The New England Patriots’ mandatory minicamp wound up being an abbreviated affair, with Bill Belichick canceling the third and final practice as heavy rain pelted the Foxboro, Mass., area.
Hours later, the Patriots called off their final two voluntary organized team activities, as well, officially concluding their spring practice schedule. They won’t be back on the field until training camp kicks off in late July.
Though this week’s minicamp was shorter than anticipated, there still was much to learn from New England’s two practice sessions. Here are eight of our top takeaways after watching both:
1. Is Isaiah Wynn a right tackle now?
This week’s most notable development was Wynn’s position change. A left tackle throughout his career, the Patriots bumped the veteran bookend to the other side of the line upon his return to Gillette Stadium. Wynn, who chose to skip the voluntary portion of the Patriots’ offseason program, has never played a snap at right tackle in his NFL career, and he said he never did so in college, either, only lining up there in a handful of practices as a Patriots rookie in 2018.
Whether this is merely a spring experiment or a permanent shift remains to be seen — Bill Belichick wouldn’t say much on the matter Wednesday, only offering that the Patriots “build (their) depth in training camp and in the spring” — but it was notable that Trent Brown, last year’s starting right tackle, exclusively played on the left side in the team’s open OTAs and minicamp practices.
This switcheroo, if it persists, will be one of the top storylines to watch in Patriots training camp. Wynn also remains a possible preseason trade candidate, as doing so would wipe his entire $10.4 million guaranteed salary off their salary cap.
2. Matt Patricia seemed to be the top offensive play-caller
Patricia and Joe Judge both appeared to relay plays into the offensive huddle at times, but the former did so during 11-on-11 drills. This came after The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported Patricia — the former longtime Patriots defensive coordinator who’s now coaching New England’s O-linemen — was the “early favorite” to call plays this season.
Howe’s report also indicated Belichick had yet to make a final decision there, so this remains an open question — the most important one facing the Patriots’ Mac Jones-led offense this season.
3. Mac Jones’ deep ball is on point
Jones has taken heat for his lack of elite arm strength, but he had no problems firing the ball downfield this week.
The second-year quarterback connected on multiple highlight-reel deep balls across the two minicamp practices, hitting Tre Nixon, DeVante Parker and Jonnu Smith on Tuesday and Nixon (twice), Smith and Nelson Agholor on Wednesday. All seven deep completions were into tight windows and beat good coverage. Jones’ was 7-for-8 overall on passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, with his lone miss coming when he overshot Kendrick Bourne on a go route.
Jones ranked 18th in the NFL in deep passing attempts as a rookie, per Pro Football Focus, with an average depth of target on those throws that ranked 30th and a passer rating that ranked 24th among 35 QBs with at least 20 deep attempts.
Deep balls were a staple of Jones’ game during his terrific final season at Alabama. Don’t be surprised if we see him sling it more often in Year 2.
4. Don’t sleep on Tre Nixon
With Bourne excused from one minicamp practice and Jakobi Meyers limited in both, Nixon saw a sharp uptick in first-team reps — and capitalized.
The 2021 seventh-round draft pick hauled in the three aforementioned deep completions from Jones — two came against top slot cornerback Jonathan Jones, including a one-handed, 60-yard beauty on Wednesday — and caught all 10 of his targets in competitive team drills across the two sessions. He was the breakout star of minicamp.
Here’s where it’s important to note that numerous Patriots receivers have flashed in the spring and then wilted before cutdown day (see: Maurice Harris, Kristian Wilkerson, etc.) and that Nixon remains a roster long shot in a deep, veteran-heavy position group. He’d likely need an injury to Parker, Bourne, Meyers, Nelson Agholor or rookie Tyquan Thornton or for someone like Agholor or Meyers to be traded in order to crack the 53-man roster — and that’s only if he maintains this level of play in training camp.
But Ernie Adams’ final draft pick sure delivered an impressive audition this week. Nixon also saw
5. The Patriots’ cornerback competition will be fun to watch
It’s difficult to identify any favorites in New England’s cornerback battle, which looks to be as wide open as any entering training camp. Nearly every member of that position group saw reps with the first-team defense, including fourth-round rookie Jack Jones, who grabbed an interception and forced a fumble in Wednesday’s practice (but also allowed two chunk-play completions to Agholor).
Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, Joejuan Williams and Jones all are competing for the two starting outside corner jobs, with Myles Bryant and third-round rookie Marcus Jones battling incumbent Jonathan Jones for reps in the slot. Justin Bethel is in the mix, as well, though the Patriots would prefer to limit him to special teams, where he’s one of the NFL’s best at covering punts.
With J.C. Jackson gone, there’s no Pro Bowl-caliber cover man in this group for the first time in a decade. How the Patriots fill that void through new personnel and scheme adjustments will be a major defensive storyline.
6. James White still is working his way back
White has yet to fully recover from his season-ending hip surgery. The veteran third-down back was at both minicamp practices but in a limited capacity, sitting out all competitive periods. In his absence, J.J. Taylor enjoyed a productive week as a pass-catcher, hauling in all seven of his targets in 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s, including a nice over-the-shoulder ball from Mac Jones.
Rookies Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris also worked their way in, each catching two passes. Harris, who’s built like a truck, also had a drop. Strong’s place on the roster likely is safe regardless as a fourth-round pick, but Harris (sixth round) and third-year pro Taylor are looking to prove they deserve spots.
7. Cole Strange looks like a Day 1 starter
It’s tough to glean much of anything about O-line play during these non-padded practices, but it would be a surprise if, barring injury, Strange is not the Patriots’ starting left guard in Week 1. New England’s first-round draft pick was a staple on the first unit in every open spring practice.
Strange, whose intensity caused some consternation among Patriots defenders this week, will be among the top players to watch once the pads come on this summer.
8. The Patriots are trying out a lot of returners
With Gunner Olszewski gone, the Patriots will have new punt and kick returners this season, and several players saw reps in those roles this week. Bourne, Nixon, Jack Jones, Bryant, Kyle Dugger, Malcolm Perry and Marcus Jones all returned punts either during or after practice, and Strong and Montgomery showcased their kick-return talents.
We’d still view Marcus Jones as the favorite to land one or both of those jobs given his historic return-game production in college, but he was a limited participant this week (wearing a red non-contact jersey) as he continues to recover from double shoulder surgery. We’ll see if he’s full-go by the time training camp begins.