The eighth Sunday of the NFL’s 2021 season has arrived, and there is a lot going on around the New England Patriots and the rest of the league. Let’s use this forum right here to go through some of the stories that have emerged over the last few days: time for our Sunday Patriots Notes.
1. Mac Jones’ career is off to an encouraging start. The Patriots and their fans can feel good about first-round rookie quarterback Mac Jones seven games into his NFL career. The 15th overall selection in this year’s draft may have only led the team to three victories so far, but he has repeatedly showcased the skills that have made him one of the top passers to enter the league this year — accuracy, touch and decision making, among others — and has shown some steady progress throughout.
Playing in an offense that is trying to put him in a favorable position, Jones has become the most productive of the five quarterbacks to enter the league via the first round this year. How does he stack up against other young passers through the years, though? The following graphic by Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, taking a look at each players’ first 400 snaps, offers some comparison:
Obviously, a quarterback’s first 400 plays — Jones has played 447 entering Week 8 — are not always a sign of things to come. Take Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen as an example: Allen had a rough start to his pro career but has since hit his stride to become one of the league’s best players at the position. Likewise, others such as Robert Griffin III, Drew Lock or Nick Mullens have developed in the different direction after some positive moments early on.
While it remains to be seen which path Jones will ultimately take, one thing cannot be denied: his career is off to an encouraging start when compared to some of the other players listed above.
2. New England’s offense is still trying to find its identity. Speaking of Mac Jones; the Patriots’ starting quarterback talked with reporters this week and at one point was asked about how he views the team’s offensive identity at this point of the season. His answer was pretty straight forward: it is not yet where it needs to be.
“I think the offensive identity has been established throughout the past 20 years here, and we’re trying to get there and trying to establish playing to the standard that we have,” he said.
“This year it’s our team, and we’re kind of figuring out our pieces, and we’re putting them together. But you can’t just do it for a few games or a game or a few plays. You have to do it every day, every week and on every Sunday, so we know that, and we’re not satisfied. We’re just trying to continue to work to find our identity and just work from there.”
3. Bill Belichick thinks Jamie Collins’ return is going well. The Patriots brought multiple old friends back into the fold this season, particularly at the linebacker position. Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Calvin Munson have all spent previous time with the organization before returning at one point over the last few months.
Van Noy has become an important member of New England’s front seven, while Munson has yet to make his debut after just getting poached off the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad. Jamie Collins, on the other hand, is a rather curious case: he has been on the field for only 36 defensive snaps and 21 on special teams through three games since his return.
Nonetheless, head coach Bill Belichick seems to think his third stint with the team is off to a good start.
“I think Jamie has transitioned very smoothly,” Belichick said earlier this week. “Most of us know him, but there are new relationships to be made, and that’s part of joining any new organization or team, but Jamie’s transitioned well. There are some changes in the defense from when he was here in ‘19, but he’s acclimated to those, and it’s going well.
“He works hard. He knows what to do. He’s great to be around. He’s helped us defensively on all downs, and he’s helped us in the kicking game. He’s really done everything we’ve asked him to do, and he’s doing it well, so I’m glad we have him, and I think he’ll continue to probably fill those roles a little bit here going forward. I’m sure he’ll try to make the most of all the opportunities he gets.”
4. Isaiah Wynn is one of the worst left tackles in the league this year. The Patriots’ offensive line is coming off arguably its best game of the season, looking good in both pass protection and run blocking against the New York Jets. While the unit is trending in the right direction, one of its starting members is still not where he needs to be in a year-long comparison to other players at his position.
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who did have a solid game against the Jets, is one of the worst left tackles in football at this point. A look at his win rates as a pass and run blocker illustrates this:
So, what gives? It is hard to say why Wynn’s win rates are as low as they are. One possible reason, though, is the departure of long-time left guard Joe Thuney.
One of the best players the NFL has to offer at the guard spot, Thuney never missed a game during his Patriots career — aligning next to Wynn for the vast majority of his snaps over the last two seasons. Thuney’s replacement at left guard, second-year man Michael Onwenu, has looked good, there is a chance that Wynn is not as comfortable yet as he was with Thuney (or as he is with veteran Ted Karras who took over at left guard in Week 7).
Regardless of the reason behind his struggles, Wynn needs to be better for the Patriots offense to find its groove. His performance against the Jets was a step in the right direction, but he needs to show that he can return to the level of play that made New England exercise the fifth-year option in his contract earlier this year.
