FOXBORO — The Patriots offense will be a slow burn.
Progress is the message and focus as they rebuild from the rubble of last season. Mac Jones has dusted himself enough off to believe Bill O’Brien’s system can and should inspire hope, if not belief, for the 2023 season. Life will be different in Foxboro when the Patriots have the ball.
But when they don’t? When Bill Belichick’s defense prowls the field, sneering and hunting from sideline to sideline? Forget hope.
It’s time to convert already.
Early signs are the next Patriots defense will be fast, deep and multiple. Violent, vicious and deceptive. This unit forced Jones and Bailey Zappe to pump the ball and hang in the pocket repeatedly during team drills this spring, including Tuesday’s minicamp practice.
Jones tossed two picks, while thumping safeties, freak man-cover cornerbacks and pass-rushers took turns flashing all across the field. Defense dominated every 11-on-11 period to the point players began impressing themselves.
“I’ve never been a part of something so fast like that,” said safety Jabrill Peppers, who individually runs a 4.4.
It may not be until early in the regular season that Jones and Co. find similar cohesion and give reason to celebrate. But the Patriots defense, a top-3 unit last year that Bill Belichick kept almost entirely intact and bolstered with high draft picks this offseason?
Get your popcorn ready.
Here are the rest of the Herald’s observations from practice:
Returned: OT Trent Brown
Absent: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, OL Mike Onwenu, DL Lawrence Guy, WR Tyquan Thornton, DL Keion White, DB Quandre Mosely, WR Kayshon Boutte
Limited: S Cody Davis
Non-contact jersey: LB Marte Mapu, OL Atonio Mafi
Dress code: Helmets and shorts
Notes: Trent Brown returned to practice, but departed for a lower field after positional drills. He was closer to being a non-participant than a full one. This, of course, hurt the Patriots’ offensive tackle depth. No other player absent Monday suited up Tuesday, while second-round rookie Keion White sat out practice after a minor injury scare the day before.
Play of the Day
DeVante Parker’s back-corner touchdown
Parker staked an early claim to keeping his starting “X” receiver job with a spectacular grab over Jonathan Jones in a 7-on-7 drill early in practice. Mac Jones floated a perfect 30-yard pass into the back left corner, Parker plucked it over Jones’ head and took care of the rest. One of the best contested-catch receivers in the game showed why he has that reputation Tuesday.
Player of the Day
CB Jack Jones
Jones wins this award for a second straight practice after snatching an interception for a second straight day. As one play dragged on during 7-on-7 work, he dropped off his assigned receiver to pick a deep Mac Jones pass intended for Hunter Henry on an out-and-up route. Jones also intercepted third-string quarterback Trace McSorley when his starting defense faced the Pats’ scout-team offense in an 11-on-11 period.
Note: The passing stats below were tallied during competitive 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods only. Stats in parentheses cover all of minicamp.
Mac Jones: 23/32, 2 INTs (39/50, 2 INTs)
Notes: Here’s the good: Jones was more aggressive, and successfully so, during initial 7-on-7 periods that included the play of the day. He maintained the same command he showed Tuesday. A few problems that cropped up in 11-on-11s — like busted screens — weren’t his fault.
The bad: His other interception was a pass Marcus Jones undercut before it could reach Kendrick Bourne on an in-breaking route during a 2-minute drill. As was the case Monday, it’s unclear how fast the second-string defense should have been playing during that drill. Overall, though, Jones performed OK around a 3-of-7 dry spell in one full-team period against the starting defense. A decent day.
S Joshuah Bledsoe
Remember him? The little-used safety recorded a team-high two pass breakups in team drills, extending himself to bat down a Trace McSorley pass to the flat and blanketing tight end Anthony Firkser to deflect another pass from Bailey Zappe. Bledsoe will need more of these performances to make the team again.
OLB Matt Judon
The Pats’ best pass-rusher flexed on new left tackle Calvin Anderson by zipping right by him for the only non-coverage sack in team drills. Judon remains a certified problem.
WR Kendrick Bourne
Despite taking virtually all of the first-team reps, and the absences of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyquan Thornton, Bourne failed to register a catch. Quarterbacks went 0-for-2 when targeting him, including Mac Jones’ second interception.
