Cassel: The key factors that could make or break the 2022 Patriots originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The New England Patriots have come a long way this offseason. From OTAs to minicamp to training camp and the preseason, there's been a lot of change, particularly on offense.
How will all that change impact the team's performance in 2022? Only time will tell until we actually get into the regular season and see the Patriots operate in a competitive environment for four quarters.
With the season opener in Miami right around the corner, here are the most important storylines and players to watch for the 2022 Patriots.
Offensive storyline to watch: The play-caller
This is the storyline that everybody's most interested in. We’ve established the fact that Matt Patricia will call plays, with Joe Judge leading the quarterback room as the quarterback coach in more of a collaborative effort. But let’s be honest: having the same play-caller for the past 10 years in Josh McDaniels -- that's a guy who’s established as one of the best in the game.
Any time you switch coordinators, there's always this element of understanding how he calls the game and the counterpunches that he delivers throughout the course of the game. The defense will always throw out a new wrinkle, so how do you respond to that? Also, how aggressive will they be in calling plays? What kinds of innovations will they come up with?
Again, this is all unknown until you actually get into the regular season. I’ll be interested to see whether they’re going to rely heavily on the run game, because the Patriots have a really good offensive line that is built well for the running game.
Defensive storyline to watch: The secondary situation
Jalen Mills has really taken over the No. 1 corner spot. But if Jonathan Jones can perform well on the outside, then he’s a guy who could be an impact player. He's mainly played in the slot in years past, but he's played more outside corner this offseason. And if he can step up and really be an effective corner on the outside, that will be huge.
Marcus Jones is also a wild card for me. He's shown some promise this offseason, but can he step up to fulfill that nickel role? In this division, whether it’s against the Jets, Dolphins or Bills, the Patriots should see a lot of sub packages and a lot of 11 personnel, which means that nickel position is going to be huge.
I know they like Jack Jones a lot, too. He has a good skill set and the potential to be a good player. So, how those roles in the secondary are implemented throughout the season as the Patriots establish themselves is definitely worth watching.
Underrated offensive storyline: What is DeVante Parker's role?
Parker has developed some chemistry with Mac Jones and is a guy the Patriots brought in who can win 1-on-1 matchups. We saw it back in 2019 when he went up against Stephon Gilmore and caught eight passes for 138 yards and was just a dominant player.
He's had some injuries over the last few seasons, but how much does he add to this offensive unit? And how much of an impact will he have in terms of being a guy they can count on in 1-on-1 situations?
Player (outside Mac Jones) most important to Patriots' offensive success: Damien Harris
I always lean toward skill position guys, and I think early on in the season, it's going to be important to establish the run game. I believe Damien Harris is a pivotal part of this offensive unit for his ability to pick up the hard yardage on the inside and put them in down-and-distance situations that are more favorable.
That goes hand-in-hand with the interior offensive line, and Mike Onwenu and Cole Strange are two guys to keep an eye on. How they set the pocket for Mac Jones and how they impact the running game will be pivotal for the offense’s success.
Player who’s flying under the radar: Josh Uche
The Patriots need Uche to have a good season. He’s been there for a few years now and hasn't had a ton of time on the field. But he was a talented prospect out of college and could help in terms of creating some pass rush on third down.
He’s got some versatility and can play on the ball or off the ball. He’s the guy who needs to step up and really help this pass rush this year and make a name for himself.
Biggest key to Patriots’ success overall: Secondary
Mac Jones’ progression with the new play-caller and his development is going to be critical. But I think the secondary will play a key role as well. If you look at the Patriots’ schedule, the Packers, Browns, Vikings, Cardinals, Raiders and the Bengals are all pass-first offenses that are going to attack you vertically.
So, how the secondary unit -- particularly the corners and nickel backs -- step up is going to have the biggest impact on whether they're successful on defense this year.
Final record prediction for the 2022 Patriots: 10-7
They've got a really tough stretch down the back end of their schedule: the Bills, Cardinals, Raiders, Bengals and Dolphins -- who always play them tough -- then the Bills again. They might have the third-hardest schedule in the league, and for a team with a new offensive coordinator and a lot of new moving parts in the defensive secondary, it could be tough sledding.
But they also hit this stretch after the Packers game in Week 4 where they can string together some wins. This team could surprise some people if they get on a roll during that softer stretch, and they could steal a game or two against a team like the Colts, Vikings or Cardinals. I have them edging the Dolphins, who will finish at 9-8.
Editor's Note: Matt Cassel played 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, including four with the Patriots from 2005 to 2008. He serves as an analyst for NBC Sports Boston, appearing on Pre/Postgame Live, as a guest on Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast every Thursday, and as a columnist each week during the season.