them was a 41-yard bomb to Bourne, who was on the field for about 30 total seconds. Parker — a good receiver who should help the Patriots this season — played every snap and caught one pass for 9 yards.

Last season, Bourne was the Patriots’ most productive receiver on a per-target basis (11.4 yards per) while also catching 78.6% of his targets. Both of those ranked in the top three among NFL wideouts with at least 40 targets. For context, the consistent, reliable Meyers had a catch rate of just 65.9% while averaging 6.9 yards per target.

Meyers and Parker are the two starting wideouts, but the Patriots should strive for a more equitable snap distribution that gets Bourne into the mix more often. And that seems likely to happen. Recent reports have suggested Bourne’s playing time will increase moving forward, perhaps with a nudge from team owner Robert Kraft.

Hi Zack, great job as usual!! I wanted to get your thoughts on how Cole Strange played in his first game.
Thank you!! It initially looked like Strange had been benched in the second quarter of his NFL debut, but he returned after two series and said after the game that his temporary removal was part of a planned rotation. We’ll see if that was just a one-off designed to combat the oppressive Miami heat or something that will continue in future weeks.

When he was on the field, Strange generally held up well. Pro Football Focus graded him as the Patriots’ top-performing pass blocker, charging him with no pressures, hits or sacks in 27 pass-blocking opportunities. Since we don’t know the exact protection call, it’s tough to determine whether Strange was at fault on Emmanuel Ogbah’s unblocked first-quarter sack, but PFF charged that one to left tackle Trent Brown.

PFF was lower on his performance as a run blocker. His 57.0 grade in that area was the second-lowest of any Patriots lineman, ahead of only his short-term replacement, James Ferentz.

Center David Andrews gave Strange an unprompted shoutout in his postgame presser, saying the first-round rookie “did a great job in his first NFL start.” So, it seems like his teammates were encouraged by his performance.

Will New England find a way to get Jonnu smith the ball more?
Yes, and I think you saw that start to happen last Sunday. Three catches on four targets for 33 yards isn’t exactly a banner performance, but it was far more productive than most of Smith’s games in 2021, when he caught more than two passes just once after Week 4 and topped 30 receiving just three times all season.

I don’t think Smith is suddenly going to start averaging six or seven catches per game — that’s never been his M.O., even during his best years in Tennessee — but I do believe the Patriots will try to set him up for more few catch-and-run opportunities than they did last season. They ran two screen passes to him against Miami, and both picked up first downs on second-and-10.

Making plays with the ball in his hands always has been Smith’s greatest strength. Remember, Belichick once said he’s “probably the best in the league” at generating yards after the catch, and the numbers — which I’ve mentioned in several previous mailbags — bear that out. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, he’s ranked in the top three among tight ends in YAC per reception in each of the last three seasons, and he was third overall in 2021, trailing only wideouts Deebo Samuel and Mecole Hardman.

What I’m interested to see is whether Smith can produce on plays that aren’t specifically schemed up for him. Mac Jones targeted the high-priced tight end twice on deep balls against the Dolphins (including one that was negated by offsetting penalties) but couldn’t connect on either.

When will we seem them utilize the weapon that is Marcus Jones on returns?
There’s a good chance Jones takes over punt-return duties at some point this season — he showed in college that he can be a legit weapon in that role — but the Patriots clearly trust Myles Bryant more back there at the moment. And I think Bryant has been solid, especially for someone who hadn’t returned punts since high school before this past spring.

New England’s lack of explosive plays in the return game against Miami had more to do with the Dolphins’ gunners (ex-Patriots Justin Bethel and Keion Crossen) than anything Bryant was doing. He had one quality return for 12 yards and was smothered by an unblocked Bethel on his other non-fair catch attempt.

It’ll be interesting to see who returns kickoffs this week with Ty Montgomery now on injured reserve. Rookie running back Pierre Strong, who ran a 4.37-second 40 at this year’s combine, would be an intriguing option there if he’s healthy and active. (Strong was a healthy scratch in Week 1 and has been limited in practice this week with a shoulder injury.) J.J. Taylor is another possibility if the Patriots opt to elevate him from the practice squad over Strong.

Do you think Bill will give in and name legit coordinators by the end of the season or is he gonna stick with the Patricia/Judge thing?
I would be shocked if Belichick named an official coordinator on either side of the ball during the season. There wouldn’t be any real benefit in doing that.

But could he shake up the play-calling structure if things aren’t going well offensively? Absolutely. Belichick never has been afraid to adjust plans when necessary, and he said during training camp that he’d be willing to shake up New England’s offense if the results aren’t there.

“If you’re spending time on something that’s not productive,” he said in early August, “then maybe you need to change it or find something else. It’s just not efficient.”

The question, then, is how long Belichick would wait to make such a change if the offense doesn’t begin producing.

The Patriots weren’t a disaster offensively in Week 1, but they committed a few costly mistakes (three turnovers, two badly blown protections) and couldn’t overcome overcome them, following a similar blueprint from many of their 2021 losses. Only one of their eight possessions produced points, making them one of just three NFL teams (along with Green Bay and Dallas) not to have multiple scoring drives in their opening game.

I’ve predicted for months that Belichick eventually will take over play-calling duties from Matt Patricia, and I stand by that position. Patricia’s unorthodox role as offensive line coach and offensive play-caller does not seem sustainable.

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New England Patriots coach Matt Patricia
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