New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 01: Head Coach Bill Belichick talks with Outside Linebackers Coach Stephen Belichick during New England Patriots Training Camp at Gillette Stadium on September 01, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

  • On Monday, the Patriots begin the third phase of their offseason workouts when they kick off Organized Team Activities – better known as OTAs. That’s the first stage of the spring practice period, which will also include Mandatory Minicamp in June.

    The Patriots are currently scheduled for 11 spring practices, six of which will be open to the media. That includes Monday’s practice, next Tuesday’s session, all three Minicamp dates from June 7-9, and then a final one on June 13.

    With the first practice being held in front of the media, it will give us a chance to jump right in and start trying to answer some of the questions about this team that have been lingering for weeks or months. Here are the players and positions to watch throughout spring practices.

  • Pierre Strong

    South Dakota State's Pierre Strong, Jr. avoids a tackle by North Dakota State's Michael Tutsie in the annual Dakota Marker game on Saturday, November 6, 2021 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Syndication: Argus Leader)

    South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong, Jr. avoids a tackle by North Dakota State’s Michael Tutsie in the annual Dakota Marker game on Saturday, November 6, 2021 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Syndication: Argus Leader)

    Just about any rookie could fit on this list. Seeing Tyquan Thornton’s speed in person, how involved Marcus Jones is on special teams, how comfortable Bailey Zappe looks against an NFL defense – these will all be storylines throughout the spring and summer. But given the usual structure and purpose of OTA and Minicamp practices specifically, let’s single out fourth-round pick Pierre Strong.

    The way the roster stands right now, Strong projects to at least partially fill a crucial role in the Patriots’ offense – pass catching back. It’s a role that James White excelled in for six years before getting hurt last season, and the team missed him sorely when he was not on the field.

    Heading into the spring, that job appears to be open for the taking. White is back on the roster, but initial reports have indicated he’s still healing from that hip injury and may not be ready to start training camp. Last year’s replacement, Brandon Bolden, left as a free agent and is now with the Raiders. Of the running backs currently on the roster, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson showed promise as pass catchers in college but have mainly been used as early-down backs as pros.

    That leaves the favorites as Strong, J.J. Taylor, and Ty Montgomery. However, Taylor has struggled to get on the field the last two seasons, and Montgomery is more of a hybrid player who is listed as a wide receiver on New England’s roster.

    Throughout the pre-draft process, Strong showed a skillset that looked like a fit for a passing downs role. Even with that, he doesn’t have a ton of in-game experience as a pass-catching back given South Dakota State’s run-heavy offense. In 48 career games with the Jackrabbits he caught 62 passes for 581 yards and three scores.

    OTAs will be the first chance to see if the Patriots elect to put strong in that role right away, and how comfortable he looks in it. He obviously doesn’t need to be perfect right away, but his growth throughout the spring and summer should be in focus.

  • Jonnu Smith

    Jonnu Smith #81 of the New England Patriots looks to avoid a tackleafter a catch during the first quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Jonnu Smith #81 of the New England Patriots looks to avoid a tackleafter a catch during the first quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Jonnu Smith’s production in his first year in New England didn’t quite live up to the four-year, $50 million contract he signed before the season. In 16 games, the 26-year-old tight end caught 28 passes for 294 yards and a score, while carrying the ball nine times for 40 yards.

    Smith’s struggles weren’t due to a lack of talent. Instead, he seemed uncomfortable in his new role which was somewhat of a departure from what he did with his pervious team in Tennessee. Perhaps part of that was the fact he missed most of spring practices last year with an injury.

    This year, Smith is expected to be on the field throughout OTAs and Minicamp. We should get a good look at where he’s at after being in the system a full year.

    There’s also the possibility that Smith’s role could change from last year. With a nearly-overhauled offensive coaching staff including a new (yet still unknown) offensive coordinator, there could be a shakeup. We already know the Patriots will no longer carry a traditional fullback on their roster – perhaps Smith could play a more h-back type of role similar to the one he had with the Titans. While the Patriots won’t run their entire playbook at open media practices, seeing his general alignments  could give some indications into the team’s plans for him.

  • Middle linebackers

    Michigan linebacker Cameron McGrone lines up against Indiana.

    Michigan linebacker Cameron McGrone lines up against Indiana in Big Ten action in 2020. (Michigan Athletics)

    Linebacker – specifically middle linebacker – is one of the Patriots’ biggest question marks heading into 2022. Beyond Ja’Whaun Bentley’s return and likely spot in an early down role, there’s a lot to be decided. As the Patriots look for sideline-to-sideline and pass coverage linebackers, they’ll have options. While none of those roles can be outright won in the spring, these practices will offer a base for where the competition stands heading into training camp.

    Second-year player and 2021 fifth-round draft pick Cameron McGrone has drawn a lot of attention in this conversation. Assistant coaches raved this week about the work McGrone put in behind the scenes last year as he worked his way back from a torn ACL.

    McGrone is a more modern style of linebacker than the Patriots have had in the past. At 6-foot-1, 236 pounds he has the quickness to flow across the formation against the run, and keep up with backs and tight ends in coverage. Some experts had him as a fringe first-round pick heading into the 2020 college football season, before he suffered that torn ACL in November which tanked his stock to the point where the Patriots could pick him up as an investment.

