Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at why one of the most successful figures in NFL history could be entering a make-or-break season ...
Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich are widely considered two of the greatest coaches in sports history. At the same time, underwhelming results of late have led some to question their coaching acumen, with claims that past achievements were more the product of the superstar talents at their disposal.
Honestly, I do indeed think it's crazy to suggest two coaches with 11 combined titles are overrated. That said, I understand why this has become a talking point in some circles, given the lack of recent success: Belichick has logged one (winless) playoff appearance and two losing seasons since Tom Brady's departure; Popovich's Spurs haven't won a playoff series since 2017, posting a 121-186 record over the past four seasons without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Earlier this month, though, Popovich received a new five-year contract worth over $80 million, the richest coaching pact in basketball history. This came shortly after San Antonio spent the No. 1 overall pick on Victor Wembanyama, probably the most hyped player to enter the NBA since LeBron James. Clearly, the Spurs trust Popovich to develop the generational talent and inherently reverse the franchise's fortunes.
Meanwhile, the Patriots seem to be putting their future Hall of Fame coach on the hot seat, having watched New England fall to a .500 team (25-25) in the post-Brady era. Back at the Annual League Meeting in March, Pats owner Robert Kraft was asked if Belichick's job could be in jeopardy with another losing season -- or if the second-winningest coach in NFL history (329, playoffs included) would comfortably remain in New England to break Don Shula's all-time record of 347 Ws. Kraft's answer was quite interesting.
"Look, I'd like him to break Don Shula's record, but I'm not looking for any of our players to get great stats," Kraft said. "We're about winning, and doing whatever we can to win. And that's what our focus is now. And I -- it's very important to me that we make the playoffs, and that's what I hope happens next year."
To be fair, Kraft also had many glowing things to say about New England's head coach since the turn of the millennium.
"Look, I think Bill is exceptional at what he does. And I've given him the freedom to make the choices and do the things that need to be done," Kraft said. "His football intellect and knowledge is unparalleled, from what I've seen, and when you talk to him, the small things analytically that he looks at.
"But in the end, this is a business. You either execute and win, or you don't. That's where we're at. I think we're in a transition phase. I think we've made some moves this year, that I personally am comfortable with, and I still believe in Bill."
The standard is certainly high in New England, with the Patriots having won six Lombardi Trophies and 17 division titles during 20 seasons of Belichick-Brady. But the Pats have fallen behind in the ultra-competitive AFC, where superstar quarterbacks abound. In the AFC East, the Bills have won three straight titles, while the explosive Dolphins and Aaron Rodgers-led Jets seem to have passed up the Pats in the divisional pecking order. According to Caesars Sportsbook & Casino, New England easily has the longest odds (+800) of winning the East in 2023. And I just keep thinking about one quote from Kraft's March presser:
"It's very important to me that we make the playoffs."
So, is this a postseason-or-bust campaign for Belichick in New England? Do the 2023 Patriots even have the horses to make the tournament? It all begins, of course, with the game's most important position.
In a quarterback-driven league, it is imperative to have a franchise QB -- and the Patriots thought they had one in Mac Jones after a solid rookie campaign that showcased his potential as a savvy playmaker from the pocket. The 2021 NFL Draft's 15th overall pick completed 67.6 percent of his passes with a 22:13 touchdown-to-interception ratio, guiding the Patriots to the playoffs and making the Pro Bowl in Year 1.
Although no one expected Jones to play like Prime TB12 in Year 2, it was fair to think he'd take another step forward and establish himself as a true rising star. That did not happen. Instead, Jones took a step back, completing 65.2 percent of his passes with a 14:11 TD-to-INT ratio and at one point was benched in favor of rookie fourth-rounder Bailey Zappe. Granted, the second-year signal-caller wasn't exactly put in the best position to succeed.
After Josh McDaniels left his Patriots offensive coordinator post to become head coach of the Raiders, Belichick tapped Matt Patricia and Joe Judge to guide the offense, with Patricia calling the plays. This immediately raised eyebrows, given Patricia's background in defense and Judge's in special teams. Personally, I didn't think it would be an enormous problem. Clearly, I was wrong.
From the vanilla looks to the poorly executed in-game adjustments and lackluster communication, New England's offense looked nothing like the well-oiled machine that lorded over the league with Brady under center. The 2022 Patriots finished 26th in total offense. Now, Jones did contribute to the unit's struggles with questionable decision-making. And the offense wasn't exactly flush with talent. Meanwhile, Belichick's defense mostly did its part, finishing eighth in total D and 11th in points allowed. But it was impossible not to focus on the failed experiment in the offensive coaching staff, which put the spotlight on Belichick's approach in a post-Brady world.
In January, New England brought back Bill O'Brien as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. And while a frayed relationship between Belichick and Jones become a huge topic throughout last season, the third-year quarterback said he's on the same page with the grizzled head coach earlier this week.
