Patriots Mailbag: Could Tom Brady Actually Return To Pats?

Plus: What's wrong with Tyquan Thornton?


December 1, 2022

With the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills squaring off on Thursday this week, we’re bringing you the Patriots mailbag one day early. Let’s get right to your questions:

Why isn’t Thornton being used more?
I’d argue that Tyquan Thornton actually is being used a lot. Since he debuted in Week 5, the second-round rookie is second in snaps played among Patriots wideouts, trailing only No. 1 receiver Jakobi Meyers. He’s played 42 snaps more than DeVante Parker, 47 more than Kendrick Bourne and 119 more than Nelson Agholor during that span.

Thornton has been on the field a lot for the Patriots, and he’s been frequently targeted in relation to his fellow receiver. Meyers dominates that category, but Thornton has seen more targets than Parker, Bourne or Agholor since he came off injured reserve in October. He just has not been productive.

In seven NFL games to date, the Baylor speedster has just 10 catches on 21 targets for 86 yards and one touchdown, plus three carries for 16 yards and one touchdown. Both of those scores came in a Week 6 win over Cleveland. Since then, he’s managed just four catches on 13 targets for 42 yards while seeing his playing time diminish. Quarterback Mac Jones attempted a season-high 39 passes in last week’s loss to Minnesota and didn’t target Thornton once.

Thornton’s 47.6% catch rate this season ranks 111th out of 116 wideouts with at least 20 targets. He’s averaging just 0.56 yards per route run, per Pro Football Focus. Of the 105 wideouts who have played 150-plus receiving snaps, only Cam Sims, A.J. Green and Keelan Cole have lower averages.

This was a fear when Thornton suffered a preseason collarbone injury that wiped out the first month of his rookie year. The Patriots saw a similar situation play out in 2019 with N’Keal Harry, who flashed in training camp but struggled to find his footing after missing the start of his first season with an injury.

We’ll see if Thornton can begin to emerge as he continues to accumulate NFL experience and if the Patriots make any game-plan adjustments to make use of his rare speed. If not, he may see his role continue to shrink in New England’s veteran-laden receiving corps.

With their off-season about to unofficially begin what should their priorities be in FA and the draft?
I think offensive tackle needs to be the Patriots’ No. 1 priority this offseason. I doubt Isaiah Wynn will be back next season, and the Patriots can get out of the final year of Trent Brown’s contract with just $1.25 million in dead money if they choose to do so. Yodny Cajuste is in the last year of his rookie contract, and there’s no young depth in the pipeline outside of Andrew Stueber, a 2022 seventh-round pick who will miss his entire rookie season due to injury.

If I’m the Patriots, who are projected to have the third-most salary cap space in the NFL this offseason, per OverTheCap, I’m spending on at least one proven veteran tackle, if not two, and drafting another in the first or second round. Kansas City’s Orlando Brown Jr., San Francisco’s Mike McGlinchey and Cleveland’s Jack Conklin headline the 2023 free agent class.

As for other offseason needs, the Patriots could stand to improve at wide receiver, edge rusher and linebacker. They also have decisions to make on Meyers and cornerback Jonathan Jones, both of whom will be unrestricted free agents and are having strong seasons. Running back Damien Harris is in a contract year, as well, and seems likely to land elsewhere following Rhamondre Stevenson’s emergence as one of the NFL’s top all-around backs.

This also could be the end for 35-year-old safety Devin McCourty, who’s about to start his 200th career game and would leave a sizable void in the Patriots’ secondary if he opts to retire.

Here’s the full list of impending Patriots UFAs:

WR Jakobi Meyers
CB Jonathan Jones
RB Damien Harris
S Devin McCourty
OT Isaiah Wynn
WR Nelson Agholor
ST Matthew Slater
ST Cody Davis
S Jabrill Peppers
LB Raekwon McMillan
LB Mack Wilson
DT Carl Davis
OT Yodny Cajuste
OT Marcus Cannon
LS Joe Cardona
OL James Ferentz
OT Conor McDermott
CB Joejuan Williams

Slot cornerback Myles Bryant will be a restricted free agent.

