With training camp set to open next week, there’s plenty of previewing going on in this week’s mailbag.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled over the Patriots inability to stop the run last season. To my eyes, the problem was mostly outside runs and not so much straight up the middle, so we need players who can set the edge well. Is my memory foggy? It seemed like Matthew Judon lost containment too often, especially late in the season/playoffs. There’s also been a lot of talk about the decline in his performance (i.e. sacks) late in the season, but I think that’s because he was getting double-teamed more and held on pretty much every play. – Wanda Dunn

I agree with your point about the edges being a problem in containing the running game but I also feel like stopping things between the tackles was a problem as well. Overall the run defense has been a problem for at least the last three seasons, and there have been a number of personnel changes among the front seven during that time. The edges were definitely problematic down the stretch last season, as you pointed out. Judon wasn’t as effective in this area in the second half of the season, just as his production as a pass rusher declined as well. He needs to perform more consistently if the Patriots defense is going to improve much. There will likely be an unproven player on the opposite edge since veterans like Kyle Van Noy are no longer with the team. That means someone such as Ronnie Perkins or Anfernee Jennings will need to step up and fill a role to help get things fixed up front. But run defense is definitely an area that has suffered as of late.

The Patriots drafted the fastest wide receiver and the fastest running back at the Combine this year. Marcus Jones didn’t run the 40, but could he be the fastest cornerback in the draft? – Craig Dube

Marcus Jones can absolutely fly and would at the very least have been among the fastest cornerbacks at the Combine had he been healthy enough to run. Whether he would have been the fastest is impossible to determine because he didn’t actually run, but his tape at Houston shows his speed and most pre-draft publications had him running sub-4.4 40s so he would have been in the mix if he had been healthy enough. But Combine 40 times don’t really mean much once the players get to camp and start the process of becoming NFL players. I’m excited to see the Patriots rookie class in action out on the field later this month.

Patriots Rookie DB Marcus Jones runs drills during Minicamp.

Which players are you most looking forward to seeing when camp opens next week? – Aidan Silva

There are always a lot of players worth keeping an eye on once camp opens and for me it’s usually the new guys. For me that would include the draft picks, and specifically Tyquan Thornton, Marcus Jones, Jack Jones and Pierre Strong. All four players are expected to bring some speed to the field and I’m anxious to see if that is noticeable once camp opens up. Obviously there’s much more to playing in the NFL than just running fast but that’s an element I feel has been lacking in recent seasons. I’m also curious to see if any of last year’s group of free agents look more comfortable on the field than they did a year ago. Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor would be at the top of that list as they both seemed to struggle in 2021 with their first taste of the Patriots system. And of course everyone will be watching Mac Jones to see how much progress he’s made in Year 2, which will be far and away the most important element for any Patriots success in 2022.

I know how most of the PU crew feels about the Patriots and their prospects for this season but I was wondering which teams in the AFC you guys feel are at the top of the heap? – Mike Zaimi

Obviously we’ll start in the AFC East because that’s where the Patriots reside. Given the last two seasons and the emergence of Josh Allen as an elite quarterback, I have to put Buffalo at the top and consider the Bills a favorite to reach the Super Bowl out of the AFC. Beyond that I feel the North and West divisions will be extremely competitive. I still have tons of respect for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, even after their meltdown in the AFC title game last year. I also feel the Raiders, Chargers and Broncos have all improved, and I could see any of these four teams winning the division with at least two others qualifying as wild cards. The North isn’t quite as talented but Baltimore will bounce back assuming the Ravens have a reasonable amount of health after last season’s debacle. The Bengals and Browns are talented as well but both have questions. Cleveland obviously is waiting to find out how often Deshaun Watson will be available (if at all) while the Bengals will be dealing with the post-Super Bowl loss hangover that is tough for most teams. Indy will be in the mix in the South with Tennessee also a solid playoff contender. It won’t be an easy landscape to navigate, that’s for sure.

I see we drafted three offensive linemen. I really like Andrew Stueber from Michigan. He’s played in a lot of big games over the years and started multiple years. How do you feel about the chances of all three linemen making the roster this year? I for one have been stressed since the loss of Shaq Mason and Ted Karras. This group of draftees and Mike Onwenu give us a nice young group of linemen that I’m excited about. How do you feel about this group as a whole? – Jared Young

I wasn’t surprised to see Bill Belichick use multiple picks on offensive linemen after losing two starters in the offseason. In addition, Isaiah Wynn will be a free agent at the end of the season, so the need to develop potential replacements up front is apparent. Cole Strange certainly appears pegged as a starter at guard and will replace Karras. It will be interesting to see if Onwenu can fill a starting role at right guard this season after losing his spot to Karras in 2021. As for the two late-round picks Chasen Hines and Andrew Stueber, we unfortunately haven’t been able to see much from either of them thus far. Both dealt with injuries during the spring, which puts their development well behind those who were out on the field. If healthy I could see them sticking around on the practice squad to provide depth but after missing the spring I’m not expecting contributions from either of them in 2022.

By Toffee

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