5. The trip to Los Angeles is a homecoming for Myles Bryant. While tight end Hunter Henry and safety Adrian Phillips will both go up against their former team on Sunday, for Myles Bryant the Patriots’ game versus the Los Angeles Chargers is a true homecoming. Growing up in Pasadena, Bryant will play only a few miles south of his home town.
“Those are my roots,” the second-year cornerback told Patriots.com’s Erik Scalavino this week. “I grew up going to UCLA games, UCLA versus USC, a couple of Rose Bowl games, I attended the Texas-USC national championship. I sold programs at the Rose Bowl games ... I loved growing up there. I’m simply a product of Pasadena.”
Bryant joined the Patriots as an undrafted free agent last year and after a solid rookie season started his sophomore campaign on the team’s practice squad. With starting slot cornerback Jonathan Jones out for the rest of the season, however, the 23-year-old appears to be the frontrunner to take over.
It would be the next chapter in a pretty remarkable story so far.
“I had offers from Washington and UCLA,” Bryant said. “As time passed, the scholarship spots filled up at Washington. I had UCLA left, and they thought I was too small, so, they ended up pulling back. Then I reached out to Colorado because I wanted to go and visit, but they never got back to me. I ended up playing my senior season with no offers. Signing day came. Some smaller schools were interested, but I knew in my heart I wanted to go to Washington. I ended up walking on there.
“After a while, I got a scholarship and ended up playing. It was a very good experience. It was for sure a humbling experience and gave me a lot of perspective on things.”
Bryant will play his 13th NFL game on Sunday. It will already be his third in Los Angeles after road games at the Chargers and Rams last season.
6. Don’t be surprised if Damien Harris is the first Patriot to touch the ball today. When the Patriots offense takes the field on Sunday afternoon against the Chargers, there is a realistic chance that the first play called by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a Damien Harris run. After all, Harris has been the first Patriot to touch the ball in six out of seven games so far this season (via Boston Sports Info):
Week 1 vs Miami Dolphins: Damien Harris 35-yard rush
Week 2 at New York Jets: Damien Harris 4-yard rush
Week 3 vs New Orleans Saints: Damien Harris 7-yard rush
Week 4 vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mac Jones 7-yard pass to Hunter Henry
Week 5 at Houston Texans: Damien Harris 7-yard rush
Week 6 vs Dallas Cowboys: Damien Harris 21-yard rush
Week 7 vs New York Jets: Damien Harris 12-yard rush
While somewhat predictable, teams have not been able to stop Harris on his first handoffs so far this year: the third-year running back has gained an average of 14.3 yards per carry on those six plays.
7. Other teams are not as fond of the wide receiver double pass as the Patriots. Ever since 2014, New England has actively incorporated the double pass into its offense. Just last week, for example, Kendrick Bourne threw a touchdown to fellow wide receiver Nelson Agholor. It was the third completion thrown by a Patriots wideout this year — a number that clearly leads the league, via ESPN Stats Info.
The rest of the NFL, for comparison, combines for only two such completions. The Patriots’ wide receivers also have thrown a league-leading three passing touchdowns over the last two years: one by Kendrick Bourne and two more by Jakobi Meyers.
8. Brandon King has finally played some defensive snaps. Brandon King entered the NFL as a rookie free agent in 2015, and has played exclusively on special teams up until last Sunday: appearing in a combined 75 regular season and playoff games he never saw the field at his listed positions of safety and, later on, linebacker. This all changed against the Jets, with the 28-year-old playing two snaps as an off-the-ball linebacker.
That should tell you all you need to know about how much of a blowout New England’s 54-13 victory truly was. Still, good to see King get an opportunity after he missed back-to-back seasons on injured reserve.
9. Is N’Keal Harry New England’s only trade candidate? With the NFL trade deadline coming on November 2, wide receiver N’Keal Harry has been mentioned as a potential Patriot on the move. Trading the former first-round draft pick would make sense: he has been relatively quiet this season again, and his agent previously requested he be moved by the team.
While Harry therefore tops the list of possible trade candidates, is he the only player on it? Not necessarily.
Tight end Devin Asiasi, for example, has not seen the field at all this season as a backup behind Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. He could generate some interest given his status as a former third-round draft selection in just his second season in the league.
The same goes for third-year offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste. After missing the first two seasons of his career due to injury, Cajuste has been given an opportunity to fill the backup right tackle spot. With Trent Brown now eligible to return off injured reserve again, though, and with Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron both able options at right tackle as well, maybe New England will try to recoup some trade capital in a move.
Ultimately, time will tell what will happen until the deadline. That said, if New England is looking to actively unload bottom-of-the-roster players, Asiasi and Cajuste might also join N’Keal Harry as candidates to be moved.