The New England Patriots may have shortened their offseason workout program by canceling their final minicamp practice and last week of organized team activities, but they were still able to get a lot done before heading into their summer break. Their two sessions last Tuesday and Wednesday, after all, were busy affairs for players and coaches alike.
As has been mentioned multiple times before, everything about minicamp and the offseason workout program as a whole has to be taken with a grain of salt. The focus is on implementing the system, working on technique and building a foundation rather than competing for spots on the roster. Additionally, players are only wearing helmets in practice while full contact or tackling are not allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Nonetheless, every opportunity to watch New England work is also an opportunity to learn about the team — for those on the field as well as off it. Let’s therefore find out what this year’s offseason workouts taught us about the Patriots’ 2022 version.
Mac Jones has taken full control of the Patriots offense: We spoke about this in greater detail last week, so let’s just quickly glance over it once again. Mac Jones appears to be going full “Look at me, I’m the captain now” mode in Year 2, and both his coaches and teammates confirmed as such over the last few weeks. The young quarterback is in line for a major second-year jump, which in turn would be a massive boost to New England’s offense.
Looks like deep balls are back on the menu, boys: For all the talk about an apparent lack of arm talent, Mac Jones has always been an efficient deep-ball passer going all the way back to his college days at the University of Alabama. The Patriots under Josh McDaniels were not necessarily keen on stressing teams vertically last year, for a multitude of reasons, but that might change in 2022 if minicamp is any indication.
Jones, after all, was dropping bombs during the two practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. Obviously, the offseason is the time to try things out — something Jones said himself — but he is actively building trust and chemistry with his receivers to make plays deep.
Whether that leads to more deep attempts after Jones ranked 18th among NFL quarterbacks in that category last season remains to be seen. The fact remains, however, that having a deep game that defenses need to respect should help open up the underneath portions of the field that were oftentimes closed for New England between 2019 and 2021.
Adding DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton this offseason should help with that. Add the second-year jumps that might be taken by Nelson Agholor and minicamp standout Tre Nixon and you get a receiving corps that might be much better suited to put pressure on opposing defenses beyond the 20-yard area — all while working with a passer not afraid to pull the trigger.
“We want to be able to do whatever we want to do at any given time, whether that’s a run, pass, play-action, short, medium, or long. We’re trying to be able to have a little bit of variety,” Jones himself said last Thursday.
Running the offense will likely be a joint venture in 2022: Spring practices did not give any clear answers about who will be running the show on the offensive side of the ball, other than Mac Jones. Organized team activities and mandatory minicamp saw Joe Judge and Matt Patricia take turns sending pre-scripted plays to Jones and the offense, with the latter doing so during 11-on-11 segments.
Does that make Patricia is the frontrunner to serve as New England’s de facto coordinator this season? Possibly, but the fact is this: as with all things building this team, the Patriots are still very early in the process and nothing has been carved in stone just yet.
What the offseason workouts thus far did show us, though, is that Bill Belichick will take a more prominent role in lieu of long-time coordinator Josh McDaniels’ departure to Las Vegas. He, Judge and Patricia will have an active hand in shaping the unit regardless of who ends up calling plays.
N’Keal Harry is all but done: Harry decided to stay away from the team-organized voluntary offseason workout program but re-joined his colleagues for minicamp last week. It was far from a glorious comeback: the former first-round draft pick spent almost all of last week’s pair of practices working with the scout-team offense, catching only one pass from Mac Jones during team drills and also having a drop during scout-team work.
Given the additions of DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton, the possible emergence of Tre Nixon, and the starter-level status of Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and, to a lesser degree, Nelson Agholor, there simply does not appear to be a spot on the wide receiver depth chart for Harry. And even if there was, he likely would not be getting one of them anyway based on his previous performance and minicamp role.
At this point in time, Harry looks like a camp body. The question will not be if the Patriots move on from him between now and roster cutdown day — something would have to go massively wrong for that to change — but rather whether or not any team will be willing to use resources to acquire him via trade rather than wait for him to be released and hit the waiver wire.
