The NFL season is inching ever closer, and so is the Patriots training camp. Rookies, quarterbacks, and rehabbing players have already reported for training camp in Foxborough. Full training camp kicks off on July 27. A quick recap of the team’s off-season activity shows a healthy influx of new faces at critical positions. But it is accompanied by a dearth of talent and familiarity walking out the door.
RB/WR Ty Montgomery
WR DeVante Parker
OL Darryl Williams
LB Mack Wilson
CB Malcolm Butler
S/LB Jabrill Peppers
QB Jarrett Stidham
RB Brandon Bolden
C Ted Karras
OG Shaq Mason
LB/DE Chase Winovich
LB Kyle Van Noy
CB J.C. Jackson
LB Dont’a Hightower (remains unsigned)
As the team gears up for another season, here are five storylines to watch as Patriots training camp opens:
Development of Mac
The most important storyline of the Patriots training camp — and season — will be how second-year signal caller Mac Jones progresses. Mac had a solid rookie season finishing with 3,801 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions; enough to be named a Pro Bowl alternate in his debut season.
Despite ranking among the most accurate quarterbacks last year, the offense often seemed timid. Mac rarely attacked downfield in the same aggressive manner he did at Alabama. To complicate matters, the Patriots lost their offensive coordinator to the Las Vegas Raiders and haven’t exactly replaced him.
Year two is crucial for every player’s development, but even more so for young quarterbacks. Mac has put in the off season work with organized throwing sessions with receivers all across the country, all while ditching his dough-boy appearance for a leaner, meaner Mac. Last year he tore it up throughout summer activities; this year, he needs to do the same with a more aggressive approach of attack this time around.
The Pats don’t have a top-tier talent at receiver or tight end, but have a plethora of solid 1B/2A types. Adding Devante Parker gives Mac a contested ball guy who can win outside the numbers. Parker should free Nelson Agholor up to move around the formation into favorable match-ups. The Pats offense needs to add a more aggressive downfield element in year two of Mac.
Matt Judon and Who Else?
The linebacker group looked a step (or two or three) slow against the Bills late in the season. With the rest of the AFC East gaining speed this off-season (hello, Tyreek Hill), the Pats look to be shying away from their big-bodied thumpers at linebacker. Matt Judon started the season scorching hot before fading down the stretch.
The Pats are hoping to replace Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Kyle Van Noy with a combination of Josh Uche, Ronnie Perkins, Raekwon McMillan, Anfernee Jennings, and trade acquisition Mack Wilson. The latter group features smaller bodies with a lot more speed.
The Pats desperately need at least two of these guys to become reliable starters — Wilson and Uche project to be three down players, if they develop as the team hopes. Perkins should bring a pop to the pass rush and may develop into a full-time edge defender; splitting time between DE and OLB wouldn’t be a surprise given his college production.
McMillan will most likely play alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley as primary run defenders. Any way you slice it, the Pats will be faster at the second level of their defense next season. The important thing is if they can be effective with their speed.
Who are the Corners?
J.C. Jackson cashed in in free agency with a mega-deal with the Los Angeles Chargers. Replacing him will garner a lot of attention this summer and throughout the season. The Pats brought in veterans Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell while also drafting Jack Jones (fourth round) and Marcus Jones (third round). The guarantees for Butler and Mitchell are low enough that their roster spots aren’t guaranteed.
The health of Jonathon Jones bears watching. His return will help against the spread ‘em out attacks of the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets. But past him, the depth chart is anything but settled.
Speed, Speed, Speed
The Patriots were focused on speed throughout the draft. They drafted the fastest player overall while also adding speed at corner and running back. We already touched on their plan to add speed to the interior of the defense.
Perhaps most importantly, many sources within the team have highlighted a change in the offensive structure and play calling. Having fast players only matters if you allow them to play fast. By simplifying the systems, the Patriots are hoping to let their guys play fast.
Protecting Mac Jones
The Patriots have questions at arguably four of their five offensive line spots. Not great. Tackles Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown don’t have the cleanest track records with health.
The backup tackle spot is a question mark among young players and unproven vets. First-round pick Cole Strange was viewed by many as a colossal reach, but internally is being viewed as a day one starter. Right guard will fall to third-year man Mike Onwenu, who had a stalwart rookie year but a lackluster second. For Mac and the offense to reach their full potential, he will need to be kept upright.