"No, I think we're good," Jones said on Wednesday. "I think the biggest thing that we've all talked about is just having a fresh start. I think there's a lot of learning experiences from last year that we've talked about, and this year, it's all about just working together, right? You've got to come up with a plan, obviously talk about it, and then execute it. So, I'm excited for that part of it. For me, I'm just trying to be really consistent, try not to ride the wave, just stay my course -- and hopefully everybody on our offense feels that, too. I think Coach O'Brien does a great job laying out what we do well so far, and we're going to learn every day what we do well, and then from there, you just keep moving forward and execute the plan. So, I'm definitely excited for that."
Optimism abounds in July, but will this lead to wins when the real bullets start flying in September? Can the Patriots return to relevancy? New England lost leading receiver Jakobi Meyers in free agency, but the Pats added a couple of pass-catching weapons in WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and TE Mike Gesicki. The Matt Judon-led defense should be stout once again, with a pair of high draft picks (first-round CB Christian Gonzalez and second-round DE Keion White) for Belichick to mold.
Still, when I look at this roster on paper, I seriously question if it has the firepower to make the playoffs in a loaded AFC. While the Patriots of old routinely closed the talent gap with brilliant scheming and superb tactical strategies, they also had the G.O.A.T. Without him, all eyes are on Belichick to make everything right again. That's easier said than done.
Could this be the iconic coach's last season in New England? Without a Wembanyama walking through the door, Belichick must find creative ways to chalk up wins or he'll fall short of Kraft's playoff mandate. Suddenly, the unthinkable -- Belichick receiving his pink slip from the Pats -- seems possible.
Five rookies to watch in camp/preseason
With training camp open, the latest crop of NFL rookies are beginning to get a real taste of life as professional football players. And preseason action is just around the corner, with the Hall of Fame Game on tap next Thursday, so we're all about to see how these newbies acquit themselves in the arena.
While the pre-draft process is about predicting how college players will perform at the highest level based on talent, tools and tape, training camp and the preseason allow evaluators to see if their projections will actually result in NFL production. As a former scout, I admittedly watched preseason games hoping my draft favorites would put on a show, thus validating my initial appraisals.
Over the next month, we'll get to see how the Class of 2023 performs when the pads are poppin' on the NFL gridiron. I can't wait. And I'm particularly excited to follow these five rookies:
Drafted: Round 1, No. 4 overall
The ultra-athletic quarterback has the potential to take the league by storm as a freakishly gifted playmaker with explosive dual-threat ability. Richardson’s raw talent and rare tools will enable Shane Steichen to implement some of the RPOs and option schemes that helped Jalen Hurts play at an MVP level in 2022, when the new Colts coach was serving as the Eagles' offensive coordinator. With three preseason games to show off his talents as a run-pass threat, the No. 4 overall pick will have a chance to fuel his coaches’ imagination as they build out an offensive plan that helps Richardson hit the ground running in Year 1.
Drafted: Round 2, No. 32 overall
After surprisingly dropping out of the first round on draft weekend, Porter fell right into Pittsburgh's lap as a legacy pick following in the Steelers footsteps of his All-Pro father. The 6-foot-2, 193-pounder flashed shutdown corner potential at Penn State as a bump-and-run specialist in man or zone coverage. Porter’s length, toughness and tenacity will test wideouts on the perimeter while also posing a challenge to quarterbacks attempting to stack completions on easy throws in his direction. With eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson available to speak on playing the position at an elite level, the highly motivated rookie could make his mark immediately as a first-year contributor.
Drafted: Round 2, No. 42 overall
As Green Bay transitions to a ball-control offense with Jordan Love taking the reins from Aaron Rodgers, the tight end position could become a top priority in the passing game, helping the first-year starter move the chains with simple throws between the hashes. Musgrave is a potential matchup nightmare with the size, speed and athleticism to turn short passes into big gains while exposing overmatched defenders. Packers coach Matt LaFleur could definitely incorporate more multi-TE personnel packages into the game plan, allowing Musgrave to emerge as the guy who puts up big numbers as a rookie.
Drafted: Round 2, No. 46 overall
Bill Belichick’s defensive wizardry could unlock White’s potential as a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage. An inside/outside defender with heavy hands and a nasty demeanor, White fits the Patriots’ profile as a versatile piece with a wide set of skills. Although Belichick will keep his plans close to his vest, the former Georgia Tech standout could make a splash as a rotational player who mans multiple spots at the point of attack.
Drafted: Round 3, No. 99 overall
San Francisco's decision to spend a Day 2 pick on a kicker told us the 49ers believe Moody will immediately be a prolific point scorer at the NFL level. The Michigan standout boasts extensive range as a distance kicker while also displaying the consistency that offensive coaches covet when the ball penetrates the 30-yard line. As the Niners push for NFC supremacy, Kyle Shanahan and Co. will rely on Moody to put points on the board whenever a fruitful drive stalls short of the end zone.