After failing to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in three years, the New England Patriots know changes are necessary this offseason.
As Bill Belichick formulates his plan to bring the Patriots back to contention in 2023, here are the eight biggest questions facing his team:
1. Who will be the new offensive coordinator?
The Patriots announced in last Thursday’s shockingly transparent statement that they will hire an official OC this offseason, with interviews for a savior of that much-maligned unit set to begin this week. So, who will it be?
Bill O’Brien projects as the favorite given his deep Patriots ties, prior relationship with Mac Jones and current availability, but there are many potential options, including a promotion for tight ends coach Nick Caley. More comprehensive changes to the offensive staff are possible, too, especially if the new coordinator is given the authority to import some of his preferred assistants.
Per the NFL’s Rooney Rule, New England must interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a new coordinator. That rule also now applies to quarterbacks coaches, as well.
2. What will Jerod Mayo’s role be?
The other half of that aforementioned statement revealed the Patriots and Mayo were in talks on a long-term extension. With Mayo subsequently turning down chances to interview for both defensive coordinator and head-coaching jobs elsewhere, the sides appear to be close to a deal, if they haven’t reached one already.
It’s unlikely the in-demand 36-year-old would stick around in his same linebackers coach/de facto co-defensive coordinator role, though, so this extension almost certainly will include some sort of promotion. The Patriots could make him the official DC, but with Steve Belichick calling defensive plays for the last several seasons, that would be an awkward move. The addition of “assistant head coach” to Mayo’s title — perhaps with an assurance that he’ll be at the front of the line to replace Belichick when the latter retires — might be more likely.
3. Is Mac Jones the guy?
One of the new OC’s primary goals will be expunging some of the bad habits Jones developed during his slog of a season under Matt Patricia and Joe Judge and rekindling the franchise QB potential he showed as a rookie in 2021. That is if Bill Belichick even wants Jones behind center next season.
The head coach has passed up numerous opportunities to commit to Jones as New England’s starter, including one in last week’s end-of-season news conference. Jones’ 2022 regression seemed to be more the result of poor coaching than his own ability, but Belichick’s lukewarm public comments will cause these QB questions to linger throughout the offseason.
4. How will the Patriots address their tackle problem?
Offensive tackle — and specifically right tackle — was the Patriots’ weakest position group this season. The experiment of moving Isaiah Wynn from the left side to the right failed spectacularly, and New England didn’t have enough quality depth behind him.
With only Trent Brown and 2022 seventh-round pick Andrew Stueber currently under contract for 2023, expect this unit to undergo a full-scale makeover, with the Patriots utilizing both veteran free agency and the draft to restock. Even Brown isn’t a lock to stick around, as cutting him would leave behind just $1.25 million in dead money.
5. Will Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater retire?
The Patriots’ season-ending loss in Buffalo felt like goodbye for their two longest-tenured players, but neither McCourty nor Slater has revealed his intentions. Are official retirement announcements forthcoming? Or could one or both return for one more season?
If McCourty, 35, and Slater, 37, do walk away, their departures would leave a massive leadership void, as both served as team captains for the last 12 seasons. The Patriots also don’t have an obvious on-field replacement for McCourty, who spearheads their defensive communication and hasn’t missed a game since 2015.
6. Which free agents will stick around?
McCourty and Slater are just two of the nearly two dozen Patriots players who are set to hit the open market when NFL free agency opens March 15. The headliners are Jakobi Meyers, New England’s top receiver for the past three seasons, and No. 1 cornerback Jonathan Jones.
Others include wideout Nelson Agholor, running back Damien Harris, slot corner Myles Bryant, safety Jabrill Peppers, linebackers Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson, defensive tackles Daniel Ekuale and Carl Davis, Wynn and long snapper Joe Cardona.
The Patriots will have ample money to spend this offseason, as they rank in the top 10 in the NFL in projected salary cap space.
7. Will the Patriots add a true No. 1 wideout?
Meyers has said he would like to re-sign, but as arguably the best receiver available in a weak free-agent class, he might fetch a more lucrative deal outside New England. And even if Meyers does return, the Patriots should work to acquire the type of game-changing wideout they lacked in recent years.
Without many desirable options in free agency, this likely would need to happen via trade, with Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins standing out as a potential blockbuster target. The Patriots also could make a run at Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins, who’s the Bengals’ No. 2 behind Ja’Marr Chase.
8. Will the Patriots have a new punter next season?
By several different metrics, both conventional and advanced, Jake Bailey and Michael Palardy were the NFL’s two worst punters this season. Their struggles contributed heavily to the Patriots’ last-place finish in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA.
Bailey, a first-team All-Pro in 2020, signed a three-year contract extension less than a year ago, but his late-season suspension could void the guarantees in that deal and make it relatively easy for New England to cut him this offseason. Belichick said he hopes Bailey and suspended rookie cornerback Jack Jones both return to the team and contribute, but with Bailey filing a grievance over his ban, a messy divorce seems like the more likely outcome for his situation.
On a related note, special teams coordinator Cam Achord is on the hot seat after his unit’s dismal campaign. The Patriots have yet to announce any staff changes, but moving Judge from quarterbacks coach back to special teams — his longtime area of expertise — and either demoting or firing Achord would be a logical move.