Patriots Mailbag: What’s Pats’ 2023 Ceiling After Offseason Moves?

Plus: Predicting the Patriots' draft-day trade approach


March 31

Let’s dive into another batch of your New England Patriots mailbag questions.

Hi Zack, what do you think the odds are that the Patriots bring in Lamar?
Low, it seems. After Robert Kraft said he heard from Meek Mill that Lamar Jackson wants to play for the Patriots — still a very strange sentence to type — Boston Sports Journal’s Greg Bedard and Jeff Howe of The Athletic both reported the team is not planning to pursue the 2019 NFL MVP.

Could that change? Sure. The deadline for Jackson to sign his franchise tender isn’t until July, so it might be several months before this saga is resolved. But it makes sense that New England would be hesitant to pay what it’d take to land the star quarterback, in terms of both trade compensation and salary demands.

Should they be? Opinions on that vary. I broke down the pros and cons of a potential Jackson pursuit earlier this week:

Do you expect the Patriots to trade up, or trade down more in the draft? Seems like they have more of a history trading down rather than up for a player

Traditionally, yes, the Patriots have been more likely to trade down than trade up. But they’ve done plenty of both. Since 2010, the Patriots have traded back 32 times, traded up 17 times and made three draft-day trades to acquire veteran players.

As for how they might handle their first-round pick (No. 14 overall) this year, I’d say a trade back is far more likely than a trade up. The last time the Patriots traded up for a player in Round 1 was way back in 2012, when they did so twice to grab Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. Before that, their last first-round trade-up was in 2003 (Ty Warren). Recently, they traded down in the first round in 2020 and 2022 before selecting Kyle Dugger (No. 37) and Cole Strange (No. 29), respectively.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising, though, to see the Patriots trade up on Day 2. They did so in the second round of each of the last five drafts.

What’s with fans’ obsession with having a WR1? Didn?t KC just win the SB with JSS as their WR1? Do they think BB is going to start running a spread offense? If anything, wouldn’t a TE1 receiving threat be preferable to another WR?
JuJu Smith-Schuster was the No. 1 wide receiver for the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, but he wasn’t their top pass-catching option. That was Travis Kelce, who’s an elite receiver even though he doesn’t technically play the position.

And the reason so many are pushing for the Patriots to add a top-tier pass-catcher is that it’s become increasingly difficult to win in the NFL without one. Every single team that reached the conference championship round in the last three seasons boasted at least one Pro Bowl-caliber wideout — or, in Kansas City’s case, wildly productive tight end:

Kansas City (2020, ’21, ’22): Travis Kelce
Philadelphia (2022): A.J. Brown
Cincinnati (2021, ’22): Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins
San Francisco (2021, ’22): George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk
Los Angeles Rams (2021): Cooper Kupp
Tampa Bay (2020): Mike Evans, Chris Godwin
Buffalo (2020): Stefon Diggs
Green Bay (2020): Davante Adams

The Patriots don’t have a player like that and haven’t in years. We’ll see if they can find a way to add one at some point before Week 1.

what will JRob’s role be?
James Robinson projects as a replacement for Damien Harris, filling that No. 2 running back role behind Rhamondre Stevenson. If he can recapture the form that made him a 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie in 2020, he’ll be a real asset to New England’s offense. His proven pass-catching ability (80 receptions over his first two seasons) also should lighten Stevenson’s load in that area.

But Robinson didn’t look like the same player last season in his return from a torn Achilles, and the New York Jets had no use for him, making him a healthy scratch for the final five games. The Patriots hope they’re getting the Jacksonville version of the 24-year-old.

The Patriots theoretically could have a deep backfield if Robinson rebounds, Ty Montgomery returns from the injury that wiped out nearly his entire 2022 season and Pierre Strong and/or Kevin Harris take a Year 2 leap. But Stevenson is the only sure thing in that position group. New England could look to add another option through the draft.

Do Patriots fans or players have any realistic hope for success this season?
Depends how you define success. Will the Patriots contend for a championship this season? I doubt it. But I do believe this team, as currently constructed, can at least win double-digit games and get back to the playoffs.

I think the arrival of Bill O’Brien and Adrian Klemm will do wonders for Mac Jones and the offense, if only because they’re both experienced coaches who actually know what they’re doing. Jakobi Meyers was a very good player for this team, but Smith-Schuster should be an upgrade if he can stay healthy, and I like the flier the Patriots took on Mike Gesicki, even though he’s not the type of tight end they’ve traditionally targeted. Riley Reiff also can be a serviceable stopgap at tackle, though the Patriots still should do more to shore up that spot.

Defensively, they return basically the entire roster and coaching staff from last year outside of Devin McCourty — a big loss, to be sure — and moving Joe Judge over to special teams should help stabilize that unit after a largely awful 2022.

Overall, the Patriots are in a better spot than they were three months ago, and that’s before we see who they add through the draft or forthcoming signings/trades. They should be a more competitive and less dysfunctional team this season. If I had to make a prediction today, I’d say 10 or 11 wins and a wild-card spot.

Obviously, that wouldn’t be considered a successful season back when Tom Brady was winning Super Bowls, but given where the franchise has been of late, I’m at least seeing some positive progress.

Brian Branch to Patriots? Would be able to replace McCourty and provide some depth to the DBs
It’s possible. Branch is a smart, instinctive player with excellent playmaking and tackling ability, and Belichick definitely love drafting Alabama products. But he’s projected as a first-round pick, and I’m not sure the Patriots would make that kind of investment. They’ve only drafted two Round 1 defensive backs in the Belichick era (Brandon Meriweather in 2007; Devin McCourty in 2010) and none in the last decade-plus.

Branch also mostly played in the slot for the Crimson Tide (just 25 snaps at deep safety last season, per PFF). That’s not a deal-breaker, and some analysts believe he has the talent to transition into a McCourty-esque free saftety role, but it’s worth noting.

There are a handful of intriguing safeties who should be available in the third or fourth round, including Illinois’ Jartavius Martin, Penn State’s Ji’Ayir Brown and Branch’s Bama teammate, Jordan Battle.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
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