Would you believe the Patriots’ offseason is only just beginning?
Somehow, after hiring a new head coach and three new coordinators in less than a month, the busy-bee Pats still have equally important jobs to fill and questions to answer.
Who will play quarterback? How will they fill out the rest of their coaching staff? How will the offense take shape under new coordinator Alex Van Pelt?
Who will lead the front office? Will the Patriots spend in free agency? Do they plan on prioritizing quarterback, receiver and the offensive line after Jerod Mayo publicly pinpointed those positions as needs last month?
All in due time. In the meantime, here are four thoughts on the state of the Mayo Patriots:
1. Van Pelt feels like a safe hire
A league source who recently worked with Van Pelt told me the 53-year-old is a well-liked and well-respected coach and culture-builder. From a glance at Van Pelt’s resume, you would assume he’s spent as much time around quarterbacks as his family. Twenty-eight years in the league, including 19 as an assistant, with prior stints as a coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Those are all positives, all major boxes checked for the Patriots, and all traits Mayo should have coveted during his search, as he works to repair the team’s culture.
Here are my concerns: aside from a few seasons in Green Bay, when he worked under Mike McCarthy as Aaron Rodgers’ position coach in the mid-2010s, none of Van Pelt’s offenses have jumped off the tape. Since 2009, his only play-calling experience consists of two games during the COVID-affected 2020 season. The Patriots bashed the Browns in both of their meetings with Van Pelt’s offense over the last four years, games they won in 2022 and 2021.
Furthermore, Van Pelt was the 12th candidate out of 12 reportedly interviewed, which makes it hard to believe he was the Patriots’ first choice. According to sources, the Patriots got closer to hiring Rams tight ends coach Nick Caley, an ex-Patriots assistant, than any other candidate before Van Pelt. If Van Pelt had been hired under Caley as his pass game coordinator and quarterbacks coach, that would have felt like a home-run hire; especially given what’s been reported here and other places about other coaches’ impression of the Pats’ offensive coordinator job (they didn’t love it).
Van Pelt was not considered a top candidate this cycle. Prior to his four years in Cleveland, where Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski called the plays and set the game plans, Van Pelt’s only other season as a coordinator came in 2009 with the Bills. That Buffalo offense finished bottom-5 in scoring, albeit with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trent Edwards and Brian Brohm at quarterback.
Van Pelt’s hiring in New England came together in roughly 24 hours and completely out of left field. That doesn’t mean he can’t succeed. It doesn’t mean he won’t succeed.
7 things to know about new Patriots offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt
All evidence paints Van Pelt, 53, as a positive force and strong fit for the 2024 Patriots; a team operating under a first-year, defensive head coach that sorely needs someone to unify its offensive coaching staff and roster. And, most likely, develop a new quarterback.
But can Van Pelt take this offense to the next level in 2025 and beyond? He will help the Patriots get along, but can he get the best out of them? Should he be expected to provide a consistent edge schematically, given his coaching history? The last top-10 scoring offense Van Pelt coached was the 2016 Packers.
Final grade for the hire: C-plus.
2. Prepare for a non-quarterback at No. 3
According to The Athletic, if Patriots director of scouting Eliot Wolf gets promoted to lead the front office, the Patriots are expected to “give a long, hard look at drafting a left tackle with the No. 3 pick.”
To reiterate, that report starts with Wolf leapfrogging current personnel head Matt Groh — which hasn’t happened — and the team considering a tackle, not necessarily selecting one. It does not say the Patriots will pass on a quarterback — likely North Carolina’s Drake Maye or LSU’s Jayden Daniels — but fans should nonetheless brace themselves for the possibility.
For starters, there have been rumblings for weeks that Wolf will eventually take over in New England. The 41-year-old came to the Patriots in 2021, following two seasons as the Browns’ assistant GM and 14 climbing the ladder in Green Bay. He arrived as an outsider, unlike the rest of the front office which largely consists of scouts who learned at Bill Belichick’s knee.
That front office is now charged with pivoting and rebuilding from the Belichick era, something Wolf is arguably best suited to do. Wolf, who learned the scouting business under his father, ex-Packers general manager and Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Wolf, is well-regarded in league circles. He has a larger network than Groh, who came up through the Patriots’ college scouting department.
