As quickly as they arrived, OTAs and Mandatory Minicamp for the Patriots wrapped up yesterday, as the final slated practice got canceled on Wednesday for a little paintball trip that happened instead.
With how the league limits media access for these pre-camp activities, we haven't gotten a broad look at how any team in the league is shaping up to this point. Even so, there's a ton to take away from what we have gotten to see and hear, and with that said, these are the most important things I'm taking away as all eyes move to the start of training camp in a little over a month.
No. 1: Two Rookies Should be Immidiete Contributors on Defense
I think it's fair to say that the Patriots' defense a season ago was excellent, but even without Devin McCourty patrolling centerfield, I think they have a shot to be even better in 2023. The two big reasons for that are none other than rookies Christian Gonzalez and Marte Mapu, who have quickly asserted themselves on the defensive side of the ball this spring/summer. For my money, Mapu has been the biggest story on this team over the last two weeks. Every day it's felt like he's gotten rave reviews from all corners, wheater it is reporters, his teammates, or even his new head coach Bill Belichick.
Seeing as he's your prototypical safety-linebacker type, the Patriots have put Mapu in all sorts of spots in pre-camp activities. One day he was taking reps as a strict middle linebacker, and on another, he was getting looks at free safety, and having watched a good bit of his games at Sac State, I know for a fact he can play in a few more spots if Belichick feels like he has to do so. A couple of things Greg Bedard pointed out over the last several days that should have Patriots fans excited is, firstly, the Patriots have paired up Mapu with Kyle Dugger a ton in drills. Secondly, and Bedard's been around for a hot minute so I'd take his word as good here, he said he reminds him a ton of Dont'a Hightower. And for the record, No. 54 is available, I'm just throwing that out there.
Now to Gonzalez, who has quickly asserted himself as the Patriots' top outside cornerback, which should come as zero surprise given where he was drafted. Not getting the rave reviews that Mapu has been getting, but the Oregon product has made an excellent first impression on his teammates. Jalen Mills applauded Gonzalez for "taking what coaches are saying in the meetings, and then taking it out onto the field" while Dugger and Jabrill Peppers both lauded his athleticism. Maturity was another thing Peppers mentioned, and that's notable because Gonzalez is only a handful of days away from turning 21, so that's great to hear from an NFL veteran.
No. 2: This Patriots' Defense has HORRIFYING Upside
Expanding on the defense conversation now, I think the Patriots' secondary is one of, if not the best in the entire league in 2023. Such teams like the Jets and Dolphins, just to name a couple, could argue for that claim, but there's just a ton of high-quality talent at both cornerback and safety here at this point. Additionally, with how much big nickel Belichick ran, and most likely will again, the Patriots should find no problem getting the bulk of their best guys out there at once. Outside of the obvious names like Dugger, the three Jones, Gonzalez, and Phillips, another guy to keep an eye out for is Peppers. Belichick gave a very insightful answer on Tuesday when he was asked about where he is at in year two as opposed to year one at this time.
Another big reason to be excited about this defense is that they're coming off a season where they ranked second in the NFL in total takeaways (third-most interceptions and T-fourth most fumble recoveries), third in sacks (first in quarterback hurries), and despite getting gashed on the ground by the Packers and Bears, ended up much better as a run defense than they have been over the last several years. Their interior depth was also tested a bit in the middle of the year, but the front four/seven group the Patriots have this year is largely unchanged, save for the subtraction of Raekwon McMillan via an Achilles injury. With the injection of youth this year, the expectation is they should be around these benchmarks across the board once again.
Not a lock, but there's a scenario where this could end up being the league's No. 1 defense if everything goes to plan. Say there's a lack of star power if you must, but they have multiple legit impact players at every level of this group, and not every team in the NFL can say that.
No. 3: The Tackle and Reciever Depth Coming into Question this Early is Worriesome
A worrying trend over the last two weeks was that multiple receivers missed days at a time for OTAs and Minicamp. While additionally, Trent Brown skipped OTAs only to end up missing the opening day of Minicamp. Granted that was due to a hail storm in Texas, but preferably he would have already been situated in Massachusetts in advance. More than that, Brown, although present in Foxborough, was a non-participant in team activities on Tuesday, which has put Calvin Anderson in as the stand-in left tackle. I wouldn't exactly call this an elite tackle group as is, specifically on the right side with 34-year-old Rilley Rieff most likely as the starting right tackle. So in short, the Patriots need Brown out there even for the offseason program.
The only two consistently healthy and active receivers for the Patriots in the offseason program have been DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne. Tyquan Thornton has been doing well when he has been out there, but we have yet to see Juju Smith-Schuster practice to this point which is a bit concerning. Mike Giardi had made mention of the fact that the Chiefs had to heavily manage his health during the back half of last season en route to their Super Bowl win. So the fact this is still apparently an issue is definitely concerning. This is the kind of stuff that makes the DeAndre Hopkins visit all the more important, but with that said, Smith-Schuster has at least been in the building and it appears he and Jones are on great terms so far.
