Foxborough, MA - As the Patriots suffer yet another crushing loss, this time an ugly 10-6 game in Germany against the Colts, it's becoming increasingly evident that the focus of the organization needs to be the offseason and the 2024 season, rather than their record in the rest of this season. In that spirit, let's see which positions are well set (good), which need complete overhaul (bad), and which are a player or two away.
QB - Bad
While I don't believe that Mac Jones is entirely to blame for the team's struggles, it's obvious that he is no longer fit to be the franchise guy. There was a time (2021) when he had the tools he needed and the disposition to lead this team. The last couple of dysfunctional years, his third OC in three years, and consistent struggles with the personnel around him have not only hurt the team but have also lowered Mac's trust in the team and in his game. He's making uncharacteristically poor decisions, cowering under pressure, and has lost his sense of fight. Such traits won't be able to bring a team back to relevance.
The solution to this problem isn't currently in Foxborough. Zappe has been even worse than Mac and has completed less than half of his passes in limited action this year, and didn't do any better in the preseason when he got more reps. Grier and Cunningham have been playing roster roulette and are much closer to not being fit for the team than to being fit to start. With a rich QB class available in both the draft and free agency cycles, change at both the starter and backup levels is needed.
WR - Bad
Demario Douglas has been incredibly promising in his rookie season, and Kendrick Bourne showed reliability and explosiveness before getting injured. The list of receivers the Patriots should keep in the offseason starts and ends there. Parker and Schuster have been horrendous, especially relative to the amount that they're making, and have not only been relatively dormant, but they've also made tremendous mistakes that have cost New England games.
Thornton, while he's shown flashes with his speed, has been inconsistent in the limited amount of time for which he has been able to take the field. Simply put, the Patriots need a number-one receiver, something that has eluded them for a while now. This league is moving in the direction of being dominated by speed and explosiveness, and until the Patriots buy into that, the pass game will struggle no matter who is under center.
RB - Good
The Patriots should try to keep running back exactly as is. Rhamondre is finally starting to catch fire after following up an excellent 2022 with an up-and-down start. Zeke is showing more and more flashes, and both are excelling in the pass-catching game as well. Now that the OL is at least more stable than they were early in the season, the run game is making a comeback.
These two need to be used more and the Patriots need to take advantage of having a good RB duo to leverage play action. However, player-wise, this position is in good shape. Keeping Zeke would be a prudent idea (in addition to doubling down on Mondre as their franchise guy).
TE - Good
Henry and Gesicki haven't had great stats this year, but that's on play calling and the pass game as a whole. When used properly, they are reliable, relatively explosive, and have complementary strengths when used together. Most importantly, they make big plays in big moments and will never be the source of big mistakes. Mac has found the most success this season when going in that direction.
The Patriots have the potential for a talented TE duo, something that could really elevate their offense, but their playcalling, the weak pass game, and the lack of proper usage have prevented it from happening this year. Even going one man deeper, Pharaoh Brown has been a revelation and has provided some game-changing big plays for the team - something they should explore more in their game plans.
OL - Meh
The Offensive Line was seen as an area of tremendous need early in the season. But, the return of Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu from injury, as well as Onwenu's move to RT have actually allowed the group to play pretty well of late. Especially in terms of run blocking, this was obvious, as the run game had arguably their best game of the season with over 150 yards on the day against the Colts.
Onwenu, David Andrews and Cole Strange - their hybrid tackle/guard who has fixed the problems at right tackle, their reliable veteran emotional leader of a center, and their promising sophomore guard who is improving steadily. Those are the cornerstones of the unit moving forward. The rest aren't exactly dispensable, but the Patriots needs some more talent at guard, ideally veteran talent - they've got plenty of young guys in Sow, Mafi, Jake Andrews, etc..., but they need a known commodity, someone who can fill the void of guys like Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, who the team must be regretting letting go for quite some time now.
Trent Brown has been fairly good this season, but not perfect, especially in terms of reliability and preventing penalties, so left tackle is another position in question. The Patriots have changed from horrendous to acceptable with their line, but they need to change from acceptable to good to consistently win games.
K - Bad, P - Good
I've been saying it for some time now - there was never any need to replace Nick Folk, let alone spend a fourth-round pick to do so. The ever-consistent Folk, now a Titan, has missed just one field goal on the season (21/22) and hasn't missed an extra point all year. Ryland, on the other hand, is now 12-17 on the season (1-3 from beyond 50) and is now coming off a game where he missed from 35 - a kick that could have changed the trajectory of the game had he made it. While making those five kicks wouldn't have magically turned around this broken season, the Patriots need reliable kicker play to win close games.
Bryce Baringer, on the other hand, has been phenomenal this season. Coming into the 2023 season the Patriots were coming of an extremely tough 2022 in that position, a season where Michael Palardy and Jake Bailey were somehow equally horrendous, and the Patriots lost the field position game all year. He is averaging over 48 yards per punt, and has been consistent through a whopping 50 punts this year.
While the average is barely in the top half of the NFL, he leads the league in punts downed inside the 20 (a stat that would be even higher if the offensive moved the ball more). He has the longest punt of the entire season - 79 yards - and has been consistent in terms of hangtime and placement - a good resource for the future of Patriots special teams.
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