The Patriots as an entire team and Mac Jones individually are heading into a crucial 2023. The Patriots are looking for their first playoff win in the post-Brady era - and having to navigate the best-ever iteration of the AFC East to do it - and Mac Jones is looking to prove himself worthy of a fifth-year option after a disappointing 2022 season. As offseason transactions dwindle and training camp picks up steam, a key question comes to the forefront: have the Patriots done enough to be able to evaluate Mac fairly?
Does He Have Sufficient Weapons?
After the failed attempt to sign DeAndre Hopkins, this is the most pressing question. There's no question that the group is solid. JuJu Smith-Schuster was a welcome addition to the group, and his versatility will be a threat to any defense he goes up against. After an inconsistent season one, Devante Parker looks to explode in year two following an extension. Of the current weapons, he's the one best suited to catch 50:50 balls.
With O'Brien at the helm, the Patriots should make better use of Kendrick Bourne, and a now-healthy Tyquan Thornton will add explosiveness and speed. To add to this are rookie threats Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte, who have looked great during early practices. Tight-ends Mike Gesicki and Hunter Henry provide consistency and explosiveness to the group.
Overall, there's plenty of depth, and no given weapon can be counted out of the roster picture. However, this group lacks the fear factor of competing offenses. Losing out on the D-Hop sweepstakes robbed the Patriots of a chance to get that threat, as did a draft where the Patriots spent their first three picks on defense.
Jaylen Hurts with AJ Brown and Devonta Smith, Mahomes with formerly Tyreek Hill and now with Travis Kelce, Burrow with Chase, Higgins, and Boyd, Purdy with Aiyuk, Samuel, and CMC. The NFL is full of teams that are giving their young QBs the talent they need, guys with a fear factor that runs throughout the entire league. The Patriots' group is nothing to sneeze at, but it doesn't compare to the NFL's best. To bring the most out of Mac, they have to be more aggressive there.
How's His Backfield?
The Patriots do have a pretty solid running back situation. Rhamondre Stevenson has shown himself capable of being a number-one back. His combination of speed, power, and versatility is uncommon, and he's an extremely reliable weapon. In Ty Montgomery, should he stay healthy, they have a pass-catching option and a reliable third-down back.
Where the Patriots can do better is with their depth. Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris are promising on paper, but haven't shown much in terms of production. By losing Damien Harris, they no longer have a reliable backup, and given Stevenson's dropoff towards the end of the year, they need one.
The Patriots do appear to be working on this. Dalvin Cook is the most appealing option, but it's not financially feasible. They recently worked out Leonard Fournette, and options like Kareem Hunt are out there; regardless of who it is, the Patriots need a veteran backup at RB.
Are The Patriots Properly Protecting Him?
Last year, the offensive line was, simply put, miserable. In addition to being sacked 34 times, he was hurried quite a bit more often and had to rush a lot of his reads and decisions. Particularly the edges were an issue, both in terms of blown blocks and penalties. Right tackle saw three different people take the helm due to injuries, and none of them did an adequate job.
To their credit, the Patriots are doing well on the interior, with David Andrews (backed up by promising draft pick Jake Andrews), Cole Strange, and Mike Onwenu all coming off promising 2022 campaigns. However, the edge situation hasn't improved enough. On the left, Trent Brown does show promise, but hasn't been consistent, has injury issues, and is coming off a bad 2022 season.
On the right, the Patriots did well to clean house with Wynn and Cannon and to keep McDermott, who showed promising signs. Calvin Anderson and Riley Reiff are both promising signings, but it's hard to say how much is in the tank. Sidy Sow, while he was drafted at guard, has been a tackle in the past, and is a talented prospect. However, not one of these options has a proven record of consistency, good production, and longevity at the NFL level. The coaching improves (more on that) on this side, significantly so, but is that enough?
The Sideline Situation
I'll start off with the answer here: in short, yes. Bill O'Brien is a massive improvement on Matt Patricia in numerous ways. He is a better and smarter play caller, who actually takes in account the inputs of his players and the flow of the game. He has experience working with young quarterbacks both with the Texans and PSU. He's been in this exact role in the Patriots system, so the synergy with Belichick is there.
Most importantly, he provides the mentorship that Mac Jones deserved in his second year, and will allow for significant progression. This was the biggest change the Patriots needed to make and they made it, by choosing the right guy for the job. While he will be Mac's third OC in three years, he's a really good one.
The hire of Adrian Klemm as OL coach, to replace Patricia's other role in 2022, is equally monumental. This doesn't affect Mac directly but the indirect effect is powerful. The former Patriot lineman will instill discipline, technique, and fundamentals in an OL unit that hasn't had that since Scarnecchia left. The increased stability there will open up things for Mac in a big way.
The Other Side Of The Ball
I'll keep this one short - absolutely, and this was true in 2022 too. The defense got even better over the summer, with an excellent draft defensively. They improved their edge depth with Keion White, got the tall athletic corner they needed in Gonzalez, and got an influx of athleticism and versatility in Mapu.
Meanwhile, their current group, many of whom are young, gains another year of experience, and the Patriots did well to keep as many of them as possible. While the McCourty loss looms large, they more than made up for it. Look for the defense to provide Mac with some breathing room in 2023, and to get him the ball back when he needs it.
The coaching changes alone heighten the expectations for Mac to at least play well above how he played in 2022. The addition of JuJu and Gesicki in the offseason makes this all the more true. However, the Patriots could have and should have done a lot more to elevate him into a championship-level QB: get a true number one weapon, a veteran backup RB, and bolster the RT position (unless Riley Reiff works out really well). 2023 will tell us more about how successful this offseason really was.
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