K Chad Ryland
Ryland slipped on his first field goal try and missed a 43-yarder at the end of practice, while incumbent Nick Folk nailed all of his kicks. It’s way too early to move Ryland off being the favorite to win the job, but the rookie surely wants that period back.
- Top targets in competitive team drills: Hunter Henry 7, Devante Parker 7, Pierre Strong 7, Mike Gesicki 5, Rhamondre Stevenson 4, Anthony Firkser 4, Malik Cunningham 4
- Penalties: None
- The Patriots’ first-team offense again worked exclusively from two-tight end personnel: running back Rhamondre Stevenson, wideouts DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne and tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki.
- Mac Jones enjoyed a fast start, going 5-of-6 in an opening period of 7-on-7 work. Among the completions, he hit Parker for a back-corner touchdown on the Play of the Day and Henry on a corner route over Joshuah Bledsoe.
- After Jack Jones picked his first pass in the next drill, Jones finished 4-of-5, including a 30-plus-yard slot fade throw to Gesicki with Adrian Phillips in tight coverage. Perfect throw.
- Around Jones’ 7-on-7 periods, Bailey Zappe dealt with bouts of inaccuracy. He went a combined 6-of-11 to start practice, firing behind receivers and overthrowing third-string tight end Scotty Washington on an out route.
- Zappe reined himself in, however, for a rare period of 11-on-11 work with the starters. He relied entirely on flat throws and checkdowns and went 5-of-5, though he took a sack and whipped one pass that would have led Gesicki straight into obvious trouble on a screen.
- Overall, Zappe finished 13-of-21 and was more erratic than Jones. Again, there is a clear hierarchy in the quarterbacks room, and it shows Jones at the top.
- That said, in the only 11-on-11 period that pitted Jones’ starting offense against the top defense, he went 3-of-7 with a sack and one checkdown. He suffered from a busted screen, overthrow, batted pass at the line and Henry drop.
- In the backfield, Stevenson caught all four targets and took a couple hand-offs as the coaching staff mixed in some light work. Pierre Strong was frequently up next and recorded a team-high seven catches.
- Jones’ connections with his tight ends — one fostered partly due to a lack of receiver depth — is evident and strong. So far in minicamp, he’s completed 10 of 13 passes to Henry and gone 9-of-10 throwing at Gesicki.
- Nice bounce-back day for DeVante Parker, who caught five of his seven targets. He was in the vicinity of two pass breakups on Monday and zero Tuesday.
🏈Sacks: Judon, Team
🏈Absent: Smith-Schuster, Onwenu, Thornton, Guy, Keion White, Boutte, Mosely, Ju. Tavai
🏈Trent Brown returned, was not a full participant.
🏈OT depth is troubling. Starting OTs: Calvin Anderson and Conor McDermott. Backups: Riley Reiff and rookie Sidy Sow.
— Andrew Callahan (@_AndrewCallahan) June 13, 2023
- Bourne’s performance in training camp deserves extra attention. Not only because he went catch-less Tuesday despite eating up first-team reps, but two of his five grabs in Monday’s practice — when he also took a penalty lap — came on screens.
- Not to mention, if DeAndre Hopkins signs, Bourne could be on his way out due to a logjam at receiver and his team-friendly contract on its final year.
- None of the backup receivers have flashed enough to warrant consideration as a sleeper to make the final 53-man roster — yet.
- Trent Brown’s absence in team drills left Calvin Anderson starting at left tackle and Conor McDermott at right tackle. Their backups were Riley Reiff and fourth-round rookie Sidy Sow, respectively.
- That, of course, is a major concern given Brown’s inconsistent conditioning and spotty injury history. It’s been five years since Sow, a college guard, played offensive tackle in a game.
- Inside, fourth-round rookie Jake Andrews took the first reps in Mike Onwenu’s place at right guard. Andrews rotated with practice-squad alum Bill Murray, who converted from defensive line less than a year ago.
- Interestingly, Andrews also replaced starting center David Andrews halfway through Zappe’s lone 11-on-11 period with the starters. The younger Andrews currently projects as the team’s backup center, but the Patriots invite competition at every position, even at the expense of established veterans and captains.
