Patriots Mailbag: What We Learned About 2022 Draft Picks In First OTA

Plus: What can we expect from Cameron McGrone

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Reporters got their first glimpse at the 2022 Patriots this past Monday as New England held its first day of organized team activities.

While it’s important not to read too much into anything that occurs during a spring practice, that day on the Gillette Stadium practice fields did hint toward a few storylines we’ll be closely monitoring in the coming months.

On that note, let’s dive into some of this week’s mailbag questions:

@CheyenneSulli14
Do you think mcgrone will start next ti Bentley ? Or is he just a third down guy get pressure on qb stop any big plays etc ?
Ja’Whaun Bentley and Raekwon McMillan were the Patriots’ top two inside linebackers in Monday’s practice, but that obviously could change in the three-plus months before the season opener. Cameron McGrone, who’s coming back from a torn ACL that wiped out his rookie season, was limited in that practice and didn’t take part in competitive team drills, so it’s unclear at this stage exactly how he’ll fit in.

The Patriots do seem to be especially high on the 2021 fifth-round pick, though. Director of player personnel Matt Groh said during the draft that he’s “excited to see (McGrone) in an expanded role” this season, and outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick raved about the impression McGrone made during this three-week appearance at practice late last season, saying he “really didn’t look in any sort of way out of place on the field” with New England’s veterans.

“You kind of take it for granted where all these guys have been playing for months and months and playing games and stuff like that,” Belichick said before OTAs, “and then this kid comes on the field for the first time, going against NFL players, which he’d never done before, everybody else has been playing, he hadn’t played in a long time, he’s coming off a knee injury, and he looked like he belonged out there with everybody else.”

The presence of players like McGrone, McMillan and Mack Wilson illustrates a shift in defensive strategy for the Patriots, as all three are smaller and nimbler than the big thumpers New England traditionally has targeted at the position. Again, we’ll see exactly how they utilize the athletic McGrone, who at just 21 still is the third-youngest player on New England’s roster. But based on the hype he’s received thus far, I do expect him to have a substantial defensive role this season.

@Meepein
What is going on with Collins and Hightower? Any chance they could be back or are they gone gone gone?

The Patriots seem to be moving forward without Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. But both remain unsigned, so either could wind up back in Foxboro before the season begins.

Hightower clearly looked like he’d lost a step late last season, but I think he could provide value as a rotational/situational player. Same for Collins, who did just that after returning from Detroit. I don’t know whether Hightower would be open to a role like that after years as a defensive focal point, though, or whether the Patriots have any interest in bringing him back for his age-32 season.

They could be content to ride with their current linebacker group, which, outside of Bentley and Pro Bowl outside ‘backer Matthew Judon, is made up mostly of players who either lack substantial NFL experience (McGrone, Josh Uche, Ronnie Perkins) or have yet to play a snap for New England (McMillan, Wilson).

@Fkbullalrt
What’s your season stat projections for Tyquan Thornton?
I’ll go with around 25 catches, 300 or so yards and three touchdowns.

The second-round draft pick has talent and incredible speed, but I’m concerned about how his slight frame will hold up against more physical coverage, and snaps could be hard to come by with DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor currently above him on the depth chart.

I could be proven wrong, but I’m not anticipating a huge rookie season from Thornton.

@RealChrisSiegel
Other than the who is coaching baloney, is there any other tasty news? How do the rookies look?
There isn’t much to report on six members of the Patriots’ 10-man draft class, as offensive linemen Chasen Hines and Andrew Stueber were absent on Day 1 of OTAs and Thornton, cornerback Marcus Jones, running back Pierre Strong and defensive lineman Sam Roberts all were limited. We’ll see if any of them can make it back to full-go by the time OTAs conclude next month.

Here’s what I saw from the other four draftees in the Patriots’ lone open practice to date:

— It’s tough to glean much about any lineman from these non-padded sessions, but top pick Cole Strange (first round) looks like a Day 1 starter at left guard. He was in there with the top unit on Monday, and his high-end athleticism was apparent.

— Jack Jones (fourth round) saw plenty of action as an outside cornerback during team drills, though I’d put him behind veterans Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell and Jalen Mills on that depth chart at the moment. Jones also took reps at punt returner — something he rarely did at Arizona State — and received some 1-on-1 instruction from Bill Belichick during that period.

— Bailey Zappe (fourth round) unsurprisingly was QB3 in his first NFL practice, repping behind Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer. When the Patriots split their squad for starters-versus-backups 11-on-11s, Zappe ran the scout team. The wildly productive Western Kentucky product was a tad erratic, as one would expect from a rookie, going 4-for-8 in 7-on-7 drills. He attempted just two passes in full-team 11-on-11s, completing both.

— With Strong limited and veteran James White sitting out competitive drills, running back Kevin Harris (sixth round) saw a lot of work, including a handful of reps with Mac Jones. The battle for roster spots in the Patriots’ backfield will get very interesting if Harris impresses this summer.

@HalloedBThyName
What’s the going on with Bailey and his contract?he’s an all-pro punter?I don’t understand the rumors of cutting him to save money?why not extend him?
Here’s my view on the Jake Bailey situation: The Patriots brought in competition for him this offseason in the form of undrafted rookie punter Jake Julien. If Julien looks capable and Belichick and Co. believe they can trust him, then they cut or trade Bailey, whose hefty $4 million salary is nonguaranteed. If Bailey beats him out to keep his job, the Patriots extend him and cut Julien, allowing them to spread Bailey’s cap hit over multiple years.

Extending Bailey now would free up salary cap space for immediate roster moves, but the Patriots evidently don’t believe that’s necessary. It’s also worth noting that while Bailey still was effective last season, he wasn’t the All-Pro he was in 2020, so New England may be willing to move on if an upgrade presents itself.

@thisryanjackson
How do you deal with the summer lull in sports?
That’s one of the (many) perks of covering the NFL for a living: five weeks off each summer. With the league all but shutting down for the second half of June and most of July, don’t expect to see much from me or my fellow beat writer Dakota Randall from the end of OTAs until the start of training camp.

We’ll have plenty more spring practice coverage before that break begins, though. The Patriots are scheduled to hold five additional OTA/minicamp sessions that are open to reporters, with the next one set for next Tuesday.

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