Training camp, preseason and roster cutdowns are all in the books, and the start of the 2022 NFL regular season is only a few days away. Needless to say that there is a lot going on around the New England Patriots and the rest of the league these days.
Let’s use this forum right here to go through some of the stories that have emerged over the last week that we did not have time to cover elsewhere: welcome to this week’s Sunday Patriots Notes.
Projecting New England’s captains for the 2022 season. With the their regular season opener against the Miami Dolphins only seven days away, the Patriots will soon also vote on their team captains for the upcoming season. Who will get the honor? Based on previous seasons and the players currently under contract, let’s make a prediction:
- QB Mac Jones: One year after earning the Patriots’ starting quarterback gig, Mac Jones is in line to also join the rank of captain. The sophomore QB has taken control of the New England offense, and seeing him take this next step would not be a surprise.
- RB Damien Harris: James White is retired, so who would be better suited to fill his shoes than fellow running back Damien Harris? One of the emotional leaders of the offense, he is a candidate to be voted captain by his teammates.
- WR Matthew Slater: The veteran special teamer was voted a captain each of the last 11 seasons. He is a tone-setter in the locker room, and a role model for his teammates.
- C David Andrews: Andrews has been named a captain each of the last five seasons. His status will not change in 2022.
- LB Ja’Whaun Bentley: Bentley joined the Patriots’ captains in 2020, but he left the group again the following year with Dont’a Hightower returning from the opt-out list. With Hightower remaining unsigned, though, it seems likely Bentley will return.
- S Devin McCourty: McCourty will be voted a captain for a 12th straight season. He is in the same category as Matthew Slater when it comes to tone-setters within the organization.
While several of the players in this projection are pretty safe bets to be voted captains, it remains to be seen what the team will actually do. It would not be a surprise, for example, to see additional captains emerge: veteran team leaders such as Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr. or Adrian Phillips are all candidates to receive the honor as well.
Patriots did not want to add any outside talent via waivers. The Patriots made a flurry of roster moves around the NFL cutdown deadline on Tuesday, but they shied away from adding any outside talent to their active roster through the NFL waiver wire. New England did not put in even a single waiver claim, which speaks for the talent available relative to the players already under contract.
The Patriots may have decided against the waiver wire as a means of bolstering their team, but they did make one outside addition: wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. was added to the practice squad on Thursday, filling the vacant 16th spot. The other 15 were all occupied by players let go by the organization earlier that week.
Bill Belichick likes the Patriots’ safety group. The Gillette Stadium press conference room is primarily occupied by local beat writers. On Monday, however, veteran sportscaster Chris Berman made a surprise appearance at head coach Bill Belichick’s presser; he also received the honor of asking Belichick the final question of the session: Which position group does he think is the best on his current team?
Belichick dodging the question would have been on-brand, but he did not do so. Instead, he told Berman that the safety group would stand atop that list. New England will enter the regular season with five safeties on its 53-man team — Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers and Joshuah Bledsoe — and Belichick made mention of all five of them.
“I would say the safety group is a pretty impressive group,” he said. “It’s good to see Jabrill out on the field. Devin, AP and Dugger have played a lot of football for us last year, you add Jabrill to that mix and Myles [Bryant] has also played safety for us out of the corner group. Between those five guys that’s a pretty deep position.
“But we’ve shown and used packages with all three safeties on the field — Jabrill wasn’t here, obviously. Bledsoe’s had a good camp as well, so I think that’s a pretty competitive position not just for roster spots but also for playing time and how that gets distributed. I’d say that’s probably No. 1.”
Belichick naming the safety group as the best on his team did not necessarily come as news; the group is one of the strongest in the entire NFL and features an enticing mix of veteran leadership (McCourty, Peppers), young up-and-comers (Dugger, Bledsoe) and a former first-round draft pick trying to get his career back on track (Peppers).
Julian Edelman keeps adding fuel to the comeback fire. Ever since long-time Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman announced his retirement from the NFL last summer, rumors about his comeback have persisted. So far, they have been just that but the 36-year-old has recently started to add plenty of fuel to the fire.
Appearing on The Green Light with Chris Long podcast hosted by one of Edelman’s former Patriots teammates, he again added to the speculation. Long asked him whether or not he had any intentions of returning, after previously mentioning that he might be able to help a team late during the year.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Edelman said. “People don’t realize it’s not like, especially when you’re older, you can’t just work out for a week, take a Gatorade shake, go run a conditioning test, and then get ready for f--king 18 weeks of football. It’s a huge mind commitment, and you can’t dip your toe in. You’ve got to dive into that thing.
“I’m doing things where I’m in like a beginning phase of an offseason-ish, just kind of feeling out my body and feeling out my legs. I’ve had some downtime. My body feels good. There’s some deficiencies here and there, but I feel extremely better than I did the last year and a half of my career. I don’t know if it’s fool’s gold just because I haven’t been compounding loadage. That’s why you get interested. So, you kick it up a little bit here and there and you analyze. You don’t make decisions. And that’s what I’m doing.”
