With the cancellation of their final minicamp practice on Wednesday, the Patriots will now wrap up the entirety of their offseason team activities and turn their sites to the start of training camp in late July. As always, the five total practice sessions that were open to the media should all be taken with a grain of salt, as Bill Belichick says, this is a time for teaching and learning not competition, but there was still plenty to glean about how the 2023 Patriots are coming together in the early stages.
Here are five key takeaways from the five practice sessions, setting the stage for what should be a competitive and interesting training camp that will then lead into the first preseason game against Texans at home before joint practice dates in back-to-back preseason weeks with the Packers and Titans.
Defensive Foundation Looks Strong
The Patriots defense returns every significant contributor from last season with the lone exception of long-time captain Devin McCourty. McCourty's loss is something to overcome but after spending their top three draft picks on that side of the ball, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the reinforcements that have arrived.
Start with the safety group, where Kyle Dugger enters the final year of his rookie deal and Adrian Phillips enters his fourth year with the team. Jabrill Peppers has grown significantly in his second season, while Jalen Mills and Josh Bledsoe have also flirted with the top groupings. Marte Mapu adds more intrigue to the position group as it appears they'll have the depth to piece together a plan to replace McCourty's valuable snaps. This versatile group really is the key to the defense, as Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo have plenty of pieces to play with.
First-round pick Christian Gonzalez has also seen plenty of top reps, as he provides a much-needed dose of size and athleticism at outside corner. However, Jack Jones was consistently around the ball in OTAs, making one of the best interceptions of the spring during Tuesday's minicamp practice, and appears to be back on track after a disappointing end to his rookie season. The cornerback group is almost as deep and versatile as the safety group and there's plenty of overlap between the two.
However, a new roster question arose during camp with the absence of Lawrence Guy, reportedly over contractual issues. Guy has been a long-time stalwart up front and without a clear fill-in waiting in the wings, his continued absence could open opportunities for second-year Sam Roberts, who, along with Jeremiah Pharms and undrafted rookie Justus Tavai, are the only unknown quantities in the group.
The defense was spinning the dial throughout OTAs, making life extremely difficult on the offense. It's little surprise that the veteran group is starting out ahead and so far they look like they'll be another top-10 defense. If there was only one key takeaway from this spring it's that the defense looks primed for a monster season.
Rejuvenated Mac and the 2 TE BOB Offense
After plenty of fits and starts in 2022, the Patriots offense appeared to be back on a normal installation routine this spring under Bill O'Brien's watchful eye. The entire offense, starting with Mac Jones, seems to be assimilating well with the new playbook, with reports that O'Brien was installing much of the Alabama offense that Mac was most familiar with. That's a positive sign for Mac's third season and one that should give him the opportunity to shine.
The two tight ends, Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki, were the most prominently and consistently involved, catching the majority of passes thrown during the quasi-competitive portions. Gesicki's length and athleticism stand out, as he'll boost the second tight end spot in the offense, providing Mac with a reliable downfield target. Jones and Gesicki's chemistry has already made noticeable strides.
Overall, the offense's work in five open sessions showed a group mostly on the same page, often establishing an offensive rhythm that was mostly absent in 2022. This shouldn't be a total surprise as O'Brien's experience is the perfect fit for getting the offense back on track. The question that remains is how much can O'Brien and Gesicki alone elevate them, because those were really the only new pieces on the field this spring, outside of some offensive line shuffling.
While the overall coordination is vastly improved, the next offensive takeaway could determine the heights to which the offense can reach this year
Offense Needs Smith-Schuster and Thornton, and maybe D-Hop too
Tyquan Thornton made a number of nice catches in the first OTA practice at the end of May but was absent from the next four sessions, dealing with a reported "soft tissue" injury. That one practice was still more than we saw from Juju Smith-Schuster, who is reportedly still recovering from injuries suffered last season as well. Smith-Schuster was expected to take over for reliable slot man Jakobi Meyers, while many hoped Thornton was poised to make a second-year jump that would add a needed element of speed to the offense.
After OTAs, it's hard to know what the team has in either of them at this point.
Without the duo at camp, the Patriots receiver group looked like an undermanned version from last year, relying primarily on DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne. With the two sixth-round rookies failing to turn any heads in OTAs, and a collection of undrafteds and unknowns stepping in at various times, the group has looked noticeably sparse and without the dynamic presences needed to challenge the hard-charging Patriots defense.
While Parker had a handful of signature contested catches during the final OTA practice, the lack of downfield, explosive threats was vaguely reminiscent of large portions of 2022. Thornton and Smith-Schuster have what the offense needs, but they'll need to jump in during training camp to start building momentum in the new offense.
DeAndre Hopkins is scheduled to visit the team this week and Tuesday's session made it apparent that his presence could make a significant difference and allay some injury concerns.
There's also some uncertainty at the two tackle spots, as Trent Brown arrived for the final minicamp practice but was a spectator doing mostly conditioning, leaving the rotations at the two tackle spots in place to conclude the spring. Calvin Anderson has been the top left tackle, while veteran Conor McDermott appeared to ascend to the top right tackle spot, overtaking Riley Reiff over the course of the OTA sessions.
There are many questions with those two starting spots as well as the depth behind them. The rookie trio of Jake Andrews, Sidy Sow and Atonio Mafi have all been involved at a number of different spots, while Bill Murray, Andrew Stueber and Chasen Hines have provided depth, but little appears set in stone outside of the expected interior starting trio. Will Brown return to his starting spot on the left? Or could he go back to the right side if the team likes Anderson's potential at left tackle? Could Sidy Sow keep developing and push his way into the mix at right tackle?
Training camp, with pads on, will be the time to find the answers to these questions.
There's good veteran depth in this group, but not many unknown ceilings beyond the first and second-year players who are trying to earn a role from scratch. Protecting Mac will be a huge key this season and Adrian Klemm's addition as the offensive line coach should help figure out exactly how the Patriots move forward at the important positions on the edges of the offensive line.
Who doesn't love a good specialist battle? Well, this year it looks like we will get two of them as rookie Bryce Baringer and veteran Corliss Waitman traded solid punts at times throughout the spring. On the kicker front, the other rookie Chad Ryland looked the part with his early kicks, showing accuracy and range, as well as the leg to handle kickoffs. But Nick Folk was in attendance for minicamp and remains his reliable old self, unphased by the prospect of competition.
The rookies have to be the favorites to win the kicker and punter jobs, but they're facing two vets that won't make it easy on them.
Both competitions should provide plenty of fun for training camp as Bill Belichick looks to turn up the pressure on the youngsters to see how well they can manage the NFL pressure that Folk and Waitman are already familiar with.