After taking in a day of spring practice with the Patriots this week, the buzz around New England’s facility was around Bill Belichick’s re-worked offensive coaching staff.
Are the Pats really entering Mac Jones’s second season with Joe Judge and Matt Patricia as their offensive brain trust? If so, how is that going? Will Belichick himself be more involved?
The quote from starting quarterback Mac Jones that got the most run was Jones saying that, “I’m going to learn with him [Joe Judge], that’s the goal, is to kind of teach each other.”
It reads like the Patriots are putting their second-year quarterback in a tough spot. After a year with one of the most experienced and respected offensive minds in football, Jones will have to teach his new position coach on the job and lead New England’s offense on the field.
For any young quarterback, that’s a lot on Jones’s plate, even if the greatest head coach ever is overseeing the operation and in Mac’s ear.
Based on Monday’s process, all three former or current head coaches had their hand in the play-calling responsibilities. Belichick relayed plays at times during team drills, while Judge worked closely with Jones, and Patricia “controlled the sidelines’ to sub personnel groupings.
Although the offensive coaching staff is the main story, the Patriots’ defense is flying under the radar after surrendering 47 points in a playoff loss and experiencing significant roster turnover this offseason. If there’s an area where roster talent is a concern, it’s on that side of the ball.
Along with potentially less time spent with the defense for Belichick, New England is overhauling its cornerbacks and linebackers after key departures in J.C. Jackson, and Dont’a Hightower, among others.
They are counting on contributions from younger, faster linebackers such as Raekwon McMillan, Mack Wilson, and Cameron McGrone. With more speed and less size at the second level, the Pats might also move away from a two-gapping odd front to more even fronts this season (4-3).
The Patriots typically play an over front when they put four defensive linemen on the field, which presents a role as a penetrating three-technique for second-year stud Christian Barmore and as a designated pass-rusher for Pro Bowler Matthew Judon (in a stand-up role). In theory, that would let those two make plays behind the line of scrimmage and keep the second level clean to fly around.
In the secondary, it’s hard to glean how the Patriots will approach things schematically based on one OTA session. But the competition at outside corner is as wide open as you’ll see on an NFL roster. We saw Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, and rookie Jack Jones take reps on the outside while Jon Jones, Myles Bryant, and Shaun Wade rotated in the slot.
New England has plenty of darts to throw at the cornerback spots. But there’s real skepticism about whether they have the talent to match up with potentially elite passing attacks such as Buffalo and Miami in the division, especially in man coverage.
The optimist in you likes that fourth-round pick Jack Jones is already rotating in during the spring, which tells us that the Pats rookie could make a year-one impact.
Plus, internally, the Patriots are raving about second-year linebacker Cameron McGrone and veteran Raekwon McMillan, who is back after tearing his ACL in training camp last summer.
Adding up-and-comers Josh Uche and Ronnie Perkins as edge rushers, the Pats’ front seven has the potential to come together nicely. And the secondary could be better than expected if one of the rookie corners makes an immediate impact this season.
Still, unlike on offense, there are several unanswered questions on defense about who will play where and how they’ll play schematically. On paper, the Pats offense has plenty of talent, and we can sit here in May with a good idea of how the roles and playing time will be divvied up.
The bigger question roster-wise facing the Patriots as things liven up in the spring is how New England’s defense will come together with several unknowns at all three levels?
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag with minicamp approaching for the Patriots:
What's more important to you, the play calling or the qb coach so in this case joe judge?
— Fuad (@Fuadnehemen) May 25, 2022
I’m not worried about quarterback coach Joe Judge hindering Mac Jones’s long-term development. Why? The most important quarterback coach Jones has is Bill Belichick. In Man in the Arena, Tom Brady talked about how valuable Belichick’s coaching was to him early on, from breaking down opposing defenses to the Tuesday game-plan meetings with Belichick. Position coaches are there to hammer home game plans and drill basic fundamentals that Jones has worked on his entire life. I’m not concerned about Judge saying or doing something that completely ruins Mac. My bigger concerns are scheme innovation, in-game play-calling, and adjustments. Josh McDaniels’s biggest strength as an OC was seeing how defenses played him and knowing how to adjust. The Pats have enough brainpower to come out with a decent opening script, but what happens when that script doesn’t work, and they need to adjust on the fly? From this perspective, that’s where they’ll miss McDaniels the most.
Mac Jones is working with Tom House, do you know if he has had any involvement with TB12? I assume there is still a clinic at Foxbro
— Qualitysmoke (@qualitysmoke) May 25, 2022
My understanding is that Jones’s offseason workouts with Tom House were more to supplement the work he usually does rather than completely adopting a new regime. Mac has worked with quarterback guru Joe Dickinson, aka “Coach D,” since he was in youth football. Dickinson is a former college offensive coordinator (Oklahoma) and works with quarterbacks similarly to House. Along with Coach D, Jones noted that the Patriots’ nutrition and strength and conditioning staff have helped him trim body fat this offseason. So, no, not the full TB12 method for Jones. But the goals he has in mind are similar to what Brady did in his early years.
What compensation do you think they could receive for Wynn in a trade?