- From left to right, the second-team offensive line: Reiff, Chasen Hines, James Ferentz, Bill Murray and Sow. Fifth-round rookie Atonio Mafi also took reps at left guard with the second team and a few first-team reps at right guard.
- During special teams periods, the quarterbacks threw to the side with the tight ends, including Washington. He’s a former wide receiver who bulked up almost 30 pounds to play his new position and appeared in one game last season, the Christmas Eve loss to Cincinnati.
- Starting personnel used during 11-on-11 periods: defensive linemen Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise, Christian Barmore, Carl Davis and Daniel Ekuale; linebackers Matt Judon, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche and Jahlani Tavai and defensive backs Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jonathan Jones, Christian Gonzalez, Jack Jones, Jalen Mills, Marcus Jones and Jabrill Peppers.
- Interceptions: Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips
- Pass breakups: Joshuah Bledsoe 2, Christian Barmore
- Would-be sacks: Matt Judon, Team
- Penalties: Anfernee Jennings (offsides)
- Have another day, Jack Jones. He didn’t allow a completion in man coverage, per the Herald’s charting, as he continued to rotate with Jonathan Jones and Christian Gonzalez at outside cornerback.
- Gonzalez did not stand out for reasons good or bad. Overall, the first-round rookie has been a natural fit at minicamp.
- Jonathan Jones took a few reps at safety during 7-on-7 work, a position he’s moonlighted at before. Jones most notably played back deep during the Patriots’ last Super Bowl win over the Rams as a game-plan wrinkle.
- The plan to replace Devin McCourty appears to involve all available safeties, including possibly the eldest Jones. Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers, Adrian Phillips and Jalen Mills all took turns rotating into deep-half coverage and/or a single-high spot as the free safety with the first-team defense in 11-on-11 work.
- That group did not include 2021 sixth-rounder Joshuah Bledsoe, who was the most productive of all defensive backs and started the second 7-on-7 period. Great day for him.
- Up front, the defensive line rapidly recognized most screens a day after Bill O’Brien dialed up a ton of misdirection. Deatrich Wise and Christian Barmore were among those fastest on the scene against running back and receiver screens.
- Josh Uche has had an unexpectedly quiet minicamp considering his raw talent, the non-padded setting and lack of starting-caliber offensive tackles across from him.
- Third-round rookie linebacker Marte Mapu took snaps with the first, second and third-team units. He bounced between linebacker and safety, and yet again earned high praise from veterans in their post-practice press conferences.
- The Patriots’ starting unit used far more personnel groupings with two linebackers in team drills. Interestingly, Mack Wilson — their fastest linebacker who was benched for most of the second half of last season — joined Ja’Whaun Bentley on those downs.
- Bentley, again, was a staple in the middle of Belichick’s defense for every drill and starting package.
- Punt returners: Marcus Jones, Jabrill Peppers, Myles Bryant, Demario Douglas, Ed Lee
- Kick returners: Isaiah Bolden, Ed Lee
- Starting punt team: Bryce Baringer, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Chris Board, Brenden Schooler, DaMarcus Mitchell, Jonathan Jones, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Mack Wilson, Jahlani Tavai, Jabrill Peppers
- Starting kickoff team: Chad Ryland, Matthew Slater, Chris Board, Brenden Schooler, DaMarcus Mitchell, Raleigh Webb, Jonathan Jones, Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers, Jalen Mills, Mack Wilson
- Nick Folk out-performed rookie Chad Ryland during end-of-practice field goal attempts. Meanwhile, rookie Bryce Baringer seemed to at worst draw veteran Corliss Waitman and crushed a few balls that reached notably higher heights than Waitman’s.
- Seventh-round rookie Isaiah Bolden continues to see top reps on kickoff returns. He was the best kick returner in college football in 2021 at Jackson State, though the staff won’t know what it has with him until training camp or perhaps the preseason.
- Matthew Slater and Jonathan Jones repped as the starting gunners on punt team. Tre Nixon and Jourdan Heilig, an undrafted rookie who hardly played any defense in college at Appalachian State, were their backups.
- Former Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman visited practice.
- Penn State head coach James Franklin attended his second straight practice and spoke briefly to the team after they huddled at the end.