A special from Erik Slater to WPRI.com

(WPRI) – The start of New England Patriots training camp is just a week away. Rookies reported to Foxboro on Tuesday and veterans will report on July 26 ahead of the first day on July 27. 

New England exceeded expectations last year, winning 10 games and securing a playoff spot after missing the postseason for the first time in 11 years in 2020. The Patriots head into the 2022 season with the NFL’s eighth hardest strength of schedule after one of the easiest last season. 

Today, we preview an offensive unit that ranked 15th in yards per game and 6th in points per game last season. 

Offensive Coordinator & Mac Jones

The vacant offensive coordinator position is the biggest storyline surrounding the Patriots offense. Longtime OC Josh McDaniels left to become head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders and Bill Belichick has yet to name his successor. 

Matt Patricia and Joe Judge appear to be the leading candidates for the job. Patricia is listed as a senior football advisor and offensive line coach while Judge was named an offensive assistant and in charge of the quarterbacks. After a decade in McDaniels’ system, which coach takes over play-calling duties will prove critical to Mac Jones’ development as he heads into a pivotal sophomore season.  

Jones turned in a solid rookie campaign in 2021, throwing for 3,801 yards and 22 touchdowns with just 13 interceptions. New England improved their passing efficiency from 31st in 2020 to ninth in 2021. A run-heavy approach eased Jones’ transition to the NFL. The Patriots ranked ninth in rushing attempts per game and 24th in passing attempts last season 

Avoiding the negative play was key for New England with Jones under center. Per Sharp Football Analysis, when the Patriots didn’t allow a sack, they led the NFL in scoring rate, producing points on 52 percent of drives. That number dipped drastically to 29% when allowing even one sack on a drive. 

This massive variance was due largely to Jones’ struggles on third and long. The rookie ranked second in the NFL in conversion rate on third down with one to eight yards to go. However, Jones dropped to 32nd on third down with nine plus yards remaining. New England will play to their strength on the ground once again, but Jones’ ability to handle pressure on third and long could open up the playbook and relieve stress on whoever is calling plays. 

Wide Receivers, Tight Ends

Another big question heading into training camp: Who will emerge as the number one in the receiver room? 

New England boasts the most expensive receiving corps (including tight ends) in the league by a wide margin, committing over $72 million to the group. The next closest team is Jacksonville, trailing by nearly $20 million. 

Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne led the position last season, each topping 800 yards while combining for seven touchdowns. New England acquired DeVante Parker from the Dolphins in a rare intra-division trade. Parker was third on Miami in targets last year and amassed 4,700 yards over seven seasons. 

Meyers, Bourne and Parker will compete for the number one position. However, each falls closer to the mold of a number two or three receiver with Parker the only of the three with a thousand-yard season in his career. 

Tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith were paid handsomely to be top receiving options. Henry lived up to the billing last season, catching 50 passes for 603 yards and a team-best nine touchdowns. The veteran cemented himself as Jones’ go-to red zone target. 

Smith, on the other hand, struggled to make an impact, playing less than half of New England’s snaps. This surprised many after he signed a $50 million contract that made him the second-highest paid player on the team. 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) was a rarity for the Patriots last season. McDaniels spent just 14 percent of his plays in the grouping compared to the league average of 21 percent. 

Smith’s cap hit jumped from $5.6M last year to $13.7M this season. This was among the factors that forced New England to let go of critical players like J.C. Jackson, Shaq Mason and D’onta Hightower. The tight end caught eight touchdowns in 2020 for Tennessee. Belichick may feel pressure to find that production again given a massive financial commitment. 

Outside of that, the Patriots cut bait on N’Keal Harry, trading the disappointing former first-round pick to Chicago for a seventh-rounder. This came after they drafted Tyquan Thornton from Baylor in the second round of this year’s draft. Thornton can take the top off the defense, running an eye-opening 4.28 40-yard dash at the combine. However, at 6’3” and just 180 pounds, the adjustment to the physicality of the NFL could take time. 

Nelson Agholor returns this season for the second year of a $22 million contract. He’s joined by 2021 seventh-rounder Tre Nixon and veteran Ty Montgomery, who will likely battle for the final roster spots at the position. 

Offensive Live

The offensive line remains among the team’s biggest strengths. Pro Football Focus ranked the group ninth in the league last season after allowing just 28 sacks. New England ranked eighth in the league in rushing at 126.5 yards per game. 

There will be new faces on the unit after the departures of starting guards Shaq Mason and Ted Karras. Cole Strange is penciled in at left guard after being drafted 29th overall. Michael Onwenu should step in at right guard after losing his starting job to Karras last year. The 2020 sixth-round pick was frequently used as a jumbo tight end last season, where he proved effective as a run blocker. 

Starting tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn flipped sides during minicamp with Brown moving to LT and Wynn sliding to the right side. Both are expected to stay there to start the season. The move allows the more well-rounded Brown to protect Jones’ blindside while helping ease in the rookie Strange. On Strange’s other side, David Andrews was placed on the PUP list to start camp but should be ready for Week 1 in his seventh year as New England’s starting center. James Ferentz is expected to take the first string reps until Andrews returns. 

Justin Herron and Yondy Cajuste worked in as second-string tackles at minicamp. Yasir Durant, Will Sherman, Drew Desjarlais, Arlington Hambright, Darryl Williams and Kody Russey will also compete for roster spots. 

Running Backs

Running back is another position of strength on the roster. Damien Harris led the backfield last season, rushing 202 times for 929 yards and 15 touchdowns. Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson came on strong to finish the year, rushing for 606 yards and five touchdowns. 

Stevenson flashed a rare combination of power and athleticism at 6’0”, 230 pounds. According to Pro Football Reference, Stevenson ranked fourth in the league in yards after contact per attempt (2.7 yards) last season. He also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best running back in the second half of the season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. 

The 2021 fourth-round pick presents a three-down option as a pass catcher. New England will need to replace Brandon Bolden’s production as the leading receiver out of the backfield after he left to join McDaniels in Las Vegas. James White served as the Patriots’ primary receiving back in prior years but is still hobbled by a Week 3 hip injury that ended his season last year and will start camp on the PUP list. Stevenson’s physical attributes and versatility could have him challenging Harris for the lead spot in the backfield. 

Belichick drafted Pierre Strong Jr. out of South Dakota State in the fourth round this year. Strong led the FCS in rushing last season with 1,686 yards while proving capable as a receiver with 22 catches. The 5’11”, 207-pound back ran the fastest 40-yard dash among running backs at the combine at 4.37 seconds. 

New England also drafted Kevin Harris in the sixth round out of South Carolina. He will compete for the final roster spot with J.J. Taylor. White’s injury status is still up in the air. Another roster spot could open up if the veteran remains on the PUP list through camp. 

Overview

New England possesses a well-rounded group on offense heading into training camp. The offensive coordinator position and its effect on Mac Jones should gain some clarity in the coming weeks. 

How Strange and Onwenu hold up at the guard positions will be a storyline to monitor. Similarly, the battle for the number one receiver and running back positions will garner attention, as will the role of Jonnu Smith at tight end. 

Jones’ development will ultimately determine the ceiling of New England’s offense. If the quarterback builds upon what he did last year and young skill players like Bourne, Meyers, Harris, and Stevenson continue to improve, the Patriots offense could take a serious step forward in 2022.