To be clear, until a new front-office leader is identified, this is largely Groh’s show. And even if he remains in power, he, too, may pass on a quarterback at third overall.
Drafting a quarterback with a top-10 pick is about much more than talent, need and scheme fit. The moment that quarterback is drafted, he instantly shoulders all of the organization’s hopes and dreams. He is the public face of the franchise, a leader in the locker room and a culture-driver. He must be someone worthy of handling that responsibility and earning his teammates and coaches’ trust, while performing under the greatest pressures at the highest level despite lesser circumstances.
Sometimes, that pressure is too much. (See Jones, Mac.)
If the Patriots don’t believe Maye or Daniels is capable, they would be right to opt for a veteran bridge quarterback in free agency, a mid-round developmental prospect or both. Because missing on a quarterback with a top-3 pick often sets an organization back three to four years; the inescapable risk that accompanies such a pick, which offers teams the best chance anywhere to find a franchise quarterback who can lead them out of the wilderness.
What comes next for new Patriots OC Alex Van Pelt?
3. Don’t underestimate the potential loss of Steve Belichick
Patriots defensive play-caller/linebackers coach Steve Belichick and running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri are interviewing for jobs on the University of Washington’s defensive staff, according to ESPN.
Steve Belichick’s potential departure makes sense, considering DeMarcus Covington’s recent promotion to defensive coordinator. Mayo and Belichick effectively served as co-defensive coordinators, with Mayo running most meetings during the week and Belichick calling plays on game days.
Together, they oversaw the NFL’s top-ranked defense over the past five years by Expected Points Added (EPA) per play. The Patriots completely overhauled their defensive roster during that time, but maintained an unmatched level of play. Part of their success is owed to Belichick developing into an excellent play-caller.
His highlights include holding a top-8 scoring offense to 13 points during a Wild Card playoff loss to Tennessee in January 2020, the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers to 19 points during Tom Brady’s return in 2021 and seven opponents to 10 points or fewer over the past two seasons. Last year, Belichick got ahead of a few opponents by sending unexpected blitz pressure on early drives, then bailing out of blitz looks in the second and third quarters, rendering countering screen plays and max-protect passes ineffective.
Steve Belichick does have the option to return to New England, likely in an assistant head coach or advisor capacity, per ESPN. Safeties coach Brian Belichick is another candidate to stay in New England. Like his older brother, Brian would be an asset on Mayo’s new defensive staff, after overseeing breakout seasons from Jabrill Peppers and Kyle Dugger in consecutive years.
Family considerations are also likely to factor in for the 32-year-old, who’s spent most of his life in New England. Late in the season, Brian Belichick shared that he and his wife, Callie, were expecting.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the connection to Washington, new Huskies head coach Jedd Fisch was the Patriots’ quarterbacks coach in 2020.
4. Senior Bowl standouts
Surveying this year’s reports from Mobile, Ala., where GMs and media draft experts alike descended to watch three days of practice and a Saturday exhibition featuring top college prospects, here are a few players who could fit in New England.
Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.
Penix’s arm strength, accuracy and passing touch all shone through in practice. He reportedly out-performed Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, a fellow late-first round/Day 2 prospect. According to NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, an ex-Ravens and Eagles scout, Penix “did everything he needed to do this week.”
Michigan WR Roman Wilson
Wilson’s explosiveness stood out over a stellar practice on Tuesday, a performance he followed with a one-handed catch on Wednesday. Considering their recent history of drafting Michigan players, and need for explosive wideouts, it’s fair to expect Wilson will be somewhere on the Patriots’ board come April.
Florida WR Ricky Pearsall
A projected mid-round pick, Pearsall impressed evaluators with his route-running and suddenness off the line. The 6-foot-1 wideout caught 98 passes for 1,626 yards and nine touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Penn State TE Theo Johnson
At 6-foot-6 and 257 pounds, Johnson offers the complete package at tight end. Jeremiah called him “the best player at the position,” in Mobile. Johnson is projected to become a second- or third-round pick after being named All-Big Ten honorable mention last year.
Oregon State OT Taliese Fuaga
The 332-pound mauler reportedly lived up to his projection as a future first-round pick. Fuaga could be a target for the Patriots, should they trade back from No. 3 overall or trade back into the first round to nab an offensive tackle.
Quote of the Week
“Great dude. Culture changer. Good coach.” — league source on new Patriots offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt