After concluding the offseason program with a two-day mandatory minicamp this week, the Patriots will now break until training camp begins in late July.
Although the versatility and talent on defense "won" the spring, the Patriots offense under offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien needed to make a stronger first impression after how things went last year, which is why O'Brien is returning to direct the offense in the first place.
With five OTA and minicamp practices to decipher, O'Brien's base concepts mix some newer elements and old reliables. For instance, New England's revamped tight end duo of Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki had spring practices feeling like it was 2011, and the Pats under-center play-action designs went hand-in-hand with the tight end's involvement.
Even in the early early stages, we also saw quarterback Mac Jones take more control at the line of scrimmage, with Jones acknowledging that there's more on his plate pre-snap, but he now has the "tools" to make necessary adjustments to get the offense out of bad plays.
O'Brien featuring tight ends, putting the quarterback to work pre-snap, and overall passing concepts aren't new to the Patriots personnel that were here in 2021. However, O'Brien could adapt the scheme by bringing variations from Alabama's playbook after two seasons in Tuscaloosa. O'Brien took over for current Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian with the Crimson Tide, putting his spin on Sark's system that Mac Jones ran for the 2020 national champs.
Although it remains to be seen how much Alabama-style offense the Patriots will play, incorporating more motion at the snap (example: jet motion) and run-pass options (RPOs) might be in the works. Last season, the Pats ranked 28th in using motion at the snap and only ran 21 RPOs with Jones under center, and one would expect the frequency of both offensive elements to increase significantly.
Returning to the Pats successful system for two decades while putting Mac in a similar offense to the one he thrived in at Alabama is the path O'Brien seems to be taking. Now, it's on Jones to elevate his game with better coaching and hopefully an improved supporting cast.
Q: Are the Patriots running the Erhardt-Perkins offense that they have run most of the time since Belichick has been in charge, or is there a new style under O'Brien? - Russ G
When discussing the EP system versus, let's say, a West Coast system, what we are primarily talking about is play-calling verbiage. EP systems speak a different language than the West Coast tree, but that isn't necessarily a driving factor in the play designs, which could still overlap depending on the coach and offensive personnel. With that said, the sense you get from speaking to the players is that O'Brien's installation this spring has more commonalities with what the Patriots were doing in 2021 than not. It's not an entirely new language for the holdovers from the McDaniels era. Still, I expect more RPO/spread elements than McDaniels's throwback early-down playbook (21 personnel, under center, etc.). Ultimately, there's enough continuity where everyone is on the same page.
Q: Who was your favorite player to watch during minicamp? - Chuch S
Although my number one answer is easily Marte Mapu, I'll have more on him in a different answer. To answer this question, I'll go with Mike Gesicki. I loved watching Gesicki run routes. He's a natural, fluid receiver with the straight-line speed to threaten up the seam or across the field while having enough wiggle to create separation. I knew about the explosiveness and catch radius but was surprised by the quickness, which showed up on 'inverted' crossers where Gesicki threatens the cross and then breaks outside (an Edelman special). He caught almost everything thrown his way throughout the spring.
Q: Hi Evan, who has been the biggest surprise (positive) so far this spring and the biggest disappointment? - Ashley
Let's talk about Mapu, who was easily the biggest positive surprise. The rookie linebacker/safety being immediately involved in multiple facets defensively was shocking, especially because he's in a red non-contact jersey due to an injured pec. Along with his involvement, Mapu plays sideline-to-sideline with excellent instincts and closing speed. The Pats might finally have an answer to spread offenses and mobile QBs. As for disappointments, I'd say JuJu Smith-Schuster's lack of participation. As a reporter, and probably for fans, too, it's just fun to see the new guys. For the team, you want to see Mac and JuJu already building that chemistry. Let's hope this is more about injury management than something more serious, and JSS is out there at the start of training camp.