New England has already found its starting-five along the offensive line: Barring any injuries, the Patriots’ starting offensive line this season will consist of tackles Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown, guards Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu, and center David Andrews. It is obviously impossible to assess the group’s overall outlook during no-contact spring workouts, but where they lined up is something worth talking about.
Strange and Onwenu at left and right guard did not come as a surprise; they spent their college careers primarily at those two spots. The same is true for Andrews at center; only 0.08 percent of his career snaps (five of 6,572) have come at any other position.
Then, there is the tackle spot. This is where the fun begins.
While the popular projection was that the Patriots would use the same lineup as last year, they did not do that in minicamp: Wynn moved from the left to the right side, with Brown taking over as the new left tackle. Obviously, grain of salt, yadda yadda yadda.
Still, Wynn aligning at right tackle — a position he has not played since his nine-snap preseason debut in 2018 — is a noteworthy development. It might be an indication that the Patriots do not see him as their franchise left tackle heading into a contract year; it might allow them to team up rookie Cole Strange with the more experienced Trent Brown on the left side; it might be a galaxy-brain move to artificially lower Wynn’s value ahead of next year’s free agency; it might just be as simple as building depth (something Bill Belichick said).
All of that is speculation at this point in time, at least when looking at it from outside the walls at One Patriot Place. But before you know it, it all might might turn into a reality we and the New England offense as a whole might have to get used to.
Two rookies are poised for prominent roles: The Patriots’ draft class was relatively quiet during OTAs and minicamp, despite eight of its 10 members present. However, only two of them appear to be poised to play prominent roles this year. Let’s run down the list.
G Cole Strange (1-29): As noted above, Strange projects as the Patriots’ starting left guard this year. The biggest question is who will line up next to his outside shoulder, and how quickly they can develop their chemistry.
WR Tyquan Thornton (2-50): Thornton’s straight-line speed is elite, but him seeing the field regularly as a rookie might come down to special teams. The Patriots used him as a gunner in practice.
CB Marcus Jones (3-85): Jones underwent surgery on both his shoulders since the end of his college career. He was present but wearing a red non-contact jersey; we will have to wait until training camp to see what he can do.
CB Jack Jones (4-121): One of the top minicamp performers, Jones saw action on the outside of the formation despite his smaller stature. He looked good, and might even be able to compete for a starting gig in training camp.
RB Pierre Strong Jr. (4-127): Assessing running backs without contact is near-impossible; training camp will tell the full story of Strong’s projection for 2022. That said, New England did use him as a kickoff returner last week.
QB Bailey Zappe (4-137): With Mac Jones going nowhere, Zappe will be a backup in 2022 and beyond. The question is whether or not he will be able to challenge Brian Hoyer’s standing as the current QB2 as early as this season. He did have some good throws, for what it’s worth.
RB Kevin Harris (6-183): You can copy-paste the Pierre Strong paragraph, with one change: Jones was not used as a return man, and at one point got chewed out by special teams coordinator Cam Achord for a blocking breakdown on a kickoff return.
DT Sam Roberts (6-200): Roberts looked big and that is as much as can be said about him without the team wearing pads.
OL Chasen Hines (6-210): Hines did not practice and is apparently still recovering from the lower leg injury that cost him time in 2021.
OL Andrew Stueber (7-245): Stueber did not practice either, even though his injury history gives no indication why that might be the case.
The cornerback competition will be fun to watch: The Patriots were mixing and matching their cornerbacks throughout offseason workouts, with no clear frontrunners emerging at either position. Accordingly, the team will have an open competition for the two outside starting spots, the slot job and any nickel or dime roles.
On the outside, Jalen Mills will likely fill one starting spot, with Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, Jack Jones and Joejuan Williams competing for the other. Inside, Jonathan Jones is the favorite but his contract situation might open the door for third-round rookie Marcus Jones or Myles Bryant to take over.
Either way, the competition will be a fun one after years of relative stability at the position.