With the first practice of their 2022 training camp taking place on Wednesday, there is a ton of uncertainty surrounding the New England Patriots. From quarterback to safety and all over the roster, the team has some questions that need to be answered this summer.
The hope is that those answers can be found before the regular season gets kicked off on September 11, but it would not be a surprise if we might be left in the dark for quite some time. Obviously, though, nobody knows what to expect this season. That, to me, makes it one that I am anxiously awaiting.
So, with all that said, here is our position-by-position rundown of the biggest questions the Patriots are facing heading into training camp — starting with the most important player on the team.
Quarterback: How big of a leap can Mac Jones make in Year 2?
There is obviously no position battle to watch at quarterback like there was last year, but all eyes will still be on the position when training camp starts. One player in particular is in the spotlight: starting QB Mac Jones, who is in line for the famous second-year jump.
His teammates and coaches were raving about his leadership all offseason and there are a lot of expectations that he will be fully taking over the team this year. I am also interested to see how his arm looks after he spent parts of the offseason working with throwing coach Tom House — the same Tom House who is also working with Tom Brady.
Running back: Who is going to fill the James White role until he gets back?
With James White starting the camp on the physically unable to perform list, the biggest question — outside of whether Rhamondre Stevenson can steal some more carries from Damien Harris — is who is going to fill the receiving back role until he comes back. The early money should be on J.J. Taylor or Ty Montgomery.
It is also going to be very interesting to see what rookie Pierre Strong Jr. can do if given the chance, though. He was running primarily with the scout team string offense during OTAs and mandatory minicamp, but if he shows enough promise in camp he might get a crack at the job.
With White being on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a serious injury, having multiple players that can fill in for him certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. Of course, the Patriots also won’t be able to carry six active running backs, so it will be interesting to see what happens with his role moving forward.
Wide receiver: How will the bottom of the depth chart take shape?
I could tell you to watch for Kendrick Bourne to be the Patriots’ No. 1 receiver, or I could tell you to watch Jakobi Meyers grow in his role. I, however, am more interested in the backend of the depth chart.
We know that Meyers, Bourne, and DeVante Parker (assuming he can stay healthy) are going to be playing prominent roles within the New England passing offense this season. What we don’t know is who else is going to contribute.
It seems likely that Nelson Agholor will be on the team, and he did, at times, look like the best receiver on the field last camp. If he can do that again this year, he should be able to carve out a role for himself even with the additions of Parker and second-round rookie Tyquan Thornton. Speaking of whom, Thornton has speed unlike anything the Patriots have seen for a long time.
Meanwhile, second-year receiver Tre Nixon is also going to look to build on the strong spring that he had. The last guy that could break through is Kristian Wilkerson, who played in three games last year and ended up catching four passes for 42 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
tl:dr It’s going to be a fun battle to watch because the Patriots have more talent in their receiver room than they are given credit for.
Tight end: Can Jonnu Smith actually do something this season?
The Patriots went out and spent big in free agency last year, brining in two high-priced tight ends. Hunter Henry was great. Jonnu Smith was not.
To say Smith was disappointing after signing a four-year, $50 million contract would be a massive understatement. It looks like the Patriots are going to use him more this season, but will his performance keep him on the field more than last year? The hope is that it will, because, if not, he could be in danger of becoming one of the bigger free agency busts in recent history.
Offensive line: Can Cole Strange live up to his draft slot?
The Patriots got killed for drafting Chattanooga guard Cole Strange 29th overall back in April, but they clearly saw something in him. He has been running with the top unit from the moment they took the field this spring, and looks like he belongs out there. Until they put the pads on, however, there is no way of knowing if a lineman is actually ready to play in the NFL or not.
The last time the Patriots drafted a guard in the first round, it was Logan Mankins, and those are some huge shoes to fill. Knowing Patriots fans that is what they are looking for out of Strange, but I am just excited to see him get the chance to prove that he was the correct pick all along.
Defensive line: Who is going to play across from Matthew Judon?
Matthew Judon had a great season last year, but no one knows who the other defensive edge opposite him is going to be. Kyle Van Noy was released earlier this offseason and is now in Los Angeles. Chase Winovich was inconsistent at best, and was traded to the Cleveland Browns. The Patriots also did not bring in any veteran outside linebackers.
This point might be moot if the Patriots end up making some scheme adjustments to use bigger guys on the line, but they don’t seem to have a ton of depth either way. Josh Uche has received some serious preseason hype but has yet to live up to it. Ronnie Perkins was a healthy scratch all of last year, and he might also get a chance to become the guy to step in and fill that hole along the D-line.
Ultimately, though, we will have to see what happens.
Two other guys to keep an eye on, albeit at different positions: sixth-round 5-technique Sam Roberts, who won the Cliff Harris Award as the top non-Division I defender last year — the same one that Kyle Dugger had previously won as well — and former USFL standout Jeremiah Pharms Jr.
Linebacker: Will the Patriots changing their linebacker type pay off?
The Patriots went into the offseason with a clear intention; get faster and more athletic. The linebacker position was no exception, despite no major investments being made. Still, they are headed towards training camp with players at the position who are smaller and more athletic than they used to be (outside of Ja’Whaun Bentley).
It appears they are going to be relying more on guys like Cameron McGrone, Raekwon McMillan, Mack Wilson and maybe even hybrid Josh Uche. This is an obvious departure from what New England has normally done at the position, but it certainly looks like the team is committed to this shift because it simply does not have the bodies to play the way it used to.
I’m very excited to see how it all plays out, and I’m extremely happy that the team decided to go this route. I think having all those athletic guys on the field is going to be really fun to watch and make up for some shortcomings that became obvious last season.
Cornerback: Will the Patriots be able to cover anyone this year?
OK, that might be a little dramatic, but when your projected top three outside cornerbacks are Jalen Mills, who was a fine No. 2 last year, Malcolm Butler, who watched from home last year, and Terrance Mitchell, who has been a journeyman most of his career, I don’t think the question itself is a crazy one.
Of course, the Jones Brothers are going to need to make an impact this year. Getting Jonathan back healthy would really help guard the slot, but he is still on PUP as of now; Jack looked great in mandatory minicamp and he hopefully will be able to keep building on that foundation in camp; Marcus has not gotten a chance to show much since he’s been dealing with a shoulder injury but I’m very excited to see what he can do this year as well.
Safety: Are the Patriots going to play a positionless defense this year?
A regular defense only has two safeties on the field most downs. The Patriots, meanwhile, have four legitimate starting safeties under contract right now.
The only way to make that math work is to either only play two safeties at a time and rotate them, or change the number of safeties that take the field. I have a feeling the Patriots are going to choose the latter option.
The reason for this? Well, you are not taking Devin McCourty off the field, Kyle Dugger is a stud, Adrian Phillips played fantastic last year, and the Patriots went out and spent real money on Jabrill Peppers. Those guys all deserve playing time (assuming Peppers will be healthy and coming off PUP), and so it makes sense that they would want to have them on the field at the same time.
Plus, like I mentioned before, the Patriots are trying to get faster and more athletic on the defensive side of the ball. Replacing linebackers with safeties can certainly do that for you.