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When media members and fans go to Patriots training camp or look online for news and updates coming out of Foxboro, more often than not it’s because of quarterback Mac Jones. Everybody is intrigued to see how the second-year quarterback builds off his rookie season and what direction New England is headed in the post-Tom Brady era.
Long-time Patriots beat reporter Mike Reiss of ESPN joined the Zolak and Bertrand show on Wednesday to discuss takeaways from the first day of training camp along with what he’s looking for. He both sees and believes the hype in Jones, believing he can be in the “Burrow conversation.” Where he has more concerns is actually on the other side of the ball.
“To me, I have more questions about the defense than the offense,” Reiss said. “I was looking at cornerback, because I wanted to see who they were lining up at J.C. Jackson’s old spot. … To me, that’s a huge question mark. [New England] didn’t make the Bills punt the last two time [they] played them.”
“I was looking at the inside linebackers, who’s playing in there? No [Dont’a] Hightower, no [Kyle] Van Noy, no [Jamie] Collins.”
As Reiss mentioned on the show, Jackson was a part of those two games where the Bills torched the Patriots defense. Jackson also had eight interceptions and 23 pass breakups. He signed a much-deserved five-year, $82 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers in the off-season, leaving the Pats thin in terms of experience – and possibly talent – at cornerback.
Safety Devin McCourty enters his 13th season with the team, but past him, Bill Belichick has a doesn’t have a ton of players with Patriots experience or experience in general. Terrance Mitchell was the first player that took cornerback snaps in the spot held by Jackson last season, according to Reiss. He also believes that Malcolm Butler and rookie Jack Jones will get opportunities in that position. Mitchell was a seventh round pick in 2014, and is now on his sixth NFL team. He had 10 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and one interception last season with the Houston Texans.
Raekwon McMillan and Ja’Whaun Bentley replace the aforementioned inside linebackers that are no longer with New England. McMillan is in his first season with the team and Bentley led the Patriots and tackles last season. Both players are 25 years old.
Excluding Week 17 of last season — when New England played the dumpster fire that was the Jacksonville Jaguars — the defense allowed an average of 35 points in the last four games of the season. That includes when they got flattened, 47-17, by the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round.
The headlines will continue to be on Jones, because he’s young with potential and football is always quarterback-driven. That doesn’t mean the defense shouldn’t be watched closely. If anyone is going to make lemonade out of this defense, it’s Belichick, but make sure to listen to what someone as smart and plugged in as Reiss has to say about this defense.