Welcome to training camp week. The final group of New England Patriots players will report to camp on Tuesday, with the first practice of the summer taking place on the fields behind Gillette Stadium one day later.
Camp might just be the next step in the team-building process, but it is undoubtably the biggest. Players will get to wear full pads for the first time, go through stressful days on and off the field, and try to prove themselves compared to their teammates.
Accordingly, every single player on the roster is under some level of pressure — whether it is to make the 53-man team or practice squad, carve out a certain role, or make the next steps in their development. As a result of this, several more players could be listed here than just six.
However, we will focus on those whose pressure levels extend beyond “make the team” and whose training camp performance could have a massive impact on the team in 2022. So, with that said, let’s dive in.
QB Mac Jones
Why is he under pressure? The entire team is counting on him to make the second-year jump.
This one is pretty simple. Entering his second year in the league coming off a promising rookie campaign, all eyes are on Mac Jones and his growth. There were some signs of it already during organized team activities and mandatory minicamp; Jones appeared to be in full control of the offense even with long-time coordinator Josh McDaniels no longer in his ears. Of course, training camp is a different animal altogether.
The Patriots have built a solid team around their young quarterback to put him in the best possible position to succeed. Now, it is on him to do just that — and training camp is the next major step in that process.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
Why is he under pressure? He has to lead the new-look linebacker group.
With six roster spots still open, it is not implausible that the Patriots will bring back Dont’a Hightower to again lead the team’s linebacker room. As of Monday morning, however, the long-time captain still remains unsigned which in turn puts Bentley in the spotlight.
A fifth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2018 and one-time team captain, he was the number one off-the-ball linebacker last offseason ahead of Hightower. The team subsequently re-signed him via a new two-year, $6 million deal in free agency — showing trust that he can do what his veteran teammate did for the last decade: rally the troops at the position and lead it into battle.
TE Jonnu Smith
Why is he under pressure? The Patriots brought him in to be a big part of their offense.
Jonnu Smith signed a massive four-year, $50 million contract last offseason to join New England, but he had a relatively quiet first year in the system. When all was said and one, Smith had caught just 28 passes for 294 yards and one score — actually seeing more action as a blocker than a receiving tight end.
Smith will make the 53-man team regardless of his performance this summer. That said, the Patriots made an investment in him and need to start seeing some better returns on it than last year’s. The 26-year-old being able to deliver as early as training camp would be big for himself and the New England offense as a whole.
LB Josh Uche
Why is he under pressure? New England’s edge rush might depend on him showing improvement.
Few players on the Patriots’ roster have received as much offseason hype as Josh Uche. The former second-round draft selection was praised by both linebackers coach Steve Belichick and his head-coaching father, Bill, over the last few months; the gist was that they expect him to play a sizable role this year.
With Kyle Van Noy now in Los Angeles and no outside linebackers added through free agency or the draft, the pressure is on Uche to live up to those expectations. Looking at the position group as a hole, it might depend on him doing that: Matthew Judon is the clear top option, but the depth behind the Pro Bowler — Uche, Ronnie Perkins, Anfernee Jennings and DaMarcus Mitchell — is unproven outside of third-year man Uche.
DT Lawrence Guy
Why is he under pressure? His roster spot is not as secure as it appears to be.
Just like they did at linebacker, the Patriots also made no major investments along their defensive line this offseason. Sure, they brought in Sam Roberts in the sixth round of the draft, added LaBryan Ray and Jeremiah Pharms Jr. and re-signed Carl Davis, but neither of them is guaranteed a spot on the roster — something that is also true for veteran Lawrence Guy.
On paper, it seems Guy should be a lock to make the club. After all, he has been one of the Patriots’ core defenders ever since his original arrival in 2017 and is well-respected in the locker room. However, he is also 32 years old, coming off an up-and-down season, and a release would create $3.25 million in cap savings for the Patriots. Guy cannot give them a reason to make that calculation. If he does, his tenure with the team might be coming to a surprisingly early end.
CB Malcolm Butler
Why is he under pressure? New England has some high expectations for him.
At first glance, the Patriots re-signing Malcolm Butler earlier this offseason appeared to be a classic case of throwing something against the wall and hoping it sticks. Well, the contract the team gave its former starting cornerback suggests something else: considering that $750,000 of his deal were guaranteed, Butler’s spot on the roster seems pretty safe.
As a result of this we can conclude that the team has a role for him in mind, and the expectation that he will be able to properly fill it. What this role will look like remains to be seen, but given the current outside cornerback depth chart it might just be that of a starter. Of course, the 32-year-old has to prove he still can play at that high a level after taking a one-year sabbatical in 2021.
G Michael Onwenu
Why is he under pressure? He has to fill some pretty big shoes.
The Patriots parting ways with long-time starting right guard Shaq Mason earlier this offseason came as a surprise, but they already had their replacement in mind: Michael Onwenu, who played the position in college but has not yet seen any substantial action there since arriving in the sixth round of the 2020 draft.
None of that matters now; Mason is gone and Onwenu is the next man up. He has some experience as a starter at the NFL level already, but for one reason or another he was unable to hold onto his starting assignments at right tackle (2020) and left guard (2021). This time needs to be different, for the Patriots O-line’s sake.