7 things we learned about the Patriots in minicamp

The New England Patriots ditched the footballs for paintball 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 not to put too much stock in the non-padded sessions. But there was still plenty to take in as we got our first look at this year’s squad.

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

Mac in command: Mac Jones appeared to have weakened back during a handful of spring practices. Part of that may be because he has his control back at the line.

When the Patriots installed a new offensive system last year, Jones lost much of the power he had at the line of scrimmage under Josh McDaniels in ’21. During last year’s training camp, New England’s offense would lead to some poor looks as players needed as many reps as possible to acclimate to the new system.

“Right now we are running [plays] into looks that might not be great,” Jones said at the time, “so we can get the runs in and make sure we get enough reps on everything before the reps kind of get limited as we go forward.”

Things are different this year with Bill O’Brien at the helm. 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” at his disposal.

“There’s good juice around the building,” he said during OTAs. “There are things that come up in practice—problems—and we just try to solve them on the fly, and we have tools to do that. It’s about your toolbox. That’s what’s so great about the system. You uses it as a quarterback. You get the most attention, but that’s a good thing because you have tools to solve it. It’s been really good to work on some of those things.”

“Unicorns” in the secondary: While the Patriots lost longtime safety Devin McCourty to retirement this offseason, they return every other member of 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).

Having de-facto defensive coordinators Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo have all their options available to them this spring has led to countless combinations along the back end. This is largely due to players like Mapu, Jalen Mills, Kyle Dugger, Jonathan Jones, etc. being able to play all over the court.

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

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

Joe Judge back on special teams: If someone with a little knowledge of the Patriots were to observe these spring practices, they would likely walk away thinking that Joe Judge is this team’s special teams coordinator.

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

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

Wide receiving 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 instead of Jakobi Meyers and seemed ready to count on a year two jump from Tyquan Thornton and a year back from Kendrick Bourne.

It was projected as a deep unit from which problems could quickly sprout. 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 to the field due to a knee injury dating back to last season with Kansas City. Rookie Kayshon Boutte has also missed time with a suspected injury.

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

12 employees: Bill O’Brien is back and he brought back his love of tight ends.

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

During each practice, the duo of Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki shared the field most of the time. They were a favorite target for Mac Jones while he was 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 head into the summer, but early indications point to the two tight end package being a big part of the new system.

Offensive tackle questions: Similar to the wide receiver position, offensive tackle was one of the biggest question marks entering the offseason for New England. With the offseason program now winding down, that 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 up on day one of training camp with Brown (and hopefully Michael Onwenu) back in the fold.

Rookie Impact: As we touched on briefly above, the Patriots appear poised to have several rookies play a role in the early stages of the 2023 season.

It starts with first-round pick Christian Gonzalez, who was a plug-in-play starter along the border at cornerback. Gonzalez’s athleticism and agility were as advertised, now we’ll get to see his coverage skills as the intensity ramps up in July and August.

Perhaps the spring’s most exciting rookie was hybrid safety/linebacker Marte Mapu. The versatile defender offers a skill set the Patriots haven’t had on 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 lined up 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 coming off the line at times as well.

“They look fast. They look like they’ve been here before,” Matt Judon said of the rookies. “They look comfortable, I think. When you are comfortable, you can play as yourself and you can play within the scheme. You can make plays when you feel good.”

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