New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Rookie Marte Mapu was one of several Patriots defensive standouts in the spring. (Photo by Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Every spring since ‘Baby Gronk’ was a long-haired, long-limbed tight end from the University of Nevada and not a 10-year old bred to be a social media brand, I swore to restrain myself from getting too excited about June sensations on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.

    Annually, I failed.

    I didn’t learn my lesson after Zach Sudfeld, the undrafted, 6-foot-7 star of spring and summer in 2013, was released three games and no receptions into his Patriots career. Nor after veteran free agent Maurice Harris caught everything in mini-camp and snagged a touchdown pass in the preseason opener, only to be gone by September 2019. Nor after Tre Nixon had a nice enough day before Jon Bon Jovi, hanging out on the Pats’ sideline, to wonder aloud if Jakobi Meyers could be traded before hitting free agency in 2022.

    Yep, I foolishly bought in. But not anymore.

    This year I’m adhering to an acronym that used to follow baseball Hall of Famer Jim Thome wherever he drove (his car, not pitches). “DBTH.” Embossed on the baseball slugger’s (albeit vanity) license plate, the letters stand for: “Don’t believe the hype.” I’m adding: “And by no means contribute to it.”

    Nope, now I’m finally toeing the line we’ve been told before and will hear again next month: “Football doesn’t start until the pads come on.” No pads. No contact. No bold, ‘next great’ proclamations.

    So, no getting giddy over Marte Mapu. No going gaga over Christian Gonzalez. No mentioning “unicorns,” unless directly quoting Matt Judon when discussing the Pats’ defensive prospects. No matter how good they looked (they looked very good) the last few weeks.

    And no overstating the Bill O’Brien factor, now that he’s the sole proprietor of the offensive play-calling walkie-talkie. Sure, players, especially quarterbacks, seem genuinely enthused and confident. Yes, there’s a functionality to the offense — one that, as Jeff Howe reports for The Athletic, isn’t a carbon copy of past Patriots playbooks; but borrows from O’Brien’s recent Alabama experience. And indeed, the unit’s operation — getting plays to the huddle, lining up, running to the right places, etc. — looks efficient.

    We all know fall fortunes ultimately depend on who (and what version of whom) is lined up come September. But as we wait to learn whether DeAndre Hopkins is out there — meaning here in New England — on offense, here are some thoughts I am comfortable sharing from springtime football played by men in shorts:

  • Who’s QB-1?


    Mac Jones looks and sounds relaxed and confident. (Photo by Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    It’s understandable (and logical) why some foresee a genuine quarterback showdown come late summer after Bailey Zappe got a turn with ‘ones’ in Tuesday’s 11-on-11 drills. But I’m with those who think the starter’s job is closer to “Mac Jones’s to lose” than a wide-open competition.

    Memories of Jones’s struggles and Zappe’s two wins as a starter in 2022 weren’t erased for outsiders, even as O’Brien wiped the slate clean internally. At the same time, one shouldn’t forget how Jones succeeded as a rookie. He grasped Josh McDaniels’s intricate offense quickly. This time two years ago, it was reported that Mac’s adeptness accelerated the pace and increased the amount of information the Pats fed him. He never lagged and earned the Opening Day nod. 

    McDaniels’s offense was channeled through the quarterback. O’Brien’s too. More pre-snap motion, enabling Jones to process snapshots of the defense and make checks at the line, give him more control over the fate of a conceptually-sound offense. Additionally, though his arm strength will constantly be scrutinized, Mac was — as others, notably Phil Perry on NBC Sports Boston, point out — consistently the most accurate quarterback in OTA’s and mini-camp.

    Anyone hillside for Jones’s first press conference this spring couldn’t help but note his relaxed nature. Words. Tone. Facial expressions. Body language. All of it. One word, “normal,” summed up how it felt just watching the offense in team drills. Nothing extraordinary. Purely professional.

    Something else he said that day resonates, considering one of the most important qualities he demonstrated pre-2022: resilience.

    “Sometimes the most confident people come from a year where people might not have been their best,” he said. “I feel like that’s where I’m at.”

    Despite the frustrating results and the outbursts and actions they spawned last season, Jones looks and sounds confident. Rewind to his prior seasons in college and the pros, and you’ll find a pattern of lowlights followed by highlights.   

    As a junior fill-in starter at Alabama, he threw two pick-sixes in a three-point Iron Bowl loss to arch-rival Auburn. As a senior, he bounced back to claim the starter’s job over Bryce Young and capture a national title. As an NFL rookie, he sat despondently on the bench before being ushered away by Bill Belichick after losing to New Orleans and bounced back the next week to hold his own opposite Tom Brady in a circus-like Sunday night setting. Two weeks later, he was ‘pick-sixed’ by Trevon Diggs of Dallas and bounced back by throwing a dart to Kendrick Bourne for a 75-yard touchdown on his next pass.

    Starting quarterback is a position that should be earned. Zappe will likely continue getting reps with ‘ones’ in training camp. But it looks (and feels) like Jones occupies the pole position and may be poised to pull away well before 4:25 p.m. on Sept. 10. 

  • A rookie's conversion


    Malik Cunningham is trying to convert from Louisville quarterback to Patriots receiver. (Photo by Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

    Julian Edelman stood on the sideline Tuesday while one of the Pats’ most closely watched rookies, Malik Cunningham, ran pass routes, trying to follow the lead of the former quarterback-turned-receiver. As Cunningham disclosed a day earlier, he’s watched video of Edelman. 

