The Patriots practiced in front of the media for the first time in 2023 on Wednesday, and the workout was more reminiscent of what we've come to expect over the years. Bill O’Brien was back as offensive coordinator, replacing the departed Matt Patricia, and his command was noticeable from the start.
As O'Brien barked out instructions to the offense, there was a nature of efficiency and crispness that permeated the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, and Mac Jones seemed to welcome the change. While OTAs aren't designed to create much in the way of competition, it is worth noting the rhythm and tempo of the play calling and execution were, for lack of a better word, back to normal.
In fact, that's exactly the word Jones used when discussing O'Brien's immediate impressions thus far this spring.
"It's been really good, it's been normal," Jones began. "Everything we've done so far has been really good. I think the communication is the most important part, and trust, it all starts with that with a new coach. He's done a great job controlling the room. I feel like everyone is on the same page. We just have to continue to do it. I'm looking forward to working with him."
In fairness, things didn't look out of sorts last spring when Jones was connecting on numerous deep balls during the media-viewed portions of OTAs. It wasn't until training camp when we first caught a glimpse of the struggles that would ultimately tell the story of the 2022 Patriots offense.
But for one day at least those struggles were far away in the rearview mirror. Jones operated with conviction and for the most part threw passes on time throughout the sunny afternoon. Tyquan Thornton in particular seemed to be quite active, catching an assortment of screens, outs, crossers and one deep slant that had all the makings of a big play.
Jones is well aware of last season's struggles and is working toward regaining the trust of his teammates and building toward better things in 2023.
"With OB there's a lot of familiarity and we're just working on that trust," Jones said. "Every year is a new year and it's a lot easier to say that after you have a really good year, but our goal is to win every game that we play and learning how to do that.
"There are a lot of things I can do better and grow upon but it's all about this year. We have new faces in the room and it's all about earning the respect of everybody every day. So, I'm starting fresh just like everybody else and I'm going to run my own race and look up at the end and see where I'm at and I think everybody else will do that too."
So far that race has a more normal look to it.
Here are one man's observations from Wednesday OTA practice in Foxborough.
Attendance at OTAs is voluntary and there were several missing players from the practice. Some appeared for portions of the workout but then retreated to the lower rehab field while others weren't spotted at all. Among those not seen included (unofficially) Nick Folk, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Matthew Judon, Marcus Jones, Rhamondre Stevenson, Joe Cardona, Christian Gonzalez, Chasen Hines, Isaiah Bolden, Mike Onwenu, Trent Brown, Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy. Onwenu reportedly underwent ankle surgery earlier in the offseason, which likely explains his absence.
Bruins coach Jim Montgomery was present and watched practice on the fields. Devin McCourty, who retired in March, also was on hand for the workout.
Rookie third-round pick Marte Mapu donned a red, non-contact jersey. Mapu tore a pectoral muscle during the Senior Bowl week and is recovering. He did take part in some of the drills and saw reps alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley at linebacker during some 7-on-7 work.
Joe Judge was very much involved with the special teams work, and Matthew Slater spoke after practice about the benefits of having him back in that role. "It's been like riding a bike," Slater said. "He's been instrumental in my career. It's going to be a big boost for us working with Cam [Achord], Joe Houston and Joe."
Slater and Bill Belichick were asked about the new touchback rule, which will give the receiving team possession at the 25-yeard line off any fair catch of a kickoff even if it doesn't take place in the end zone. Both were less than pleased. Belichick pointed to Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Kansas City's Andy Reid, who have both spoken against the rule change. "I know Coach Harbaugh's pretty involved in that, Coach Reid. I think they voiced some comments on it; I would probably agree with things they said."
Slater was much more outspoken on the topic, thoughtfully responding to the idea of changing a play he's been heavily involved in throughout his 15-year career.
"I'm just not convinced that our league is always going to do what's in the best interest of our players," Slater began. "We can talk about Thursday Night Football. That's easy. That's low-hanging fruit. But let's talk about what happens after our players are done playing. Let's talk about grass vs. turf."
"Football has been played for over 100 years and it's clear to me that they're trying to eradicate this play. But the fact is they haven't done a thing to make this play safer. I don't believe that this is truly in the name of player health and safety."
Kyle Dugger, J.J. Taylor, Demario Douglas, Myles Bryant and Jabrill Peppers fielded punts from both Corliss Waitman and rookie sixth-round pick Bryce Baringer. Bryant muffed one kick from Baringer, who displayed good hang time on most of his kicks. Both punters unleashed several impressive kicks during the period.
Last spring we got an early glimpse of potential roles for Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell as the undrafted rookies spent all their time working with Slater on special teams techniques. On Wednesday, first-year defensive back Quandre Mosely and rookie sixth-round pick Ameer Speed spent the bulk of the day doing the same.
The pre-practice warmups included work with resistance bands as some defensive backs sprinted while tethered to the goal posts while tight ends and other defensive backs dragged a weighted sled behind them.
Second-year running back Kevin Harris appeared to be thinner than he looked as a rookie. Harris is listed at 5-10, 225 pounds, the same as he was a year ago, but the former South Carolina standout showed some quickness and looked to have shed a few pounds.
Fellow second-year running back Pierre Strong was active throughout the workout, catching some passes and picking up a couple of carries during the non-padded action.
In the aftermath of McCourty's retirement, Jalen Mills tweeted that he had experience as a safety. On Wednesday he took plenty of reps on the back end alongside Dugger and Adrian Phillips. He came up with an interception off a deflected pass – one of five picks on the day for the secondary. Three of those picks were thrown by Trace McSorley while Jones and Bailey Zappe added one each.
Undrafted rookie free agent Malik Cunningham wore No. 64 in a white jersey and spent most of practice with the receivers. The dual-threat quarterback out of Louisville took part in several reps and caught a few passes during 7-on-7s. Cunningham closed practice at quarterback working with a variety of young players who didn't get as many reps earlier in the day.
Rookie kicker Chad Ryland was impressive in his first showing in front of the media. Working toward the far end zone into the skinny goal posts, which are about half the width of normal ones, Ryland connected on his first five field goals before missing his last two. Both of the misses came from long range and the first would have been good with conventional uprights. He showed a strong leg and accuracy to match.
The entire team closed the day with conditioning runs on the hill between the rehab area and the practice fields.
In addition to Jones and Slater, Bentley, Thornton and David Andrews spoke with the media.
The Patriots will continue this phase of the offseason this week and the media is scheduled to be in attendance once again on June 6. All OTA practices are closed to the public.
Check out photos from Patriots OTAs on Tuesday, May 23 and Wednesday, May 31, 2023.