The New England Patriots are into the organized team activities portion of their offseason program, with players taking the field for competitive drills for the first time this spring.
Between voluntary OTAs and mandatory minicamp, the Patriots are scheduled to hold a total of 11 practices before breaking for the summer. These are important auditions for everyone on New England’s roster, but especially so for a select handful of Patriots players.
Here are seven players with the most to prove in these spring practices:
TE Jonnu Smith
Smith’s debut season in New England was, quite frankly, a disaster. He caught just 28 passes (with nine of those coming in the first two games), scored one touchdown and struggled as a run blocker — while playing on a contract that pays him $12.5 million per year. The terms of that deal lock him into a roster spot for this season, so the Patriots will need to hope for better results in Year 2. Smith’s mere presence at OTAs is a positive start, as he chose to skip the voluntary portion of last year’s offseason program. We also should see some changes in how the 26-year-old is utilized now that the Patriots’ offense no longer features a traditional fullback.
WR Nelson Agholor
Another underwhelming member of the Patriots’ 2021 free agent class, Agholor could see his playing time reduced following the offseason additions of veteran DeVante Parker and rookie Tyquan Thornton. The 29-year-old is expecting a bounce-back this season, but he’ll need to earn his reps and targets after being outplayed by Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne in his first Patriots campaign. Agholor could even be a preseason trade candidate if Thornton (more on him below) catches on quickly.
LB Cameron McGrone
The Patriots seem to be very high on McGrone, and they haven’t been shy about showing it. Director of player personnel Matt Groh gave him an unprompted shoutout during the draft. Outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick raved about him before OTAs, saying the 2021 fifth-round pick fit right in with New England’s veterans during his three-week practice cameo late last season. With Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins gone from the Patriots’ linebacker room, McGrone has a clear path to playing time after his de facto redshirt. He was limited in Monday’s OTAs opener, however, so we’ve yet to see him on the field in competitive team drills.
CB Malcolm Butler
The Patriots shouldn’t expect Butler to be the top-flight cover man he was back in 2015 and 2016. But if the Super Bowl XLIX hero looks like the player he was two season ago, when he had 100 tackles and 14 pass defended for the Tennessee Titans, then he’ll be a valuable addition to a revamped Patriots cornerback group that no longer features Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson. Can Butler still be that player, though? That’s difficult to predict as he returns from his one-year foray into retirement. The 32-year-old did look spry on Day 1 of OTAs and will be very much in the mix for a starting spot.
OL Cole Strange
The Patriots’ top 2022 draft pick comes in with lofty expectations after New England selected him far higher (29th overall) than analysts had anticipated. Fair or not, the pressure will be on Strange to justify his questionable draft slot, all while making the significant jump from the FCS to the NFL. You can expect to see a lot of the Chattanooga product this season, though, as he looks like a Day 1 starter at left guard.
WR Tyquan Thornton
Another perceived draft-day reach, Thornton went far earlier than expected (50th overall after a Patriots trade-up) and boasts a radically different skill set than New England typically targets at the receiver position. He’s blazingly fast (4.28-second 40-yard dash) but worryingly skinny and must prove he can hold up physically against bigger, tougher NFL cornerbacks. He isn’t off to the greatest start in that regard, as he spent most of the first OTA on a separate rehab field and did not take part in team drills.
LB Josh Uche
Is this finally the year of the Uche breakout? We thought the 2020 second-rounder was poised for a big season after he impressed last summer, but he spent most of 2021 buried on the depth chart and didn’t have a sack or tackle for loss after Week 2. That depth chart now is much emptier following the departures of Van Noy, Hightower and Collins, and Steve Belichick said he envisions a prominent role for Uche in Year 3.