The Patriots had more turnover this offseason than usual.
Their defensive coordinator and four position coaches left. Rob Gronkowski retired. Seven of their 10 receivers and five of their seven tight ends are new this season.
With the Patriots starting Phase 3 of the offseason program on Monday, Josh McDaniels is eager to see how all the new pieces fit. Phase 3 entails four weeks of organized team activities, which amount to non-contact, 7-on-7 passing camps.
“I think OTAs and training camp will be big for us this year, in terms of evaluating what we have and the way we should play,” McDaniels said.
That’s not just coach-speak. OTAs and training camp don’t usually mean as much for the veteran-laden Patriots as they do for other teams — Tom Brady skipped them last year and the Patriots did just fine in the end — but this year does seem more important.
The Patriots will have seven voluntary practices and three mandatory minicamp practices over the next four weeks. Brady isn’t expected to attend the voluntary workouts again this year, but the Patriots still have plenty to work on.
Let’s take a look at what they have to work on this spring:
■ Teach the offense to a bunch of new receivers, including a rookie. There are always new veteran faces at the back of the receiver room, and this year is no different, with Maurice Harris, Demaryius Thomas and Dontrelle Inman vying for roster spots. But for the first time since 2013, the Patriots have invested a significant draft pick in a receiver — first-rounder N’Keal Harry. The Patriots are clearly counting on him to have an immediate impact, so getting him up to speed with the offense and how they conduct practice is crucial over the next four weeks.
The Patriots also have an entirely new tight end room. The two holdovers didn’t play a snap last year — Ryan Izzo and Stephen Anderson. Otherwise it’s a hodgepodge group of veteran free agent signings. Ben Watson has played with the Patriots before, but not in more than a decade. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is on his third team in three years. Matt LaCosse likely projects as the second or third tight end, and undrafted rookie Andrew Beck is just hoping to catch on.
McDaniels said that OTAs will be key for figuring out what the Patriots do best as an offense.
“Just take guys that have a skill and a talent, and don’t try to fit them to what we’ve done in the past,” he said. “ You tell me where the next Troy Brown is, or the next Logan Mankins, or the next Tom Brady? It’s not that easy. The next so many months are about foundation, evaluation. Let them rep, see what happens.”
■ Get valuable reps for the coaches. This offseason is perhaps even more important for incorporating all of the new coaches into the operation — particularly on defense, where the Patriots have several people in new roles.
Most notably, the Patriots have to figure out how the defensive play-calling is going to work. Bill Belichick is most likely to handle the role now that Greg Schiano, the original replacement, left the team in March. But Belichick is going to need some help, too. Will the play-calling operation also include input from defensive line coach Bret Bielema? Or inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, who was one of the smartest players to ever come through Foxborough? Will safeties coach Steve Belichick, the one incumbent coach on that side of the ball, get more of a voice?
These new coaches also have to work on communication with their players, in terms of signaling plays and substitutions.
And on offense, Joe Judge will be the Patriots’ first new receivers coach in 10 years. How does he transition to the offensive side of the ball, while also handling his duties as special teams coordinator? And Mick Lombardi will be the new assistant quarterbacks coach, meaning he’ll work closely with the backups and youngsters.
■ See how quickly Jarrett Stidham picks it up. Before we even dream about Stidham becoming Brady’s heir, let’s see if he can handle the backup role first. The Patriots still have Brian Hoyer on the roster, set to make $2.8 million this year, so there’s no rush to make Stidham the backup. That said, the Patriots would probably prefer to keep two quarterbacks, and that Stidham be one of them.
The Patriots will throw a ton of information at Stidham over the next four weeks, and how he handles it could determine his, and Hoyer’s, immediate future.
■ Get the rookies on board. The Patriots’ 2019 draft class isn’t their biggest in terms of size, with 10 rookies taken over seven rounds. But it’s where they drafted the players that makes this one of their most important draft classes in Belichick’s 20 years.
The Patriots used seven picks in the first four rounds, tied with 2009 for the most in Belichick’s tenure.
In many years, the Patriots load up on sixth- and seventh-rounders, guys who project as backups and special teamers, if they even make the team. Last year, five of their nine picks came in those rounds.
This year they only drafted one guy each in the sixth and seventh rounds. The Patriots instead drafted five guys in the top 101 picks and two more in the fourth round, with the hope that all of these guys develop into starters. Harry, Joejuan Williams, Chase Winovich and Damien Harris are all going to contribute right away in 2019 (barring injury or disaster). And offensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt and Stidham will make the team as backups, but with the potential to start down the road.
These rookies may not get a red-shirt year, like most of last year’s rookies did. They need to get with the program right away.
■ See where Isaiah Wynn is with his conditioning and agility. The offensive linemen can’t do too much during OTAs, since there are no pads and no contact in the practices. So the Patriots won’t get a great look at Wynn and his return from a torn Achilles’ until training camp.
But one thing linemen can do this time of year is run. So at least the Patriots can evaluate where Wynn is with his agility, footwork and conditioning as they decide whether to install him as the starting left tackle. They used a first-round pick on him last year, and still have high hopes, but signed veteran Jared Veldheer just in case.