FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Mac’s fresh outlook: There was something noticeably different with quarterback Mac Jones last week.
He was at ease in his first news conference since the end of a disappointing 2022 season. A relaxed Jones revealed a humbled, vulnerable side that was more human and less robotic and cliché-filled than what usually unfolded in those Q&A’s through a trying second season in the NFL.
One of the more telling parts of his 10-minute media session on the edge of the Patriots’ practice fields came when he shared part of his offseason approach.
“There’s mental, physical, emotional, and I’ve addressed all that. You try to fill up each bucket the right way,” he said.
The 24-year-old Jones essentially acknowledged that he didn’t always do that in 2022.
“Sometimes the most confident people come from a year where they might not have been their best. I feel like that’s where I’m at,” he said. “Really great people are formed through ups and downs. Some of the learning experiences I had last year will really help. There’s a lot of things I can do better as a person, as a player.”
It had been almost six months since Jones last answered questions from reporters, in the aftermath of the team’s season-ending 35-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, New York, that knocked New England out of the playoffs.
On that day, Jones looked spent from one of his most adversity-filled years in football and said: “It wasn’t the progress any of us wanted to make. It starts with me.”
Jones’ work ethic to improve on the field this offseason was never in question; it’s something coach Bill Belichick has consistently mentioned and did so again last week when he said, “Mac works hard every day. He puts in a lot of time in the weight room, the classroom, on the field. His work ethic is really good and hasn’t changed.”
But there’s a lot more than on-field work for players, and Jones’ reference to filling his mental and emotional “buckets” highlights it.
Last season, he was fined twice for unnecessary roughness, and once for unsportsmanlike conduct. And while some teammates empathized with him for being put in a challenging position with a new offensive system and staff that had top coaches whose primary background was on defense or special teams, Jones still let his frustrations get the best of him at times on the sideline. It wasn’t always top-shelf leadership.
Perhaps that’s what he was thinking of when he said this past week: “I’m going to do everything I can to earn the respect of everybody in this building again.”
Jones, who joked with a reporter that he liked his golf bucket hat and how he couldn’t pull off the same look, talked about “starting fresh,” building trust, and his plan to “run my own race and look up at the end and see where I’m at … hopefully everybody will run right behind me.”
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that his first answer began this way: “I think every year is a great year to just stay positive.”
It’s easier to say that in early June. Nonetheless, the difference from last year stood out in Jones’ hopes to author a comeback story.
2. Tyquan’s goal: Wiry second-year receiver Tyquan Thornton, who missed the first four games of last season with a broken collarbone, said one of his goals this offseason has been to add strength and weight to help make it through the 17-game season. The 6-foot-2, 182-pound speedster also wants to be “more strategic with routes” with the idea of “selling every route like it’s a ‘go’ ball.” After an early dropped pass, he had one of the plays of the day Wednesday, getting behind the defense on a double move and hauling in a deep delivery from Jones that drew audible praise from the offensive coaching staff.
3. More motion: The Patriots used motion at the snap on only 106 plays last season, which ranked 28th in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. For comparison, the Dolphins led the NFL with 456 of those plays. Pre-snap motion can put defenders in conflict. How Bill O’Brien, who rejoined the Patriots as the offensive coordinator, integrates more of it into the attack with players like Thornton bears watching.
4. Jack’s back: First-round pick Christian Gonzalez and 2022 third-rounder Marcus Jones didn’t practice Wednesday, and with Jalen Mills working more at safety, it had veteran Jonathan Jones and 2022 fourth-round pick Jack Jones as a top cornerback tandem. Jack Jones’ rookie season ended with a team suspension, but Belichick said in March that’s now in the past, and Jones reflected that with a long interception of quarterback Trace McSorley that he made look easy. Blink and you would have thought it was former Patriot J.C. Jackson making the play.
5. Gesicki’s role: At one point in Wednesday’s practice, a period was devoted to inside running on one field, which meant receivers and defensive backs worked on the other field. While most of the tight ends were part of the inside-run drill, Mike Gesicki instead worked with the receivers. Gesicki is listed on the roster as a tight end, but that period of practice seemed to reflect how he could actually be considered more of a receiver.
6. OL report: Belichick said OTAs are geared toward players getting familiar with the system and comfortable with new teammates (e.g., communication), and the offensive line is one spot that stood out in that regard due to turnover and new additions.
Trent Brown (unknown) and Mike Onwenu (ankle) didn’t practice Wednesday, so free agent signee Calvin Anderson took Brown’s spot at left tackle, while fellow free agent addition Riley Reiff was at right tackle (Conor McDermott as the swing tackle). Meanwhile, new OL coach Adrian Klemm has a young group with some promising physical traits to develop, which on Wednesday was comprised of left tackle Andrew Stueber (2022 seventh-round pick), left guard Atonio Mafi (2023 fifth round), center Kody Russey (2022 undrafted free agent), right guard Jake Andrews (2023 fourth round) and right tackle Sidy Sow (2023 fourth round).
Stocking OL depth was clearly part of Belichick’s team-building plan this offseason.
7. McMillan impact: The trickle-down effect of veteran backup linebacker Raekwon McMillan injuring his Achilles and landing on injured reserve was evident last week. Third-round draft choice Marte Mapu, wearing a red noncontact jersey as he recovers from right pectoral muscle surgery, received plenty of work behind returning starters Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai in reps that likely would have been McMillan’s. Bentley referred to Mapu as smart, instinctual, versatile and a technician with “no wasted movements,” noting that he hasn’t been bashful to ask important questions.
8. Participation report: Belichick said the Patriots have had “good participation” in the voluntary offseason program. Some players weren’t on the field Wednesday as they recover from offseason surgery or other ailments (e.g., guard Onwenu), while others elect to arrive closer to the mandatory minicamp in mid-June (e.g., linebacker Matthew Judon). Overall, there were 75 players taking part in practice. The team has two open roster spots after Devin McCourty‘s retirement became official Friday, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a couple of new additions at practice this week, most likely undrafted free agent types to fill out the roster where depth has been thinned a bit (e.g., receiver).
9. Punting old problems: The Patriots finished last in the NFL last season in gross punting (41.7 yards per punt) and net punting (35.9 yards), but if Wednesday’s practice is any indication, that area should be much improved in 2023. Rookie Bryce Baringer (sixth round, Michigan State) and free agent addition Corliss Waitman had some skyscrapers. Belichick has said consistency is critical when evaluating punters, and while Baringer likely has the inside track on the job based on his draft status, it looks like a solid competition, nonetheless.
10. Did you know? The Patriots have the second-longest active streak without a last-place finish in a division (22 seasons), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Steelers have the longest streak at 34 seasons.