Mailbag time! Let’s jump right into this week’s batch of New England Patriots questions.

Hey Zack! Do you sense that the Patriots have a level of interest in Deandre Hopkins? Do you think they will pursue him?
I’ve seen at least five separate reports from reputable reporters indicating the Patriots do, in fact, have interest in Hopkins. Whether they’ll be willing to meet his asking price and outbid more readymade contenders for his services remains to be seen, but I’d say the star wideout signing with New England at least is a realistic possibility.

Here’s the case for the Patriots as I see it:

— Bill Belichick loves Hopkins. He spoke glowingly about the soon-to-be 31-year-old last season, comparing him to Hall of Famer Cris Carter and saying he’s “every bit as good as anybody I’ve ever coached against.” And even though the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game in four years, praise from Belichick still carries weight among NFL players.

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— The Patriots entered Friday with around $14.1 million in salary cap space, per OverTheCap. If Albert Breer’s prediction proves correct and Hopkins is forced to settle for roughly half of his previous 2023 salary ($19.45 million), New England wouldn’t have any trouble fitting him under its cap. A Hopkins signing also likely would push either DeVante Parker or Kendrick Bourne off the roster, and cutting or trading either of those players would free up between $5.5 million and $6.2 million in additional cap room.

This gives the Patriots a financial edge over teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, both of whom have less than $1.5 million in cap space to play with. The Athletic’s Tim Graham on Thursday reported Buffalo was a “long shot” to sign Hopkins because of its limited cap space.

    What do you think?  Leave a comment.

— If Hopkins wants to play with a superstar quarterback and for a clear Super Bowl contender, then he and the Patriots are not a good match. But he didn’t mention either of those factors when explaining what he’s looking for in his next team. In an interview with the “I AM ATHLETE” podcast before his release from the Arizona Cardinals, Hopkins said he wants to join a team with “stable management,” a QB who “loves the game” and “a great defense.” The Patriots check all three of those boxes.

And for those saying he’d never want to link up with an unproven quarterback like Mac Jones, Hopkins specifically said he values passion more than talent at that position.

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“(I want) a QB who loves the game, a QB who brings everybody on board with him and pushes not just himself but people around him,” he said. “I don’t need a great QB. I’ve done it with subpar QBs. Just a QB who loves the game like I do.”

The Bill O’Brien factor is a wild card here, as it’s not clear whether Hopkins would be keen to link back up with his former Texans coach after the way things ended between them in Houston. But if that’s now water under the bridge for the five-time Pro Bowler, I think the Patriots have a real chance of winning these sweepstakes.

Which Patriots rookie will have the biggest impact this year?
I’m going to take the easy way out and say Christian Gonzalez, since he was the first-round pick and should have a clear path to significant playing time at cornerback. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gonzalez was a Week 1 starter, but we don’t yet have a great idea of how he’ll fit in since he wasn’t at practice Wednesday. It’s unclear what sidelined the Oregon product, who participated in at least one of the team’s two OTAs last week.

It looks like all three of the Patriots’ top picks could have real defensive roles this season, however, as second-round edge rusher Keion White and third-round linebacker Marte Mapu both saw plenty of reps with the defensive regulars in the latest practice. Sixth-rounder Demario Douglas also showed some flashes as a slot receiver, and New England could field an all-rookie kicker/punter duo of Chad Ryland and Bryce Baringer can beat out Nick Folk and Corliss Waitman, respectively. They both looked good Wednesday, though Ryland did pull one field goal wide left.

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Overall, this is an exciting draft class that should be fun to watch this summer.

Thornton by all intents and purposes had a great day of OTA’s yesterday. Do you think that OTA performances actually are an indicator for the regular season or that they don’t really mean much?
OTAs in general don’t mean much, and drawing any definitive conclusions off one single spring practice is especially silly. That said, it was encouraging to see Tyquan Thornton perform the way he did this week. He looked bigger, stronger and more confident while still showcasing his calling-card speed. He was heavily involved in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills and showed a promising connection with Mac Jones, who said after practice that Thornton is “going to be a great player for a long time.”

I’ve written in previous mailbags that I was not particularly impressed with Thornton last season. He saw a ton of playing time — more snaps than all Patriots wideouts other than Jakobi Meyers from Week 5 on — but rarely contributed, topping 40 receiving yards just once and tallying one or zero catches in eight of his 13 appearances. Thornton emerging as a viable offensive weapon in Year 2 would be huge for the Patriots’ offense, and Wednesday was a positive first step.

Offensive line needs to be a focal point this year, do you think they slot Trent back in at RT? My guess would be
-LT- Trent Brown
-LG- Cole Strange
-C- David Andrews
-RG- Mike Oweneu
-RT- Reilly Reiff

If I was predicting the starting five, that’s the combination I’d go with. But we still don’t know where Brown and Reiff will play. The former did not practice Wednesday, and the latter saw reps at both tackle spots. When Reiff was at right tackle — as he was to start practice — Calvin Anderson played on the left side. When he switched to left tackle, Conor McDermott slotted in on the right. Anderson and McDermott both stuck to their respective sides while Reiff rotated.

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If the Patriots want to keep their top two bookends in the positions they played last season, they’ll have Brown at left tackle and Reiff at right tackle. But Brown performed better on the right side in 2021 than he did on the left in ’22, and left tackle is Reiff’s natural position, though the 34-year-old hasn’t played there regularly since 2020.

So, the plan here remains a mystery. But this tackle group does look substantially deeper than it was a year ago, even if it lacks top-end talent.

Do you think the Week 1 roster will have on it a player not currently on the Patriots’ 90-man active roster? What’s the latest on Jack Jones’ grievance? Did placing Raekwon McMillan on IR change your 53-man roster projection? If so, how!
History suggests it will. In seven of the last nine seasons, the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster included at least one player who joined the team after June 1. Last year was one of the two exceptions, however, and most of those midsummer additions were depth players — guys like Tim Wright, David Harris, Barkevious Mingo, Jermaine Eluemunor and Shaun Wade. The lone star on that list: Cam Newton, who signed in July 2020. Hopkins, of course, would be another if the Patriots are able to land him.

2. Not sure how Jones’ grievance worked out from a financial/contractual standpoint, but he was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice, so his team-imposed suspension is over.

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3. Yes. I had McMillan making the cut in my post-draft roster projection, and that won’t be possible after the linebacker landed on injured reserve last week. For now, I’ll swap him with Mack Wilson, who was one of my final cuts.

When is the next open to reporters practice?
Next Tuesday, followed by a three-day mandatory minicamp the following Monday through Wednesday (June 12-14). That gives us a total of five open spring practices before the team breaks for the summer.

Bill Belichick has a history of canceling the final June practice or two and giving players an early start on their vacations, so that schedule still is subject to change. The odds of that happening again this year likely are lower, however, since the Patriots already had two OTAs wiped out in their punishment for offseason meeting violations.

Featured image via Michael Chow/Arizona Republic via USA TODAY Sports Images