    Raekwon McMillan is also coming back from a torn ACL, which he suffered last summer after a promising start to training camp. The 26-year-old was a second-round pick in 2017, and battled injuries for most of his short career. However, he’s look promising when healthy, including a 105 tackle season for the Dolphins in 2018.

    McMillan has the size (6-foot-2, 242 pounds) to factor in against the run, and moves well enough to defend the entire width of the field, not just between the tackles. He’s a more athletic early-down linebacker, who could be freed up to attack creatively playing next to a more downhill player like Bentley.

    There’s also Mack Wilson, who the Patriots received in return for Chase Winovich in their trade with the Cleveland Browns earlier this offseason. Wilson looks like a true passing down linebacker who showed tremendous promise in coverage as a rookie in 2019 before having his role reduced in 2020 and 2021. If the Patriots believe what he showed his rookie year is an accurate assessment of the player he is, they could make him a third-down feature.

    Of course, that’s the overview of each of the players as spring practices begin. Over the next few weeks, the picture of how the group is truly structured should become more clear based on usage and grouping.

  • Cornerbacks

    Nov 27, 2021; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils defensive back Jack Jones (0) against the Arizona Wildcats at Sun Devil Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 27, 2021; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils defensive back Jack Jones (0) against the Arizona Wildcats at Sun Devil Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    There may be no position on the Patriots’ roster with more up for grabs this spring and summer than boundary cornerback. Jalen Mills seemed penciled in as CB1, but beyond that there’s a lot to sort out. The team has a mix of veterans and younger players all in competition to fill out the depth chart.

    The leading candidate in the veteran group is Malcolm Butler, who was signed out of retirement for his second stint with the Patriots. Butler was an NFL-caliber player during his last full season, but the question will be how he looks after a year away from the game.

    Other contenders here include free agent signing Terrance Mitchell, who entered the league as a seventh-round pick in 2014 but has developing into a player who carried a starting role over the past two seasons in Cleveland and Houston, and Justin Bethel, who is primarily a special teams coverage player but saw some snaps at cornerback last season on an emergency basis.

    Meanwhile, most of the attention towards the younger group will likely be on fourth-round pick Jack Jones. Jones was a five-star recruit coming out of high school before having to transfer out of USC, but has still been one of the better man cornerbacks in the Pac-12 in recent years. With his resume, it’s not unrealistic to think he could come in right away and play at least a rotational role. If he starts off hot, it’ll only raise that ceiling.

    Shaun Wade could also be in the mix a year after essentially red-shirting most of his rookie season following a training camp trade to the Patriots. Wade played both on the boundary and in the slot in college, but worked primarily as an outside corner in the few instances he was on the field last year.

    Finally, there’s Joejuan Williams who is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie deal. When the Patriots used the 45th overall pick on Williams in 2019, it was to try to lock in one of their cornerback spots of the future. That hasn’t happened to this point. Williams struggled to get on the field his first two seasons when he was buried on the depth chart behind Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jason McCourty most of the time. He had a career-high usage rate of 35 percent in 2021, but struggled to make an impact. He’ll have a chance to compete for a job this spring and summer, but he’ll need to come a long way from where he’s been his first three years.

  • Coaching staff

    Head Coach Joe Judge of the New York Giants leaves the field after being defeated by the Washington Football Team 22-7 at MetLife Stadium on January 09, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    Head Coach Joe Judge of the New York Giants leaves the field after being defeated by the Washington Football Team 22-7 at MetLife Stadium on January 09, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    For those hoping to see a more definitive structure in the Patriots’ coaching staff, these next couple of weeks could offer some clarity. Just seeing how the team operates on the drill-to-drill basis could fill in some holes that were left unanswered during last week’s assistant coach media availability. Even though they haven’t made the titles public, it’s likely those inside the building know what their responsibilities are, which is really the important part.

    Joe Judge already said last week he’ll be spending most of his time with Mac Jones, but will also work with other skill position players. How much will that time be split? Monday’s first open practice will offer an answer to that. The same goes for other positional coaches.

    As for deciphering play callers, that will be a little more difficult and may have to wait until training camp. However, if one coach in particular tends to be hovering about the green dot player (the player whose helmet is connected to the coaching headset – QB on offense, usually a linebacker on defense) during team periods, that would be a strong hint.

  • What not to watch for at OTAs

    Cole Strange lines up for a play against Wofford. (Credit: GoMocs.com)

    Cole Strange lines up for a play against Wofford. (Credit: GoMocs.com)

    In addition to the biggest storylines to watch, how about one that doesn’t deserve as much run during spring practices – the linemen.

    Based on the CBA, padded practices can’t begin until three or four sessions into training camp. That means all the work in the spring is in shells and shorts. Line play, by nature, is a physical position. It’s hard to truly evaluate trench play in non-contact drills.

    From Cole Strange’s adjustment to the NFL, Christian Barmore’s Year 2 jump, the defensive improving against the run, there’s no shortage of storylines about both lines heading into the spring. However, everything – good and bad – should be taken with a grain of salt until the real hitting begins in late July.