Phil Perry

Patriots Mailbag: Which needs should Pats prioritize in 2024 Draft?

The Patriots desperately need offensive line help, but is that the best use of their first-round pick?

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The Patriots play a football game this Sunday against the Bills. But with the team at 1-5, many of you have the future on the mind. Let's get to your questions in this week's mailbag...

Sure, Jim. But building an offensive line that gives its quarterback "all day" to throw is easier said than done.

Because offensive line play has diminished -- and significantly so in the eyes of many who work in the league, partly due to limitations on practice time and the college-level style of play -- it can be really difficult to build an elite unit. You might actually have a better chance of forming a high-quality offense by rolling the dice on a quarterback who can help an average group of protectors, along with high-end weapons for said quarterback to target.

Consider the following... Pro Football Focus grade is one way to track league-wide offensive line performance over a number of years. This year, there are only three teams with a pass-blocking grade over 75.0. In 2021, there were six. In 2019, there were 13. In 2016, there were 20. That's a staggering drop in dependable line play.

Using PFF grade as a gauge, we can say there are only three excellent pass-protecting teams this year -- and one is the Bucs, who certainly do not have an excellent offense. What does that say about the feasibility of building an elite attack with a top-end line? This is why I would argue, if you have the opportunity to draft a high-caliber quarterback early in next year's draft, go for it.

(I liked former general manager Rick Spielman's idea on the latest Patriots Talk pod. If they can get either of the top-two options at QB in Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, jump at the chance. Otherwise, you might be better off waiting if you're picking in the top five.)

If you don't land the high-end QB? Go for the elite weapon. Then try to figure out how to compile an average line and go from there. 

In today's game, thinking you can construct a "sure-thing" line that will elevate everyone else in the offense is a little outdated. Fewer practice reps... College programs that don't want to run the football... Defensive linemen that are freakier than ever... It's tough to get a great offensive line in place and then drop in adequate pieces around it.

For more on modern-day team-building, check out my conversation with Eric Eager, who's the vice president of Sumer Sports. 

Hard to explain that one, Matt. Even if they were just looking to get to average on the offensive line, they needed more than what they added to man the right tackle spot. They threw multiple bodies at the problem and hoped one stuck. And they're still waiting for something to stick there. 

They're in between a rock and a hard place at the moment, Spenser. If they comment and show their displeasure with the product, then they're viewed as not backing their coach, and perhaps that leads to further dysfunction behind the scenes. If they bite their tongues, then fans wonder why they're sitting on their hands. Suffice it to say, if they wanted to publicly support Bill Belichick and the team as it goes through this stretch, they could.

Their silence does speak volumes in that respect. Would be fairly obvious to deduce, but they can't be happy with the current state of affairs.

I understand the confusion, Ken. Particularly after ownership made it very clear they expected to be back in contention years ago, you would think you'd see a little more urgency from a team-building standpoint.

My theory? Belichick has become so principled when it comes to salary structure and adhering to the values placed on available players internally -- something that he believes served him well for the better part of 20 years -- that when someone becomes free and has the ability to make more, the Patriots are often too willing to walk away. Jakobi Meyers... DeAndre Hopkins... and that's just in the last calendar year.

There's also an evaluation issue, at the receiver spot in particular, that they can't seem to get over. And when the league is so driven now by passing game talent, that is a fatal flaw.

It's a fair question, QS. I believe Jerod Mayo will be the next head coach of the Patriots, whenever they're looking for one. Robert Kraft made it clear it wanted him to stick around last offseason, extending him before he interviewed with Carolina for its open head-coaching position.

While a pivot from the Belichick circle may be attractive in some respects, Mayo represents an element of consistency while simultaneously providing the team with a vastly different personality in the head coach's office.

I think it'd be a mistake to assume Mayo will behave like previous Belichick acolytes who've been installed as head coaches elsewhere. Just because he played for Belichick and worked for him as an assistant coach doesn't necessarily mean the pair are completely aligned on all big-picture football items.

Now, when it comes to the structure of the organization post-Belichick -- whenever that happens -- I'm not sure what that would look like. The coaching staff could look similar given Mayo's experience with this group, particularly on the defensive side of things. The front office? It would be interesting to know how Kraft would want to proceed there.

Would he stick with someone from the Belichick Era, like Matt Groh, and tell him to put his own spin on things moving forward? Or would he go outside the building for a change? Kraft has been very complimentary of the team's drafts of late, and Groh has a great deal of responsibility as things currently stand. Perhaps Kraft would like Groh to further grow into the job and see what he can do without Belichick having final say on the roster.

Selling points would likely have very little to do with the roster, though there are some promising young pieces on the defensive side of the ball. One of the attractive things about the gig would be the ability to build something from the ground up, and to help bring a proud franchise back to championship contention.

Hard to rule anything out these days, John. My guess is Robert Kraft would be very reluctant to relieve Bill Belichick of his duties mid-season. Too much history there. Not enough to gain by making that move, in my opinion. 

Never say never because it's hard to watch 30-point defeats and see your fanbase tune out. But I'd be surprised by an in-season change.

