The New England Patriots began organized team activities on Monday. On Thursday, they’ll open practice to reporters for the first time this spring, giving the media an initial look at their 2023 squad in action.
Well, something resembling action. OTAs are non-padded and non-contact, with players running through drills in helmets and shorts. They’re also focused more on teaching than competition. That doesn’t begin in earnest until training camp in late July, when players get to strap on full pads and square off in live-contact situations.
But these spring practices do offer a valuable preview of what the Patriots’ roster, scheme and overall approach might look like this season. Ahead of their first open practice, here are the questions we want to see answered at each position:
(UPDATE: The Patriots canceled Thursday’s practice. Their first open OTA now is scheduled for next Wednesday, May 31.)
Quarterback: Can Mac Jones reestablish himself as the clear-cut starter?
No Patriots player is under more pressure this season than Jones, and he should benefit more than anyone from the arrival of new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who replaces last year’s disastrous Matt Patricia/Joe Judge combo. The experienced O’Brien should be able to get Jones back to the level he played at as a rookie, when he was Offensive Rookie of the Year runner-up and a Pro Bowl alternate. But head coach Bill Belichick’s offseason comments hinted at a possible quarterback competition, so Jones might first need to beat out second-year backup Bailey Zappe to prove he deserves QB1 status. Jones looking sharp this spring would quell a lot of the team’s QB concerns.
Running back: Who will step up behind Rhamondre Stevenson?
Stevenson is coming off a stellar 2022 season, but he can’t be a one-man show again this year. The Patriots need reliable depth options behind their bell cow, whose workload last season was the heaviest by a New England back in more than a decade. Free agent pickup James Robinson rushed for 1,000 yards just three years ago and caught 80 passes over his first two seasons, but he’s coming off an underwhelming ’22 campaign in his return from a torn Achilles. The speedy Pierre Strong was viewed as a potential James White successor when the Patriots drafted him, but he hardly played as a rookie. Ty Montgomery won the job as New England’s third-down back last summer but suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. The Patriots need one or more of those players to take some weight off Stevenson’s back.
Wide receiver: Who’s the third receiver?
It seems likely JuJu Smith-Schuster and DeVante Parker will occupy the top two spots on the wideout depth chart. But who’s third? Is it Kendrick Bourne, who spent most of last season in Patricia’s doghouse after a breakout year in 2021? Or is it Tyquan Thornton, who played more than 500 snaps as a rookie but managed just 22 receptions and topped 50 receiving yards just once? That’ll be a fun roster battle to watch. The Patriots also added a couple of intriguing rookie fliers to this group in sixth-round picks Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas.
Tight end: What’s the Patriots’ plan for Mike Gesicki?
The Patriots don’t typically target tight ends like Gesicki, who’s more of a super-sized slot receiver with his mismatch potential in the passing game and limited blocking ability. So it’s hard to predict exactly how he’ll fit into their offense. O’Brien has run successful two-tight end outfits in the past, though, including in his last stint at Patriots OC. Will we see similarities to how he used Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2011, with Hunter Henry playing the former and Gesicki the latter?
Offensive line: How will the tackle group shake out?
Trent Brown and Riley Reiff project as the starters, but can Calvin Anderson or Conor McDermott challenge them? Can fifth-round rookie Sidy Sow provide value at tackle despite not playing the position since 2018? The Patriots can clear $8 million salary cap space by cutting Brown, so his spot could be in jeopardy if any of New England’s reserve options impress this spring and summer. Elsewhere on the line, the Patriots’ interior reserves should see plenty of reps as right guard Mike Onwenu recovers from offseason ankle surgery. Draft picks Jake Andrews (center/guard) and Atonio Mafi (guard) will be players to watch, as will left guard Cole Strange, who is eyeing a Year 2 leap under new O-line coach Adrian Klemm.
Defensive line: How will Keion White fit in?
The only change to New England’s D-line this offseason was the arrival of White, a big, fast, physical, no-nonsense end whom the Patriots drafted in the second round. We could see the Georgia Tech product rotate with veteran D-end Deatrich Wise, who shattered his previous career high in snaps played last season, or be used as a stand-up outside linebacker. Or both. White’s versatility is part of what makes him an exciting addition to New England’s front seven.
Linebacker: What’s Marte Mapu’s position?
Unfortunately, this might not be answered during OTAs, as Mapu is recovering from surgery to repair a torn pec and might not be ready until training camp. But it will be fascinating to see how Belichick deploys the third-round rookie, who lined up everywhere from deep safety to slot corner to overhang linebacker to edge rusher at Sacramento State. If the Patriots plan to play him at his listed position of linebacker, he’d be by far the smallest and most athletic member of that position group at 6-foot-3, 216 pounds.
Cornerback: Will Christian Gonzalez be a Day 1 starter?
As a first-round pick who was projected as a top-10 prospect, Gonzalez will be expected to become the Patriots’ next great lockdown cornerback. But will he be an instant starter like 2022 first-rounder Strange was a year ago, or will the coaching staff ease him in? If Gonzalez quickly develops and Jack Jones returns to the team’s good graces following his late-season suspension, this could be one of New England’s deepest position groups.
Safety: Who replaces Devin McCourty?
The lone departure from last year’s New England defense was a big one. The Patriots don’t have an obvious in-house replacement for McCourty, who didn’t miss a game over his final seven seasons before retiring in March, but they do have several potential candidates. Safeties Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers and Joshuah Bledsoe and cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant and Marcus Jones all have varying levels of experience at McCourty’s free safety spot, and defensive play-caller Steve Belichick said the team is holding an “open competition” at the position. Mills will be one to watch, as he reportedly is changing his position from corner to safety. Bledsoe, who often subbed in for McCourty in training camp last summer, is a dark horse. In all likelihood, it’ll take multiple players to replace the longtime Patriots captain, who also wore the green dot as the primary defensive communicator.
Specialists: Will both rookies win out?
The Patriots could field a rare all-rookie kicker/punter duo after drafting Chad Ryland in the fourth round and Bryce Baringer in the sixth. Both will need to prove they can hack it at the NFL level, though, and win roster battles against veterans Nick Folk and Corliss Waitman, respectively. Those began this week and should continue through the summer.