The New England Patriots were back on the practice fields Monday for the first of 10 practices over the next three weeks. Following organized team activities, the team will hold a three-day mandatory minicamp in June.
Throughout the currently-scheduled 13 practices — which Bill Belichick has cut short in years past — the media will be on hand for six total to get the first on field glimpse of this year’s team.
While these practices lean more on the instructional side of things as pads are off and contact is at an extreme minimum, there will still be plenty to take from the next few weeks. Here are the top things we’ll be watching for on the back field of Gillette.
Bill O’Brien’s offense
At this time last year we got our first look at the Matt Patricia-led Patriots offense. That featured a change from years past as New England hammered a zone-based running scheme throughout the early stages of the offseason.
With Patricia now out of the picture and Bill O’Brien running the show, this will be the first taste to this year’s offensive identity. While O’Brien has his tendencies, some initial clues on the run game, receiver usage (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mike Gesicki, Tyquan Thornton), and other things planned to be used this year could start to unfold.
Devin McCourty’s replacement
No jobs will be won until the pads come on in training camp, but we will get an early sense of how New England plans to fill some roles during OTAs. One of those biggest roles up for grabs is replacing long-time safety Devin McCourty.
Replacing McCourty along the backend will be no easy task, and likely will take multiple players. Luckily for the Patriots, they return a talented trio of safeties in Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers, and Adrian Phillips. Joshuah Bledsoe also remains in the mix entering his third-year with the club while Jalen Mills and Myles Bryant could also factor into the safety equation.
We’ll get the first look at New England’s initial plan for replacing their long-time captain of the defense.
Along with getting the first glimpse of the Patricia offense this time last year, the positional switch of Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn also debuted at OTAs last season.
Eyes will again be on the tackle position as OTAs open this year as the Patriots boast a handful of versatile tackles on the roster. While Trent Brown and Conor McDermott return, newcomers Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson have experience at both tackle spots in the NFL.
While the expectation is Brown returns to the left side while Reiff handles right tackle duties, we’ll get a clearer picture of the positional group moving forward.
OTA practices often can produce an unlikely standout, usually a skill position player due to the lack of contact. Last year, those honors went to wide receiver Tre Nixon who hauled in a handoff of deep balls from Mac Jones.
Our prediction this year will be rookie receiver Demario Douglas. While the rookie will still be learning the ropes, the shifty, 5-foot-8 receiver should benefit from the non-padded practices.
As always, it’s important to keep these practices in perspective, as last year’s star of the show was not active for one regular season game.
The dynamic Cunningham is one of the most interesting players on the Patriots roster as he offers quite a different skillset at the quarterback position than Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe.
While it was reported after the draft that Cunningham was open for a positional switch, he reportedly spent rookie minicamp staying at quarterback. The thought here is he is best left at the QB position where he can provide a valuable skill set on the scout team this year and potentially compete for the QB2 role next season.
Where he spends the next few weeks will determine if the Patriots feel the same.
While minicamp (June 12-14) is mandatory for players, OTAs still fall under the voluntary part of the offseason program. New England’s coaches have noted multiple times this offseason that the attendance has been strong, but they're usually are a handful of players who miss some, or all, of OTAs. A group also usually spends most of the day on the lower practice fields.
Players to watch this year include safety Kyle Dugger and linebacker Josh Uche who enter the final year of their rookie deals. Guard Michael Onwenu would have fell in this category, but he is expected to be absent from OTAs due to an offseason ankle surgery. Also in the injury department, rookie Marte Mapu’s involvement coming off a torn pec while be one to watch.