Phil Perry

Patriots Mailbag: Which players will play key roles vs. Eagles?

The Patriots face an uphill battle against the reigning NFC champs in Week 1.

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Football is back, and the New England Patriots are set to kick off their 2023 season on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Before all the action, it's time to answer some of your mailbag questions...

I think the strength of both the Patriots offense and their defense is that they have a variety of competent players on both sides of the ball. There's not one player to take away who will make or break the results of a given week. (The flip side is that when you don't have elite talent on either side, there's no obvious defensive focal point. Fair.)

But with that said, let's highlight a couple of names. Starting on the offensive side, and eliminating the obvious answer of Mac Jones, let's go with Hunter Henry.

There are a lot of questions as to how exactly the Eagles will deploy their safeties in this game. Terrell Edmunds is new to the team and isn't known for his skills in coverage. Rookie Sydney Brown could be in the mix here as well, as could free-agent add Justin Evans. As one of Jones' most trusted targets, peppering Henry in the middle of the field could yield real results.

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On the defensive side of the ball, let's go with Josh Uche. I think he's poised to make the Patriots regret not getting him signed a little sooner. He's a niche player -- he's a pass-rush specialist until he shows otherwise -- but that niche is tremendously valuable. If they can get him going on stunts with his teammates on the interior, he could change the game. I also think his size and his ability to reduce the surface area available to tackles blocking him when bending around the corner will make him a challenging matchup for behemoth Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata. 

My guess is, since he was essentially the 53rd man on the roster, that it would be tight end Pharaoh Brown. But at this point, that's not something the Patriots really have to consider. Bailey Zappe can be elevated three times without being placed on the active roster. Even if Bill Belichick wanted Matt Corral to spend more time in the playbook before dressing him, maybe by the time Corral is a month into the gig -- maybe by the time Zappe is out of p-squad elevations -- his team will be comfortable putting him in uniform.

By the way, I'm still not ruling out the fact that Corral could be the No. 2 as early as Week 1. The Patriots made a strong statement with how they felt about Zappe when he was released.

How the team will handle Jalen Hurts is something we'll dive into more deeply with our weekly matchups column (out Friday). But how's this for an answer to your question: everyone.

Kidding. Kind of. The Patriots have long favored zone coverages against mobile quarterbacks because they don't want defensive backs turning their backs to great athletes who can scramble for massive chunk gains. Hurts is considered by league evaluators I've spoken to to be more of a scramble-to-throw quarterback than a scramble-to-run player. But they'll still want a lot of eyes on Hurts on a snap-to-snap basis. 

If the Patriots do play some man, perhaps it will be because they'll pressure to get Hurts on the move, when he tends to be much less efficient through the air. If that's the case, they could use players like Marte Mapu, Mack Wilson or one of their second-level safeties like Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips or Jabrill Peppers to spy. All have real striking power to tackle a bruising runner like Hurts, and all would be fast enough to track him down. Though he's a great athlete, he doesn't have the breakaway speed of a Justin Fields or Lamar Jackson (both of whom ran wild on the Patriots last season).

Well, Trygve, DeVante Parker may not be available for the Eagles game if he isn't a little more mobile by the time kickoff arrives. He's looked very limited -- from the little reporters have been able to see -- in two practices this week.

But to answer your question about the rookies, the one who has a chance to out-snap a vet is Demario "Pop" Douglas. He's a separator. And in third-and-long situations, when you don't need your receivers to get open, I could see him having a real role. Perhaps JuJu Smith-Schuster needs a blow at some point. Perhaps the team values what Douglas gives them over the versatility Kendrick Bourne provides. He didn't get enough in the way of first-team reps to confidently say he'll play over any of the top three vets when they're healthy. But he played well enough to have a role.

When fully healthy? Good. They have four good-to-very-good players. The fifth spot could be an issue at times, but there are a lot of teams that would be thankful to have 80 percent of their offensive line figured out. It's just a matter of getting that 80 percent healthy. And getting them reps together.

Week 1 looks daunting not only because Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu might not be at full strength. It's also daunting because of the limited practice time they've had together. Communication matters. Chemistry matters. Even with banked reps together in previous seasons, getting limited time to practice together as a full unit could create some problems against Philly's imposing front.

Winning record. Start there. I think it's possible. Playoffs... may be a different story. This is one of the most talented divisions in the league.

Secondarily, for me, a successful season would be a season in which it became clear you had a franchise quarterback. If Mac Jones ends the season sniffing the top 10 players at his position -- even if the year is done when Week 18 comes and goes -- that to me would qualify as a success because of what it means for the future.

There's hope and optimism on the offensive side of the ball this year that simply did not exist at this time a year ago. Remember, in the preseason finale against the Raiders last year, the Patriots kept their starters on the field for an extended look. It felt as though Bill Belichick hoped for that group to build some positive momentum -- even against backups. Didn't happen. And then the year played out as it did. Much different feel this time around. 

Kendrick Bourne feels like the best "X" option if Parker can't go. He has better straight-line speed than JuJu Smith-Schuster. Last season, Smith-Schuster did play some on the outside for the Chiefs. But he appears to be a better fit for the Patriots as an underneath, run-after-catch option. 

The biggest difference from years past was that Jerod Mayo was involved in higher-level team-building conversations this offseason.

He was in the draft room. He was incorporated in the offensive coordinator interview process. He remains the leader of the defense during the week, heading up their meetings, as he has for some time. And he and Steve Belichick are the brains behind the weekly game plans. But the big-picture stuff is the stuff that's relatively new... and perhaps prepping him for a potential future as a head coach.

According to strength of schedule rankings based on Vegas-forecasted win totals for opponents, here are the teams with the toughest schedules in each of the last five seasons. Mixed results.

  • Chiefs (2022): 14-3
  • Steelers (2021): 9-7-1
  • Jets (2020): 2-14
  • Falcons (2019): 7-9
  • Cardinals (2018): 3-13

The Patriots have the toughest schedule in football this season based on how sportsbooks view their 2023 opponents.

Wonder if we might hear something from Belichick on Gil Brandt during his Friday press conference. He and Mike Lombardi have both credited Brandt with helping them establish the scouting system they implemented in Cleveland -- a system Belichick has kept as the foundation for his evaluations ever since. 

Unfortunately, can't shed much light on that right now, Damian. Tall order getting anything out of the organization on that front.

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