Finally football is back in New England!
Well, sort of. The Patriots kick off their first organized team activities (OTA) session today at Gillette Stadium, a ramping up of work in the third phase of the offseason program.
Sure, it’s just voluntary non-contact action in shorts and helmets. But it’s still the first time the media will get to see the foundation of what will be the 2022 Patriots.
With that in mind, here are a few of the “first impressions” to keep an eye on as Bill Belichick’s new-look team begins the long process through OTAs, June mandatory mini-camp, training camp and the preseason that will eventually result in regular season action.
1 – Mac Jones’ mental and physical growth: Jones had an impressive Pro Bowl rookie season as the No. 15 overall pick a year ago, leading his team to the postseason. But even in the immediacy of the loss to the Bills in Buffalo the young quarterback was talking about his need to grow as New England’s leader. What does that look and sound like on the OTA practice field? There’s also been plenty of speculation that Jones needs to improve his arm strength moving forward, something he may have worked on this offseason as he’s settled into a professional routine. Will there be a noticeable improvement in that area? As a franchise QB, Jones faces a lot of questions. His Year 2 leadership and arm strength are just two of them.
2—Offensive coaching staff: The biggest storyline in New England this offseason was the departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (along with a couple other offensive assistants) and the idea that he’s being replaced by some curious combination of Joe Judge and Matt Patricia.
Judge, the former special teams coach and Giants head coach, acknowledged that he’s working with the quarterbacks. Patricia, the former defensive coordinator and Lions head coach, said he’s working with the offensive line. But who is overseeing the offense? Who’s calling plays in various drills? Who seems to be the loudest or most influential voice on the offensive staff? Is tight ends coach Nick Caley in the mix for a bigger role? All eyes will be on the offensive coaches.
3 – Cornerback competition: J.C. Jackson is gone, leaving a huge hole at the top of the cornerback depth chart. Jalen Mills is the highest ranking healthy returning player. Jonathan Jones is coming off an injury. Malcolm Butler is back from retirement. Marcus Jones and Jack Jones are two draft picks that could be in running for early playing time. There are a lot of questions and concerns at cornerback. Those questions won’t be answered on the first day of OTAs, but the early action could give a hint to how the cornerback position might play out.
4 – Tyquan Thornton’s speed: The second-round rookie wide receiver had the fastest 40 time at the Combine. He’s a 4.2 burner. That’s not just fast, that’s truly elite NFL speed. And speed is the one thing you can see pretty quickly in OTA action in shorts and T-shirts. Thornton’s future won’t just be based on his speed, but it will be fun to get a first impression of just how fast the Baylor product looks compared to his new teammates. Heck every player on the field should have a spring in their springtime steps!
5 – Young linebacker reps: Like cornerback, the linebacker position is undergoing significant change. Kyle Van Noy was cut. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are unsigned free agents. There is a lot of expectation being placed on young players such as Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Ronnie Perkins, and Cameron McGrone, all of whom have also dealt with injuries over the last year-plus. Which players are in which roles and what kinds of reps they are getting might give a bit of insight to the optimism the coaches have for these unproven talents expected to contribute at the second level of the defense.
6 – What’s Bill Belichick doing?: Returning defensive play caller Steve Belichick said last week that Bill Belichick still “wears all the hats” in the Patriots organization. Well, what does that look like on the practice field for the now 70-year-old head coach? Given McDaniels departure and the questions about the offensive staff, will Belichick be spending more time on that side of the ball? Will he wander the fields from position to position on both sides of the ball, as he’s done in the past? Will he be the one in full control of the entire practice or will he defer to his assistants? Belichick obviously oversees everything and has the final say in all areas, but in terms of minute-to-minute work on the field he can only be in one place, doing one thing at one time.
7 – Lining up the line: Having lost Ted Karras to free agency and traded Shaq Mason to the Bucs, there are two starting jobs up for grabs this fall on the offensive line. New England used a first-round pick on Cole Strange to likely try to fill one of those jobs. Mike Onwenu is projected to fill the other in his third season. Some also wonder if Isaiah Wynn has a true hold on the left tackle spot, or if he still could be an option to bump in to guard. Oh, and after a 17-year stint as a defensive/head coach, Patricia is back to what he called his coaching “roots” putting all the action together for the offensive line. Even without pads or contact, there will be plenty to watch for in the New England offensive line group.