Phil Perry

Patriots Mailbag: Can rookie WR duo end team's draft drought?

Can both Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte crack the 53-man roster?

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We're nearly two full weeks into New England Patriots training camp, and you have questions. Specifically about the wide receiver room and a pair of rookies who have "popped" on the practice fields outside Gillette Stadium.

Let's dive into that situation and more in a camp edition of the Patriots Mailbag:

Here's my guess right now when it comes to active-roster players at that position: DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kendrick Bourne, Tyquan Thornton, Demario "Pop" Douglas. Hard for me to extend past five, but it'll depend on how other positions shake out. It'll also be determined by which players the Patriots want to work with but they don't believe can be slipped past waivers.

It wouldn't stun me if Kayshon Boutte found a way onto the 53-man roster given the way he's played of late; for the last week, he's made a play or two a day that allows him to stand out. Certainly trending in the right direction. While Tyquan Thornton is going the other way, it's hard for me to picture them giving up on a second-round pick with his skill set.

One wild card when it comes to the picture here: Is Bourne still around come Week 1? Teams were interested in trading for Bourne last summer, I was told at the time. Might they come calling again? And might the depth here -- with Douglas and Boutte impressing -- make him expendable to a degree? I'm not ruling it out.

I'm guessing Trent Brown and Cole Strange will be out there. We'll see on those. Mike Onwenu is a little more difficult to project. The more time he loses this summer, the more difficult it would be to expect him to jump in and be ready right away.

Rookie guard Atonio Mafi and second-year undrafted lineman Kody Russey look like the top fill-ins at that position. Bill Murray had been among the favorites to take over for Onwenu, if necessary, when camp began. But he's missed some time due to injury.

Big number! I get it. And I think you're right on Chad Ryland. My guess is it's his gig. But you could still have Ryland, Bryce Baringer, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Brenden Schooler, Chris Board, Ameer Speed and Jourdan Heilig all make the team. That would be eight. And if Isaiah Bolden ends up making it -- he's been solid in spurts at corner and could be a kick-return option -- then you're potentially back at nine.

Just be prepared for the number to be large almost no matter what. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Even without a true No. 1 on the roster, there are a variety of ways for the Patriots to create space in opposing secondaries.

We've seen some at-the-snap motion, which should help after it was very rarely used a season ago. Play-action passes will open things up for them as well. (Though if the offensive line remains an issue, having Mac Jones drop back for extended periods of time and turn his back to the defense in order to sell fakes might not be the wisest choice.)

Rub routes against man coverage has been something the Patriots have always done and will continue to do. Bill O'Brien will have plenty up his sleeve to help his guys uncover. Is it ideal? Is it what you want when you have to win tough one-on-one matchups on third down? No and no. But at this point, to steal a line, it is what it is.

I have little doubt that they'll be better. Mostly because they'll be drastically improved offensively. But does that translate to a better record, a playoff appearance or a playoff win? 

I'll give you a couple. I think Hunter Henry could end up having a big year, relative to most other tight ends in football. That's not a huge rack-up-numbers spot in today's game. And he won't be Travis Kelce or Mark Andrews, in all likelihood. But O'Brien knows how to use the position. Mac Jones trusts Henry, particularly in the red zone. And he feels like a good bet to be one of the best seven-to-10 players at that spot in the game.

I'm also looking at Ja'Whaun Bentley and I think he'll start to get his flowers as one of the best linebackers in football if he puts together another season like the one he did last year. He'll never be Fred Warner in coverage. But what he does for this unit -- which could be one of the five best in football if all goes well (they were third in DVOA last year) --  is incredibly valuable. 

It's looking more and more like Rhamondre Stevenson could simply be their top choice on third down. That would mean choosing to spell him on early downs with another big body.

The top backup to Stevenson right now looks like Kevin Harris, who I'm not sure the Patriots would want out there in passing situations. If there was a player they wanted to slot into the old James White role, it could be Ty Montgomery, but he's banged up again. It could be Pierre Strong but he hasn't looked like a roster lock through this portion of camp.

The reality is that Stevenson is one of the team's top pass-catchers. Keeping a bigger body to hammer between the tackles might make more sense than overextending to keep a pass-catcher to take those valuable snaps away from arguably their best offensive player.

Stevenson was third in the NFL among backs in targets in 2022 (87), and he could beat that figure this year if the line remains an issue as a safety blanket out of the backfield.  

As entertaining as it was to watch Malik Cunningham on Monday, Peter, I don't see him landing on the 53-man roster just yet. That said... If he ends up showing off what he can do at quarterback at some point in the preseason? If he makes it clear he can make things happen with the football in his hands -- particularly on a team that isn't necessarily loaded with playmakers? Then that could change.

But Monday's action felt more like a look for the defense -- perhaps to prepare for when the Texans come to town for a preseason game Thursday -- than a true full-speed installation for the offense.

The Patriots hadn't had Cunningham at quarterback for a full practice period all summer before Monday. But with more time allotted to Cunningham at that position in future practices, who knows what he's able to show off? 

He's been in the mix, particularly with Trent Brown missing time and Calvin Anderson still on the non-football illness list. But Riley Reiff and Conor McDermott have been the biggest beneficiaries of those leftover snaps. 

