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#PostPulpit Mailbag: Exploring the Patriots’ offseason options

Related: 4 immediate takeaways as the Patriots enter the offseason

Jacksonville Jaguars v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are officially on to the offseason. With that, attention turns too planning for free agency, the NFL Draft, and everything else that comes in between. We’ll get right into this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag, where we will explore a number of offseason topics.

But, here are a few key dates to remember as we enter the offseason beforehand:

  • February 22 through March 8: Franchise/Transition Player designation period
  • March 1 through March 7: NFL Combine
  • March 14 through March 16: Legal tampering period
  • March 16: 2022 NFL league year/free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET
  • April 18: Start of offseason workouts for teams with no head coaching change
  • April 22: Last day of restricted free agent signing period
  • April 27: Last day to match offer sheets to restricted free agents
  • April 28 through April 30: 2022 NFL Draft

With that out of the way, let’s open up the mailbag.

@BigPapaSwid Entering year 4 for Wino, year 3 for Uche, Jennings and red shirt taken off Perkins. Will any of them finally see significant playing time next year?

While the clamoring for the Patriots to add more speed and athleticism to their defense is worthwhile, the fact they have been unable to integrate explosive players with those skillsets, like Winovich and Uche, into their defense the past two years should be worrisome. It’s no question the two former Wolverines provide a different element to their game than any other Patriot linebacker, yet Uche played just six snaps in last Saturday’s loss while Winovich was a healthy inactive.

The main reason we haven't seen much of these two is they just don't fit the mold of a typical Patriot EDGE defender. They don't set the edge well and contain those in the pocket. In Bill Belichick’s defensive system, he likes his “thumper” linebackers to play downhill, provide pressure, and stop the run.

In order for these younger, more explosive players to see a true uptick in playing time, it would most likely mean a change in philosophy for Belichick’s defense. But, after watching Buffalo run laps around them in the Wild Card, and with bruisers like Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley set to hit free agency, there might not be a better time than now to undergo that shift.

@HunterNuts What’s the realistic 2022 outlook for Wino, Williams, Harry, Uche, Asiasi, Jennings, and Keene? Basically the top picks of 2019 and 2020 not named Dugger or Harris. Man that’s depressing

We just touched on Winovich and Uche, and I’d put 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings in a similarly category as them. As for Keene, the possibility of shifting him into a fullback-type role still comes to my mind, as he won’t pass Hunter Henry or Jonnu Smith on the depth chart. Jakob Johnson is set to be a restricted free agent and had a strong year as a lead-blocker, but doesn't frighten defenses in the passing game. Keene lined up all over the field at Virginia Tech and has some strong yards after catch ability. It could be a way to help open up their passing attack even more.

As for N’Keal Harry and Joejuan Williams, it feels like both players have played their final snaps for the Patriots.

@Captmike24 Can McMillan Jennings or McGrone contribute next year?

When talking about adding athleticism at the linebacker position, Raekwon McMillan and Cameron McGrone are two more examples of the Patriots actually doing so. Unfortunately, both players missed this season due to a torn ACL.

McGrone is a player I am extremely excited for and thought they stole him in the fifth-round of last year’s draft. He has an explosive athletic profile and can be a three-down linebacker at the professional level with some serious playmaking potential. McMillan is also a name not to forget, as he was extended this past offseason after his strong start to training camp was derailed by a torn ACL. Perhaps they can count on McMillan, who has 45 career games under his belt, more at the beginning of the season, but both players could be significant parts of a potential new-look defense.

@kengonthier Do you think we should pay JC Jackson/ franchise him, or let him leave and use that money to spread around to fill other holes in the defense in effort to develop a new, young defense?

The J.C. Jackson dilemma will be the Patriots major roadblock as they enter this offseason. New England will have until March 8 to decide if they’ll place a franchise or transition tag on Jackson, who absolutely proved his worth this season.

Exploring the options, retaining the pricey Jackson most likely makes the most sense for New England. In a defense that plays a ton of man-to-man, keeping one of the premiere cover cornerbacks, who still is only 26, should be a no brainer — especially with the limited depth behind him.

But, if the Patriots do want to completely overhaul their defensive scheme, and Bill Belichick wants to play more zone coverage for the first time in his career, maybe they do explore other possibilities. New England could look to reallocate Jackson’s potential funds for a premiere receiver and second-tier corner in free agency. It’s a risky and unlikely decision, but one that could cross the minds of those over at One Patriot Place.

My guess is the Patriots place the franchise tag on their star corner if they cannot work out a long-term deal.

@mtb2345 Would you sign Akeem Hicks next free agency? He can help a lot run stop

While we’ve explored linebackers, the Patriots absolutely need to do something about their run defense. As we discussed, Belichick’s typical linebackers play down hill and stop the run, as he employs two-gapping lineman along the line. This year, as the Patriots’ man coverage did not hold up, linebackers were forced to drop back in zones and the defensive lineman, who are not supposed to be playmakers, were left on islands against the run.

To fix this issue, New England should look to acquire more one-gapping lineman who can penetrate along the interior, like rookie Christian Barmore. Bringing back Aikem Hicks could certainly be apart of that solution, as Hicks has been one of the league’s best run defenders over the past few years. He has suffered some injuries the past few seasons, so the price would have to be right for the 32-year-old veteran, but he'd be a welcomed addition back along the Patriots’ interior.

@SxnchezBlessed what do you wanna do with the 21st pick use it on a skill position or trade it away

It’s officially draft season folks.

I don't really look at college players throughout the season beyond watching them live, so my spicy draft takes are not fully accurate yet. However, after doing some initial research the past few days, there are some immediate names that have jumped off the page.

To start, Nakobe Dean (Georgia) is the new-style of athletic linebacker and could be a fit for an overhauled defense, while Utah’s Devin Lloyd is a physical linebacker who can remain on the fields in passing downs. Sticking with defense, there are a plethora of man-to-man cover corners and run-stopping defensive tackle available to help solidify their defense. If they do go skill position, Ohio State’s Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson are my early frontrunners.

A lot will change, and the No. 21 overall pick screams Belichick trade back, but those are some early names/positions to keep an eye on.

@kase_cm Preferred WR in the draft between Olave, Bell, Robinson, Metchie?

Back to the wide receivers, Olave and Wilson are my top two choices, with Olave a slight favorite. Neither player is a physical specimen, but it quite frankly doesn't matter. They are strong route runners and separators with big play ability any time they touch the ball. Either would be a great fit for Mac Jones and the Patriots’ offense.

As for the Alabama receivers (Jameson Williams and John Metchie), who both suffered torn ACL’s over the past few months, it will be interesting to see how their draft stock will be affected. Both are explosive athletes and top prospects, but will likely miss all of OTA’s, training camp, and any other offseason programs. They can certainly play, but patience would be the key word.

@bbelding Which Dawg is Bill going to draft? We lost Sony so we need to fill that spot with a Champion.

How dare you forget David Andrews, Brett. But, I digress.

We already mentioned Nakobe Dean, so defensive tackle Jordan Davis is another name to watch. Davis was a literal and figurative monster (6-foot-6, 340 pounds) along Georgia’s defensive interior, showcasing a strong sense of athleticism despite his size. He has the ability to be a one- or two-gap lineman and is the nation’s best interior run defender.

If the Patriots don't want to pony up a day-one pick to likely draft Davis, they could look to his counterpart, Devonte Wyatt. Wyatt is a day-two prospect and is another strong athlete along the interior. He played more snaps throughout the year than Davis and provides more backfield disruption, while also being a strong run defender.

@Murreth_ What the Eff happened during the Bye week?

This. This is the world’s biggest mystery. We need a full-blown investigation into the Patriots’ Week 14 bye.

@JasonFromEndor Do you believe getting COVID has affected Judon’s play the 2nd half of the season?

It was clear that Judon, who often deflected the topic, did not have the same explosiveness over the last month of the season. Perhaps it was the stint on the Covid-19 list that slowed him down, or he was dealing with another sort of injury. He did suffer a rib injury in New England’s Week 13 victory over the Bills, perhaps having some lingering affects.

@mark31333 Any chance we could package some picks to get rid of agalor bad contract

If the Patriots do call it one-and-done with Agholor, they will prefer to have the split come via trade. An outright release of Agholor before June 1 will result in a $10 million dead cap hit, while freeing up just under $5 million on the 2022 cap. A trade however, will result in the exact opposite, freeing up roughly $10 million with a dead cap hit of just under $5 million. Attaching a draft pick might be the best way to get a team to bite.

@pmooney24 How do we get nepotism out the building?

Patriots vs 49ers Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Oh, Pat. You don't.

@TheMattWetzel How are you all doing?

It’s a tough end of the year, but it's draft season now Matt. So, we are doing great. Hope you are too.

@meatface55 Do you ever think about what could have been if AH wasn’t a murder?

Sadly, yes. And too often then I’d like to admit.

@Ryan_Keiran Kendrick Bourne?

Yes, Ryan. Kendrick Bourne indeed. Give that man all the targets next season and watch the offense flourish.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag, hope everyone has a safe and happy New Years! If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!