The Patriots will transition into the next phase of the voluntary offseason program next week as New England will take to the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium for organized team activities (OTA) action.
While it’s still non-padded, non-contact work, it’s the next biggest step in the building process toward mini-camp, training camp and eventually the 2023 season. The bulk of the roster should be on the field and there should be plenty to digest.
Though it’s a teaching period, in reality the lowest level evaluations will begin. And the media will, for the first time, begin to see the competition playing out at many positions across a roster with significant question marks in terms of roles and expectations.
It may be “just” OTAs starting next week, but for now it’s all we’ve got to analyze and obsess over following free agency, the NFL Draft and most recently a few team-released photos and videos that got Patriot Nation hot-and-happy to see what first-round pick Christian Gonzalez brings to the field.
So, with OTA action and overreaction on the horizon, here’s a rundown of the five most intriguing players who’ll (fingers crossed!) take to the practice fields of Foxborough next week!
1 – Mac Jones: Pretty, pretty big year for Jones. Some might even call it make-or-break. Last May at this time he was trying to learn Matt Patricia’s offense. It didn’t go well then. Or at any point. Thankfully, he now has an offensive adult in the meeting room in respected coordinator and QB coach Bill O’Brien. The credibility and respect for both coach and scheme should be automatic. Jones is the most important player in the New England organization. How No. 10 goes in many ways could decide how New England goes. And how the twilight of Bill Belichick’s career plays out. All eyes will be on Jones from May through January.
2 – Christian Gonzalez: If fans and media were excited about what they saw in a short Patriots.com clip of rookie camp, imagine what they’ll feel when they see the first-round pick on the field “competing” with veterans. OTAs used to be called passing camps, because that’s where the bulk of the non-padded work will take place. It will indeed be interesting to see Gonzalez running around with veteran receivers and exactly how his elite physical tools measure up. The spotlight is on the potential No. 1 cornerback and it’s not event Memorial Day.
3 – JuJu Smith-Schuster: New England added a potential No. 1 receiver in the free agent addition of Smith-Schuster. He essentially swaps in for the departure of trusted, respected veteran Jakobi Meyers. Smith-Schuster has upside as a former 1,400-yard playmaker in Pittsburgh, but has been at his best when he’s not had to be the No. 1 guy. It will be interesting to watch the early stages of Smith-Schuster settling into whatever his role is going to be in New England.
4 – Mike Gesicki: Jonnu Smith is no longer around to fail to live up to contract expectations. Now, it will be the veteran former Dolphin Gesicki who’ll be trying to add another element to the Patriots new-look passing attack. Gesicki fell out of favor in Miami. He has unique skills as a movable piece in the passing game. Obviously O’Brien has had success in the past in New England with multiple tight ends. This group doesn’t measure up to that past depth chart led by Rob Gronkowski. But Gesicki does possess the ability to at least bring more to the table alongside Hunter Henry at the spot.
5 – Tyquan Thornton/Jack Jones: The Year 2 Jump will be a major talking point for New England’s young wide receiver and cornerback. After a solid training camp Thornton had a lot working against him as a speedy second-round rookie, namely an injury that cost him the first part of the season and the fact that he was thrown into a dysfunctional passing attack that befuddled even veterans. Jones showed flashes of talent – and requisite confidence -- on the outside in the back end, but also had that weird suspension to end his rookie campaign. If each takes major strides – jumps that aren’t out of the question based on the various flashes they showed a year ago – it would be a nice boon for the pass offense and defense, respectively. May is where Year 2 Jumps begin!