After a 2021 spring practice period loaded with intrigue at the quarterback position and storylines about new free-agent acquisitions, the Patriots’ first OTA practice of 2022 had a different feel to it.
New England is fully Mac Jones’ team now, and the squad largely seemed to focus on re-signing key players and making minor roster tweaks after returning to the playoffs last season.
Of course, this season carries a whole new air of drama: how will the Patriots maximize Jones during his second season, especially from a coaching standpoint? And does a defensive unit that got totaled at the end of last season have the horses to run with the dynamic offenses it will face in its division?
Only so much can be gleaned from a football practice that doesn’t involve any pads or live contact. But Monday’s first look at the 2022 Patriots offered a few glimpses into players and situations that could be big storylines in the months to come.
Offensive obfuscation – or subtle revelation?
Bill Belichick wouldn’t reveal anything new about the Patriots’ play-calling situation when asked before practice on Monday, blending in an especially vampire-level energy of word salad while noting the team is “months away” from game-planning for an opponent.
When the offense took the field, Joe Judge assumed Josh McDaniels’ old position working with the quarterbacks during drills. The former Mississippi State quarterback especially spent a lot of time coaching up rookie Bailey Zappe (more on him later). He also took a primary role calling plays during 7-on-7s.
But when team drills began, both Belichick and Matt Patricia, who worked with the offensive line throughout practice, made their voices heard on offense. Mac Jones notably spoke with all three coaches at points during full-team segments, with Patricia getting especially involved on running plays.
Could this be a sign that the Patriots plan to go with the “passing game/running game coordinator” model as many college teams and several NFL teams utilize? Might Belichick actually call plays for the offense?
Maybe. Then again, looks can be deceiving, especially when you’re talking about the first official “Phase 3” practice of the spring. So assuming anything about what the Patriots plan to do based on one hour-and-a-half-long session would be premature.
File this under the “bears watching” category.
Jack Jones might play sooner than you think.
No one will be surprised to hear that first-round pick Cole Strange was heavily involved on offense during team segments in Monday’s practice. You’d certainly hope he would be, after all.
Also, most of the other 2022 rookies didn’t see a lot of burn as they earn their way onto the field. Tyquan Thornton, for example, participated in position drills but was limited the rest of the way. Was he in need of some extra conditioning work or nursing a minor injury? Or did the Patriots just want to keep their plans for the speedy receiver a secret just a little while longer? (He played catch with Bailey Zappe after practice, so his hands look just fine.)
The biggest surprise of the day, though, was how much fourth-round cornerback Jack Jones played.
Jones got a good deal of action with the defensive backs in 7-on-7s and team segments. Though the ball didn’t notably come his way, he looked smooth and confident in coverage every snap he was on the field.
On top of that, he got plenty of special teams work at the end of practice, with Belichick even giving him some personal coaching at one point.
Both his usage on defense and the fact that he’s already putting in work to latch on as a special teamer suggests Jones – a former five-star recruit at cornerback and an All-Pac 12 performer in college – could play a more meaningful role than expected going forward.
Bailey Zappe already looks like he belongs.
Before we start, no: there is no quarterback controversy in New England. This is Mac Jones’ team barring an injury. Simple as that.
But it was hard not to come away impressed with how Zappe, one of three Patriots fourth-round picks this spring, looked in his first practice in front of media.
While it might not say much with no pads on (or given who the Patriots’ other quarterbacks are), Zappe appears to have the liveliest arm in the room. He showed it off on one fastball down the middle of the field to tight end Matt Sokol, in particular.
He also threw the ball with the kind of anticipation, confidence, and accuracy not always typical of a rookie, slipping in some tricky throws to covered receivers in drills.
While it was just one practice, it’s easy to see why New England liked him as a reliable backup option for Jones.
Wynn’s absence stands out.
Keep in mind: OTAs are voluntary team activities, and players have various reasons for missing them at times. For instance, tight end Jonnu Smith, who was present Monday, skipped OTAs last year out of concern for his newborn daughter during the COVID pandemic.
Four big names were absent from Patriots OTAs on Monday: Isaiah Wynn, Matthew Judon, Adrian Phillips, and N’Keal Harry, who might be as good as gone from this team.
Wynn’s lack of attendance felt especially notable.
For one thing, missing the starting left tackle understandably caused ripples along the offensive line, with Trent Brown sliding over to the left side (interesting…) and Justin Herron filling in on the right.
Wynn is set to play the 2022 season under the fifth-year option before hitting free agency in the offseason.
Mac and Company on the move?
Again, this is Day 1 of installing plays at Patriots OTAs. Whatever they worked on Monday could, in theory, get shoved to the back of the playbook by this time next week.
But this early iteration of the offense seemed different from what we saw in 2021.
Instead of simply hammering the typical downhill run plays, New England got its offensive linemen out into space a lot on Monday with runs to the outside. One could see how such a system might favor athletic freaks like Strange, who looked in his element.
Mac Jones and the quarterbacks also seemed to be using their legs more than usual as well, with Jones looking more comfortable outside the pocket and throwing on the move than he did at this point last season.
Jones arguably should have left the pocket more in 2021, so it will be interesting to see how much he chooses to do so this season and if the Patriots try to get their playmakers out on the perimeter more in general.
Play of the day: Brian Hoyer hitting DeVante Parker on a deep post route after a busted coverage left the new Patriots receiver wide open down the middle of the field.