Tom E. Curran

Curran: These two players could ignite the Patriots' 2023 offense


Nobody’s better equipped to give an opinion on the New England Patriots than Devin McCourty. And the great thing is, he’s willing to serve it straight-up.

With the main roster-building portion of 2023 over, how does the newly-retired, 12-time captain view this year’s model?

“I do think they’re a better team than the way we ended last season,” McCourty said when he joined NBC Sports Boston's "Quick Slants" recently. “(Offensive coordinator) Billy O’Brien makes a big difference on offense. I think that helps. But the question is: Does it matter if you’re better when the division’s better, everyone else is better and you’re not able to be in the playoffs again this year?

“That’s what it will come down to. Is this a playoff-winning team? Not just get to the playoffs, but is this team good enough to win a playoff game?”

When the schedule drops Thursday, we’ll at least have a look at the syllabus for this year. The course will be a grind with a gauntlet of (presuming health) Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers twice in the division.

Outside the AFC East, they’ll see Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts. They’ll also see a collection of “sometimes real good/sometimes not” quarterbacks like Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Daniel Jones, Jimmy Garoppolo and two against Tua Tagovailoa. No free rides.

The Patriots can’t be wandering out there on offense with no plan, hoping a return touchdown gets them to 20 points. They’ll need to be a threat for 24 PPG on their own. But how? What’s been added to change things? Who makes defenses sweat?

McCourty concurred, noting that there’s no established “Uh-Oh” on the offense currently when we asked what the offense is still missing.

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“It’s what we talk about as a defense: ‘Who do we have to game plan for?’ ” McCourty said. “Who makes us say, ‘This guy can’t beat us or that guy can’t beat us.’ Week to week when you walk into a game as a defender, when that game is coming up and you’re looking ahead, ‘Ohhh, Cincinnati, we gotta deal with (Tee) Higgins and (Ja’Marr) Chase. What will we do to defend this team?’

“Back in my day, you played Detroit (the feeling was), ‘Ohhh, they got Calvin Johnson. How we gonna handle him?’ So I do agree, a guy who makes you say (how are we gonna deal with him?)”

Maybe I’m giving the additions of O’Brien and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm too much credit. But I think both guys will have a seismic impact on the unit’s performance this year. The team was 10-7 with Mac Jones as a rookie and lesser offensive talent than it has now. With two years experience, better talent, a legitimate offensive coach and an immense amount to prove, Jones is going to mute a lot of critics.

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And even though the Patriots didn’t make an earth-shaking move on a skill position player in free agency or the draft, two players in particular could potentially create the mismatches and wariness McCourty was referring to.

First is Tyquan Thornton, a second-round wide receiver in 2022.

“With his speed and his ability to get down the field horizontally and vertically, I think he definitely has a chance,” said McCourty. “I’m so interested to see what he looks like in this offense now compared to last year where it was really just, ‘Run straight down, let’s run a shot play here and there.’ ”

The even more intriguing add? Tight end Mike Gesicki. He is basically a wide receiver, said McCourty.

“That’s how we saw him,” McCourty noted. “Every time he checked into the game we would call personnel and we would put ‘light’ at the end of it. He’s a tight end but ‘light’ would remind us that it’s really a receiver.

“I think he’ll probably be their best mismatch when it comes to game plan and getting him matched up. He had a great year in 2021 (73 catches for 780 yards in Miami). A new offense comes in and doesn’t fit him (in 2022 and his numbers decline). I’m excited to see what he does in this offense.”

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