    “Seeing the success (Julian) had at receiver,” Cunningham said, “it just goes to show it can be done.”

    Cunningham is an exceptional athlete. His 120 total touchdowns as a dual (passing-running) threat at Louisville broke Lamar Jackson’s school record. But while Edelman’s career path is an obvious example to emulate, let’s not lose sight of how hard he’ll be to imitate on the field. 

    Edelman’s stop-start, change-of-direction traits in tight spaces were off the charts. Perhaps more importantly, so was his “tough as nails” (per Richard Sherman) grit. Going over the middle. Taking hits. Delivering blocks. And though Edelman dropped a few — as many as 13 passes in 2019, per Pro-Football Reference — his knack for making catches when they counted most made him an all-time Patriot.

    Julian also contributed early in his career in other ways as a gifted returner who made tackles on special teams and, in a pinch, defense. He even hit quarterbacks twice as a pass rusher in 2011. Doing so helped to hold his place on the Pats before his big breakout as a receiver in 2013. 

    This is my way of saying that Cunningham has the tools to make the conversion Edelman did. And Antwaan Randle El did. And, more recently, Greg Ward did. And if he does, let’s allow him to be the first Malik Cunningham to do it. Expecting him to be the “next Edelman” is unrealistic and unfair. 

  • Biggest 'if' of all


    Tackle Trent Brown will be in the spotlight this summer at training camp. (Photo by Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

    Especially this spring, the premium value the Patriots place on versatility is readily evident. See for yourself if you head out to training camp, watching any unit at any given point of practice. Movable pieces have always been precious.

    So are blocks of granite. In particular, one that stands 6-7 and weighs around 370 pounds. None of the ‘ifs’ entering training camp are more significant than big Trent Brown. He has company on the offensive line. Other ‘ifs’ include the other tackles and depth players at guard and center (there’s a reason the Pats drafted three interior linemen in April).

    If Adrian Klemm and Billy Yates, coaching the line, can get the most out of Brown and enough from any combination of Riley Reiff, Calvin Anderson, Connor McDermott, Andrew Steuber, etc., the Pats will exceed most of the expectations I’ve read and heard. Locally and nationally. With or without Hopkins. If they can’t… 

    Belichick says linemen aren’t evaluated until pads come on. When they do, perhaps more than any other summer in recent memory, the Pats’ linemen will be in the spotlight, from one-on-one to 11-on-11 drills.  

  • Special attention


    Kicker Nick Folk enters training camp trying to stave off another challenger for his job. (Photo by Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

    One (this one, anyway) suspects the placekicker and punter positions to remain undecided through the preseason. When Nick Folk learned the Patriots drafted Maryland’s Chad Ryland, he first thought: “Let’s go have some fun.” Folk has staved off young kickers trying to take away his job in the past. At 38, he tries to do it again, facing his most talented challenger yet as a Patriot.

    Given the NFL’s new touchback rule, how the Pats handle kickoffs will be fascinating. Taking Folk’s cue, don’t expect teams in preseason games to indicate how they’ll approach kicks and returns in the regular campaign. Hopefully, that’s the case. Kickoffs often allow young players to flash, either by returning or covering them, during preseason games. 

    Speaking of kickoffs, observing Joe Judge running a drill last Friday, assisted by Joe Houston and Cam Achord, while Troy Brown counseled returners, called to mind a figure reported by Rick Gosselin in June 2021. In 1985, only 12 of 28 teams employed someone to coach special teams exclusively. Six teams didn’t even have an assistant assigned to special teams. 

    If you include Belichick, the Pats’ staff now has three former/current coordinators and two others coaching the proverbial third phase.

  • On the receiving end


    Receiver Kendrick Bourne looked bigger and rejuvenated this spring. (Photo by Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    We didn’t see JuJu Smith-Schuster and barely saw Tyquan Thornton on the field this spring. Kendrick Bourne looks bigger and rejuvenated, seemingly recapturing his spirit of 2021, while DeVante Parker sounds like he has a proverbial chip on his shoulder, specifically if the subject is Hopkins. The Pats need both to play that way.

    Jones consistently targeted the tight end-big receiver tandem of Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki. Ty Montgomery is healthy as a receiver-running back hybrid, and Pierre Strong shows promise behind Rhamondre Stevenson. 

    Again with the ‘ifs’…if JuJu is good to go in July and approximates his most productive self…if Bourne approaches his 2021 performance…if Parker ends up somewhere between his play vs. Baltimore and at Buffalo and the eight games he was either inactive or limited to one or fewer catches in 2022…if Henry and Gesicki stay healthy…you get the idea. 

    That group may not, as many are wont to say, “keep defensive coordinators up at night,” but with O’Brien’s structure and scheming and the resulting improvement we should see from the quarterback, Jones or Zappe, the Pats won’t make it easy on those DC’s on Sunday afternoons. With or without Hopkins.

    We may not know for a while if Hopkins becomes a Patriot. It will be much longer before we know if enough of the ‘ifs’ come to fruition for the Pats to be successful.

    Not until the pads come off in January. So enjoy the rest of your June. Talk to you in July.

    Bob Socci enters his 11th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci and Instagram @bob.socci.

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