Mailbag time! Let’s get right to your New England Patriots questions.
Which player do you think will improve the most in his second year on the team?
There are several possible candidates, but I’m eager to see how Cole Strange performs in Year 2.
The surprise first-round draft pick was far from perfect as a rookie, but he started every game at left guard and improved as the season progressed, allowing just one sack after Week 8, per Pro Football Focus. Strange now will have a full NFL offseason to pack on some pounds and improve his strengths — stated goals of his — and, more importantly, will have a real offensive line coach to guide him in new hire Adrian Klemm.
Remember, Strange’s position coach last season was Matt Patricia, who hadn’t coached O-linemen since 2005 and also was pulling double duty as New England’s offensive play-caller. He should be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Klemm’s arrival.
Bill Belichick’s decision to take Strange 29th overall last year still deserves scrutiny, and there’s no guarantee he’ll ever live up to that lofty draft slot. But if he can continue his upward trajectory and become even an above-average guard this season, the Patriots’ interior trio of him, center David Andrews and right guard Mike Onwenu could be one of the NFL’s best.
As for other breakout candidates, I thought cornerback Jack Jones flashed Pro Bowl potential last season, but his late-season team suspension was a red flag, especially for a player who had disciplinary issues at both USC and Arizona State. It’s unclear how the Patriots currently view Jones and what his 2023 role might look like.
We’ve also seen plenty of New England running backs emerge in Year 2 after quiet rookie years, so I’m interested to see whether Pierre Strong and/or Kevin Harris can carve out larger offensive roles after combining for just 35 touches and less than 200 yards from scrimmage this season.
Rhamondre Stevenson is the clear top dog in that position group, and the Patriots are hoping new signee James Robinson can return to his pre-injury form, but a Strong/Harris breakout would be a big boost for New England’s backfield.
I’d put do-everything cornerback Marcus Jones in a different class since he already has a first-team All-Pro selection (as a punt returner) on his record. But I want to see if he can take on a more prominent defensive role — in my view, he’s the favorite to land the top slot corner spot — while still providing his occasional explosive plays on offense.
Do you see Tyquan having a bigger role this year? Maybe taking some routes Agholor ran last season?
There’s another player the Patriots are hoping can break out as an NFL sophomore. And I feel like there are some misconceptions about how Tyquan Thornton was used in 2022.
The second-round wideout played a ton as a rookie. A ton.
Thornton missed the first four games with a broken collarbone but played 527 offensive snaps in Weeks 5-18. For reference, leading receiver Jakobi Meyers played 584 during that span. No other Patriots wideout played more than 371.
Injuries accounted for part of that disparity, but Thornton saw at least 150 more snaps than DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor or Kendrick Bourne from his NFL debut through the end of the season:
Patriots wide receiver snaps, Weeks 5-18
Jakobi Meyers, 584 (12 games)
Tyquan Thornton, 527 (13 games)
Kendrick Bourne, 371 (12 games)
Nelson Agholor, 321 (12 games)
DeVante Parker, 316 (nine games)
Lil’Jordan Humphrey, 14 (two games)
Lynn Bowden, 14 (one game)
Raleigh Webb, 1 (10 games)
Despite that heavy workload, Thornton caught just 22 of his 45 targets for 247 yards and two touchdowns while adding three carries for 16 yards and one score. The Baylor burner had one or zero receptions in eight of his 13 appearances, averaged 1.7 catches per game and topped 40 receiving yards just once.
Ninety-two NFL receivers saw at least 45 targets during the 2022 season, and Thornton was the only one who caught less than half of his (48.7%).
Personally, I didn’t see much from Thornton that makes me think he’s about to explode in Year 2. But I could be proven wrong. Missing half the preseason and the first month of the regular season undoubtedly stunted his development, and it’s hard to properly evaluate how any of the Patriots’ offensive players performed last season given how dysfunctional that unit as a whole was under Patricia and Joe Judge.
Staying healthy and quickly picking up new coordinator Bill O’Brien’s scheme will be vital for Thornton this offseason.
New England’s receiving corps currently features newcomer JuJu Smith-Schuster, Parker, Bourne, Thornton, Bowden and Tre Nixon, with the potential for more additions through free agency (Odell Beckham?), trades (DeAndre Hopkins? Jerry Jeudy?) or next month’s draft.
Since we know it will be OL at 14 unless they trade back, which Tackle do you think they will select at 14?
I think offensive tackle is the Patriots’ No. 1 need, and that’s the position I’d target in Round 1 if possible. Georgia’s Broderick Jones looks like a strong option at No. 14 overall based on both talent and projected draft slot, but it’s tough to predict right now where and in which order he and fellow top prospects Peter Skoronski (Northwestern) and Paris Johnson Jr. (Ohio State) will come off the board.
But saying we “know” the Patriots will draft a tackle at No. 14 is inaccurate. Nobody truly knows what the Patriots will do with that pick. Did anyone see them using last year’s 21st pick on Strange, a projected third-rounder? No chance.
I certainly don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that New England has its top pick earmarked for a tackle. I could see them going one of several ways in Round 1. Here’s how I’d rank the likelihood of those possible paths:
2. Front-seven defender (linebacker, edge defender or D-lineman)
3. Defensive back (cornerback or safety)
4. Wide receiver
5. Tight end
The only positions that would truly surprise me on Day 1 are quarterback, running back, interior offensive line and punter/kicker. Everything else, to me, is fair game.
Is there a possibility the Patriots package some picks to get another pick in the late 1st/early second similar to how they got barmore? Feel like there’s a lot of good fits at the positions they need most in that range.
Definitely a chance. The Patriots have made draft-day trades involving first- or second-round picks in each of the last five drafts. The last time they didn’t was in 2017, when they didn’t have any first- or second-rounders because of pre-draft trades for Brandin Cooks and Kony Ealy.
As you mentioned, the Patriots moved up eight spots in Round 2 to draft Christian Barmore in 2021. They also made second-round trade-ups for Thornton (four spots; 2022), Josh Uche (11 spots; 2020), Joejuan Williams (11 spots; 2019) and Duke Dawson (eight spots; 2018).
Obviously, some of those selections worked out better than others — Williams and Dawson were big whiffs — but New England has shown a clear willingness to aggressively target players it wants on Day 2.
With so many late round picks, do you think they pick both a P and a K? Possibly the Rutgers punter and Michigan kicker?
That’s exactly what I have them doing in my latest mock draft: Rutgers punter Adam Korsak in the sixth round (No. 187) and Michigan kicker Jake Moody six picks later.
It wouldn’t be surprising, though, to see a punter and/or kicker pick in Round 5 after the inevitable flurry of draft-day trades. That’s where the Patriots have drafted most of their specialists.