Even though nothing has been made official, Edelman has been teasing a potential comeback throughout the offseason. If it does happen, there are two likely destinations: his former team, the Patriots, as well as the club led by his long-time quarterback Tom Brady, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Edelman, of course, mentioned earlier this year that he would “probably go back to the Patriots” if push indeed came to shove. Whether or not the Patriots would take him back is another story altogether, even though they have never shied away from exploring all avenues to better their team.
Details of Malcolm Butler’s injury settlement are out. The Patriots-Malcolm Butler reunion lasted but five months. The veteran cornerback, who was signed to a two-year contract during the offseason, was placed on injured reserve in mid-August and a short time later released with an injury settlement.
Terms of that settlement were initially not available, but the Boston Globe’s Ben Volin was able to get his hands on them last week. The Patriots and Butler reached a settlement of $413,333 — the equivalent of six game checks.
This means that Butler would not be able to return to New England for six plus three weeks: if the two sides were to reunite again, they would only be permitted to do so after Week 9. Of course, the Patriots have a bye in Week 10 which would allow Butler some additional ramp-up time to get back up to speed again.
That said, the two joining forces for a third time should not necessarily be expected; Butler suffered a significant injury in preseason, and also was running with the second-string defense at best during training camp. It also appears the Patriots are fully committed to the current youth movement at the cornerback position.
Butler, meanwhile, is allowed to sign with any team other than the Patriots right away, regardless of the settlement he reached with his ex-club.
New England’s UDFA streak can still come to an end. Two members of the Patriots’ undrafted rookie class were able to make the team’s 53-man roster: outside linebacker DaMarcus Mitchell and safety Brenden Schooler. The fact that they made the cut led to some outlets proclaiming that the team’s UDFA streak had been extended into a 19th year.
We might be moving into the territory of semantics here, but this needs to be mentioned for accuracy’s sake: the Patriots’ streak of at least one undrafted rookie making the team is about the opening day roster rather than the initial roster. If it were about the latter, the streak would have already come to an end last year when the team’s lone rookie free agent — place kicker Quinn Nordin — was released as part of final cutdowns.
The Patriots did not have a kicker on their initial roster, later elevating both Nordin and Nick Folk ahead of the regular season opener. Nordin was inactive that game and later sent to injured reserve, but the elevation still allowed the streak to stay alive.
New England, of course, has yet to play its 2022 season opener. While it seems highly unlikely that neither Mitchell nor Schooler will be on the 53-man team versus Miami next Sunday, there is still a theoretical chance the streak comes to an end over the coming days.
5 big questions revisited. Ahead of the NFL roster cutdown deadline last Tuesday, we spoke about the big questions that the Patriots would be able to answer that day. Answer them they did, so let’s take the time to revisit the questions to find those answers.
How many players will be let go? The Patriots had to move 27 players to get their roster from 80 to 53, and they did just that. They could obviously have gone below that target number in case they planned for any waiver wire pickups or additional outside signings, but they did not do that.
Will there be any surprise moves? Most of the releases had to be expected, but there was still one major surprise: veteran special teamer Justin Bethel was let go; he has since joined the Dolphins. Other somewhat unexpected transactions included parting ways with wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, tight end Devin Asiasi and cornerback Terrance Mitchell.
Which undrafted rookies will make the team? As noted above, two undrafted rookie free agents were able to make the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster: outside linebacker DaMarcus Mitchell and safety Brenden Schooler.
Will some offseason hype trains derail? Whereas linebacker Josh Uche unsurprisingly did make into onto the roster, fellow offseason hype-getters Cameron McGrone and Tre Nixon did not: the linebacker and wide receiver were both released on Tuesday; they have since re-joined the New England practice squad.
How do they view their overall depth? A look at the roster shows that the Patriots did not appear to be particularly thrilled about their depth options at wide receiver and tight end. Likewise, they kept what can best be described as “the bare minimum” at running back as well. Meanwhile, the cornerback position saw youngster Shaun Wade get the nod over veteran Terrance Mitchell, while the final linebacker spot came down to Jahlani Tavai over Cameron McGrone.
The jury is still out on the 2020 draft. With third-round tight end Devin Asiasi released and later joining the Cincinnati Bengals, the Patriots have now moved on from half of their 10-player draft class from two years ago. While safety Kyle Dugger (2-37), linebackers Josh Uche (2-60) and Anfernee Jennings (3-87) and offensive linemen Michael Onwenu (6-182) and Justin Herron (6-195) are still standing, Asiasi (3-91) and fellow tight end Dalton Keene (3-101), kicker Justin Rohrwasser (5-159), linebacker Cassh Maluia (6-204), and offensive lineman Dustin Woodard (7-230) are no longer with the club.
So, can the 2020 draft be added to the growing list of disappointing ones for the Patriots recently? Not necessarily. For starters, two seasons are too short a time frame to properly evaluate the success or failures of a draft. That is especially true considering that New England might be able to get some valuable contributions out of Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings this season — contributions they did not make previously.
Of course, drafting Asiasi and Keene, as well as Rohrwasser in Round 5 despite obvious red flags, did not turn out to be the best of decisions. The rest of the group, however, still has a lot of football ahead of itself to (re)shape the image of the Patriots’ 2020 draft class as a whole.