Have the Patriots done enough to improve?
You know the feeling when you go back to school in the fall and it felt like you never left for the summer? Those were the vibes outside of Gillette Stadium this afternoon as the Patriots took the field for OTAs for the first time this spring with media in attendance.
Wednesday felt like the first time that this team could truly move on from last season’s disaster. Here are some key observations and takeaways from the session:
- Bill O’Brien’s presence was immediately felt across the entire offensive system on day one. The offense is already running much smoother than a year ago. Players were in the right spots, there were limited hiccups, and there was a clear understanding of what was going on during each play. Mac Jones looked very comfortable. A breath of fresh air.
- Tyquan Thornton? Still fast. The second-year pro looks primed for a leap as he was heavily involved on Wednesday.
- JuJu Smith-Schuster and Rhamondre Stevenson were not present for the voluntary session. Stevenson was later spotted working out on the lower fields, which is usually reserved for injured players. Smith-Schuster was nowhere to be found.
- When the Patriots signed Malik Cunningham after the NFL Draft ended in April, many thought there was a chance he’d turn into a gadget guy, not a quarterback. We saw the first glimpse of that on Wednesday afternoon when the former Louisville QB worked with the wide receivers, two gloves and all.
- Tight end Mike Gesicki is smooth. He’s a wide receiver in a tight end’s body who should become a threat in the passing game immediately.
- First-round pick Christian Gonzalez was absent from Wednesday’s OTA session. He was the only rookie not spotted. Gonzalez is one of three Patriots rookies who have yet to sign their contract. You have to wonder if that’s why he wasn’t out there.
- Speaking of unsigned rookies, Patriots third-round pick Marte Mapu took the field and was heavily involved with the defense on Wednesday, despite donning a red non-contact practice jersey. He’s fast, fluid, and instinctual.
- New England’s defensive backs are ballhawks. Jalen Mills, Joshua Bledsoe, and Myles Bryant all got their hands on passes from Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe, and Trace McSorely. The Patriots’ amoeba style in the secondary may work out just fine.
- Joe Judge is the de facto special teams coach. While he was all over the field running several different drills, he primarily worked with the specialists.
- Rookie punter Bryce Baringer has a boot. If he can control his accuracy, he’ll be a heck of an asset to New England’s unit.
Who Said What?
Prior to practice, we spoke with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who (shockingly) failed to give any insight as to why the team was stripped of two OTA practices last week:
“That's in the past. We've moved on,” said Belichick on repeat prior to the session. “Looking forward to getting out on the field today.”
When asked about Joe Judge, who was reportedly the center of the violation, and his role for 2023, Belichick said that, “He’ll do whatever I ask him to do… he’ll be involved in a lot of things.”
Belichick was also asked about Mac Jones, who he (somewhat) backed as his starting quarterback during the NFL owners meetings: "I think Mac works hard everyday. Puts in a lot of work in the weight room, in the classroom. His work ethic is really good."
Speaking of Jones, he spoke after Wednesday’s practice and was immediately prodded about the addition of Bill O’Brien, with whom he briefly overlapped at Alabama:
“It’s been really good,” said Jones. “It’s been normal. The communication and trust is the most important part.”
Jones also spoke about the addition of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was absent from Wednesday’s session:
“JuJu’s done a great job… What a great value to our offense.” He added that Smith-Schuster is “a football nerd. Kinda like me.”
Jones then got rather philosophical with us before departing the mic:
“I’m gonna run my own race and look up at the end and see where I’m at.”
Overall, it was an encouraging session for the Patriots. There’s nowhere to go but up after 2022, and New England certainly did that on Wednesday.
The team will hit the field again in front of the media next Tuesday, June 6. We’ll have you covered here at WEEI.com for all of it.