Patriots Mailbag: How offense might change under Bill O'Brien, top roster needs and more

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Perry's Mailbag: How would Patriots' offense change under O'Brien? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The New England Patriots' season is on the line Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. But many of you are already thinking bigger-picture. Who's calling the offensive plays in 2023? What happens to Matt Patricia? What are the biggest roster needs this team needs to address?

That's just a sampling of the questions you had in this week's mailbag. Let's get to answering them ...

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It's a fair point, SVN. But it looks like the offense changed as much (or more?) for the coaches as it did the players. They made the old offense work last season with a rookie quarterback, two first-year tight ends, two first-year receivers and a rookie running back who had a key role through the second half of the season.

What necessitated the change?

I think the idea that the old offense was "streamlined" was a bit of a misnomer from the jump. They dialed back on the volume, yes. But they changed the offense. They were an Erhardt-Perkins system and became a West Coast system, is my understanding. Scheme changed. Language changed. No shame in saying it. Made sense on a variety of fronts. But the Patriots, as is their wont, are quiet on those types of alterations so the sheer amount of change early on went somewhat underemphasized.

It stands to reason, though, that there was a way to stick closer to the old way of doing things and still "streamline." Bill O'Brien had to do it at Penn State and later with the Texans. His offense was a version of the Patriots offense. But was he teaching freshmen at Happy Valley everything that Tom Brady ran in Foxboro? Of course not. He made it simpler out of necessity and ran a competent offense.

I think the appeal of bringing O'Brien back would be that he could reintroduce the offense Mac Jones ran effectively as a rookie and teach its nuts and bolts to newcomers with aplomb.

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O'Brien could also bring with him some of the Alabama concepts Jones liked as a collegian. Jones helped teach O'Brien the Alabama offense back in 2021, after all -- with the Crimson Tide, offensive coaches run Nick Saban's offense, not their own -- and the two could reunite to help modernize sections of the old Patriots playbook.

If Bill Belichick wants to stick with the Shanahan-style stuff he was set on running before the season began, he could do that. But in that case, maybe O'Brien wouldn't be the best option.

Broncos pass-game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, Browns quarterbacks coach Drew Petzing (who interviewed to be Josh McDaniels' offensive coordinator in Las Vegas last offseason) or Rams quarterbacks coach and pass-game coordinator (and Patriots seventh-round draft pick in 2010) Zac Robinson may be better options in that scenario.

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Good question, Kevin. To me, their top three needs would be as follows: 1. Tackle; 2. Wideout; 3. Cornerback. Yup. Three of the most expensive positions in the sport. Why? The reasons are fairly self-explanatory, if you ask me.

They need a tackle to play opposite Trent Brown, who is under contract for 2023. Left... Right... whatever. They need one. And, generally speaking, you have to find them early in the draft. This year might be the year they have to nab one on Day 1.

 

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Receiver was a deep position group for them this year, but it was still devoid of star-caliber talent. Plus, both Nelson Agholor and Jakobi Meyers are slated to become free agents. That leaves Tyquan Thornton, DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne as their contracted wideouts. Throw in Marcus Jones as a gadget guy. But the unit still needs a boost until they find they have someone who can win one-on-ones consistently on the outside.

Corner could be an issue in 2023, too. Jonathan Jones will be a free agent after this season. Jack Jones looks like a starter on the outside but has missed time due to injury. Jalen Mills has been very banged up during the back half of this season. Marcus Jones looks like a slot player (and maybe a safety if he can't match up with bigger wideouts on the interior). Getting another capable cover man in there this offseason would make sense to provide insurance for Mills, Jack Jones and Marcus Jones.

Spots like safety and linebacker -- maybe fullback?!?! -- can be addressed with non-premium assets. Those other three spots, though? Those are the spots that usually require real money or real draft capital.

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It's going to be expensive out there if you want a tackle. Elgton Jenkins and Jack Conklin are both now off the market after signing extensions recently. That leaves guys like Orlando Brown, Mike McGlinchy, Jawaan Taylor and Yosh Nijman as potential options.

It actually looks a little deeper than the receiver free-agent market, but there are always tackle-needy teams out there, which means these guys who've proven they're at least starting-caliber or better are going to get paid.

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Can I go below one?

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I think Belichick would like to give this group -- which is still young, both in life and in job experience -- a chance to settle in. Plus, gauging by the 2022 NFL Draft, they've earned another crack.

