Tom E. Curran

Five burning questions the Patriots need to answer this summer

It all starts in the trenches...

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Odds are out for who’ll win the AFC East in 2024. It’s a three-horse race. Your horse – the local entry – is currently seen as a nag, on its way to the glue factory, an EXTREEEEEME longshot.

You've got the Bills at +170 to win the division, the Jets at +190 and the Dolphins at +200. The Patriots are checking in at +2500.

This surprises absolutely nobody. The Patriots were driven into the ditch and left rolled over and smoking. The new regime – cobbled together with haste and hope – first has to get the team out of the ditch and wheel-side down before it’s even drivable.

That process began with shrewd re-signings in free agency, offset by a weak effort in free agent imports.

The draft? We’ll see. The Patriots went for the $50 scratchie in Drake Maye at No. 3 rather than trading down for a few $20 scratchies with better odds and lower payoffs.

VP of Player Personnel Eliot Wolf oozes with, “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing …” and has deftly escaped any blame for the personnel rake-stepping of the past few seasons.

We’ve been told he was muzzled, stifled and unable to bloom under Bill Belichick. Now he’ll flower. Again, we’ll see.

The Patriots can talk all they want about dynasties, traditions and their “way” of doing things. But they’ve been around 64 years and their sustained run of brilliance was 18 seasons from 2001 to 2019.

Every other decade was decent in the middle and crappy at the beginning and the end. Generally.

If they’re going to be decent in the middle of this decade, they better get a move on.

Training camp starts July 23 for veterans. Here are five BURNING! questions that need answering between now and the end of the summer. We’ll drop another five Thursday.

What do they do well on offense?

Alex Van Pelt has been given the reins to install and orchestrate the Patriots offense. Over the last four years in Cleveland, the Browns were a meat-and-potatoes, West Coast offense that was no-frills reliable.

"I think running the football in this league wins games, wins championships," Van Pelt said in a video posted to the Patriots' X account after his hiring. "We have to do that late in the season."

In three of Van Pelt’s four years, the Browns were a top-10 rushing offense with Nick Chubb getting ridden hard as the lead back (302 carries and 1,525 yards in his best season in 2022).

The Browns had top-end wideouts Amari Cooper and Jarvis Landry while Van Pelt was there. And they got a lot out of tight ends Austin Hooper and David Njoku.

The offense line was stacked throughout Van Pelt’s tenure with Joel Bitonio, Wyatt Teller, Jack Conklin, J.C. Tretter and Jedrick Wills ranging from good to All-Pro.

The Patriots definitely don’t have the offensive linemen or wideouts Cleveland did. Rhamondre Stevenson’s good, but he’s not Chubb at Chubb’s best. And as for quarterback? Jacoby Brissett isn’t a magician. He’ll be as good as the people around him allow him to be. Starting with the offensive line.

Everything rides on their competency. David Andrews, Sidy Sow and Mike Onwenu are – ideally – going to be center, right guard and right tackle, respectively. But with Cole Strange out at left guard (patellar tendon recuperation) and Chukwuma Okorafor at left tackle (where he’s never played), the left side is a question mark. Behind Okorafor is Caedan Wallace, a rookie third rounder, who's also making the switch from RT to LT for the first time. So hold your breath.

In short, if they can’t block then they can’t run or pass. Which we saw the past two seasons. So that needs sorting first.

How relaxed is too relaxed?

We’ve heard 397 times since January that the vibe around the Patriots is different. And we’re going to hear it a few thousand more times.

The Patriots under Jerod Mayo are striving to be less uptight, allow players and coaches to feel more empowered and generally have a good time.

“Do your job” and “No days off” worked great when the players were really good. Not so much when they weren’t.

The unmistakable subtext to the move to Mayo was that Bill was too much of a hardass and Mayo won’t be.

If you’re of a certain age, you’ve seen this plot before. Post-Parcells, the Patriots went to the kinder, gentler approach of Pete Carroll and an immensely talented team went from good to average. By the end of Carroll’s tenure, players were pining for more discipline and organization. Which they got from Belichick.

How does Mayo, in his first season as a head coach, strike the balance with the entire team and coaching staff?  

Ask any teacher: It’s easier to be stern early and relax as the year goes on than be free-and-easy early and then pull back the reins.

Ted Johnson reacts to Hunter Henry and Jabrill Peppers voicing their early support for Jerod Mayo, and weighs in on how much Mayo's experience as a player will matter in the locker room.

Will they resist the lure of Maye's improvement?

The team has made it clear they’re going with Jacoby Brissett as their anticipated starter. They’ve also talked about competition at every position. Drake Maye’s improvement from April to June was obvious and impressive. The footwork, smoothness, confidence and accuracy all got better and his last couple throws of minicamp – fade touchdowns to Ja’Lynn Polk and Kayshon Boutte – were a great way to go into the summer.

It's going to be different and harder when camp starts. Brissett, who’s been in this offense and understands the demands and the timing, is the obvious default option for the team regardless of how many times Maye flashes his potential.

But what if it’s more than flashes? What if it becomes -- as it was with Mac Jones -- high-level competency on a day-in, day-out basis? What if he’s better than Brissett or -- more realistically -- close enough for the team to say, “He looks ready?”

How much does the performance of the other groups – the line, wideouts and running game – dictate whether Maye plays? We saw last season that the line breakdowns early in the season sunk any chance Mac Jones had of inspiring the staff’s confidence while shattering his.

Then there’s the entertainment push-pull. People are going to want to see how the new toy works. If the team starts poorly, Brissett’s ineffective and the stadium’s flat and/or angry on a weekly basis, do you give the people what they want?

What's the pecking order on offense?

It certainly seems as if Van Pelt is the offensive overlord. His title and Mayo’s comments this spring have underscored that it’s his baby. But when we watched practices, Van Pelt had plenty of coaching company with Ben McAdoo (senior offensive assistant), T.C. McCartney (quarterbacks coach) and Evan Rothstein (assistant quarterbacks coach) during positional drills.

As the job title suggests, Van Pelt’s in charge of “coordinating” the offense. So the progress of all the other position groups is on his plate in addition to the care-and-feeding of rookies Maye and Joe Milton.

It’s good that McAdoo – a former head coach and offensive coordinator – is there because he can be the extra set of eyes on the progress of the other groups, or he can stick with QBs while staying clear of McCartney or Rothstein. Or not.

Basically, who does what has to be defined and the buck on offense is going to have to stop somewhere, because while it’s Mayo’s team, it's Van Pelt’s offense.

Patriots' OC Alex Van Pelt talks about his approach to coaching rookie QBs and when he expects Drake Maye to get more reps in practice.

Who stays in the wide receiver room?

There are currently nine wideouts in a big pass-catcher jambalaya. DeMario Douglas, Ja’Lynn Polk, Javon Baker, K.J. Osborn and the injured Kendrick Bourne are locks. Then there’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton, Jalen Reagor and Kayshon Boutte.

Boutte was very good last summer in camp and – after failing to get both feet down inbounds on two different occasions during the opener – got exiled to the bench. Smith-Schuster was a dud in his first year with the team but says now he’s feeling better than ever. Thornton, a second-round pick in 2022, has yet to make an impact but he still runs like a gazelle and makes the occasional flash play in practices. And Reagor … there’s just something about the former first-rounder that makes me think he could be highly useful.

But the whole group reminds me of the old line, “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t really have any."

Douglas emerged last year as a legitimate problem for defenses. If Polk or Baker can do the same, the Patriots will be slowly chipping away at finally having a set of wideouts that at least makes opposing defensive coordinators think twice about them.

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