Our first look at the 2023 New England Patriots will occur at Wednesday's organized team activity session at Gillette Stadium.
With the first two phases focusing mainly on strength and conditioning, teams can now begin playing non-padded football with 7-on-7, 9-on-7, and full team 11-on-11s permitted over the next four weeks, culminating in a three-day mandatory minicamp (June 12-14).
This week's workouts aren't mandatory. But the Patriots have good attendance this spring, and Wednesday's practice will be open to the media for our first glimpse at the Patriots in 2023.
The headliner is our first exposure to offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's system. O'Brien is back for a second stint where he's expected to completely revamp an offense that was disjointed throughout the 2022 season.
When the Patriots announced the hire in January, we did a deep dive into O'Brien's tendencies and core concepts, and those theories still hold. Expect plenty of old reliables (empty formations, quick-game concepts, creating mismatches, bunch and switch releases, gap scheme run game). However, there will surely be new wrinkles after O'Brien's decade away from Foxboro that'll likely include run-pass options (RPOs), and Alabama-style motion plays.
Historically, O'Brien's offenses have hovered around a 25% play-action rate. O'Brien isn't a play-action heavy play-caller, typically leaning on 11 and 12-personnel formations. So we'll see how the Pats new OC plans to get the best out of his current personnel.
Along with an initial impression of the second Bill O'Brien era, here are eight roster-related storylines we'll have our eyes on at Wednesday's practice:
Check out photos of the Patriots offense working out at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, May 18, 2023.
1. A Quarterback Competition (or not) for the Patriots?
My gut says we'll see a reinvigorated Mac Jones leading the Patriots offense like an unquestioned QB1, and how the reps unfold will mirror that. The Patriots should be focusing on preparing Jones for the season, emphasizing making their 2021 first-rounder work at all costs rather than a competition. If Jones flops during the early portion of the regular season, that rightfully would open the door for backup Bailey Zappe. Even though it should be Jones's job to lose right now, you can't rule out the Pats giving Zappe reps with other first-teamers to push Jones.
2. First-Look at First-Rounder Christian Gonzalez and the CB Domino Effect
In a five-second video posted by our social media team, Gonzalez's silky smooth transitions in a simple DB drill had us all buzzing. There's a ton of excitement around the Pats first-rounder, whose athleticism could have a "this is what a first-round pick looks like" type of feel. It'll also be interesting to see how the rest of the CB room sorts itself out alongside Gonzalez. Does Jon Jones play the field corner spot where he'll still rep on the outside? Do the second-year Joneses become full-time factors, either with Jack bumping JJones back inside or Marcus Jones taking over in the slot?
My way-too-early forecast is that the top three will be Gonzalez (boundary), Jon Jones (field CB), and Marcus Jones in the slot. However, if Jack can work his way back into the rotation, it would create flexibility in the secondary for Jon and Marcus to take some reps at deep safety. Although I'm not expecting that to be a regular occurrence, there's sound reasoning to believe that those two's range and speed would allow them to cover a lot of ground back there.
3. How will the Patriots Replace a Legend at Safety?
The Patriots have big shoes to fill with Devin McCourty retiring after 13 terrific seasons. Over the last decade, McCourty's role as the primary post-safety and last line of defense has been essential in Bill Belichick's defense. We've floated a few possibilities from more two-high safety shells, Kyle Dugger transitioning to free safety with Jalen Mills filling in as a tight end stopper, and other corners (Jon Jones, Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant) taking reps as centerfielders.
The coaching staff may view McCourty's responsibilities as too challenging for one player to fill DMac's role, resulting in wholesale schematic changes. For example, New England could transition to a two-high based defense where they major in cover-two, quarters coverage, and then rotate post-snap (buzz) into single-high structures from there, putting less stress on a pure centerfielder to keep the top on the defense. They could also play post-safety by committee, making themselves more unpredictable than with DMac, while spreading out the future Patriots Hall of Famers' many responsibilities.
