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Patriots Pass-Catching Depth Standing Out at Training Camp 

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones is spreading the ball around in the opening week of camp.

Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (51) and tight end Jonnu Smith (81).
Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (51) and tight end Jonnu Smith (81).

The Patriots' pass-catchers are always a major storyline as head coach Bill Belichick attempts to surround quarterback Mac Jones with improved weapons.

Although the narratives around New England's skill group continue to point to the lack of a "number one" target, the improved depth at wide receiver has made an impression through three training camp practices, with Jones spreading the ball around nicely during team drills.

The holdovers from Jones's rookie season are involved with targets in camp practices for Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor, and New England's tight end duo. But newcomers such as DeVante Parker, rookie Tyquan Thornton, and second-year breakout candidate Tre Nixon are also making plays.

Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are alternating solid practices, as Smith had his best day of the spring and summer in Friday's session.

During an early 7-on-7 period on day three, Jones completed touchdown passes during red zone work to Smith (twice), Nixon, and Bourne, while Meyers caught two shorter passes.

Smith had arguably the two best plays of the session when he made an acrobatic contested catch over safety Kyle Dugger in the back of the end zone. He followed that up by beating Dugger a second time when Jones threw him open on a back-shoulder pass up the right seam.

Smith ran full speed ahead up the seam and then timed his movements up perfectly with Jones's dart to uncover at the last second by slamming on the breaks and turning for the ball, which is hopefully a sign of improved chemistry between quarterback and tight end.

"We got guys all over the board that can make plays," Smith told reporters after practice. "At the end of the day, it doesn't mean nothing if you don't make plays. We have a bunch of guys on paper, but we have to go out there and execute, and I have full confidence that we will."

After his first season didn't have the production that everyone had hoped for, Smith projects as a potential beneficiary of a simplified offensive system with Belichick more involved in the direction of the offense.

Along with Smith, newcomer DeVante Parker's size and body control immediately stand out in the first week of camp. Although Parker had a quieter day on Friday, he has made several contested grabs and looks smooth adjusting to Jones's passes in the end zone.

Plus, second-year Patriot receiver Kendrick Bourne flashes his separation ability every practice, losing cornerback Malcolm Butler on a sleek "blaze" out for a touchdown during team drills.

"It's just fun to watch, honestly. There are a lot of guys who can make a lot of plays. It's already showing glimpses of it," wide receiver Jakobi Meyers said on Friday. "I'm running routes, and just to see them go over the top of people or getting open, it's exciting to be out there."

Meyers also spoke about the impact that having two field-stretchers on the field at once could have on opposing defenses, which is the kind of speed the Patriots haven't necessarily had in recent years.

New England continues to work in the red zone in the first week, so we haven't seen Thornton and Agholor really open things up yet, but the flashes are positive, especially watching Thornton work as a gunner in punt coverage where his 4.28-second 40-yard dash shines.

Although it's very early for the Pats' rookie, his short-area quickness coming off the line of scrimmage and his straight-line speed catch the eye when you watch him run routes.

"Those guys, they can really fly. If you ever get to see it up close and personal, it's nice to see guys that can move that fast." Meyers told Patriots.com. "They keep safeties nervous."

As the primary contributors take shape, a sleeper to make the roster who emerged in minicamp, second-year wideout Tre Nixon, made a spring-like play for a touchdown on Friday.

Nixon, who is also working on special teams, an important role for a backend of the depth chart receiver, caught a Jones dime on a fade route from the slot with Shaun Wade in coverage.

Nixon's catch highlights a continued emphasis, at least in red zone work, to present Jones with as many drop-it-in-the-bucket throws as possible. The second-year quarterback seems to excel on those passes, where he can put air under the ball towards the sideline.

The question for the Patriots offense, which has torn up 7-on-7s but is more uneven in full team drills, is how will things progress when the pads go on, and the team begins working between the 20s?

On the one hand, open-field work will allow for more glimpses at New England's ability to attack defenses vertically. But as the physicality ramps up, life becomes harder on receivers.

Still, based on the first three training camp practices, there's reason to be optimistic about the depth of options at Mac Jones's disposal.

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