Phil Perry

Patriots Mailbag: Why Ezekiel Elliott may fit better than Dalvin Cook

Why is Ezekiel Elliott in New England if Dalvin Cook is the more explosive playmaker?

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The Patriots are out in Green Bay this week for joint practices with the Packers, and Tom E. Curran is on the scene as your eyes and ears. As for yours truly? Let's fire up a mailbag to answer your pressing preseason Patriots questions.

Ezekiel Elliott's toughness is what attracted the Patriots to him, which we covered in detail here. Short yardage. Goal line. That was an area in which the team struggled in 2022. 

While Dalvin Cook is the more explosive playmaker at this stage -- and while he would've been a more valuable addition, in my opinion -- he's not what Elliott was last year as a tough-yardage runner. 

On third and fourth down, with three yards or less to go for a first down, Cook was rarely used in Minnesota. He had six such attempts in 2022, and he picked up a first down on three of those (50 percent success rate, 38th among qualifiers). Elliott had 29 of those attempts with a success rate of 69 percent (16th among qualifiers). 

On the goal line? More of the same. Elliott was better. On 11 attempts from the two-yard line or closer, he had eight touchdowns and his percentage of positive-EPA plays (81.8) was third-best in the NFL. On nine attempts for Cook, he had two touchdowns and a positive-EPA play percentage of just 22.2 percent. 

Is Cook a more dynamic player right now? In my opinion, yes. Is he more effective as a receiver? In my opinion, yes. But if the Patriots wanted a tough runner, they got the better one of these two options by signing Elliott. 

The fact that he cost them less on top of it? Couldn't have hurt.

Injuries and availability part of that decision, Andrew. And while Damien Harris could catch it, he didn't give them a ton in the passing game. Paying a veteran deal for a guy who wasn't guaranteed to be out there -- who kind of required a third-down complement if Rhamondre Stevenson was unavailable -- wasn't what the Patriots wanted to do.

My projection: Stevenson, Elliott, Pierre Strong. That's it for right now. Ty Montgomery hasn't been healthy. (Though Strong has missed time lately, too.) Kevin Harris, I think, would get through waivers to be a reserve early-down option.

If I was the Patriots, I'd be inquiring about Josh Jones of the Cardinals. Impressive tackle prospect out of Houston who was drafted in the third round in 2020. They tried him at guard. Didn't work. Saw some run as a tackle last year and was solid.

The Cardinals actually have several NFL-caliber tackles... and aren't really playing for anything this year. If you're looking for a potential improvement without paying a massive cost, maybe Jones -- who's going into the last year of his rookie deal -- could be had for a mid-round draft pick.

Cincinnati's Jonah Williams, on the other hand, would cost an arm and a leg. Better player. But the cost could be gargantuan, even with him coming to the end of his deal with the Bengals. They're a title-contending team and odds are at some point Williams is going to play meaningful snaps for them. 

The questions are the stars of the show, no question, Joe.

There aren't many tight ends available out there. Not good ones, at least. Certainly not receiver-slash-tight-end options who are 6-foot-6 and have volleyball-player vertical jumps.

How will they replace Mike Gesicki? By playing more receivers. As much as the top end of their depth chart at that position is lacking, if you ask me, they do have NFL-caliber depth there. More Kendrick Bourne. More Demario "Pop" Douglas. Maybe more Tyquan Thornton.

That's how they'll roll, in all likelihood, if Gesicki isn't available to start the season. 

Outside of Douglas? (Kidding.) Yes. Matthew Slater. 

Even if Montgomery is healthy, expecting him to be a key part of the offense is expecting too much. Yes, they used him in a variety of ways briefly this offseason. And even last offseason. But he's 30 years old. He hasn't had more than 200 yards rushing in a season since 2017. He hasn't had more than 200 yards receiving since 2018. He's not an NFL regular anymore.

Maybe they'll keep him around and bring him in for a stretch and maybe he gives them valuable reps at some point. I just wouldn't bet on it. Douglas is much smaller, but also much quicker and more dynamic. Don't really view them similarly.

That should be a consideration, Jason. They don't really want to play Mike Onwenu at right tackle. But they may have to. Sidy Sow has been there of late, and while I think he could eventually play there on a regular basis, asking him to do it Week 1 of his rookie season -- when he hasn't played tackle since his freshman year at Eastern Michigan -- might be too much.

I'm fascinated to see how the Jets offense shakes out because its offensive line has been a problem this summer, too. I also think the coaching staff for the Jets has come off as absolutely sophomoric during Hard Knocks -- which I know doesn't provide us a complete picture of what's really going on -- and I'm still wondering if they'll be able to get the most out of what is clearly a pretty talented roster. 

I'm a thumbs up on Malik Cunningham making the 53-man roster at this point. Keep him as receiver and gunner depth. Keep him as a gadget option, which is what he's been doing consistently in practices of late. All the while, work with him at quarterback. See how he develops.

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At one point, I thought he would be an ideal practice-squad candidate. But if he continues to perform well in preseason, I'd be concerned about losing him via waivers. Keep him on the roster and go from there. That opinion is subject to change, but that's where I'm at today.

Best five? Trent Brown at left tackle, Cole Strange at left guard, David Andrews at center, Atonio Mafi at right guard, Mike Onwenu at right tackle. In my opinion.

That would mean you'd have $8 million in guaranteed money in Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson out of the starting lineup.

I'd go six receivers and three quarterbacks... if you count Cunningham as both. 

The Patriots love acquiring practice-squad opponents they can scout closely. Interestingly, director of scouting Eliot Wolf and director of pro scouting Steve Cargile have joined director of player personnel Matt Groh in Wisconsin this week.

So, yes, I could see them having interest in Josiah Deguara. Liked him coming out of Cincinnati as a possible tight end option for them. 

Possibly. Would say that battle is neck-and-neck right now between Anthony Firkser and Matt Sokol.

I think so, Jesse, although Wednesday's practice was long and included a lot of reps for their top guys. Last year, after joint practices with the Panthers, the starters got a couple series before coming out. (The game is Saturday, by the way, just so your calendar is straight.)

Can't trade Nick Folk if you want to keep him on your practice squad as a veteran place-kicking option... I don't know if that's what Bill Belichick wants to do, but I know he won't rule it out.

Outside of an occasional tight end in the backfield, I don't see it, Peter. (Even Deguara, who played a lot in the backfield in college and we just mentioned above, is more of a tight end to me.)

Can't go downfield as an ineligible receiver before the ball is thrown on a passing play. Usually comes into play on screens (if the linemen get out on the run too early) and RPOs (if the quarterback has to hold onto the ball for some reason and the linemen, who are run-blocking, get down the field too quickly). Patriots have had a few this summer.

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