Patriots Mailbag: Are Critics Underestimating Mac Jones, New England?

Plus: Can Tre Nixon push for a roster spot?


June 10

The last day of school came early for the New England Patriots.

On Thursday, head coach Bill Belichick opted to cancel the Patriots’ final three spring practices (including the last day of mandatory minicamp), allowing players to get a head start on their summer vacations.

Some may stick around Foxboro, Mass., next week for voluntary workouts, but the full team won’t be back on the Gillette Stadium practice fields until the final week of July, when training camp begins.

The end of spring practice marked the start of the NFL’s dead period, with the league’s ever-churning news cycle slowing to a crawl until just before camps commence. So, don’t expect to see your usual stream of Patriots content on in the coming weeks.

But that stream hasn’t dried up just yet. As Patriots players return to their respective hometowns for the summer, let’s dive into some of your post-minicamp mailbag questions:

How does a short camp affect a player like Nixon who was playing well based off reports but is a borderline 53 man roster player?
Interesting question. The Patriots calling off their final three practices did rob a fringe player like Tre Nixon of a few more opportunities to impress the coaching staff. But Bill Belichick always says the real player evaluation doesn’t begin until training camp, anyway, with the spring mainly used for teaching and fundamentals.

Nixon was the breakout star of Patriots minicamp, catching all 10 of his targets and hauling in three highlight-reel deep balls from Mac Jones, including a gorgeous one-handed 60-yarder over top slot cornerback Jonathan Jones. The 2021 seventh-round pick took full advantage of Jakobi Meyers’ practice limitations and Kendrick Bourne’s excused one-day absence, logging substantial reps with the first-team offense and displaying a strong connection with Jones, with whom he often shared rides to the Patriots’ facility last season.

It was a great week for Nixon, who also saw special teams work as a punt returner and punt gunner. But he’ll need to keep this up in camp to have any chance of cracking the roster. And he would be far from the first Patriots wideout to flash in the spring, then fall off the map as cutdown day approached (remember Maurice Harris in 2019? Or Kristian Wilkerson last year?).

Nixon’s certainly helped himself thus far, but he needs a lot more to go right in order to stick in this veteran-heavy receiving corps. Meyers spoke Thursday about how tight he expects the competition for spots there to be.

Side note: It was cool to see Ernie Adams, who made the call to draft Nixon last year, watching from the sideline as the wideout showed out in Tuesday’s practice. Adams has been retired since last offseason, but he still spends time around the team, with Steve Belichick saying this week on Chris Long’s podcast that Bill Belichick still gives his longtime director of football research special projects he doesn’t trust anyone else to complete.

Don’t you feel like me that this teams better than people think cause Mac will be better? I just got this feeling people underestimating this draft and roster.
I can see both sides of this argument. On one hand, I don’t believe the Patriots’ roster, on paper, got better this offseason. If anything, it got slightly worse, with the lack of a clear replacement for J.C. Jackson still especially concerning. That doesn’t bode well for their chances in an AFC that saw a massive influx of high-profile talent in recent months. New England’s coaching questions on the offensive side also are a major wild card, as is its lack of experience at linebacker.

But that doesn’t mean the Patriots can’t deliver a better on-field product than the 2021 team that finished 10-7 and was blown out in the first round of the playoffs. If Jones takes another step toward true stardom, DeVante Parker stays healthy, the Patriots get bounce-back seasons from Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor, the young linebackers provide the desired speed and play-making ability and the star-less collection of corners fill the Jackson void by committee and the Joe Judge-Matt Patricia combo isn’t an outright disaster, then yeah, New England can contend.

That’s a lot of if’s, obviously. But the most important variable is Jones, and he’s looked the part so far this spring, impressing with his deep passing and wowing teammates with his leadership and commitment.

In a quarterback-driven NFL, the Patriots need their young signal-caller to progress in Year 2 to have any hope of improving. His teammates clearly believe he can.

“You say, ‘Has he taken control of the offense?’ That’s just a capital Yes — exclamation mark, exclamation mark,” Meyers said Thursday. “He’s the real deal.”

Will we get a healthy James White this season?
TBD. The veteran pass-catching back has yet to fully recover from the hip surgery that ended his 2021 season. He was present at both minicamp practices but was limited, sitting out all competitive periods and spending time rehabbing on a separate field.

Teammates are thrilled to have White — one of New England’s most respected players — back in the building, but it’s hard to predict how the 30-year-old will look after such a long and arduous layoff. If he can’t return to form, that would open the door for someone like J.J. Taylor or rookie Pierre Strong to take on a prominent third-down role.

Taylor saw considerable action in minicamp and played well, catching all seven of his targets out of the backfield, and Strong offers enticing speed and versatility. Rhamondre Stevenson also said he spent the offseason working on his route-running, and hybrid receiver Ty Montgomery took some reps at running back this week.

Do you think barring injuries that either Dalton Keene or Devin Asiasi make this team and are contributors on offense this season?
The Patriots almost certainly will carry at least three tight ends, so there’s a good chance of either Asiasi or Keene sticking around, unless both are beaten out by Matt Sokol or any tight ends the team may sign this summer. I’d give Asiasi stronger odds since Keene still can’t seem to stay on the field, though I could envision a sort of H-back role for the latter as the Patriots phase out the traditional fullback position.

Whether either of those 2020 third-rounders can contribute is a different story. Over their first two seasons, they’ve combined for a grand total of five catches on 12 targets for 55 yards and one touchdown. Keene missed all of last season with an injury, and Asiasi, buried behind Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, appeared in just one game, sitting out most of the year as a healthy scratch.

I’m not optimistic about either ever living up to his draft status.

What do YOU think the future of N’Keal Harry look like?
Not with the Patriots. I would be flabbergasted if Harry was on New England’s roster in Week 1.

The much-maligned receiver was mostly relegated to scout-team duty this week after skipping voluntary OTAs, with the majority of his reps coming with third-string rookie Bailey Zappe at quarterback.

By my count, Harry caught one of his four targets on Day 1 of minicamp and wasn’t targeted in competitive team drills on Day 2. On one of those targets, he was too easily outmuscled by cornerback Jalen Mills for a pass breakup — an issue that’s plagued the 6-foot-4, 225-pound pass-catcher throughout his career.

There was speculation that the Patriots might try Harry out at tight end, but he continued to run with the wideouts this week. In my view, he’s no higher than eighth on that depth chart behind DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Ty Montgomery, Tre Nixon and rookie Tyquan Thornton (and probably beneath Kristian Wilkerson, too).

Harry’s physical traits and status as a first-round draft pick likely will earn him a shot elsewhere, but evidently, no team has been willing to give up anything of value for the 24-year-old. Unless he flashes in training camp and garners newfound interest, I expect he’ll be cut.

Who will introduce Tre Nixon for his HOF speech in Canton, in 2042?
An 89-year-old Ernie Adams, of course.

Are the Celtics the Balls?

Yes. C’s in 6.

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