The 2023 NFL season could be a pivotal one for the Patriots and the future of the franchise.

Mac Jones took a huge step back in his development in his second season. Matt Patricia was New England’s primary play-caller, and as expected, he was completely out of his depth. Joe Judge and Bill Belichick didn’t provide much help either, though Jones didn’t help himself with his decision-making. This led to internal disputes where the 24-year-old quarterback reportedly had a lot more frustrations than his on-field outbursts indicated.

Owner Robert Kraft vowed change would come after the Patriots missed out on the postseason, and New England brought back Bill O’Brien to be the team’s offensive coordinator. It also made additional signings to the receiving corps to help Jones out. The pressure is on for the top brass as it has been inconsistent since Tom Brady left in 2020.

Jones must prove this season he is worthy of being the top guy and the anchor of the franchise. But what about the other pieces around him? ESPN’s Seth Walder on Thursday released rankings of the top cores in the NFL, choosing five players from each team who he deemed to be the “cornerstone” of that franchise.

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Unsurprisingly, the Kansas City Chiefs took the top spot on the list with Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce leading the way. The Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets were in the top 10, ranking fourth, fifth and eighth, respectively.

As for the Patriots, they earned the No. 27 spot on the rankings. Jones, Matthew Judon, Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche and Michael Onwenu were named New England’s cornerstone players, which gave the team an average core age of 26.4.

“It seems plenty plausible that Jones’ 2021 rookie season, in which he ranked 16th in QBR, is more indicative of the player he’ll become than what he did last season (28th) with Matt Patricia as his playcaller,” Walder wrote. “Judon and Uche combined for 27 sacks in 2022, but this core lacks superstars.”

It’s hard to argue against that last point. Players like Rhamondre Stevenson and Tyquan Thornton will have a lot to prove in 2023, and it appears the latter is making positive strides with Jones in OTAs. The Christian Gonzalez pick was highly praised and called one of the steals of the 2023 NFL Draft, and it’s possible he can be the top corner on the defense, which could vault him up as a cornerstone piece for the Patriots.

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It’s difficult to project how well New England will play in what is expected to be a loaded AFC East. But it would not be a surprise if the team dramatically changes if New England fails to reach expectations for a second season in a row.

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