Even if Cole Strange and Tyquan Thornton remain question marks, Strange looks like he'll develop into a dependable starter. The Joneses at corner look like hits. And they added some undrafted contributors who look like smart adds, as well. I don't anticipate front-office upheaval.

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I'd honestly be surprised if Matt Patricia was out entirely, Trygve. Belichick respects him and his football acumen too much to take away his key card.

I was told by NFL coaches who'd worked with Patricia before that they believed he could figure out the offensive line coaching portion of his duties. It was the coordination and play-calling aspects of his gig that made it seem like an impossible task. And, at times, the Patriots running game has looked impressive.

It wouldn't surprise me to see him keep his title and/or move back to the jack-of-all trades role he had -- as a utility-man coach and front-office assistant -- prior to moving back to the sideline.

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They may have to make some changes on that front if Jerod Mayo ends up elsewhere. And I'm not sure a defensive coordinator title would be enough to get him to stay if the opportunities elsewhere were attractive.

Responsibility, opportunity for growth, opportunity to lead... I believe those things matter more than title to the guy who has been handling coordination duties defensively but not calling plays.

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No. The only way the Bills may be fine losing in Week 18 is if they beat the Bengals on Monday night and if the Broncos upset the Chiefs earlier in the week. Then they could lose to the Patriots and still have the No. 1 seed secured because they own the tiebreaker over Kansas City.

Otherwise, they'll be playing to win with the bye up for grabs. For instance, even if they lose to Cincinnati this week and the Chiefs beat Denver, they'll still have a crack at the No. 1 seed in Week 18.

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The Patriots may have to thrust Shaun Wade into action given the corner situation this weekend. He only played one snap last week, though, was targeted immediately, and gave up a touchdown.

The Patriots have liked him enough to keep him on the roster since trading for him prior to the start of last season. He's a smart player who has some similar intangible qualities to guys coached by former Ohio State and Rutgers defensive backs coach (and current Boston College head coach) Jeff Hafley. But he just hasn't done enough with his opportunities to warrant an extended look in meaningful action.

Maybe that chance comes against the Dolphins.

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Lack of attention to detail, Kevin. Those plays get practiced, walked-through, discussed behind closed doors. Not to be able to execute them is a result of the details slipping through the cracks for everyone involved.

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They need to be able to sustain drives and score offensively. There is a level of resignation in the building that they are what they are on that side of the ball -- especially now that we're 15 games into the regular season -- but it's the area in which there remains the most room to improve.

Counting on the defense to hold teams in the teens and score every week just isn't a sustainable model for winning. And they know it. One defensive player told me after the game on Christmas Eve, "It's a team game. Special teams needs to play well. Defense needs to play well. Offense needs to play well. Can't just be one unit that plays well."

Unfortunately for them, having one unit play well has been their reality for large chunks of this season.

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I think what Zack Wilson represents at that position is Belichick's worst nightmare, frankly. He's been a historically-bad decision-maker.

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I just don't think that's how Belichick operates. Assuming someone is going to be available to him a year in the future is so presumptuous -- there's so much that can change the entire picture in that timeframe -- I can't believe that was his thinking. He wanted Patricia and Joe Judge in the roles they have because he believes in them, he believed overhauling the offense would work, and they'd go from there.

Of course looking back -- and some of us said at the time -- turning to Nick Caley or Adam Gase or someone else with some more experience looks like it would've been a better idea. But I don't think this was a placeholder situation. Just might end up looking that way because of how poorly Plan A has gone.

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Too early, Johnny. They have to get a better sense of what Mac Jones truly can be at quarterback. That didn't happen this year. Until they get a functional situation around him, they shouldn't be thinking about what's next. In my opinion.

Same was true for Tua Tagovailoa last year. Dysfunctional. Three play-callers. (Although all had offensive backgrounds, at least.) They were right to give him another shot with an improved situation this year. Same should be true in New England in 2023.

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O'Brien would become an obvious candidate for that, Darwin. Especially if Jerod Mayo ends up taking off after this season. The Kraft family respects him. He was a successful coach -- emphasis on coach -- in Houston when working with some lackluster talent at the quarterback spot prior to Deshaun Watson's arrival.

Whether or not it would be openly discussed by anyone at One Patriot Place, it certainly would be kicked around in the media and elsewhere.

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I'd imagine, if O'Brien wanted a helping hand, and if he was offensive coordinator, he might be able to import someone. Great question, though. The Patriots keep a smaller staff relative to the rest of the league. And perhaps Belichick would like Patricia and Judge to stay on the offensive side, just in lesser roles.