Phil Perry

Patriots Mailbag: Why Pop Douglas should be utilized more on third down

Is it time for Bill Belichick to start getting the sixth-round rookie more involved?

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The New England Patriots will look to even their record at 2-2 when they visit the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday. Before the Week 4 showdown, it's time to tackle your questions about the state of the team in our latest mailbag.

I would say so, Curt. To me, Demario "Pop" Douglas has a skill set that the Patriots need on third down. And it's a skill set no one else on the roster has to the same degree. He has the kind of lower-body explosiveness and lateral quickness that should allow him to uncover against man coverage in a phone booth. On third down, for a team that has thrown more third-down passes against Cover 1 looks than any other through three weeks, having Douglas on the field more would make sense. 

He has been, at times. But Kendrick Bourne (7), Rhamondre Stevenson (6), DeVante Parker (5), and JuJu Smith-Schuster (5) all have more third-down targets than Douglas (4) does. Maybe that number ticks upward as Douglas ventures further into his rookie season. But he's buried right now -- at least that's what three weeks of evidence would suggest. His 16 routes run on third down are seventh on the team and fourth among wideouts.

Whether it's Douglas or someone else, it does feel as though Mac Jones needs a true third-down go-to guy. The numbers to this point in the season would suggest that's Bourne. But his snap counts have gone from 73 to 38 to 40. And there are times when he's bumped off the field in favor of two-tight end sets. 

The tight end in whom Jones seems to have the most trust, meanwhile, Hunter Henry, hasn't been much of a threat on third down. His two targets on third down rank ahead of only Ezekiel Elliott and Ty Montgomery of all Patriots with at least one third-down throw sent their way. But Henry is on the field for that all-important down, generally speaking. His 21 routes run on third down rank fourth on the team this season.

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"I think everybody wants to be that (go-to) guy, in a way," Henry told me this week. "I think if you have five of those guys... You want a guy who takes some pride in it, but if you have a bunch of those guys, it's really hard for a team to lock in on one. 

"I think we have a lot of guys in that locker room who take pride on third down. I think that's kind of the money down. You gotta stay on the field and keep these drives going. That's big for us, to have a bunch of guys who can step up and make a big play."

The Patriots rank 13th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (40.8). They'll have their work cut out for them this week in Dallas, which has the fourth-best third-down defense in football (30.6 percent conversions allowed).

For a group that bristled at some of the offseason criticism they garnered, this would be the kind of week when Patriots receivers could significantly improve their reputation. They just have to beat man coverage on third down and convert. 

Seems like a reasonable ask. The Cowboys corner group is led by 33-year-old Stephon Gilmore with Trevon Diggs out for the season with a torn ACL. Gilmore remains respected across the league, but out of 79 qualifying corners, he's allowing a passer rating of 101.8 when targeted (ranks 50th) and a yards-per-reception average of 18.6 (79th), per Pro Football Focus. Opposite Gilmore will likely be DaRon Bland, who was a fifth-round pick out of Fresno State last year.

Not positive on that front just yet, Joey, but they could use his speed. There's no doubt about that. The Patriots rank near the bottom of the league in explosive plays and deep-ball production (despite more deep attempts than any team) through three weeks. Hard to imagine Tyquan Thornton will be an immediate contributor in that regard after not practicing or playing for a month. But there's a reason they drafted him in the second round. They'll need his skill set if they want to improve their chunk-play production.

I don't think Bill Belichick thinks of it in those terms. But I do think that how a player is acquired affords them opportunities that aren't afforded to other players who were brought in with lesser investments. 

For example, N'Keal Harry got shots at carving out a role as a first-round pick that others didn't. Jakobi Meyers, undrafted in the same rookie class as Harry, had trouble getting on the field to start his second season. He played 22 snaps in his first three games in 2020 compared to Harry who played 159 in that span. Meyers ended up leading the team in receiving that season. 

So... am I surprised that Douglas isn't playing more? No. But he should be, in my opinion. And perhaps -- as he did with Meyers -- Belichick ends up going with the more unheralded player eventually.

As to your second question, I don't know for certain, but I do know they would've considered taking Keion White there at No. 17. Pretty serendipitous the way that draft ended up working out, huh? They ended up with two players with first-round talent, in their view.

The Patriots should be set at guard, Trygve. Even with Cole Strange struggling and Mike Onwenu scheduled to hit free agency. They just drafted three linemen who should have the ability to play along the interior, seemingly in anticipation of the end of David Andrews' career and Onwenu's eventual departure. Let's focus on tackle.

It does look like a strong tackle class, and we had our buddy Dane Brugler from The Athletic on with us a few weeks ago to tell us all about it. If they can't hit on a first-rounder they like at the tackle position, there are some interesting free-agent options. Jonah Williams from the Bengals is set to be a free agent next offseason. Same goes for Josh Jones, who was just traded by the Cardinals to the Texans before the start of the season. Trent Brown may lead the class of impending free agents at that position, though. 

Probably not breaking up with Smith-Schuster any time soon, Andrew. He's guaranteed $7 million next season. And unless he starts to produce more (which the team is hoping for), then you're not going to be able to trade him away for anything of any value.

I don't think so. But Strange needs to get on the field, stay on the field, and perform. And perform well. To make good on his first-round draft status, Strange really should be considered among the game's top guards. There's optimism in the building that he'll improve with more reps after missing the vast majority of training camp this summer. Plus, he's still a young player who came from a smaller program, who's now in his second pro system with his second (really his third) offensive line coach in two years.

(My understanding of it is that Billy Yates essentially replaced Matt Patricia as offensive line coach early last season when it became clear Patricia's duties as play-caller and de facto coordinator were... abundant. Now it's Adrian Klemm's job and Yates remains on the staff as an assistant.)

Would you trade a third-rounder away for him? That's the high end of a compensatory pick that the Broncos could get for Jerry Jeudy if and when he departs via free agency. I think that's a realistic target, Dylan. I'm not sure he completely changes your offense, though, because he's not a true boundary or vertical threat.

He would give the offense another capable weapon, however, and he seems to do his best work out of the slot -- which means if he was acquired, maybe it would be done to upgrade what Smith-Schuster is giving them in there. 

Gotta be hundreds, right? Two hundred. At least. 

The numbers are similar, but I think you'd have to factor in the competition level. The Patriots have already seen two of the top-eight defenses in football from 2022 -- Eagles and Jets -- with a lot of the same players back for 2023. In my opinion, the competency of the scheme far outweighs what we saw last season. And Mac Jones' work under pressure, which we detailed here, is vastly improved thanks in part to the coaching he's received. He has answers now that he didn't before, and he looks like one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football when under duress. 

Wouldn't hold my breath, Jame. Injuries could always change their desire to pursue other options. But they want to be a heavy 12-personnel team, which means just two receivers on the field. They currently have six on their roster. They could use an upgrade, if you're asking me, but I don't think they're looking to overextend for one.

I think the plan they'd want to try to steal would be that of Cardinals offensive coordinator Drew Petzing. Defensively, the Patriots are one of the best teams in the league already and I'd anticipate they take advantage of the Cowboys potentially being very banged up along their offensive line

Offensively it'll be hard for them -- if not impossible -- to replicate some of the zone-read issues they presented Dallas. Arizona also has some real speed on offense that the Patriots just don't possess. Rondale Moore's 45-yard touchdown is the kind of play the Patriots just don't have in their bag.

But some of the misdirection? Some of the looks where the Cardinals used the aggressiveness of Dallas defenders against them? My guess is Bill O'Brien sees opportunities there.

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