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Sunday Patriots Notes: Will Bill O’Brien bring more empty sets to New England?

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the NFL.

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Even though the NFL season is now officially over for all 32 teams, there is still plenty going on around the league. The start of free agency is less than one month away, for example, while the draft process is also getting more active by the day.

Naturally, we will keep an eye on all of the action through a New England Patriots lens. You will see our perspectives either as standalone articles or in bullet-point form as part of our Sunday Patriots Notes. With that said, welcome to this week’s edition.

Will Bill O’Brien bring more empty sets to New England? The Patriots’ offense is set to undergo a significant transformation this offseason, with new coordinator Bill O’Brien brought aboard to get the unit back on track after the one-year debacle that was the Matt Patricia/Joe Judge era. How he will do that remains to be seen, but one tool he might use from a conceptual perspective is empty sets.

O’Brien has been a fan of empty formations — i.e. plays with nobody in the backfield but the quarterback — over the years. They made up over 15 percent of Bryce Young’s dropbacks at Alabama in 2022, and more than 20 percent of Deshaun Watson’s when he was leading the Houston Texans in 2018 and 2019.

For comparison, Mac Jones has not reached double-digits since his arrival in New England in 2021. Nonetheless, he has shown promise in his limited opportunities:

Will the rate of empty looks increase under O’Brien in 2023? It would not be a surprise given everything we know about his recent play-calling preferences and his quarterback.

Jonathan Jones enjoyed his new role in the Patriots defense: Despite losing a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks — Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson — within five months of each other in October 2021 and March 2022, respectively, the Patriots did not make a splash to replace them. Instead, they opted to give the CB1 role to the group’s most experienced returning member.

That member was Jonathan Jones, who had spent the majority of the previous five seasons as New England’s slot cornerback. He excelled in that role, but the team needed him to take on a different one in 2022.

Appearing on the Next Pats Podcast earlier this month, Jones spoke about his experience.

“I enjoyed it. I embraced it, honestly,” he said. “It was a little bit different. Got halfway through training camp, they came to me ask me about playing outside and I was up for it. I think a lot of people forget the Rams Super Bowl — I moved to safety for the Rams Super Bowl and had never played safety before that. So, I just enjoy and embrace new challenges and just expanding my game.

“Knowing that I have the tools to do those things and just go out there and execute. My teammates, the pass rush, those guys make it easier for me. Being in the locker room with a good group of guys, it just makes it easier for me to go out there and do my job. And obviously, being in Year 7 and having a good understanding of the defense and everything like that, it just makes it a lot easier.”

Jones is headed for unrestricted free agency this offseason, but he said that his preference would be to stay in New England.

Rob Gronkowski still has a solid case for the ‘Best tight end of his generation’ title: With the Kansas City Chiefs winning Super Bowl LVII against the Philadelphia Eagles, tight end Travis Kelce can now call himself a two-time world champion. Kelce keeps adding to his résumé as one of the most productive players of the current era — seemingly closing in on Rob Gronkowski and his status as the best tight end of his generation.

However, a recent breakdown by NFL analyst Kevin Cole shows that Gronkowski still has a major leg up on Kelce: he is responsible for six of the 10 best tight end seasons since 2006, including the top two.

At the end of the day, Gronkowski and Kelce will continue to be pitted against one another. Fact is that they are both among the best tight ends in NFL history — and that at least one of the two is getting a kick out of these comparisons.

The NFL waiver period quickly became relevant for New England: With the NFL offseason underway, the waiver wire is again part of the transaction business.

Players with less than four years of experience are subject to waivers, with the order the same as the draft order (meaning that the Patriots have 14th priority). Players with five or more years, meanwhile, will enter the open market immediately if released.

One player falling into the first category was New England wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson, who was let go earlier this week and promptly claimed by the Indianapolis Colts.

Wilkerson’s tenure with the Patriots was mostly unspectacular — he appeared in just four games over three seasons — but it does contain one highlight: his Week 17 performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021 was certainly noteworthy. He caught the only four passes of his career that day, taking them for a combined 42 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

How former Patriots performed on XFL opening day: The new XFL is underway, with its first four games taking place this weekend. The first two of those contests took place on Saturday, with the Arlington Renegades beating the Vegas Vipers 22-20 and the Houston Roughnecks celebrating a 33-12 victory over the Orlando Guardians.

Both games saw several former Patriots be involved. Here is how they fared:

Arlington Renegades: Three of the four ex-Patriots on the Renegades’ roster were quiet, with tight end Alex Ellis and cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc not registering any statistics and offensive lineman Willie Beavers being inactive. However, defensive back De’Vante Bausby made the most of his opportunities: he registered an interception and two tackles.

Vegas Vipers: Former Patriots third-round draft pick Antonio Garcia did not play against the Renegades. The offensive lineman, who never played a single game for New England, was announced inactive before the game.

Houston Roughnecks: The star of the day for the Roughnecks was Trent Harris, who had four sacks against Orlando. He was not the only former Patriot to see considerable action: safety Sean Davis had an interception and five tackles; linebacker Nate Wieland had 2.5 tackles of his own.

Orlando Guardians: Defensive edge Nick Coe, who spent parts of the 2020 offseason in New England, was tied for the Guardians’ team lead with six tackles.

The draft cycle will continue with the HBCU Combine and Legacy Bowl this week: With the East-West Shrine Bowl and Senior Bowl both in the rear-view mirror, the NFL scouting community will shift its focus to New Orleans and this year’s edition of the HBCU Combine and Legacy Bowl. The combine will take place on Monday, followed by four days of practice leading up to Saturday’s game (4 p.m. ET).

A total of 47 draft hopefuls will participate in the event.