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Gaffney's Five Key Questions Entering 2023 Patriots Training Camp

Welp, we've made it. As of today (Friday), rookies are in Foxborugh ahead of Patriots training camp, and every rookie is now officially under contract after Christian Gonzalez and Keion White put pen to paper. But ahead of things officially kicking off on the 26th, here are the five big things I'm wondering about as the 2023 season unofficially kicks off for Bill Belichick, Mac Jones, and co.

Question 1: Will the Patriots End Camp With the Same Running Back Room They Start With?

Not a new concept by any stretch, but teams will frequently bring in free agents before and during training camp simply to keep tabs on them in case they need them down the road. Take Leonard Fournette and Darrell Henderson, for example, both of whom were in Foxborough this week on official workout visits. Fournette, however, is an interesting case. This is someone who the Patriots tried to sign in free agency just two years ago before Lombardi Lenny opted to stick with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Hard to categorize Fournette's 2022 other than saying it was not great. After gashing the Dallas Cowboys for 127 yards on only 21 carries, he went the rest of the way without hitting 75 rushing yards once. To his defense, the Buccaneers' offensive line wasn't exactly an elite run-blocking unit, but it looked like Fournette had lost a step for nearly the whole year. As a complementary back, he wouldn't be a bad option, especially given his ability in pass pro and as a pass catcher, but this was, in essence, a 'keep in touch' kind of visit.

Now onto one Dalvin Cook, who with DeAndre Hopkins now out of the equation, would make sense for the Patriots. Something also worth noting, the four-time Pro Bowler is favored to head to Foxborough at +150 odds on the DraftKings Sportsbook, with the Dolphins just behind at +200. Adam Schefter outright mentioned Cook as someone the Patriots could go after post-Titans signing Hopkins. With that said, it doesn't appear there has been significant contact between the team and the former Viking.

There's no doubt that the Patriots could make it work with Cook and Stevenson under one roof, but someone is going to fill that hole left by Damien Harris. But seeing how they specifically lost out on Hopkins, will Bill Belichick be willing to go the extra mile with guaranteed money this go around? If so, that should say more about the rest of the room as opposed to Mondre. The other factor in play for Cook is two of the other teams in play are division rivals (New York and Miami). If they sign Cook in any event, I think it's more about getting another established playmaker on the field, not an indictment on anyone further down the depth chart.

On a final note, and this is something that I had forgotten about for a while, Cook is currently in the midst of a lawsuit with his ex-partner, who has accused him of domestic violence. Additionally, Cook offered $1,000,000 to her in exchange that she would absolve him of any wrongdoing, and she declined, according to the Star Tribune in Minnesota. Can't blame anyone for not rushing into signing him with that in mind.

Question 2: Who Will Step Up in the Recievier Room?

Perhaps the most notable storyline leaving the initial offseason program was the receivers, more so the lack of them participating in OTAs/Minicamp. Just about everyone not named DeVante Parker missed at least a few days, and we saw Juju Smith-Schuster not even once. Not exactly ideal circumstances, on top of the fact the Patriots were straight-up outbid by the Titans for DeAndre Hopkins. Seeing as the AAV of that deal is 13 million dollars, and with the incentive benchmarks in that deal, Belichick not being more aggressive on that front is perplexing.

But to focus on the guys in the room, someone has to step up and be the go-to guy now that Jakobi Meyers is a Las Vegas Raider. Tyquan Thornton feels like a natural candidate to do just that as he enters year two. Something interesting to note about the Baylor product is that he did slightly bulk up. Put a big emphasis on slightly, however, just three pounds since the last time he was weighed in. Ideally, you'd want Thornton to keep his 4.2 speed intact, but not many receivers in the league play at under 190 lbs for a good reason.

Still, Thornton has some elite speed, a great catch radius, and some great upside, despite missing about a month to begin his career with a collarbone injury. Thornton should be more than fine if he can stay upright, and Bill O'Brien should have some fun game planning with him in mind.

Naturally, Kendrick Bourne also should be expected to step up after how badly he was handled last season. He has the most natural, pre-established chemistry with Mac Jones of any guy in that room, and Bill O'Brien would be wise to take advantage of that. Bourne, and Smith-Shuster as well, while we're here, should be poised to put up some stout YAC numbers once again, much like he did in 2021 with 415 yards after the catch. Bourne looks to be in incredible shape entering year No. 7, and he should be up for the task of getting this offense back on track.

Question 3: How Will Christian Gonzalez and Marte Mapu Handle Being Thrown Into the Deep End?

