Mac Jones back in command, versatile defense among top storylines from Patriots offseason program

Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots ditched the footballs for paintballs on Wednesday, as head coach Bill Belichick called for a team building day after two productive days of mandatory minicamp.

With the on field portion of the offseason program now in the past, it’s important to remember to not put too much stock into the non-padded sessions. But, there was still plenty to takeaway when getting our first glimpse at this year’s squad.

So before all eyes turn to training camp in July, here’s what we originally learned about the 2023 Patriots.

Mac in command: Mac Jones seemed to have his swagger back throughout a handful of spring practices. Part of that may be due to him having his control back at the line of scrimmage.

As the Patriots installed a new offensive system last year, Jones lost much of the power he held at the line of scrimmage under Josh McDaniels in ‘21. Throughout last year’s training camp, New England’s offense would run plays into bad looks as players needed as many reps as possible to acclimate to the new system.

“Right now, we’ll run [plays] into looks that maybe aren’t great,” Jones said at the time, “so that we can get the runs in and make sure we are getting enough reps at everything before the reps kind of get limited as we go forward.”

Things are different this year with Bill O’Brien leading the way. Jones has been vocal at the line of scrimmage and can often be seen flashing hand signals to his receivers to make last-second adjustments, one even leading to a touchdown to Kendrick Bourne against a blitz.

Unlike last year, Jones has his full “toolbox” available to him.

“There is good juice around the building,” he said during OTAs. “There’s things that pop up in practice — issues — and we just try to fix them on the run, and we have tools to do that. It’s all about your toolbox. That’s what’s so great about the system. You use it as a quarterback. The most is put on you, but that’s a good thing because you have tools to fix it. That’s been really good to kind of work some of those things.”

“Unicorns” in the secondary: While the Patriots lost long-time Safety Devin McCourty to retirement this offseason, they return every other member from their talented secondary last season. To add to the mix, New England then invested top-100 picks in cornerback Christian Gonzalez and hybrid safety/linebacker Marte Mapu (more on them later).

When de-facto defensive coordinators Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo have had all their options available to them this spring, it’s lead to a countless amount of combinations along the backend. That’s largely due to players like Mapu, Jalen Mills, Kyle Dugger, Jonathan Jones, etc. being able to play all over the field.

“We have unicorns, for real,” Matthew Judon said Tuesday. “It’s training camp, we have a lot of players — but when we cut everything down, keep everybody healthy, keep everybody rolling, it’s going to be easy for us to match up with any offensive personnel.”

New England’s ability to spin the dial this year in the backend should create havoc for opposing offenses.

Joe Judge back on special teams: If one with little knowledge of the Patriots was to observe these spring practices, they'd likely walk away by believing Joe Judge is this team’s specials teams coordinator.

After a year on the offensive side of the ball coaching quarterbacks, Judge has gone back to his roots as a special teams coach this offseason. He has been extremely hands on and vocal throughout these drills while working with Cam Achord and Joe Houston.

It will be interesting to watch if the new role comes with the title of coordinator, as that would technically signal a demotion for Achord. We’ll get our answer closer to training camp when such coaching titles are announced.

Wide receiver depth: The Patriots wide receiver depth chart was a focus for many entering the offseason. Instead of making a big splash, they added JuJu Smith-Schuster in place of Jakobi Meyers and seemed ready to count on a year two jump from Tyquan Thornton and bounce back year from Kendrick Bourne.

It projected as a deep unit that issues could quickly sprout from. And that’s exactly what happened. After a strong start to OTAs, Thornton has not been seen since due to a soft tissue injury. JuJu, on the other hand, has not made it on the field due to a knee injury that dates back to last season with Kansas City. Rookie Kayshon Boutte has also missed time with a presumed injury.

With a few weeks off, New England will hopefully have their full stable of horses available to them when training camp opens — and perhaps former All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins as well.

12 personnel: Bill O’Brien is back, and he brought his love for tight ends back with him.

While the new offensive coordinator seemingly kept the majority of the offense under wraps over the past few weeks, the two tight end sets that O’Brien made prevalent back in 2011 seem to be back in Foxboro.

Throughout every practice, the duo of Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki shared the field the majority of the time. They were a favorite target of Mac Jones while out there, as Gesicki specifically impressed with his quickness as a natural pass catcher.

It will be interesting to get a more complex look at O’Brien’s offense and the elements he brings from Alabama as we enter the summer, but early indications point to the two tight end package being a large part of that new scheme.

Offensive tackle questions: Similarly to the wide receiver position, offensive tackle was one of the biggest question marks entering the offseason for New England. As the offseason program now concludes, it remains the biggest question on the roster.

After missing Monday’s mandatory minicamp, Trent Brown returned Tuesday in a very limited fashion. With Brown not participating in team drills, Calvin Anderson remained at left tackle while Riley Reiff worked in behind Conor McDermott on the right side.

While there are question marks with Brown (as well as almost every other tackle on the roster), the Patriots best lineup currently is with him on the left side. It will be interesting to see how they line things up on day one of training camp with Brown (and hopefully Michael Onwenu) back in the fold.

Rookie impact: As we got into briefly above, the Patriots seem to be ready to have multiple rookies play a role in the early stages of the 2023 season.

That starts with first-round pick Christian Gonzalez, who was a plug-in-play starter along the boundary at cornerback. Gonzalez’s athleticism and fluidity were as advertised, now we’ll get to watch his coverage skills as the intensity rises in July and August.

Perhaps the most exciting rookie of the spring was hybrid safety/linebacker Marte Mapu. The versatile defender offers a skillset that the Patriots have not had in their defense in recent years due to his ability to cover sideline to sideline and play at the second and third levels. No matter where Mapu was aligned this spring, he impressed with his athleticism and instincts.

The last of New England’s first three draft picks is defensive lineman Keion White, who was taken 46th overall back in April. While White should be able to showcase more of his power when the pads come on, he was involved in the early defensive line mix and impressed at times with his get off the line at times as well.

“They’re looking fast. They’re looking like they’ve been here before,” Matt Judon said about the rookies. “They’re looking comfortable, I think. Being comfortable, you can play like yourself and you can play within the scheme. You can make plays when you’re comfortable.”

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