FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. What's next? Coach Bill Belichick’s strategy has been clear-cut through the first week of free agency, with the Patriots essentially swapping Mike Gesicki for Jonnu Smith at tight end, JuJu Smith-Schuster for Jakobi Meyers at receiver, working the mid-to-lower end of the market to build depth at offensive tackle, and retaining as many defenders as possible.
What moves might be next? What top areas of need remain?
The Patriots have a large void at safety following Devin McCourty’s retirement, which is why they were visiting with free agent Taylor Rapp (Los Angeles Rams) on Thursday.
Cornerback still ranks among their most vulnerable spots, following the release of starter Jalen Mills on Friday. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots invest a high draft choice at that spot (the team owns the 14th pick and has 11 overall selections) in a year that analysts predict a strong group of early-round prospects at the position.
Likewise at offensive tackle, where the Patriots could line up today if they had to play a game, but would benefit from an infusion of upside and/or youth.
Wide receiver, with a top four of Smith-Schuster, DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton and Kendrick Bourne, fits in that discussion as well.
Those look like the sweet spots, and nothing seems to move the needle as much as the quest for a top receiver, leading current Patriots linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. to hop on Twitter last week to recruit Denver Broncos pass-catcher Jerry Jeudy and Arizona Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The team also had a scout at Odell Beckham Jr.’s recent workout.
What we doing @DeAndreHopkins ? 👀— Mack Wilson Sr. (@MackWilSr) March 16, 2023
Aye lil bro @jerryjeudy you'll look good in that @Patriots blue, red & white!— Mack Wilson Sr. (@MackWilSr) March 16, 2023
Belichick’s former assistant, Michael Lombardi, said on his "GM Shuffle" podcast that he believes Hopkins’ market is “really soft” because teams are reluctant to trade for him and “re-do his contract.” The financial expectation with Beckham, who is coming off a torn ACL, reportedly is similar.
That suggests nothing is imminent with those players, at least from a Patriots standpoint.
2. Judge’s role: When McCourty told the story of how he informed Belichick of his decision to retire in a WEEI radio interview, he described how he walked into Belichick’s office and Joe Judge was there meeting with Belichick. That reflects what some believe will ultimately be Judge’s role with the team this year: a senior adviser to Belichick.
3. McCourty sound bites: Notable sound bites from McCourty’s hourlong in-studio interview:
On quarterback Mac Jones: “I don’t think he should be subjected to as much displeasure and scrutiny as he gets. We sat here his rookie year and said, ‘Hey, I’m with this! I like this new era.’ We go to the playoffs and it’s like ‘Here we go!’ Then what happened this year from an offensive situation coaching-staff-wise … He needs to have some consistency [around him].”
On 2022 QBs/offense: “I think player-wise there was enough trust that we’re going to put the best guy out there. But the struggles on offense, I think there were some guys in the locker room that were like ‘Let’s go with [Bailey] Zappe.’ Or ‘No, Mac looked good today.’ It was just a back and forth, which to me, spoke more about what we had on offense than the quarterback. We never were solidified as an offensive group that guys had full confidence in anything we were doing. There was never true hope.”
On whether he would trade for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson: “I don’t know if I would do that, because once I give Lamar Jackson that money, we don’t have enough right now, to me, that would be like ‘This team is going to win a Super Bowl if we just put Lamar Jackson here instead of Mac.’”
On free agent signings: “Too much activity, as a player, is scary. In ’21, when we had a ton of activity and all the fans were like ‘Yes! We got this guy!’ … it’s so hard to know how that’s going to work out.”
4. Big year for BB: McCourty’s recap of how players viewed the offense highlights Belichick’s miscalculation with his coaching-staff approach in 2022, and some of the internal damage that resulted from it. It sets up 2023 as a critical bounce-back year for him. Belichick, who is 25-26 over the past three seasons, is 18 wins away from tying Don Shula for the NFL’s all-time wins mark.
5. Financial health: As it stands, the Patriots are among the league leaders in salary cap space for 2024 with around $140 million. This is a result, in part, of not having a big-ticket quarterback on the roster because Jones (through 2024 with a possible fifth-year option for 2025) and Bailey Zappe (through 2025) are on their rookie deals. Cap space can dissolve quickly as players are added to the roster or deals are extended (e.g., right guard Mike Onwenu and safety Kyle Dugger are in the final year of their contracts). But the franchise is in a healthy spot from a two-year financial snapshot.
6. Mac back on track?: While it’s a big bounce-back year for Belichick, it’s one for Jones as well. Can he overcome last season's “never true hope” dynamic to get back on track? Giants quarterback Daniel Jones had similar turbulence early in his career and rebounded in 2022 with more stability around him. What unfolds with Mac Jones will provide the organization with critical information to inform its decision on his fifth-year option, which must be made by spring of next year.
7. Little left from 2019: Reserve offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste is the last of the team’s 10 draft picks from 2019 still on the roster, and he might not be there by the end of training camp. With top ’19 undrafted free agent Meyers signing with the Raiders in free agency, the Patriots now have almost nothing left from the class that ideally would have grown in their system and been entering their prime years/fifth seasons in the NFL. Thankfully for them, the drafts from 2020 to 2022 appear at least a little more promising.
8. Buying low on Gesicki: Newly signed Patriots tight end Gesicki was fifth in receptions (73) two seasons ago among players at his position and targeted on 22% of his routes with the Dolphins. But his target rate dropped to 16% last season and he had just 32 catches (tied for 28th among tight ends), after the Dolphins added Tyreek Hill and relied more on their receivers in coach Mike McDaniel’s system. So the Patriots bought low on their one-year deal with Gesicki, who is banking on the Patriots’ system increasing his value for next year’s market.
9. Robinson intel: Sometimes Belichick targets a free agent who has hurt the Patriots, but that isn’t the case with running back James Robinson. In fact, it was Robinson’s lack-of-explosive performance against New England last season (7 carries, 10 yards) that ultimately led the Jets’ coaching staff to lose confidence in him and lead him to fall out of favor in New York. Robinson, who was dealing with a lingering knee injury in 2022 and had been coming off Achilles’ surgery at the end of 2021, should arrive in New England with plenty of motivation to prove the Jets wrong -- which immediately aligns him with Belichick.
10. Did you know? Newly signed Patriots receiver Smith-Schuster, who at 20 years old in 2017 became the youngest player to score a touchdown in the NFL since Chicago’s Andy Livingston in 1964, attended the same high school as Patriots Hall of Famer Willie McGinest -- Long Beach Polytechnic.