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Patriots Mailbag Week Four: Answering Your Burning Questions

The Gillette Gazette mailbag is back for another edition, bringing you answers to your biggest Patriots questions. With a big game coming against Green Bay and an injury to Mac Jones, you have questions and I have answers.

Inspired by the iconic Evan Lazar and Phil Perry and their Patriots mailbags, I’m just looking to give the most analytical, objective take I possibly can, even though I likely share your doubts and frustrations. After all, above all else, I’m a die-hard fan.

Patriots Nation Asks, The Gillette Gazette Delivers

Tyler wants to know what’s going on with Hunter Henry and why he has been so quiet this season.

It’s a frustration I share for sure. After a 50-catch season with 603 yards and nine touchdowns in his first season with the Patriots, Henry was looking to build on that productivity, and with Jonnu Smith on the other side, the Patriots were looking poised to have their best tight-end duo since 2012. However, Henry has been essentially a nonfactor this year, with only three catches for 28 yards in three games of action.

He’s not just underproducing, he’s being underused, as his three catches have happened off a mere five catches. More than anything, this probably has its roots in the play calling. With Matt Patricia and Joe Judge adjusting to new roles in a new offense, the playcalling has been rather simple so far, and the tight ends have simply not been involved in a way that maximizes their talents. In part, time will help this, but the coordinators will also have to be more deliberate about incorporating Henry (and Smith) in the offense.

Nick Caley, one of the members of the offensive staff that has been tenured in New England for quite some time, has experience working with skilled tight ends, and while of course Henry doesn’t have Gronk’s ability, he has a similar play style. His experience and insights will be needed to guide the play calls in a way that uses the tight ends well.

Anonymous wants to know why Mac throws the deep ball so poorly.

It’s worth noting that it’s not as simple. Deep balls are thrown at different velocities in different situations into different coverages, and Mac has different success depending on that situation. At Alabama, Mac’s deep ball numbers were actually off the charts, arguably the best in the country in 2020. Let’s not forget that he had 41 TD to only 4 interceptions that year.

At Alabama, though, for the most part, he was able to get away with throwing a lot of touch passes and medium-speed balls, partially due to college speed and partially due to his incredible group of weapons. He did this incredibly accurately, for sure. In the NFL, adding velocity is an absolute must, partially because of the tight and more disciplined coverages, and partially simply because of speed. Take Micah Hyde’s interception of Mac Jones in the 2022 Wild Card Game. It was a perfect pass from Mac to Nelson Agholor – in terms of distance and placement – but it wasn’t fast enough and Hyde caught up.

His inability to keep his accuracy when he has to zip longer throws was why his deep ball stats in 2021 were relatively poor. This is why he sought out Tom Brady’s former throwing coach Tom House, who, as a former pitcher, knew on a muscular level what needed to be done to throw it both quickly and accurately.

He has certainly been more aggressive this season with the deep ball. However, with that aggression, he has compromised some of the smart and safe decision-making that made him so successful last year. He will need to find the right balance and save his deep throws for the right moments, and hopefully that balance will come with time.

@Belichicken wants to know if the Patriots should use their draft pick on a QB if it’s high, given that it’s a QB-rich draft

In short, no. It is definitely a QB-rich draft, but I don’t see the Patriots, even if Mac is out for an extended time, being back enough for a top-five pick. Even if they are, while Bryce Young and CJ Stroud are exceptional players, there is a point at which it’s important for a franchise to back their guy, and Mac Jones has the potential to rise up to be a great quarterback, even despite a shaky start to the year.

Teams with good quarterback situations have gotten top draft picks due to injury before, Cincinnati with Joe Burrow comes to mind, and they have instead chosen players that target key weaknesses with high picks, like Cincinnati did with J’Marr Chase, who paid off handsomely. The Patriots have some key gaps in their offensive line, receivers, potentially some needs in the secondary, and it never hurts to have an improved pass rush.

This is also a rich draft for receivers, names like Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Xavier Worthy come to mind. Furthermore, pass rushers like Will Anderson are also in the running for top-five picks. Addressing needs is always how Bill has done things in the draft, and I don’t see this one being any different. Another option would be to trade down to acquire more picks, and be able to attack a large number of gaps at once.

@patriotsfeeder wants to know if Bill’s “decline” is really a consequence of new rules that favor offensive football. Bill’s style is about shutdown defense and mistake-free offense and the new rules may be a kneecap for that.

This is an interesting insight. Yes and no is how I’d put it. Bills defenses with the Patriots seem to still be able to flourish (look at 2018 and 2019!) and have done pretty well this season, the deficiencies are partially driven by rules but also by a stylistic shift. The NFL has started to go towards a speed-driven style rather than a physicality-driven style (partially because of the regulations on hits and what not), and Belichick didn’t adapt well last season. This year’s Patriots defense does seem to be making that shift, though, and it has largely paid off, although Lamar did have his way with the unit in the second half.

The bigger thing here is the mistake-free offense. Bill’s last couple teams have not been mistake-free. Turnovers were the biggest thing that cost the Patriots against the Ravens, as they had four of them, three of which were in situations where they could have taken a lead. Penalties, particularly by the struggling offensive line, have also hampered the team and either nullified good plays or put the team behind the sticks. These can be drive-killers.

Furthermore, the play calling this season has been somewhat sloppy, as Matt Patricia is still getting used to the role, while the offensive line is also missing key blocks and such. In addition, Mac is still getting used to his new aggression and making uncharacteristic throws every so often. Overall, while there is potential there, the offense isn’t mistake free and that’s a big reason the Patriots are in somewhat of a slump. Clean things up and the situation can get better in a hurry.

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