When I heard Bill Belichick told his Shrine Bowl team in January that, "I haven't seen one single player here that could beat out the worst player on our team. You're terrible, you don't belong here, and you better get out there and show us something or you're never gonna make the NFL…" I assumed what you assumed. He’s just trying to get the kids amped up. Create some urgency.
Now, I’m not so sure.
After absolutely nailing the first two picks in this draft with corner Christian Gonzalez and defensive end Keion White, the Patriots’ subsequent decisions indicated they simply didn’t think the players left had a high likelihood of helping them.
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Think about it. In the third round, the Patriots took a promising young gentleman named Marte Mapu. He might be terrific. But he’s got a torn pec, went to Sacramento State and enters the Patriots program as a safety, where the team already has Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jabrill Peppers, Jalen Mills (probably) and Josh Bledsoe (sixth round, 2021). Mapu almost will certainly be apprenticing this season.
The Mapu selection announced that the Patriots had a dim view of the remaining players making impacts.
New England Patriots
That’s not to say that center Jake Andrews, kicker Chad Ryland, guard Sidy Sow, guard Atonio Mafi, wide receiver Kayshon Boutte, punter Bryce Baringer, wide receiver Demario Douglas, defensive back Ameer Speed and corner Isaiah Bolden are bad players and have no shot at all.
But when you’re selecting kickers and punters rather than position players, you’re doing it because you think the specialists have a better shot at helping you.
Will one of the interior offensive line picks make the team and play meaningful snaps someday? Likely. Will one of the wideouts make us double-take during training camp? Probably. But the Patriots' 2023 draft will be defined by Gonzalez and White. Those are impact players.
The Patriots didn’t want to come out of Saturday having 12 drafted players. They considered trading up in the first round, but when they realized they could drop back and add a pick and still get Gonzalez at 17, they did it. The thinking was they’d have even more ammo to move up on Friday in the second and third rounds.
Obviously, nobody else was desperate to add fourth and sixth-rounders in this draft either, because the Patriots couldn’t find trade partners. Which confirms that teams really were underwhelmed by the 2023 draft class. "We don’t want more picks … the pickings are slim enough for us right where we are …"
Here are a couple more takeaways from the weekend.
The agitation level on social media was high Friday when the Patriots stayed put at 46 and 76 and took a pair of defensive players. What, no wide receiver? No tackle? Nope and nope.
Which indicates to me that the team feels its stack of tackles -- Trent Brown, Riley Rieff, Calvin Anderson, Connor McDermott and Yodny Cajuste -- will be enough to protect Mac Jones and open holes for Rhamondre Stevenson and Co.
It also means they feel pretty OK with the wide receiver/pass-catching group. They should. With Bill O’Brien running the offense and Jones getting back to where he was before the Lost Season of ’22, the team should have enough downfield ability with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton and Mike Gesicki to be a lot better than last year.
Remember, Thornton was a second-round pick. He’s 6-foot-2 and ran a 4.28-second 40 coming out. Had he not injured his shoulder in the second preseason game last August, he’d have kept building on an outstanding camp in which he showed he was more than a straight-line speed guy. Thornton SHOULD – based on his draft position and skill – develop into the dynamic downfield threat people were dying for the Patriots to select.
Between Thornton and Bourne, the Patriots have speed guys. Smith-Schuster is supposed to be a better YAC guy than Jakobi Meyers. Gesicki is an established vertical threat at tight end. Parker, though he gets very little separation, is supposed to be their downfield contested-catch guy.
Is it a breathtaking array of talent? Not really. And -- aside from Julian Edelman and Meyers -- the Patriots’ record of developing homegrown wideouts ain’t great. The depth chart is full of guys they signed or traded for. If they can buck history and have Thornton develop into a 50-catch, 15-YPC player -- which isn’t too much to ask for a second-round pick -- they’ll have been proven correct that they had enough.
That won’t stop people from wringing their hands if Josh Downs (taken 79th by the Colts, three picks after Mapu) rips it up. Or tracking the numbers of Jonathan Mingo (39th), Jayden Reed (50th), Rashee Rice (55th), Marvin Mims (63rd) or my personal favorite Tank Dell (69th) and wishing the team used that fleet of picks to move up in the second or third round to get one of them.
But again, if nobody wants to move back and add picks, there’s not a lot you can do.
The prime acquisition period for 2023 is over. So who are the most important additions for the Patriots since the offseason began?
I see it like this.
1. Bill O’Brien. Going from offensive architects who had an actively negative impact on the product and the development of the offense and its players to a guy who truly knows what he’s doing should have a seismic impact.
2. Christian Gonzalez. The Patriots had one true outside corner on their roster in 2022. Jack Jones. Jonathan Jones could play there and did it well at times but he’s just not big enough to shut long wideouts down. Gonzalez is 6-foot-2 and runs sub-4.4. Even though he’s 20 (turns 21 in June), his development needs to be speedy.
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots proceed with him. Throw him into the fire hoping to speed development? Or take it slow to protect his confidence and let Jonathan Jones hold the fort at the top of the depth chart? The summer will determine that.
3. Mike Gesicki. The Patriots had a high-priced tight end who just wasn’t getting it done (Jonnu Smith). Now they have one who averaged 60-plus catches from 2019 through 2021. It’s a huge bump for Mac Jones.
4. Adrian Klemm. The Patriots now have Klemm -- who played offensive tackle for six seasons and has been coaching offensive line since 2009 -- as their lead OL coach. Last year, it was Matt Patricia (one season as assistant offensive line coach in 2005) and Billy Yates. And the Patriots were implementing a new offense and emphasizing more wide-zone runs.
With Klemm and Yates working in concert with O’Brien, there won’t be a repeat of 2022, when offensive players oozed frustration all summer with an inability to get their assignments correctly executed.
5. Riley Reiff/Calvin Anderson. Between one of these two free agent offensive tackles, the Patriots should see an upgrade to their too-often abhorrent play at right tackle which held the offense hostage.
6. Chris Board. The linebacker/special teams maven is here specifically to prevent the return game embarrassments of 2022 from reoccurring. The Patriots have too many special-teams specific players to perform as badly as they did last season and Board is aboard to make sure that facet of the game returns to being a positive.
7. JuJu Smith-Schuster. He'd better be better than Meyers. That won’t be an easy task.