I don't think that would've been fire-able, Bob. Though it would've looked horrible. It was no question an odd decision at the time, and what led them to that point -- not adding a more reliable backup to the position in training camp when it was clear Bailey Zappe was having significant difficulties in practice -- is borderline indefensible.

Even though I disagreed with the decision to basically go into the game with one quarterback, the reason I say that it wouldn't have been the final straw for me is multi-tiered. No. 1, this is a situation that seems so far gone that I'm not sure firing Bill Belichick mid-season would be productive in any way shape or form. No. 2, I think Belichick thinks so little of what Bailey Zappe has given the team that the outside-the-box option was the best option for him.

It's as if Belichick said to himself: If Zappe can't help, and if Will Grier isn't ready, might as well have an athlete out there who can mitigate the team's poor offensive line play.

Still, it's hard to defend dressing Mike Onwenu -- who didn't play and was injured enough that he didn't even warm up with his fellow linemen pregame -- instead of making either Zappe or Grier active in case Mac Jones was injured. That was a must-win game if the Patriots were going to salvage their season, and they had one quarterback ready to go. Head-scratcher.

Links on Twitter -- or X, if you're going by its new name -- have a new look. No more headlines under the images that go with said links, so it's a little unclear sometimes if you're looking at an image that functions as a link or just a plain ol' image. 

There are some outlets (not ours, usually) that simply put images with text links included in their tweets. If you see a text link, go with that. If you don't, you should be able to tell if an image functions as a link because in the lower left hand corner you'll see the name of the website that is linked. Here's an example of one of those. Hope that helps, Old Hamp.

Because, Megan, that's part of the experience. Fortunately for Patriots fans, it's... just... been awhile.

You watch and you scour the roster for pieces you'd like them to build around. You become irrationally enamored with them and wonder what they can be down the line. You identify the holes you want them to prioritize in free agency and the draft. Plenty to choose from there. You embrace whatever it is you happen to be feeling now because whenever it does get turned around -- and, granted, it could be a while -- it'll be that much more rewarding. I think.

This is one of the most fascinating times in team history. There will be dramatic changes, I assume, and you'll want to be following along day to day, week to week, game to game for the front seat to it all. Just, please, whatever you do, keep reading our stuff and watching our stuff and listening to our stuff. Mmk?

We've got two guys on the beat at our place who've done nothing but live with and around Patriots fans their entire lives. People who've seen the ups and downs over the course of many decades. We get you. We got you. Thank you kindly.

OK, different story! If you're watching Patriots games that kick off at 1 a.m. your time, as VT is, and you'd like a break? I can understand that. But the request to continue consuming all NBC Sports Boston content on the Patriots -- which can be consumed at your leisure, and for free! -- still stands. Thank you kindly.

This might be worthy of something longer down the line -- and it's very early for a grade on the most recent class -- but let's work our way backwards. 

  • 2023: B+
  • 2022: D
  • 2021: B
  • 2020: B-
  • 2019: F

Words like "hostile" and "bent" are far too strong, in my opinion, for the way in which Belichick has been treated by folks on the beat. I can't answer for every individual in every medium who comments on this team. But I'd say Belichick has gotten nothing but fair questions in press conferences. And there aren't all that many bombs -- again, from the people who cover the team every day -- lobbed in his direction.

If you're someone who considers it "hostile" to say that he may end up losing his job if things continue to trend in this direction, then I'm not sure what to tell you. If you have something in particular that I've said that you'd like to call me on, by all means let me know. If it's someone else who has you bothered, try their Bag.

Travis, I think it's what the kids would call "bad ball." 

Hey, Mark. Touched on this on the latest edition of Next Pats. I think the high end for a return on Josh Uche would be a third-rounder. Bradley Chubb isn't a great comp, though they're close in terms of age and both have had durability issues, because he was a high-end first-rounder. Check out the pod for details on the recent comp I like a little better as a gauge.

They should be, Bradley. As I mentioned in last week's Bag, because of the way in which the comp-pick formula works, the cap-flush Patriots risk getting nothing in return for free agents lost this coming offseason. If they know they'll have a hard time re-signing a few, or if they know they don't want to re-sign a few, the best move would be to deal them now.

What I've been told, Jeffrey, is that people in the building aren't expecting Belichick to want to deal away players who'd be considered high-impact guys.

He'll be open to trades, as he always is. But Belichick itching to sell on key contributors isn't something folks around him are anticipating. He's going to want to win as many games as possible, as he always has, even if the team has little hope of making the postseason. Kyle Dugger, for example, is someone who may have trade value, but he helps the team now, and Belichick might balk at trading him away.

The question for me is whether or not Kraft would be willing to step in and force Belichick's hand one way or the other. Will he tell his coach to sell because it's best for the future of the organization? Or will he tell Belichick not to deal so that whichever general manager comes next -- if Kraft knows he might soon move on from Belichick -- has the ability to make choices on players like Dugger, Kendrick Bourne, Josh Uche and other free-agents-to-be? 

Again, fascinating times.

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