Is Bledsoe hurt or just hasn’t managed to carve out a big role this year? If so, disappointing?
Joshuah Bledsoe was dealing with a groin injury early in the season, but mostly, he’s just been buried at the bottom of the Patriots’ deepest position group. With McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Peppers all above him on the safety depth chart, New England hasn’t had much reason to activate Bledsoe.

The 2021 sixth-round draft pick has only dressed for the two games Dugger missed due to injury. He had some positive moments in man coverage against stud tight end Mark Andrews in the Patriots’ Week 3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens but struggled in his other appearance, allowing two touchdowns to New York Jets tight end Tyler Conklin in Week 8.

The Patriots continuing to carry Bledsoe on their roster tells me they believe he can be a contributor down the road, and he did show potential during training camp. Perhaps they view him as a potential long-term replacement for McCourty. But barring an injury to one of those top four veterans, that chance likely won’t come until next season.

It is worth nothing, though, that Peppers sat out Tuesday’s practice with an illness and is listed as questionable for Thursday, so Bledsoe could draw back into the gameday roster if he can’t go.

Will the Pats dare to bring Brady back next year?

That was a wild report to wake up to Wednesday morning, huh?

If you missed it, The Athletic’s Jeff Howe mentioned the Patriots as a possible 2023 landing spot for Tom Brady, who is set to hit free agency after what’s been a thoroughly lackluster 2022 campaign for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Don’t ever write off the Patriots,” Howe wrote. “Brady and Bill Belichick still have an abundance of respect for one another. They’ve made points to say it publicly on multiple occasions since the QB departed for Tampa. They also spent 23 minutes together in the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium following Brady’s return in 2021 — an appointment they set up prior to the game. The Patriots are slated to have more than $100 million in cap space in 2023, so they can again address their flaws, this time on the heels of a couple impressive draft classes.”

Howe didn’t directly report that either Brady or the Patriots are interested in a reunion, but he covered the Pats for a long time, including for this website way back when. He’s well-sourced and wouldn’t float this possibility if there was zero chance of it ever happening.

Will it happen? Probably not. Brady returning to close out his Hall of Fame career with the Patriots seems too poetic, too good to be true. But you can talk yourself into a scenario that makes sense.

Let’s say Mac Jones sputters down the stretch this season, Brady decides he’s dissolutioned with the situation in Tampa, and the Patriots take steps to improve their offense by, say, swapping out Matt Patricia for Bill O’Brien and beefing up their O-line. Would Brady view New England as a desirable enough setting for his final act (and be willing to again subject himself to Belichick’s demanding approach)? Would Belichick be open to trading Jones, or demoting him for a year to learn behind Brady?

A lot of factors would need to converge for this dream scenario for Patriots fans to become a reality. Chief among them: Brady actually deciding to return for his age-46 season rather than retiring. But, as Howe put it, “just when you think you?ve got Belichick figured out, he does something no one sees coming.”

Will there be a Bills punt tomorrow night?
Bold prediction: The Bills will punt at least once Thursday night. Crazy, I know.

In all seriousness, I do believe this Patriots defense is much better equipped to slow down Josh Allen and company than the one they trotted out in last year’s playoffs. Their pass rush is deeper following the emergence of players like Deatrich Wise and Josh Uche, Matthew Judon is playing at a higher level, they’re more athletic at linebacker, and their cornerback group is a gigantic step up from the one they fielded in that game. Remember, Jonathan Jones’ season-ending injury and Jalen Mills’ positive COVID-19 test forced the Patriots to start Joejuan Williams that week and give defensive playing time to Justin Bethel, D’Angelo Ross and De’Vante Bausby. The Patriots also rank near the top of the NFL in interceptions and takeaways this season, and Allen has been careless with the ball of late (seven INTs in his last five games).

I expect the Patriots to put up more of a fight defensively than they did in that playoff loss or the regular-season defeat that preceded it, neither of which featured a single Bills punt. But this will be the toughest test that group has faced all season.

They’ll need to limit Allen’s rushing/scrambling ability, which burned them in both 2021 losses, and put forth a stronger effort against star receiver Stefon Diggs than they did against Justin Jefferson on Thanksgiving (nine catches, 139 yards, one touchdown). Buffalo also has dangerous secondary receiving options in wideouts Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie and tight end Dawson Knox, all of whom had big games against New England last season.

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