No. 4: The Boston TE Party is Back (Hopefully)
While there are some concerns at wide receiver for the time being, there are no such problems with tight end for the Patriots this year. Now finally with an offensive coordinator who we know can scheme things up well for the big boys in 12 personnel (see the 2011 Patriots offense), it doesn't shock me to hear that Mike Gesicki and Hunter Henry have been go-to guys for McCorkle in these practices, even with the depth issues out wide. Between Monday and Tuesday, the pair were targeted 23 times and hauled in 19 passes from Jones. Hearing this about Gesicki specifically is great. A popular take is that he will be a big factor for this offense and it's easy to see why. Both he and Henry should be in line for good years after seeing their roles reduced last year.
No. 5: Replacing Devin McCourty Will Be a Group Effort
The idea of replacing DMac is ultimately a two-fold issue. On the field is one thing, but McCourty was one of the Patriots longest tenured captains in team history, and now the defensive backs room is without a vocal leader for the time being. I feel the most sensible and logical candidate is Kyle Dugger, given that he should (hopefully) be a long-term fixture on the backend and has some tenure racked up with the team. Right before the season began a year ago, he was asked if he feels like he has become a leader on the Patriots' defense and said this.
Now, how the Patriots will attack the free safety spot sans McCourty I believe will ultimately come down to a committee approach, at least to kick off the 2023 season. Jonathan Jones was a very interesting name to hear who had been taking snaps back deep in 7v7 drills this week, but the Patriots have also put just about every other tenured safety back deep as well at one point or another. One of them, Jabrill Peppers, mentioned the idea that the lack of McCourty on the field could be a big benefit for the Patriots this year, simply because of the unpredictability of what they can throw at opposing offenses.
No. 6: How Bill Belichick Handles the Lawrence Guy Contract Dispute Will Be Fascinating
It's been a little while since the last Patriots contract holdout, and Lawrence Guy, given his age, tenure, and role, is in an interesting situation. According to Mike Reiss and his sources, the veteran interior defender recently switched agents and is just years removed from a "challenging negotiation" on his four-year deal. As far as the Patriots IDLs go, the only one who was on the field more than Guy was Davon Godchaux, who was given an extension just shy of a year and a half after he signed his initial deal with the team.
The core issue with this holdout is that there are zero dollars of guaranteed money left on Guy's deal which run until the end of the 2024 season. Understandable that he would want to rectify that in what would almost certainly be the final deal of his career. Of course, Belichick has remained mum on the subject when asked this week, but how will he confront this situation? I can't imagine that teams would be flocking to their trade phones to acquire and then redo the deal of a 33-year-old early down IDL, but the Patriots could hypothetically release him at any time and get out of his contract with next to no cap penalty. History would tell you that both of those options are likely on the table, but Guy can still give the Patriots value on early downs and as a veteran voice in the locker room. My gut says Belichick reverses course on past precedent and sweetens up the pot for Guy.
No. 7: This is Mac Jones' Team
In the week's worth of practices that we have gotten to see, it's easy to see who the clear-cut starting quarterback for the Patriots is, and his name is Michael McCorkle Jones. He was very sharp across 7v7s and 11v11s on Monday and Tuesday (52-64, 4 INTS, two of which were "maybe even somewhat intentional?") according to the Athletic's Jeff Howe. Beyond that, the vibe that Jones is rejuvenated via having a competent offensive play caller for the first time in his NFL career appears to be for real.
One of the first things we got to hear out of Jones this season as well is that he's going to try and rebuild his reputation internally after last season.
"Everyone is entitled to opinion, but all I’m going to do is run my race and hopefully everyone will run right behind me...and do everything I can to earn respect form everyone in this building again. From there, go out and win some games."
Based on the comments of some of his compatriots (pun VERY much intended), he seems to be doing a good job so far.
“Mac is awesome. That’s my guy. He’s been incredible as a leader. He’s been great out there physically throwing the ball with timing, and throwing a very catchable ball, all that kind of stuff. He likes to have fun. It’s been a cool offseason for us trying to gel and get on the same page.” - Mike Gesicki
"[Jones] always...put in the work, and led by example. So I think the voice and stuff like that are gonna continue to pick up for him. And his leadership has always kind of been there. He's always led by example, doing the right stuff off the field, and learning the playbook like crazy." - Kyle Dugger
"Mac works hard every day. He puts in a lot of time in the weight room, the classroom, on the field. His work ethic is really good and hasn’t changed.” - Bill Belichick
Calling this a massive year for the third-year signal caller would be quite an understatement. Coming off a year facing a ton of adversity from inside his own building, Jones has a chance to truly cement himself as 'the guy' for the Patriots for years to come and is starting things off on the right foot.
Main Image via: