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Why fans should still be optimistic about the Patriots offense

Related: Mac Jones gives an update on the state of the Patriots offense

New England Patriots v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the New England Patriots don’t look ready to win a Super Bowl after three weeks of preseason football.

Rookie Cole Strange has yet to reach his All-Pro potential, the team hasn’t mastered outside zone despite working on it for two whole months, and Mac Jones refuses to sit in collapsing pockets.

Might as well pack it up and start scouting for the next top Patriots draft pick you’ve never heard of.

End of article.

Okay, now that the doomsday preppers are gone, let’s talk facts. Though many of the team’s issues are understandable for an organization that uses September as an extended preseason, there are legitimate long-term concerns.

Apparent play-caller and offensive line coach Matt Patricia is stepping into massive shoes left by Las Vegas Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels and offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo, despite minimal, if any experience in either role.

Joe Judge is also assuming McDaniels’ old role as quarterbacks coach after spending most of his career coaching special teams.

There have been some legitimate protection issues up front, particularly and understandably surrounding Strange, but I’d expect the rook’s consistency to improve as the season goes on.

Speculation and skepticism are hallmarks of the days leading up to kickoff, but it’s important to maintain perspective and avoid fixating too much on good or bad.

So, to balance out the droves of (sometimes warranted) criticism surrounding the Patriots’ offense, here are some things to be optimistic about leading into Week 1.

Nelson Agholor

It’s no secret that Nelson Agholor struggled finding a groove in his first season with the Patriots. Beyond glaring chemistry issues with Mac Jones and production that didn’t fit his top-five cap hit, Agholor admitted he wasn’t playing at full speed due to a steep learning curve.

Agholor’s role as the team’s primary X-receiver didn’t help his situation. Though he has the speed and competitiveness to be a perimeter threat, he lacks the size to consistently beat press or win contested catches. Agholor’s route tree was also heavy on curls, outs, and fades, which limited the former punt returner’s dynamic ability in space.

The team’s acquisition of DeVante Parker hinted at more off-ball and slot opportunities for Agholor in 2022. The second-year Patriot’s eagerness to hit the ground running this offseason also hinted at a potential jump in production.

This preseason offered glimpses into Agholor’s new role and improved rapport with his quarterback.

Agholor spent nearly half his snaps in the slot against the Carolina Panthers and Raiders, which rarely happened last season. Of his four targets through the final two games, two were crossing routes attacking the middle of the field. The others were a hot route vs blitz where he and Jones were on the same page, while the other was a perfectly-placed go ball on Mac Jones’ lone deep completion through two games.

Aligning closer to the ball also means more involvement in the run game, but Agholor has been a willing and effective blocker overall.

It will be interesting to see what happens this season if Kendrick Bourne finally emerges and when Tyquan Thornton returns from short-term injured reserve. That said, Agholor has been one of the team’s most consistent receivers thus far and has earned an extended look.

DeVante Parker

The Patriots’ biggest offseason addition made a quick impression in training camp, showing quick chemistry with Mac Jones on downfield and 50-50 passes outside. As the most intimidating “X” New England has had in years, Pats Nation is hoping for a renaissance from the former 1,000-yard receiver.

Parker and Jones didn’t exactly light up the preseason, going 1-for-3 for 17 yards. But the situations in which Parker was targeted offer reasons for optimism.

Most of Parker’s targets came as the solo receiver in 3x1 formations. In these situations, defenses will often play man coverage backside and flood coverage toward the offense’s numbers. This shows trust in his receiver to win those matchups and put defenses in conflict.

Parker’s value also flashed when he was targeted on two drive-starting slants (one was completed, the other was off-target and dropped) and a deep shot on 3rd & 3. This shows the team wants to get him involved and Jones is willing to give him chances to make plays 1-on-1.

If Parker and Jones can reignite their spark in the regular season to create true mismatches and take attention away from the middle of the field, the offense should take a significant step forward.

Run game finds stability in its roots

The outside zone scheme New England has emphasized in training camp has been woefully unimpressive through preseason, which frankly should’ve been expected.

Outside zone requires time, repetition, and chemistry to master. These things don’t manifest in one training camp, especially for a team built to go downhill behind behemoths like Mike Onwenu and Trent Brown.

But things haven’t been all bad on the ground for New England. In fact, the offense looks good when running it’s traditional gap scheme and outside-hitting tosses.

These concepts capitalize on the offensive line’s strengths: resetting the line of scrimmage and pulling into space.

The drafting of Cole Strange in the first round and Pierre Strong in the fourth suggested the team could be changing its identity in the run game, but change takes time.

If the outside zone experiment flounders in the first couple months of the season, I wouldn’t expect the Patriots to beat their heads against the wall.

Mac’s mobility

Though Lamar Jackson he is not, Mac Jones isn’t the statuesque passer he’s often made out to be. Alabama fans have known this for a while, but Patriots fans started catching on late last season.

The then-rookie made some impressive plays with his legs to buy time and give receivers a chance to uncover. He also showed a willingness to exploit open lanes and tuck it on 3rd downs or when nothing materialized downfield.

Jones continued to show underrated mobility and play-making potential in the preseason. Against the Raiders, he ran for a first down on 3rd & long and broke the pocket to buy time for Hunter Henry to get in scoring territory. He also picked up yards with his legs vs soft coverage in the low red area.

On Jones’ final drive of the preseason, he actually used his legs to get out of a pickle and live to fight another downs.

None of this is to say Mac Jones will be a top-10 rushing quarterback or start carrying the ball multiple times a game. But seeing Mac turn on playmaker and use all his physical tools to succeed is a step in the right direction.