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Patriots' Robert Kraft eyes Jerod Mayo as 'strong candidate' to be Bill Belichick's 'heir apparent'

Bill Belichick isn't considering retirement as of now, but because of his age, it's going to remain an annual topic.

On Monday, Robert Kraft indicated he already knows who he'd prefer to replace the soon-to-be 71-year-old Belichick whenever the six-time Super Bowl-winning coach walks away from the NFL. The answer: one of Belichick's former players and current assistant coaches, Jerod Mayo.

"Well, he's definitely a strong candidate to be the heir apparent, but we have some other good people in our system," Kraft told NFL Network's Judy Battista at the Annual League Meeting on Monday. "So right now, we have a good head coach, and we're doing everything we can to support him, and make sure we do everything we can to win."

Belichick turns 71 in April and has reached the playoffs just once in the three seasons that have comprised the post-Tom Brady era in New England. The most recent season was arguably the most frustrating, a campaign in which New England's offense struggled mightily with former defensive coordinator and head coach Matt Patricia calling the shots.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Kraft lamented the decision to try Patricia as a play-caller.

"I think he got put in a difficult position; it was sort of an experiment," Kraft said of Patricia, via ESPN's Mike Reiss. "He worked very hard at it. In retrospect, I don't think it was the right thing. I feel bad for him because he is such a hard worker and he got put in a difficult position."

After missing the playoffs in their first season without Brady, Belichick's Patriots spent a first-round pick on quarterback Mac Jones in 2021 and inserted him as the Week 1 starter, reaping the benefits of a Josh McDaniels-coordinated offense that was able to capitalize on Jones' talents and lead New England to the postseason. The 2022 season told a different story for the Patriots, who fell from 15th in total offense in 2021 to 26th in 2022 -- one spot ahead of where they were in 2020.

It was rather easy to see how Patricia wasn't fit for offensive coordinator. To Belichick's credit, he didn't keep Patricia in the role beyond 2022, no matter their history of working together.

Now, the next test will be placed on the desk of Jones, who didn't take the step most expected from him in 2022. Instead of cementing himself as New England's long-term starter, Jones struggled under the direction of Patricia, and even had his job temporarily threatened by 2022 draftee Bailey Zappe.

Fortunately for Jones, Kraft still believes in the Alabama prospect as the Patriots' quarterback of the future. He'll need to live up to the expectations in 2023, though.

"I'm a big fan of Mac," Kraft said. "I think he came to us as a rookie, he quarterbacked his rookie season and did a very fine job, I thought. We made the playoffs, I think we experimented with some things last year that frankly didn't work when it came to him, in my opinion. And I think we made changes that put him in a good position to excel. In the end, Bill is in charge of my football team and makes the decisions of who should start and who should play and he's done a pretty darn good job of it for the last -- when you think about it -- 24 years.

"For me, I think I see him as a very hard-working young man. He's in the stadium almost every day now in the offseason. Bringing in Bill O'Brien, I think, will work to his advantage. I'm very positive and hopeful about this upcoming year, and I'm personally a very big fan of Mac."

Jones can help himself a lot in 2023 by playing well under O'Brien, Patricia's replacement who brings with him a wealth of experience as a play-caller. It might be surprising that O'Brien, the former Texans and Penn State coach, isn't the one Kraft referenced when talking of a potential succession plan for Belichick, but after O'Brien washed out of Houston, it's understandable that Kraft might be leaning toward one of his team's former players who has yet to take a head-coaching role in his still-young coaching career, not O'Brien.

It's no knock on O'Brien. After all, Kraft is the one who hired Belichick, a once-fired NFL head coach, to lead his team more than 20 years ago. They've been incredibly successful for 20-plus years, too. Belichick wasn't afraid to point it out Monday when asked about why he felt confident he could lead the Patriots to more success.

What matters most in this league, though, is a coach's most recent performance. And when it comes to Belichick's Patriots, one playoff trip in the last three years isn't good enough for a franchise accustomed to Super Bowl pursuits.

"Very important. I think that's our objective," Kraft said of returning to the postseason. "We've gone through four years where we haven't. We've been spoiled, but after my family, my passion (is) the Patriots football team and winning football games and that's a great turn-on for me. So last year was tough. I'm a fan first. I sat in the stands for 30, 40 years, dreaming if I ever had a chance, what I would do. So we want to get back to winning as best we can."

Belichick has a resume so strong, it would be shocking to see the Patriots move on from him before he's ready to retire. It's unfathomable at this point, as it should be. But after a year in which his offensive coordinator experiment failed, he will need to start producing at a higher rate to prevent the chirps from the cheap seats.

"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."

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