Patriots Mailbag: Week 1

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By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com

Welcome to the Patriots Week 1 Mailbag! Each week during the season, I'll take your Twitter questions on all things Patriots, with answers coming every Friday. Let's see what you guys had for the season opener...

I feel like it would be football malpractice to say any team got better by losing a guy like Dont'a Hightower or Patrick Chung. The IQ those two brought to every snap, along with the experience of Devin McCourty, is a huge reason why the Patriots defense has been so good in recent years. Through recognition and adjustments, they were beating teams before the play even began. That's not to say those two didn't add plenty once the ball was snapped as well, but the mental side of things is harder to replace.

Not having their salaries on the books didn't change much, as the contracts tolled so no money was actually saved (it still has to be paid next year). If you want a silver lining from the opt outs, it's this - Without guys like Hightower, Chung, Cannon, and LaCosse on the field, the Patriots have a great chance to see what they have in some of their younger players. 2021 will be a crucial offseason if the Patriots want to accomplish a quick 'rebuild' in the post-Brady era, and now they can go about it without guessing or projecting what they have to work with regarding the younger players on their roster.

Aug 22, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) is forced out of the pocket by New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

I'm surprised the Patriots chose to go into this season with only five receivers on the active roster. Of those five, two (Julian Edelman and N'Keal Harry) dealt with significant injuries last year, while three (Harry, Jakobi Meyers, and Gunner Olszewski) are in just their second year in the league and have a combined 40 catches.

Compound that with the fact Edelman and Olszewski are both currently dealing with injuries, and it's not exactly a wealth of depth. Whether it was keeping Devin Ross or Jeff Thomas on the 53-man roster, or signing an external option like Hakeem Butler, I thought the Patriots would make another move to bolster their wide receiving corps.

New England Patriots wide receiver Devin Ross catches the ball during an NFL football training camp practice, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, Pool)

The NFL is a ''what have you done for me lately' league, so unless he totally falls apart this season, expect Gilmore to get a nice payday in the spring of 2022. The question is, from who?

Gilmore got a nice raise from the Patriots today, but no extra years were added to his contract. Like you alluded to, Gilmore will turn 30 years old next week, and Bill Belichick has a reputation for moving on from players 'a year too early versus a year too late.' Does he believe Gilmore has four to five highly competitive years left? If so, a new deal is realistic. If not, and with so much talent at the position outside of Gilmore, he may choose to move on.

Stephon Gilmore
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - NOVEMBER 17: Stephon Gilmore #24 of the New England Patriots gestures during the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on November 17, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Absolutely. Now, this isn't as much about the Patriots as it is the other three teams, but a win is a win, right?

While this is the least-talented roster the Patriots have fielded in quite some time, it's not like there's another juggernaut emerging in Buffalo, Miami, or the Meadowlands. The Bills have a great defense, but Stefon Diggs won't help the offense if Josh Allen is constantly overthrowing him by 10 yards. Brian Flores is certainly making positive strides in Miami, but that team is far from finished. And the Jets are still the Jets, and run by the most incompetent head coach in the league. The Patriots are squarely in the mix.

FOXBOROUGH, MA - DECEMBER 29: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots runs onto the field after a loss to the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - DECEMBER 29: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots runs onto the field after a loss to the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Yes and no. I think the Patriots are making a conscious effort to save cap space for next season, when most of the league will have little to no money to spend in free agency. They're setting themselves up to be major players next spring.

That being said, I don't think it has much to do with what happens this year. This is as much of a rebuild as Bill Belichick has ever gone through in New England, and I think he wants to be able to fill holes quickly for 2021.

Nov 24, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the side line during the first half against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 24, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the side line during the first half against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

I think if Devin Asiasi can continue to show the kind of depth he did in training camp, he'll be a regular feature. Cam Newton has always been a guy to focus heavily on tight ends, and while Asiasi isn't Greg Olsen (at least not yet), he still had the kind of range and physicality needed to work in a system resembling those Panthers offenses.

The other player I'm looking at is N'Keal Harry. He seemed to be hampered by the scheme more than his own shortcomings last year. If that turns around and the team allows him to play more to his strengths, and if he stays healthy, I think he can be a highly effective option. But of course, those are two big 'if's'.

Tight End Devin Asiasi catches a pass during Patriots training camp. Photo courtesy of the New England Patriots.

For Devin Asiasi, I'm thinking somewhere in the range of 50 catches, 600 yards, 6-8 touchdowns (if he stays healthy).

Dalton Keene is a bit harder to project, simply because we don't have a solid idea of what his role will be. So if it's not too much of a cop out, I'll give two more vague predictions about his numbers - Expect him to be involved in the running game, getting handoffs, as well as in the passing game, and if all goes well I think he'll be among the team leaders in yards per catch.

Dalton Keene running with the football at Patriots Training Camp. Photo courtesy of the New England Patriots.

The fullback position will likely be overhauled in the Patriots offense with Cam Newton taking control. I'm expecting more focus on an H-Back type of role (Keene) than what we've seen in recent years from James Develin. That being said, I don't see Josh McDaniels giving up his goal line binky of 'I' formations. I think the Patriots will still lean on a traditional fullback (now played by Jakob Johnson) in the red area.

Jakob Johnson of the New England Patriots lines up on special teams during a game against the New York Jets during a game at Gillette Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Jakob Johnson of the New England Patriots lines up on special teams during a game against the New York Jets during a game at Gillette Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Shoutout to Jono for the question of the week. I hadn't even considered this, but yes I think there absolutely an advantage. Avoiding COVID is all about limiting contact points and degrees of interaction. The Patriots can control who goes on the plane, with no exceptions. It makes me wonder if other NFL franchises will rent out plans for the year.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 02: The New England Patriots plane delivers N95 masks from Shenzhen, China to Logan International Airport to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on April 02, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

We've got two questions and answers from Matt Dolloff as well to round things out...

Good news, Sony Michel is NOT on PUP! But will he play the most games between himself, Harris, and Burkhead? That's a fair question. I say Michel plays all 16 games, but not necessarily with a full workload. Harris hasn't proven he can stay on the field yet and like you said, Burkhead's history speaks for itself.

Dec 29, 2019; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots running back Sony Michel (26) runs the ball while Miami Dolphins linebacker Trent Harris (97) defends during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

I think there will be tight end-heavy sets, but not necessarily similar to 2011. We'll see about the rookies. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were clearly NFL-ready talents and projected as high picks before they fell in the draft. Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene may need time to marinate before "unleashing" them offensively. What I think you'll see, and the extreme depth on the offensive line is indicative of this, is more heavy running sets with a third tackle functioning as a "blocking tight end." Think the "Jonas Gray game" from 2014 against the Colts, when Cameron Fleming played 38 snaps as an extra tackle and they bullied it up in the run game.

Have any more Patriots-related questions? Check out this in-depth season and Week 1 preview from Matt Dolloff and Alex Barth:

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Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].