Unfortunately for the Patriots, I don't think that gets it done. Jonah Williams is a capable NFL tackle with a proven track record. We're still not sure what Tyquan Thornton is. Thornton, however, has term left on his rookie contract so there is some inherent value there.

I just come back to this: There aren't enough serviceable tackles in the league, and when they become available they tend to be extremely expensive. Could Thornton be part of a package that goes to Cincinnati? Potentially. But it would likely cost more than that. Even with Williams in a walk year. 

I don't think that's it, CC. I think it's the fact that offensive tackles are really (really) hard to find. They're trying to make it work with what they have right now.

Keion White has been impressive. They use him outside. They use him inside. They've dropped him in coverage. He has real power, and he used it to bull rush Atonio Mafi in one 11-on-11 snap Monday.

Could he become a little more aware? Sure. On the very next snap after moving Mafi, for instance, White was blown off the line by a double-team during a Stevenson run. But, for the most part, White has looked like the first-round talent the Patriots thought he was on draft weekend. (They ended up taking Christian Gonzalez in the first and still landing White in the second after considering him at No. 17 overall.)

As for Perkins? I thought he had one of his better days as a Patriots edge defender Monday. He breezed by Sidy Sow during a one-on-one rep and later scooted by Andrew Stueber quickly. He also seemed to draw a holding penalty on McDermott during an 11-on-11 period.

Perkins may be on the outside looking in when it comes to active-roster decision-making, but if he's healthy, based on the position he plays, he could be worthy of a spot on the practice squad.

I have Kyle Dugger at the top of my list. I know they just drafted Marte Mapu. But they have four guys who play strong safety on this roster, including Jabrill Peppers and Adrian Phillips. Mapu easily could be next in line for one of those two vets.

Dugger is in his prime and ascending. He plays a position where some of the highest-paid players don't exactly break the bank. He profiles as a quiet-but-hard-working leader. Something should happen here.

Josh Uche may want to put together another double-digit sack year and then hit the market. And Mike Onwenu may not be long for New England after the team just took three potential guards in this year's draft class.

As the host of a podcast that focuses primarily on younger players, Steven, no it's not too early to get fired up about the future of the roster. Especially defensively.

Gonzalez and White have the physical ability to be real contributors early in their careers. Mapu looks like he has excellent versatility. Mafi is already getting early looks with the offense. Last year's group, led by Strange and Marcus Jones, should have a handful of real contributors. Then there's the 2021 class with Jones, Stevenson and Christian Barmore.

To me, the question is whether or not there is real star power on the offensive side of the ball when looking at this young core. Maybe Jones squeaks into the top-10 conversation with O'Brien in his ear. Stevenson is already there. If they can get a high-quality tackle or receiver who can grow with this group, then they'll really be cooking. In my opinion.

He's come on lately, Connor. Interested to see how they use him in the joint practices coming up. His size can be a problem for the Patriots secondary at times, and that's been made clear with a couple of over-the-middle targets he's seen in the last few days.

What's interesting about Boutte is that he hasn't popped due to his pure athleticism. I haven't seen him necessarily run by anyone straight down the field. But part of being an athlete is being coordinated. And his body control is outstanding.

He's made toe-tapping catches along the sideline. He's plucked a low throw off his shoe tops and completed the catch. He made an absurd one-handed catch on a poor throw from Cunningham on Monday that might've been the catch of camp. It's not that he jumps four feet in the air or runs a 4.2-second 40. But he understands where the football is, how to find it, and how to manipulate his body in such a way to haul it in. It's impressive.

I hesitate to make a comparison right now but I'll stew on it as camp wears on and see if I can come up with something... The first name that comes to mind is actually Danny Amendola because he wasn't a burner or a leaper, but he made some absolutely ridiculous circus catches during his time here.

Boutte isn't built that low to the ground. And I'm not sure he has Amendola's quickness. But that coordination factor was something Amendola had in spades.

Yes. I think that's one of the more underrated factors about the defense's performance last year. They were behind the eight ball fairly frequently because their offense was so frequently stuck in the mud. The time-of-possession battle in late-season games against the Bengals and Bills -- particularly in the first halves of those games -- stand out in my mind as prohibitive.

Sow had a tough day in one-on-ones on Monday -- he went 0-3 -- but he's getting his feet under him at the position. It's too valuable a spot not to try to make it work there. If he has to go back to guard at some point, so be it.

Can't re-do Barmore's deal until he's done with Year 3. Same for all players on rookie contracts.

My guess? If they wanted Douglas out there in a meaningful situation, it would be on third down, when they wouldn't be asking him to block in the running game from the slot. Obvious passing situation. Get open quickly. Use that explosive lateral mobility to help move the chains.

Would they keep a player like that on the roster for that role? I think he can do more than that, but he might be relegated to that kind of role early on with a big-bodied slot like Smith-Schuster and tight ends like Henry and Gesicki manning the slot on early downs.

Douglas has mixed in as a returner as well so he could be a factor there if for some reason Marcus Jones isn't available.

Adrian Phillips. Jalen Mills. Kyle Dugger. We've seen them all play in the deep middle of the field. You could see Jabrill Peppers back there as well.

Mapu seems to be an option there with the reserves, but perhaps he works his way into the starting rotation at some point.

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