In these last few years, we have seen players like Kyle Dugger, Rhamondre Steveson, Mac Jones, Mike Onwenu, and Cole Strange come in and be immediate contributors. This year, two guys should join that group, being first-round corner Christian Gonzalez and third-round hybrid defender Marte Mapu. What's not in doubt is that both will end up seeing a good chunk of first-team reps, more so Gonzalez, who should be the top outside corner on the depth chart. The big question is will they sink or swim going up against pro-level talent in their first taste of meaningful reps?

Mapu is the more interesting case, given his ability to line up all over the place and the defensive staff taking full advantage of that in the offseason program. With that said, he seemed to make a great impression on Bill Belichick, at least for a day, about a month and a half ago. So how he continues to juggle with his versatility, on top of all of the other natural rookie hurdles should be a tall task, but one that he should be up for.

Same case for Gonzalez, who, from a technique standpoint, is in great shape as he enters the league. Speaking of shape, he also put on just shy of 10 pounds coming into camp which was much needed. One of the key areas he needs to get better at is contributing against the run, and hopefully, that added bulk helps out. One thing Patriots fans should look for is if Gonzalez is asked about the transition from playing under Tosh Lupoi at Oregon to the Belichicks/Jerod Mayo. For those unaware, Lupoi, Oregon's current DC, and current Head Coach Dan Lanning have direct and indirect ties to Nick Saban. Maybe not right away, but down the line, I would be interested to see what Gonzalez has to say about any overlaps between his one year at Oregon and his first summer in Foxborough.

Question 4: How Will the Patriots Stack up Against the Green Bay Packers in Joint Practices?

I'm of the mindset that joint practices do significantly more good for teams than preseason games. Granted, with the way things line up this year, the Patriots' preseason tilt in Green Bay will most likely be their 'dress rehearsal' game, but having your starters get meaningful practice reps against different guys running different stuff is invaluable at this point in the year. Luckily, the Packers should be a formidable test for the Patriots as things stand.

A lot has/will continue to be made of Jordan Love as he enters his first season as the clear-cut starter, but in the best look we got to see of him, just last year in Philadelphia in relief of Aaron Rodgers, I came away impressed with the Utah State product. Great feel for the pocket, read the field well, and the ball came out quickly and with some real zip. It wasn't the greatest or largest sample size ever, but you see the upside with Love. Additionally, his two top pass catchers, Chrsitian Watson, and Romeo Doubs, should be good tests for the Patriots DBs. Especially now that they have a quarterback that won't avoid them like the plague after an iffy drop.

Given how the Patriots' offensive line is on the outside, and without Mike Onwenu on the inside now, how they look against the Packers' front seven is probably the biggest question mark going into that week. No Rashaan Gary, who's still recovering from a torn ACL, but Preston Smith, rookie Lukas Van Ness, second-year edge rusher Kingsley Enagbare, and then interior men Kenny Clark and DeVonte Wyatt should keep the Patriots' big boys honest at worst. If Trent Brown specifically can have a good couple of days of practice against those edge guys, that should hopefully put Patriots' fans at ease before the regular season.

Question 5: Just How Hot is Bill Belichick's Seat?

Feels genuinely surreal that we're at a point where Bill Belichick's spot as head coach of this team is somewhat in question. After last year though, is it entirely unwarranted? Allowing Matt Patricia to try and install a brand new offensive scheme just to ditch 75% of it and stunt any progression Mac Jones had going for him would have probably gotten lesser coaches fired. So when Tom Curran goes onto the Rich Eisen Show and says that Belichick's seat is hot, I believe him.

Now does that mean Belichick is gone if the Patriots miss the postseason? I don't think so. In that Rich Eisen Show segment, Curran went into detail explaining Robert Kraft has "walked back" the expectation of a playoff win while also acknowledging the tough schedule awaiting the Patriots. One could read that as if the team wins x amount of games (say 8-10, for argument's sake), looks competitive on the whole, but ultimately misses the postseason again, Belichick should be safe, in theory.

What's different now is that if Kraft doesn't like what he sees, he has the bonified successor in-house with Jerod Mayo, and I doubt you can convince him to stick around and take a back seat for a third time, and honestly, nor should he. Teams have been knocking down his door for head coaching interviews these last few offseasons, and Mayo will be one relatively soon, whether that is in New England or elsewhere. So I'd say Belichick's Hot Seat meter is probably at a 6/10, but this is comfortably the hottest it's ever been, and it's hard to put it on anyone other than himself.

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