— ⚛️KennyMacAttack ⚛️ (@KennyMacAttack) May 25, 2022
I threw out the possibility of a Wynn trade earlier this week with one big caveat: he has a legitimate excuse to miss OTAs. These workouts are voluntary, and if Wynn is staying away for a good reason, then we are being unfair by predicting trades. If it’s not for a good reason, then this is more of the same from Wynn, who has reported to training camp out of shape before. Eventually, the lacking work ethic just doesn’t fit in here. The snag in a Wynn trade is the $10.4 million he’s due on his fifth-year option this season. Why would another team take on that salary if he’s out of shape, inconsistent, and has an injury history? It’s hard to envision the Patriots getting a huge return, which could push them to keep Wynn and hope he has a good season. If he does, he gets paid next offseason, and then you recoup the compensatory draft pick. The comp pick if Wynn balls out would be better than the current trade return. That’s a big if, though.
Judon has been active online trying to recruit FA’s. Why then is he not attending OTA’s?
— Roger scott (@Rogersc46043937) May 25, 2022
I have no issues whatsoever with Judon sitting out OTAs. Same goes for vets Lawrence Guy and Adrian Phillips. See you at minicamp, fellas.
Your first impressions of Thornton. . . .
— Len Berkowitz (@lenberkowitz) May 25, 2022
We didn’t see Thornton do much in Monday’s practice, which I’m told wasn’t injury-related. He’s tall, thin, and you see the speed in his footwork going through position drills. You worry about his slight frame finishing throwing NFL contact. Not so much press coverage at the line, but holding off defenders to finish at the catch point. It’s very, very early. But it could take Thornton a year to develop in an NFL strength program before he’s impacting the game as more than just a field-stretcher. On the other hand, his speed could also be so overwhelming that his size doesn’t matter. We’ll see.
Thoughts on where uche lined up during ota’s?
— LEM (@LEM0484) May 25, 2022
After defensive play-caller Steve Belichick called Uche an important puzzle piece to the Patriots defense this season, the hope here was we’d finally see Uche unleashed in a full-time role. The 2020 second-rounder is one of New England’s most athletic and explosive defensive playmakers. However, he doesn’t have the power at the point of attack to serve as an early-down edge setter. It was refreshing to see the coaches move Uche around in Monday’s practice, with him taking reps both on and off the line. I’m anticipating a Hightower-like role for Uche where he plays inside linebacker in early-down run situations and then moves on the line to rush the passer on third down. Uche needs to develop his instincts, path to the football, and play recognition from off the line to stick in that role. But it’s the best way to keep him on the field.
Let’s be blunt…what’s going with N’Keal Harry? No show at off-season says it all. Is this just contract driven as to why we haven’t cut him yet? Someone in his corner needs to tell him that not only is his Pats job in jeopardy but so is his NFL career…nobody wants that.
— Jeff Scanlon (@jscancoach) May 25, 2022
The obsession over N’Keal Harry’s situation is getting a little out of hand. Who cares about N’Keal Harry? He’s a bust of a first-round pick who will likely play elsewhere next season. Harry is still on the roster because his trade market is minimal, and there’s no rush to cut him. Releasing Harry saves very little cap space, so at that point, you’re doing it just for the sake of cutting ties. In trade, maybe they’re looking at a conditional seventh-round pick that becomes a higher day-three selection based on Harry’s performance. Let’s move on from Harry. His situation isn’t important.
What are the current expectations for Shaun Wade this season in the organization
— PJ Gear (@gear_pj) May 25, 2022
We still need to see more from Wade in a live football setting before drawing any conclusions. It was interesting to see him work in the slot during Monday’s practice. He was at his best as a nickel corner for Ohio State, struggling when the Buckeyes moved him outside, albeit on a bad foot. He has good size and man coverage skills to play against bigger slot receivers or potentially receiving tight ends. Although the Pats could use him at outside corner, Wade looks the best as a slot.
Evan, what is your way-too-early running back depth chart prediction? Between white, Stephenson, strong, Harris, Not to mention JJ Taylor and the other Harris, the running back room seems a bit full
— John Blutarsky’s Whiskey Bottle (@Took_The_Bar) May 25, 2022
This was the most popular question this week, which tells me some of you play a lot of fantasy football. My guess is we’ll see a pretty even split in terms of rush attempts for Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson. Both to keep them healthy and potentially keep Harris’s production down in a contract year. The Pats will give James White his job back if he’s healthy. If not, don’t sleep on Ty Montgomery filling that role until Pierre Strong is ready.
You've spoken about the possibility of the NE offense moving more towards Shanahan-esque wide zone. How does that work with Trent Brown on the OL?
— Freedom Dot CA (@freedomdotca) May 25, 2022
If the plan is to shift to more zone blocking, it’s fair to wonder about Brown and Onwenu’s fit in that scheme. Typically, you want excellent athletes like Cole Strange for that system. Still, you can see techniques for Brown and Onwenu in the scheme. For Brown, play-side kick out blocks to create cutback lanes, while Onwenu can work inside combination blocks to pin down the defensive line. Those two are power blockers built for gap schemes, but there’s enough technique carryover to make it work.