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Sunday Patriots Notes: Opportunity awaits sophomore linebacker Cameron McGrone in 2022

Related: J.C. Jackson not the only Patriots starter set to enter free agency in March

Iowa v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

After a blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills in the wild card playoff round two weeks ago, the New England Patriots officially shift their focus to the offseason in hopes of improving again in 2022. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones proved that the organization is in good hands moving forward but continuing to add pieces around him will be important for his development.

With several pending free agents and another big draft coming up in April, the Patriots will be faced with some tough decisions in the coming months as they prepare to put together a contending roster in 2022.

Let’s get into our Sunday Patriots’ Notes:

1. Opportunity awaits sophomore linebacker Cameron McGrone in 2022. It is no secret that the Patriots need to improve their linebacker position this offseason if they want to be able to slow down the AFC’s best offenses. However, with Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Ja’Whaun Bentley all pending free agents, 2021 draft pick Cameron McGrone might be forced into action.

Given his skillset and New England’s need, however, he could have an opportunity to compete for a big role in the Patriots defense next season regardless.

A fifth-round draft pick in 2021, McGrone saw his draft stock dip after missing most of his junior year at Michigan due to a torn ACL. After starting his rookie campaign no the physically unable to perform list, he did return to practice in late November, opening a 21-day return window. However, McGrone was never activated.

As for 2022, his outlook remains unclear. That said, his college tape was impressive as he was constantly flying around making plays on the ball and flashing the ability to cover sideline to sideline. With the Patriots looking to add more speed and athleticism at the linebacker position in 2022 — no matter what happens with Hightower, Collins and Bentley — McGrone should be in line to earn a role in his first real season as a pro.

2. J.C. Jackson might dictate the Patriots’ plans this offseason. With J.C. Jackson set to hit unrestricted free agency as the top cornerback on the market, the Patriots have some work to do with their star cornerback. After electing not to extend Stephon Gilmore last year and then trading him in the middle of the season, it put a lot of pressure on the team to retain Jackson as the long-term CB1.

There are a lot of different options for the Patriots with Jackson: working out a long-term deal prior to free agency, franchise tagging him or just letting him walk. At this point, it seems as if the franchise tag option may be the most likely one in order to retain Jackson for 2022 while giving themselves time to negotiate with their star cornerback before training camp begins.

It also should be noted that Jackson is on his third agent in the last three seasons.

3. Rhamondre Stevenson wants to improve as a pass catcher. The Patriots’ running back is coming off an impressive rookie campaign where he totaled 606 yards and five touchdowns on just 133 touches, earning him the distinction as Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated rookie running back. On Friday, Stevenson was in Los Angeles at the Panini Rookie Closeout event and spoke with reporters and said his number one goal of the offseason was to improve his route running.

“I’m very confident and comfortable doing it,” he said. “I just need to sharpen up my routes and just be more consistent route-running and catching the ball out of the backfield. But I feel like I’m very capable of doing that.”

Stevenson caught 14 passes on 18 targets as a rookie but wants to expand his skillset and be an option as a pass catcher for Mac Jones, too. Stevenson and lead back Damien Harris both showed that they are the top running back tandem in the league; if Stevenson can add a new element to his game, it just makes that group even harder to defend in the coming years.

4. With Josh McDaniels likely out, a look at the options for the Patriots next offensive coordinator. The Patriots will likely be looking for a new offensive coordinator as all signs are pointing towards Josh McDaniels becoming the new head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. McDaniels has served as the Patriots’ OC for a total of 13 years, and with no clear-cut favorite in house to take the reigns, Bill Belichick may be looking externally for his next coordinator.

As colleague Brian Hines mentioned this week, Bill O’Brien returning is an option. He served as the offensive coordinator for two seasons when Josh McDaniels left the first time to become head coach of the Denver Broncos. O’Brien worked as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2021 and helped lead Alabama to the nation’s top offense and another national title appearance.

It’s been reported, too, that Mac Jones helped Bill O’Brien last spring by teaching him Alabama’s offense. Given his relationship with Bill Belichick and a want to get back into the NFL as a coach, O’Brien returning when and if McDaniels leaves for Vegas is certainly possible.

5. Mac Jones’ offseason is already in full swing. While the rest of us were stuck inside getting pounded with two feet of snow, Mac Jones was out in the sun getting his offseason underway. From the looks of former Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley’s Instagram, Jones was in Fort Worth, Texas, throwing with other quarterbacks in what looked to be a group session with wide receivers and tight ends. Jones worked with quarterback coach David Morris in Florida before the draft last season.

6. Bill Belichick gets honored for his work as general manager. For the first time in his illustrious career, Bill Belichick took home PFWA’s Executive of the Year award in 2021. Belichick had a hand in drafting Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson — all three rookies played a vital role in getting the Patriots back to the playoffs in 2021. He also brought in free agents like Matthew Judon and Jalen Mills on defense while adding playmaking ability and an increase in red zone efficiency through Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry.

With another pivotal offseason on the horizon, Belichick and his staff will look for continued success as they look for the pieces to put the Patriots over the hump in 2022. What that staff will look like remains to be seen, but Belichick will be its leader once more.


Mailbag

This likely won’t be the case but if this were to happen and they did elect to go wide receiver, my pick would be Jameson Williams out of Alabama. Despite tearing his ACL in the National Championship game, Williams is my clear cut WR1 in a draft that is, again, loaded with talent.

Williams’ mix of speed, shiftiness and precise route running makes him an elite playmaker at all three levels of the field. He’s a player that can instantly improve your wide receiver room once he is cleared for football activities again. Certainly, the ACL and his lack of experience make it a risky pick but Williams’ potential is through the roof.

This is a good question because it’s unlikely the Patriots choose to go wide receiver at No. 21 in April. Once again, this class is loaded with talent and the Patriots can still find an upgrade at wide receiver on Day 2 of the NFL draft.

Some guys that I really like and fit their scheme are John Metchie out of Alabama, Wan’Dale Robinson out of Kentucky and Jahan Dotson out of Penn State. I’ve done a Twitter thread already on Metchie but be on the lookout for ones on Robinson and Dotson in the near future.

There’s certainly a long way to go with the draft process factored in with free agency, but at the moment, I feel as if offensive tackle and cornerback are the most likely positions that the Patriots would look to go early in the draft.

Trent Brown is a free agent and Isaiah Wynn is entering the final year of his rookie contract. With a deep tackle class coming out, the Patriots could look to find their future left tackle to protect Mac Jones.

As for cornerback, it may be the deepest class out of any position in the draft. There's likely to be six or seven corners drafted inside the top 40 in April. Some names to watch that could interest the Patriots: Ahmad Gardner (Cincinnati), Trent McDuffie (Washington) and Roger McCreary (Auburn).

Devin McCourty is not expected to be retiring from football just yet. Even though he is a pending free agent, it is from my understanding that both sides will reach a deal to have McCourty finish his career here in New England. After drafting Kyle Dugger two years ago and extending Adrian Phillips last month, the Patriots have the depth to address needs elsewhere through the draft.

Also, don’t be surprised if Jalen Mills moves back to safety next year. I believe he was brought here as a versatile piece last offseason but with Stephon Gilmore eventually being traded, he took over the CB2 slot full time. If the Patriots upgrade their cornerback room (specifically on the outside) look for Mills to eventually take over for McCourty down the line and with a few years left on his deal.