FOXBORO -- Most aren't expecting much from the Patriots in 2023. They're projected by sportsbooks to be a sub-.500 team. Vegas odds suggest they'll finish last in their division.
In order for them to exceed those expectations, something relatively unexpected would have to occur. Right? Right.
Time for an X-factor conversation.
Who are the potential sources of some unexpected positive production? Which players could sway the regular season results for Bill Belichick's team in a meaningful way?
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Can't be Mac Jones or Bill O'Brien. Anyone who follows football understands just how important the starting quarterback and the new voice in his ear will be to New England's 2023 success. Can't be Matthew Judon, who's arguably the team's best player, or even someone like Christian Barmore, whose pedigree as an Alabama star entering his prime is someone of whom contributions should be expected.
The two high-variance players on this year's roster who could -- if they reach the upper end of their respective ceilings -- take the Patriots from projected last-place finishers to legitimate contenders both reside on the outside: rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez and veteran wide receiver Kendrick Bourne.
Why Gonzalez? If he can be who the Patriots drafted him to become, he'd be the answer -- at one of the game's most important positions -- to the explosive playmakers Belichick's defense will face on a weekly basis.
His first test comes Week 1 against Eagles star A.J. Brown. Top-flight receivers Tyreek Hill, Garrett Wilson, CeeDee Lamb, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs and Terry McLaurin await. How Gonzalez will perform in meaningful game reps remains an unknown, even to those who work closely alongside him on a daily basis.
If Gonzalez succeeds in those difficult matchups, the Patriots have a path to being one of the elite defenses in football. If he's a lock-down player, it's not an exaggeration to say he could win the team a game or two. The blueprint is there. Even the Patriots know that there are young corners in the league who have hit the ground running as pros and quickly established themselves as game-changers.
Sauce Gardner of the Jets led the NFL in pass breakups as a rookie last season. He was second in the league in passer rating allowed. Right ahead of him in that rating-allowed category? Panthers second-year corner Jaycee Horn. Horn played just three games as a rookie but allowed a passer rating of 39.6, which was second in the NFL among players with at least 100 snaps. That same season, fellow 2021 first-rounder Patrick Surtain II of the Broncos was ninth in the NFL in rating allowed.
If Gonzalez can't muster a similar performance, it could be a long season against one of the toughest schedules in football, which includes all four of the top scoring offenses from 2022 and seven of the top 13. Seven of the top eight receivers in terms of receiving yardage last season are on New England's schedule this year as well. Three of those -- Hill, Diggs and Waddle -- are on there twice.
The Patriots need their rookie first-rounder to play like a ready-made star if they want to be contenders.
On the offensive side of things, Bourne looks like the kind of player who isn't expected to star but has 1,000-yard potential. That may sound a tad aggressive given his 434-yard performance last season. But he hit 800 yards in 2021 despite seven games with fewer than 35 yards receiving.
Now he's functioning with a quarterback who looks comfortable in an offense that is catering to his strengths -- even more so than in 2021, when he ran the more traditional Patriots offense under Josh McDaniels in his first year with the team. Additionally, Bourne is sharing a receiver room loaded with question marks. JuJu Smith-Schuster and DeVante Parker have lengthy injury histories. (The latter is already dealing with something that's slowed him down on the practice field of late.) Demario "Pop" Douglas looks promising but is a rookie who may need time to cement himself as a go-to option in Bill O'Brien's 11-personnel packages.
Plus, Bourne looks like he's made physical improvements that should help him make a seismic statistical leap in his third season in Foxboro. He's acknowledged he's bigger and stronger, and that physicality may help him more against the types of press coverage looks the Patriots will face from teams that want to limit New England's quick passing game.
There are statistics that suggest Bourne's breakout could be coming, too. Back in 2021, he was third in the league in yards after the catch over expectation, per Next Gen Stats (2.7). He ranked behind only Deebo Samuel and Ja'Marr Chase in that category. Two seasons ago, Bourne was also third in the NFL in ESPN's "Catch Score," which is described here. In essence, he caught more footballs than expected based on NGS tracking data.
If Bourne can function as a go-to option -- especially if and when Smith-Schuster or Parker are down -- then that could vault the Patriots into an unexpected level of production that leads to unexpected results. Hence the X-factor designation.