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Sunday Patriots Notes: New England gambles on its current group of linebackers

Related: Matt Groh ‘really excited’ about Patriots linebacker group even with no high-round draft picks added

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

With the NFL Draft in the books, we turn the page to OTAs and mandatory minicamp before the start of training camp in late July. It’s officially the slowest part of the New England Patriots’ offseason.

That said, the league never sleeps. Welcome to this week’s Sunday Notes.

1. Patriots committed to young linebackers stepping up in 2022. Throughout last week’s draft fans and analysts alike wondered when New England would eventually select a linebacker. Despite the class being considered a deep one, the team ultimately passed on the position and did not invest until bringing edge DaMarcus Mitchell aboard in rookie free agency.

Instead of using their draft capital to bolster the linebacker group, the Patriots showed trust and commitment to the younger players on their roster. Several of them are set to have bigger roles in 2022.

With veterans Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins all currently not on the team (or in Van Noy’s case off to Los Angeles), the Patriots will now turn to players who they have acquired over the last few years to carve out roles for themselves this summer.

Josh Uche, Mack Wilson and Cameron McGrone will likely play both on and off the ball for this season, while Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan and potentially Anfernee Jennings will play in the middle. The versatility offered by box safeties Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers should also help take some of the load of this group of young, inexperienced linebackers.

Passing on a linebacker in this year’s draft is certainly a gamble given how much the Patriots’ defense relies on its linebackers to be the leaders of their group. However, after hearing both Bill Belichick and Matt Groh talk about the current group, it appears to be a gamble they are willing to take.

2. Offensive investments show a modernized approach to the game. Adding elite playmaking and more speed appeared to be a priority for the Patriots this offseason — one that extended into last weekend’s draft. Not only did they select arguably the most athletic offensive lineman available in the first round (Cole Strange), but then followed that up with trading up for wide receiver Tyquan Thornton and selecting running back Pierre Strong with their first of three fourth-round picks on Saturday afternoon.

Thornton (4.28) and Strong (4.31) each ran the fastest 40-yard times among their respective position groups at the Scouting Combine. Strange, meanwhile, ranks as the seventh most athletic guard to enter the league in the last 35 years.

The Patriots may not have drafted “your guy” or the players that you all hear about from the Power 5 schools, Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh put it perfectly in his press conference Friday night.

“You want fast guys? Well, you better go out and draft fast players,” he said.

The investment in Strange and Thornton, both of whom should play valuable roles as rookies in 2022, and then using five of the next seven picks on the offensive side of the ball as well, shows the commitment from the Patriots’ front office to continue to throw darts at the offense and revamp their speed and playmaking ability to build around Mac Jones.

3. Patriots’ running back room continues to get more competitive. While it’s no secret that the team will rely on both Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson again in 2022, the Patriots shocked a lot of people by adding two more players to the group on the third day of the draft. Pierre Strong was picked in the fourth round and Kevin Harris in the sixth.

Strong and Harris are now joining a group that already consists of Harris, Stevenson, James White and J.J. Taylor. While White’s recovery from a gruesome hip injury suffered in Week 3 last year might impact the group’s complexion heading into the season, the Patriots have as deep a running back room as any in the NFL.

They also appear well-set for the future. Pierre Strong has experience catching the ball out of the backfield and is stout in pass protection; he might become James White’s eventual successor as the team’s receiving back.

Kevin Harris, meanwhile, could factor into the early-down mix in the future. While not guaranteed to make the 53-man roster based on his draft status, he might be a backup plan in case pending free agent Damien Harris leaves following the 2022 season.

While there are a lot of question marks at running back both in the short- and long-term future — including, among others, the uncertain status of veteran position coach Ivan Fears — the Patriots are well set to have one of the best groups both in 2022 and beyond.

4. Shrine Bowl a prominent pipeline for future Patriots. While a lot of the focus for the Patriots in past drafts has been on the Senior Bowl down in Mobile, AL, they found a new avenue. New England selected four East-West Shrine Bowl attendees this year and also signed two undrafted free agents.

Tyquan Thornton, Jack Jones, Pierre Strong and Sam Roberts all heard their names called during the draft, while D’Eriq King and LaBryan Ray both arrived in New England through free agency.

Shrine Bowl director Eric Galko recently spoke about the process and how the Patriots dipped into his talent pool to find almost half of their 2022 draft class.

Galko told NESN that Thornton was “not a reach” by any means as he knew several teams that had him as the top receiver on the board entering Day 2. He also talked about fourth-round picks Jack Jones and Pierre Strong.

Galko said that Jones, from a talent perspective, was easily one of the best man cover corners in the class due to his “sickness” and “timing” when mirroring receivers. As for Strong, his two best skills right now are his pass blocking and the ability to be a strong route-runner and pass catcher out of the backfield — something the Patriots value in their third-down backs as they look for their James White replacement beyond 2022.

The Patriots invested four of their draft picks in Shrine Bowl participants and four more in players from the Senior Bowl. Adding experienced and pro-ready talent was a clear priority for New England in the draft.

5. Previewing the NFL schedule release. The league will release its 2022 regular season schedule this week, which serves as a reminder that football is only four months away. As far as the Patriots are concerned, they will play the following teams this year:

Home opponent: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions

Road opponents: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Las Vegas Raiders, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals

While there was a chance that they would play internationally, New England will play all of its games in the United States — including eight at Gillette Stadium and nine on the road.

Sunday mailbag

It’s clear the Patriots wanted to improve their X-receiver spot this offseason after trading for DeVante Parker and then drafting Tyquan Thornton in the second round. As it relates to Thornton getting onto the field in 2022, it should be known that the coaching staff typically values experience — and Parker has a lot more based on his time with the Miami Dolphins.

However, the Patriots will likely still try to give the rookie opportunities in select packages. As Matt Groh said last week: he is more than just a linear guy and can be moved all over the formation; New England can scheme things up for him to get the ball into his hands in space. Thornton will have to prove himself in training camp, but if he is more ready than expected, Agholor could be the odd man out in an outside wide receiver room that is suddenly a lot more crowded.

The Patriots drafted Sam Roberts and signed LaBryan Ray as an undrafted free agent, so they did take a few swings at this position on draft weekend. However, with Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy and Carl Davis all returning in 2022, it appears the group is set at the top heading into training camp.

Keep an eye on Roberts, though. He’s 6-foot-5, 295 pounds and has dominated at every level of competition leading up to the draft. Despite not built like your typical nose, he could become that big, athletic run-stuffer who has upside versus the pass, too.

Don't look at where he played college football, look at how he might help the team.

Obviously, the Patriots did invest in Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris last weekend and as Damien Harris enters a contract year, it’s not unreasonable to think that the Patriots are potentially setting themselves up for a 2023 without him. However, I believe both Harris and the Patriots view him as a key piece moving forward both on and off the field.

Harris took on a big leadership role in 2022 and had a good year as a true catalyst for the New England offense down the stretch. They likely won’t extend him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots and Harris eventually could come to terms in free agency to keep him in town beyond 2022.