Phil Perry

With a rebuild on the horizon, which Patriots are willing to lead?

The Patriots seem to be lacking in "torch-bearers."

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FOXBORO -- Now would be a good time to have a whole mess of "program guys."

That term gets thrown around a lot at the college level. But it fits in the pro game when you're talking about players who exhibit a loyalty to their team that is typically only reserved for alumni of a given school or scholarship recipients.

Program guys are constantly going to try to pull the locker room in the right direction, even when the rest of the roster may be giving the side-eye to leadership. They're going to be bought into the coaching. They're going to be invested, no matter the team's record. For even the league's best teams, they may only make up five percent of a locker room. But they're a critical adhesive.

At 1-5, the Patriots' record has cratered. And the analytics outfit run by former Patriots and Falcons executive Thomas Dimitroff says their odds of earning the No. 1 overall pick is more than five times their odds of making the playoffs

Program guys welcome.

There was a time when the locker room at One Patriot Place was littered with 'em. Yet, people intimately familiar with the operation have no problem pointing out that which is obvious: There are only so many torch-bearers from the Golden Age of Patriots football still residing in New England. And the next generation of leaders remains murky. Who's accepting those torches?  

"And who," one former Patriots staffer asked me recently, "wants them?" 

It's hard to find a sizable core of veterans who are under contract for 2024 and beyond who would qualify for the "PG" title. Who, for instance, would be most likely to go into work every day at Gillette Stadium for the remainder of this season and say something to the effect of, "This is my team, and I'm going to make sure we get this thing turned around because next year's Patriots product matters to me"?

There are myriad names who might, had the timing been different, fit that description, and they're all scheduled to hit free agency in 2024. That list includes Matthew Slater, Hunter Henry, Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche and Mike Onwenu. Trent Brown, Kendrick Bourne, Mike Gesicki and Ezekiel Elliott are contributors set to be free agents in a few months as well. 

Matthew Judon is under contract for 2024 and might qualify. He's not a captain, but he's an emotional leader and at times an unofficial spokesman for the locker room. But he's coming off a summertime contract adjustment that leaves his 2024 salary low, and he's working through a serious injury suffered earlier this season. Hard to know what his future holds.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and DeVante Parker are under contract but haven't been consistent enough to be considered leadership material. 

Adrian Phillips is currently one of the veteran leaders of the defensive backs in Foxboro, but his on-field role has been diminished and the final year of his contract in 2024 is not guaranteed. Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux and Jahlani Tavai are steady vets headed into the last years of their respective deals but aren't guaranteed any salary beyond this season, either.

Mac Jones is a captain, but his future with the club is uncertain after a brutal start to his third year. Rhamondre Stevenson and Christian Barmore -- members of the 2021 draft class with Jones -- could be signed to extensions in the offseason, but the Patriots haven't shown much in the way of urgency in terms of locking down their recent draft hits.

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Cole Strange, Tyquan Thornton and Marcus Jones are still young enough (and have missed enough time due to injury) that seizing upon a leadership role any time soon might prove difficult. 

Rookies like Christian Gonzalez, Keion White, Marte Mapu and Demario "Pop" Douglas look like they could have staying power as core members of the organization -- Gonzalez looks like he has real star potential -- but don't have the pelts on the wall to be thought of as locker room ringleaders.

The names who fit the "program guy" definition as things stand right now? There are a handful. 

Steady captains David Andrews and Deatrich Wise work, despite not having any salary guaranteed for next year. Ja'Whaun Bentley, another captain, has become one of the leaders on the defensive side and is under contract through 2025. And there are a pair of veteran defensive backs -- Jonathan Jones and Jabrill Peppers -- who were re-signed last offseason and are widely respected for their approach to and passion for the game.

Good group. Cares about the right things. Should provide the kind of professional touchstone that'd be useful as the team navigates a potentially drawn-out rebuild.

But it certainly isn't overwhelming in terms of its volume.

Priorities at the highest levels of the organization could shift, and soon, away from winning games and toward setting the team up for the brightest possible future. That could mean stockpiling draft picks or assessing young talent already in-house.

But evaluating the makeup of the people enduring a season like this one -- who's exhibiting resiliency, who's maintaining a fanatical level of effort, who has the ability to uplift or inspire others in the face of a lost season -- could prove to be just as important. 

Bad as things are at the moment, the Patriots can't just start from scratch next season. They're going to need a core of leaders in addition to the handful of names laid out above. 

Who qualifies? Who wants to qualify? The next two months will be revealing.

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