More Patriots burning questions: Unfinished business in free agency?

More Patriots burning questions: Unfinished business in free agency? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

We hit you on Wednesday with five of our 10 burning questions facing the Patriots this summer. Now, we are back at it again with the next five.

Less of a preamble this time. Less fixation on the offense as well. Away we go.

Who’s opposite Gonzo?

Despite his season being cut extremely short, 2023 first-rounder Christian Gonzalez signaled through the summer and the first three games that he’s going to be a weapon on defense. But the Patriots could use another boundary corner to deal with the abundance of outside wide receiver talent they’ll deal with.

Jonathan Jones can play outside and has done a good job of it at times. But at 5-foot-9, there are times when he’s left lacking in length. He’s a tremendous slot corner.

Third-year corner Marcus Jones is similar. The 2022 third-rounder is a brilliant athlete and made plays as a rookie and last summer before being injured early last season and lost for the year. He’s 5-foot-8.

The bigger corners the Patriots have are Shaun Wade (6-foot-1), Alex Austin (6-1, a 2023 seventh-rounder), Isaiah Bolden (6-2, another 2023 seventh-rounder), rookie sixth-rounder Marcellas Dial (6-0) and Marco Wilson (6-0, a 2021 fourth-rounder for Arizona).

Can the Patriots find a starting-level corner in that group that allows them to move Jonathan Jones inside? Or will they need to look for any veteran help still left on the market (Stephon Gilmore remains out there)?

How you doing kickoffs?

The new kickoff rules are pretty drastic. Designed to keep the kickoff in the game but reduce high-speed collisions from the kicking teams having a 65-yard runup, the coverage unit will now line up at the receiving team’s 40, just five yards from nine of the 11 players on the return team.

Any kick dropping between the goal line and the 20 must be returned. The coverage team can’t move until the ball is touched by a returner or hits the ground. A touchback into the end zone brings the ball out to the 30.

The potential is there for big returns since the coverage team will have less chance to react to angles taken by the returner because they’re so much closer.

Are the Patriots going to invite returns by kicking short of the goal line? Will they just blast into the end zone and start playing defense at their 30? When they’re returning, will they deploy a different returner than they normally would to generate those explosive plays? (Marcus Jones could be a demon in this setup.)

A fair amount of camp will be devoted to seeing just how this unfolds.

Slye guy making a challenge?

Another special teams topic is the kicker competition. Chad Ryland only made 64 percent of his field goals last year (16-for-25) and was just 7-for-14 outside 40 yards. He had some wild misses in his rookie season after being selected in the fourth round last year.

The team brought in free agent kicker Joey Slye this spring. He made 79 percent of his field goals last year and is at 82.3 percent for his career with the Panthers, Texans, Niners and Commanders. A team as challenged offensively as the Patriots can’t afford to be sweating out field goal attempts that the rest of the league routinely makes. This is a big summer for Ryland.

Got enough at tight end?

Hunter Henry was one of the best tight ends hitting the free agent market in March. The Patriots didn’t let him get there. Good move. He’s been – when healthy – a tremendously reliable player for them. But the Patriots need more than just Henry at tight end to make the Alex Van Pelt offense hum. And there’s uncertainty after Henry.

Austin Hooper, 29, was signed in the offseason. His production is down since he was a 70-plus catch target for the Falcons in 2018 and 2019. But he did spend 2020 and 2021 with Van Pelt in Cleveland and he’s missed just one game the past three years. He had 31 catches last year for the Raiders, his lowest output since his rookie year in 2016.

Also in the mix is Jaheim Bell, a seventh-rounder from Florida State. He’s got a versatile skillset and can get yards after the catch. Bell actually carried the ball 73 times in 2022 as a junior at South Carolina. He doesn’t fit the profile of the classic tight end.

They also signed a block-happy tight end in Mitchell Wilcox who’d been with the Bengals the past three seasons and has 29 catches. He’s 6-4, 250, and will definitely have relevance if the Patriots are as run-heavy as they’re expected to be.

Any unfinished business?

The end of June is when teams look hard at their rosters and the players available. Are there spots where a player on the street might be able to beat out the group of guys in a position group? The signing of Cam Newton in 2020 is a perfect example of that. In March and April, the team wasn’t making overtures to Newton because he figured to be expensive and his style was a departure from what the Patriots offense was all about. But by the end of June, a former MVP to be had for short money competing with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer? It made sense.

Could the same happen at corner, as we mentioned with Stephon Gilmore? Or tackle where there are recognizable names still out there like Donovan Smith, David Bakhtiari, D.J. Humphries and Jason Peters?

Could the team go big and still make a run at Brandon Aiyuk? Currently, they have more space than any team in the league ($45M according to Over The Cap) and that could be used to go high-end with Aiyuk. Or they could settle up with players like Matt Judon and Davon Godchaux, who want or need some contract tweaking.

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