Tom E. Curran

Top 10 pressing questions for Patriots entering training camp

The 2023 Patriots have upside -- but a lot needs to go right for them to realize their full potential.

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The Patriots sunk to the middle of the pack the past few seasons in terms of talent and results. But they are never, ever short on intrigue and storylines.

A lot of it is self-generated. Like the doomed-to-fail scheme of installing a new offense in 2022 with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge as the point men. It’s like having a couple of piano tuners put in a new kitchen. Gee, wonder why that didn’t work.

Looking on the bright side, the biggest question now is how well the highly experienced, accomplished and well-respected offensive coordinator will work out. There are -- theoretically -- pieces in place for the 2023 Patriots to be a playoff team despite what Vegas says.

But some of the pieces? They wobble. Which ones? And how can the team steady them over the next seven weeks? See below.

1. What about B.O.B.?

It’s hard to grasp just how anemic the Patriots offense was last season.

They scored more than two touchdowns just THREE TIMES IN 17 GAMES!

Six times they scored one touchdown.

Once, they didn’t even find the end zone but still escaped with a 10-3 win against the Jets on a buzzer-beating Marcus Jones punt return.

Special teams and defensive touchdowns masked the craptastic offensive output on the scoreboard. They averaged 18.2 points per game on offense and broke the 20-point barrier just six times. You cannot live like that.

Will Bill O’Brien return the offense to competency? I’d bet on it. How much? How about this … between you and me. A friendly wager. I bet the Patriots will break the 20-point mark twice as often this year. So in at least 12 games, they’ll be over 20 points. Fair? Shake.

Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and quarterback Bailey Zappe talk about working with new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien this offseason

2. How's big ol' Trent?

The heat at camp is going to be OPPPPRRRESSSSIIIIVVEEEEEE. Given that Trent Brown showed up late for mandatory minicamp in June then struggled to complete the first two individual drill sessions before tapping out, the big left tackle had his conditioning work cut out for him over the past month.

He’s sent out signals that he’s been on it, but the proof will be in the pudding and the participation. Can Brown pass the conditioning test and be on the field for training camp or not?

Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm is in his first year, and if he can get Brown to play to his potential – which is as a top-10 talent at the position – the lives of O’Brien and Mac Jones will be a lot less complicated.

3. Jack Jones' availability

Speaking of complicated, second-year cornerback Jack Jones’ life got that way when he got pinched at Logan Airport last month with a couple of loaded firearms and a “large capacity feeding device” in his luggage. He had permits for none of it.

Obviously, Jones knows you can’t do that. Any moron knows you can’t bring guns into an airport, much less loaded ones, much less “large capacity feeding devices”, much less ones you have no permit for, much less bringing them through security.

Even if it was all a complete mistake, the question the Patriots need answered is why Jones or someone with access to his luggage wants that kind of artillery at the ready. Will they be comfortable with the answers they’ve gotten? Comfortable enough to proceed with Jones as the presumed starter at one of the outside corner spots? And how will the outcome of Jones’ August 18 court date affect his availability?

4. How's the kid?

Christian Gonzalez absolutely looked the part of a first-round NFL corner during minicamp.

How will the 21-year-old perform day-in, day-out in the heat against veterans? He could be the key to the Patriots defense this year. When scrutinizing the Patriots results against better-than-backup quarterbacks in 2022, it wasn’t that great. The team has a fleet of elite quarterbacks to deal with in 2023.

Will Gonzalez hold up? Circle the team’s joint practices with Tennessee as a mid-August checkpoint for early development. It will be fascinating to see the reps where Gonzalez matches up with DeAndre Hopkins.

5. Good JuJu?

The Patriots moved on from the production of Jakobi Meyers (averages of 70 catches, 800 yards and 15 games the past three seasons) and brought aboard JuJu Smith-Schuster to ostensibly replace him. Smith-Schuster has averaged 63 catches and 631 yards the past three years while playing an average of 12 games.

Smith-Schuster wasn’t available for minicamp. He’s reportedly ready to go now. Eyes will be on him as he starts developing the chemistry that Meyers had with Mac Jones.

6. Happy Mac

One thing that’s come clear about the Patriots third-year quarterback, you can grasp a lot by watching his reactions during practice. Frustration was omnipresent for Jones during last year’s training camp as the offense labored to gain any traction.

With Jones pledging to start with a clean slate and learn from the difficulties of 2022, how will his leadership and command look? How will he deal with the inevitable fits and starts of dealing with his third coordinator in three seasons and two new targets in Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki?

This is a pivotal bounce-back season for Jones in both performance and temperament.

7. Offensive line development

In order to unlock Jones, he’s going to need consistent protection up front. Brown is a question mark until proven otherwise. Michael Onwenu is going to start camp on PUP after a knee procedure. There are new additions in Calvin Anderson and Riley Reiff who will be summoned to man the tackle spots, presumably.

Newly-installed offensive line coach Adrian Klemm comes with a taskmaster’s no-nonsense reputation. It’s imperative that this group shows a smoothness, discipline and communication level that was lacking for most of last year.

8. Who's helping 'Mondre?

Rhamondre Stevenson was leaned on heavily in 2022. Maybe a bit too heavily, accounting for 27 percent of the Patriots' yards from scrimmage and handling the ball 279 times.

With Damien Harris gone to the Bills in free agency, the Patriots need the depth behind Stevenson to emerge. The main suspects here are second-year backs Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong. Toss in Ty Montgomery as the potential sub-back (third-down back/change-of-pace back, whatever) and the team does have options. Opportunity is knocking for all of them. And Stevenson needs the help.

9. What about Bob II

For the second year in a row, Robert Kraft made it very clear in March that his expectations for post-Brady development haven’t been met.

From discussing Mac Jones:  "I think he came to us as a rookie quarterback in his rookie season and did a very fine job. We made the playoffs. I think we experimented with some things last year that, frankly, didn’t work when it came to him in my opinion. And I think we made changes that I think put him in a good position to excel."

To discussing Bill Belichick chasing Don Shula’s record: "Look, I’d like him to break Don Shula’s record but I’m not looking for any of our players to get great stats. That isn’t … we’re about winning, and doing whatever we can to win. That’s what our focus is now. And it’s very important to me that we make the playoffs and that’s what I hope happens next year."

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To a caveat-laden answer when asked his confidence level in Belichick: "I think Bill is exceptional at what he does. And I’ve given him the freedom to make the choices and do the things that needed to be done. His football intellect and knowledge is unparalleled from what I’ve seen, and just when you talk to him, small things analytically that he looks at, but in the end, this is a business. You either execute and win or you don’t. You know that’s where we’re at. I think we’re in a transition phase. I think we’ve made some moves this year that I personally am comfortable with. And I still believe in Bill."

Kraft appreciates with all his being what Bill Belichick has done for his organization in 23 years. He still isn’t happy with where things have been headed and if it doesn’t look better than it did last year, it will be interesting to see whether all the saber-rattling about "results" are just that.  

10. Life without Devin

Devin McCourty is done playing football. While the Patriots’ safety group is arguably the deepest and most versatile part of their roster, the leadership and institutional knowledge McCourty brought to the entire team won’t be easily replaced.

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