4. Full Steam Ahead on the Rookie Wide Receiver Hype Train?
It's uncommon to see two sixth-rounders receive this much post-draft hype. But Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas have legit upside. Boutte's health and overall mindset will determine his standing on the roster, while Douglas's speed and ability to play through contact needs to translate at this level. With four veterans in the mix, there's an opening for at least one of the rookies to earn a spot on the initial 53-man roster. Would the Pats, who typically keep five wideouts (not including Matthew Slater), entertain keeping six receivers? It's also possible that either Boutte or Douglas pushes a veteran to the trade block. Although the spring is a teaching period, this is when the foundation is laid for those camp battles this summer.
5. Who are the Early Front Runners to Start on the Offensive Line?
Last spring, we arrived to Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn flipping sides at tackle. Brown's whereabouts and who has the inside track at the other tackle spot, likely a competition between free agent additions Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson, will be telling. The Patriots are banking on those three veterans, who, admittedly, all have varying question marks, to stabilize the offensive tackle spots. The success or failure of the current options along the offensive line will significantly impact if this offense turns itself around this season.
Another offensive line-related topic is also the beginning of the Adrian Klemm era. My understanding is that the Patriots significantly watered down their blocking system a year ago, with fewer controls at the line of scrimmage for veteran center David Andrews and the quarterback, which led to constant issues. The five-man unit also wasn't playing on a string, leading to individual and assignment-based breakdowns. The Patriots new coaching staff needs to re-established a blocking system and baseline fundamentals that were hallmarks of the dynasty-era Pats under Dante Scarnnechia. It doesn't need to be Scar's playbook, per se, but it should match the level of sophistication.
6. RB Roulette: Replacing Damien Harris and Will a Receiving Back Emerge?
Another offseason transition has occurred at running back, where the Patriots didn't retain Damien Harris after a productive four seasons with the team. Instead, the Pats will pivot to second-year running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris while adding veteran James Robinson to the room. Hopefully, they'll also get something from holdover Ty Montgomery, who is healthy after a season-ending injury a year ago. Although everyone is competing for playing time behind Rhamondre Stevenson, the Pats need to replace Harris's touches and find a James White-like receiving back. I would give all the opportunities in the world to Strong, who flashed in limited opportunities as a rookie, with noticeable short-area quickness and a breakaway gear to generate big plays. After playing over 66% of the offensive snaps as a true do-it-all back, the workload wore Stevenson down late in the year. Although Rhamondre is the clear-cut RB1, he needs some help, and there are talented ball carriers on the roster that shouldn't be held back any longer.
7. How Will the Pats Utilize Free-Agent Additions JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki?
We'll get our first look at the Patriots two biggest splashes in free agency on Thursday. Smith-Schuster projects as the Pats new target magnet playing the "Z" receiver role in Bill O'Brien's offense. The idea will likely be to set JSS up with as many catch-and-run opportunities as possible through the middle of the field. However, as more power slot than a shifty jitterbug, it'll be interesting to see how they scheme him open. As for Gesicki, he's a seam and red-zone threat while possibly horizontally stretching the field running crossers. How does that skill set complement Hunter Henry's, and who will offer this offense something as an in-line blocker? Now is the time to iron those things out.
8. Laying the Foundation for a Year-Two Leap from WR Tyquan Thornton
The rookie wideouts and newly signed pass-catchers will be fun to watch, but the reality is, other than the quarterback, this offense only hits its ceiling if Thornton starts playing like the 50th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Although some of that is on him to refine his routes and continue adding mass on his frame to play through contact, making Thornton work is also on the coaches. The Pats must find ways to unleash Thornton's 4.28-speed by creating foot races for him all over the field. Bring Thornton in motion, create free releases for him at the line of scrimmage, and get him the ball while he's moving at full speed. Thornton only projects as a high-volume receiver if he consistently wins one-on-ones against man coverage, which is mainly on him. But, even at his floor, his speed should be a dangerous element if utilized correctly.
DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer