Marcellas Dial [608x342]
Marcellas Dial [608x342] (Credit: Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

USU Ex-coach s fact-finding mission broke rules

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Most imbalanced offseason: After one practice this spring, rookie cornerback Marcellas Dial Jr. acknowledged the unique position he found himself among Patriots' draft picks.

"To be the only defensive player is crazy," he said.

Dial's remark reflects one of the top themes of the Patriots' offseason under the new regime of executive vice president of player personnel Eliot Wolf and coach Jerod Mayo. Consider the following:

The Patriots' seven draft picks on offense were a league high. The Cardinals and Jets were next (six apiece). The Patriots and Bears were the only teams to select just one defensive player in the draft (Chicago only had five overall selections and used one on a punter). The plus-six disparity of seven offensive draft picks vs. one defensive draft pick was easily a league high, followed by the Jets (plus-four, with their top five selections all on offense). Furthermore, of the approximately $233 million they've spent in the base value of free agent contracts, approximately $138 million has been to offensive players. And that doesn't include extensions for running back Rhamondre Stevenson ($17 million guaranteed) and center David Andrews ($8 million guaranteed), as they were already under contract for 2024.

The Patriots' decisive turn toward an infusion of youth on offense -- after a season in which they ranked tied for last in the NFL in average points per game (13.8) -- is a timely topic to highlight at this slower time on the NFL calendar with rookies not scheduled to report for training camp until July 19, followed by veterans on July 23.

The Patriots are coming off a 4-13 campaign, with low external expectations of being a contender, but their offseason approach -- headlined by the additions of quarterback Drake Maye (first round) and receiver Ja'Lynn Polk (second round) -- sparks promise of a new direction.

Mayo previously said the Patriots wouldn't have gone to such offensive extremes if they didn't feel a high degree of confidence for the highly rated defense, which returns mostly intact and includes the top 2023 draft picks Christian Gonzalez (first round), Keion White (second round) and Marte Mapu (third round).

So it's no wonder that Dial, a sixth-round pick from South Carolina (No. 180), might have felt like an outlier among his fellow draft class at times this spring. He joins a crowded defense that means he will have to fight for a roster spot, but his former defensive coordinator, Clayton White, cautioned from counting him out.

"He has the size, strength and speed to play at that level," said White, who enters his fourth year with the Gamecocks and credits longtime defensive backs coach Torian Gray for his work with the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Dial.

"But more importantly, I think he brings the intangibles and the will. He's a great locker room guy, great team player and great special teams player, too."

Dial, 23, was one of the few defensive players the Patriots had targeted entering the draft, hosting him on one of their 30 allotted visits at Gillette Stadium. But the team had a big gap in its picks, so after selecting Central Florida receiver Javon Baker in the fourth round (No. 110), they waited 70 selections hoping Dial's name wouldn't be called until they were on the clock again.

Mayo said the Patriots like Dial's versatility, which showed up over three seasons at South Carolina in which he played in 38 games (29 starts). The Gamecocks also had future NFL draft picks Cam Smith (Dolphins, 2023 second round) and Darius Rush (Colts, 2023 fifth round) at cornerback, so Dial initially played in the slot before moving outside.

White said Dial's football IQ grew over his three years, citing his fourth-quarter interception in a win over No. 7 Clemson late in the 2022 season as one example.

As part of the Gamecocks' Cover 4 scheme, cornerbacks bear an added responsibility to make the correct checks, with a focus on leverages based on receiver splits. On the play, Dial aligned across from Clemson tight end Davis Allen, processed the offensive formation, and took a slight step to the sideline to protect against the RPO fade route. That was precisely the route Clemson attempted to capitalize on, with Dial easily recording an interception, one of his three career picks.

"That was a big play that gave us momentum to beat Clemson for the first time in seven years," White said. "It was something he wouldn't have been able to process the first year."

Dial now joins a cornerback position headlined by nine-year veteran Jonathan Jones and Gonzalez, last year's first-round pick. Marcus Jones, the 2022 third-round pick, is a top contender to play in the slot, while 2023 seventh-round picks Alex Austin and Isaiah Bolden and 2023 waiver-wire pickup Marco Wilson and four-year veteran Shaun Wade are among others vying to carve out roles.

Dial said he couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity, a reference to his overcoming-the-odds background after initially attending Georgia Military College coming out of Woodruff (S.C.) High School.

He just as well could have been referencing the Patriots' offseason approach. Titling heavily toward youth on offense, there aren't many opportunities for newcomers on defense.

2. Ninko's take: Former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said in an interview that he liked the team's three-year extension for Jahlani Tavai (base value $15 million, maximum value $21 million) for two primary reasons -- Tavai's role and the locker room message it sends:

"I love his energy. He plays hard. You need a guy like that who can do multiple things, but also get everyone in the right spots. He's been in this system long enough where he understands his role so well that he can help others. ... Him and Bent [Ja'Whaun Bentley] having played together for the last three years, that's a good thing to keep that going. I think he has a higher ceiling and that could soon become an undervalued contract."

"It's also an appreciation thing for a player who has performed well. I like what they've done with him and David [Andrews], which is something I'm not sure would have happened prior to this year. It tells the younger guys that if you approach it the right way, like they did, this is what the reward can be."

3. Dugger stays local: Most Patriots players leave the area in the weeks before training camp, often returning to their hometowns, but safety Kyle Dugger hasn't been among the group. Dugger has continued to show up at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots would naturally like to see the 2020 second-round pick elevate to more of a leadership role after signing him to a four-year, $58 million extension this offseason.

4. Uche's agent change: Patriots pass rusher Joshua Uche, who re-signed in March with a one-year, $3 million deal, has switched agents. According to NFL Players Association documents, Uche is now back with Drew Rosenhaus, who had initially represented him coming out of the University of Michigan when the Patriots selected Uche in the second round of the 2020 draft. Rosenhaus also represents veteran defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, who is pushing the team to redo his contract.

5. Did you know?: Tavai played 74% of the Patriots' defensive snaps last season and 78% of the special teams snaps. He is the only NFL player in the past decade to play at least 70% of his team's special teams snaps and at least 70% of his team's snaps on offense or defense in a season.