Q: My gut tells me Trent Brown doesn't play for the Pats this year. Something just feels off. Do you see them possibly cutting or trading him? - Steve L
I'm not ready to write off Trent Brown, mainly because the Patriots need him or they're in big trouble at tackle. Brown's brief showing on day two of minicamp didn't look good, but he likes being a Patriot, and you'd hope this will be a wake-up call. I'm also not going to evaluate offensive linemen in shorts and T-Shirts during spring sessions, so we'll see if Calvin Anderson is the real deal in August. Ultimately, I don't think the Pats have enough starting tackles to make Brown expendable, and they'll have to live with the ups and downs. Although fourth-rounder Sidy Sow was working at right tackle in the spring, it's still disappointing that the Patriots didn't address offensive tackle with more significant resources this offseason. They knew they had to upgrade that spot, and now BOB might need to scheme around the OTs.
Q: Hey Evan, curious to know if you've noticed any change in Jerod Mayo's role through minicamp. Has he been more involved with the entire team, or still primarily just with the defense? - Katy L
On the practice field, Mayo's role didn't change much this spring. He's still working closely with Steve Belichick as a co-defensive coordinator. Mayo did speak about an expanded role in other areas behind the scenes, though, where he was more involved in college scouting and sat in on interviews for the OC and O-Line coach openings. On the scouting side, the Pats sent Mayo to Oregon for a private meeting with Christian Gonzalez before the draft. Although his on-field coaching role seems similar, head coach Bill Belichick might be opening more doors for Mayo these days to learn the personnel side of things.
Q: Do you see the Pats as having enough depth at CB? Any hints that either of those two late picks might contribute something this year? - Stephen B
I think cornerback is one of their best position groups on the roster, both depth-wise and talent-wise. Christian Gonzalez is the cherry on top for a group with four viable starting corners in Gonzalez and the three Joneses, while Jalen Mills could always bump back outside to corner if there are injuries. The Pats have extremely impressive depth in the secondary. As for the rookie corners, both Ameer Speed and Isaiah Bolden have the movement skills to make an NFL roster. Speed's length showed up a few times, while Bolden was elevated at one point as a sign that he's picking up the playbook. I'm not ready to project them as defensive contributors, as many league evaluators view them as more special teamers. But there could be a role for one of them as the fifth CB on the depth chart and a core special teamer.
Q: Do you think if the defense has a better training camp than the offense, we should be worried or chalk it up to having a great defense? - John G
I wouldn't focus too much on who wins or loses training camp practices when it's Patriots versus Patriots. These guys practice against one another daily, and the defense starts picking up on things. The most important camp practices will come in the joint sessions with the Packers and Titans, where we'll get a better idea of where the offense is at by going against a defense that is less familiar with their plays and personnel. I'm looking more at how clean the operation is and the overall process offensively rather than the results right now.
Q: Rumblings in the usual places about Christian Gonzalez's mental makeup/toughness. What's your read? - Jim G
Everyone knows I was a Christian Gonzalez's stan before the Patriots even drafted him (he was my CB1 heading into the draft). With that said, none of this is news. Gonzalez is a soft-spoken 20-year-old kid who is such a great athlete that football looks easy for him. For some, that gives off the illusion that he's not trying hard enough or doesn't have that dawg in him. But his coaches at Oregon insist that he has zero mental makeup issues, comparing his laid-back demeanor to former Pats cornerback Stephon Gilmore. If you were expecting a loud practice player with a rah-rah attitude, you were setting yourself up to be disappointed, and I don't think his emotional state will prevent him from shutting down receivers.
Q: Can you explain how a Lawrence Guy holdout would play out? When does he start losing meaningful $$ for missing mandatory things? How does the D-Line depth look without him? - Tucker T
In general, teams can fine players for missing mandatory practices, while some players might miss out on offseason workout bonuses by not participating in the spring. As a sign of good faith in negotiations, most teams don't fine veteran players for holding out during minicamp. Although those fines might start coming in training camp, players only miss out on real money once base salaries become guaranteed at the start of the regular season, and they begin sitting out games, where they'll lose their per-game roster bonuses. Honestly, I don't see Guy's leverage here. He might be their most sturdy early-down defensive end against the run, but he's in a rotational role with a 54.6% snap rate last year. Deatrich Wise has improved against the run, Christian Barmore delivers more splash plays, and Keion White is catching on quickly. I'm sure the Pats want Guy here, but they don't need him.