Patriots OTAs Observations: Mac Jones Looks Like Clear QB1 In New Offense

Plus: A notable new role for one highly paid UDFA


May 31, 2023

FOXBORO, Mass. — The 2023 New England Patriots practiced in front of reporters for the first time Wednesday. Here’s everything we observed during the team’s first open organized team activities session outside Gillette Stadium:

Helmets and shorts. All spring practices are non-padded and feature no live contact.

The following players were not spotted at practice:

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
CB Christian Gonzalez
OLB Matthew Judon
G Mike Onwenu
OT Trent Brown
K Nick Folk
CB Isaiah Bolden
DL Christian Barmore
DL Lawrence Guy
DL Davon Godchaux
OL Chasen Hines
LS Joe Cardona

All OTAs are voluntary for players. It’s unclear which of these sat out due to injuries and which chose not to attend. Smith-Schuster (the Patriots’ highest-profile free agent signing) and Gonzalez (their first-round draft pick) were arguably the team’s two most notable offseason additions, but reporters will need to wait a bit longer to watch them in action.

Cornerback/receiver/return man Marcus Jones, special teamer Cody Davis and tight end Scotty Washington were present but not participating. They spent the session doing conditioning work on a side field.

Running back Rhamondre Stevenson and sixth-round rookie wide receiver Kayshon Boutte both were limited. Third-round rookie linebacker Marte Mapu practiced in a red jersey as he works his way back from pre-draft pectoral surgery.

One of the biggest questions entering spring practice was whether we’d see a legitimate quarerback competition between Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe.

Well, one still might materialize in the coming months. But at least in this practice, Jones looked like the clear QB1. The third-year starter took first reps in every drill, and while Zappe saw some action with first-team skill players, he mostly worked with reserves.

The clearest indication came when the Patriots came together for the first full-team 11-on-11 period of practice. Jones took the first series, working with the top offensive line, wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton, tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki, and running back Pierre Strong. When Zappe came on for the second drive, his skill players were receivers Demario Douglas, Raleigh Webb and Tre Nixon, tight end Matt Sokol and running back Ty Montgomery.

Jones finished a perfect 13-for-13 in 11-on-11 drills, with the offense moving fluidly under the direction of new coordinator Bill O’Brien. Nine of his completions went to Thornton (two), Gesicki (two), Bourne (two), Henry (two) or DeVante Parker, with Strong, Douglas, J.J. Taylor and Kevin Harris each adding one reception apiece. Zappe was 8-for-9, completing his passes to Montgomery (three), Thornton, Douglas, Nixon, running back James Robinson and tight end Anthony Firkser.

Third-stringer Trace McSorley was erratic with his ball placement and had two passes intercepted.

Thornton is coming off a rocky debut season, but he put forth a strong first impression Wednesday. The second-year wideout was heavily involved with three catches on three targets in 11-on-11 drills and several more in 7-on-7s, looking smooth and confident and displaying a strong connection with Jones.

A broken collarbone last preseason delayed Thornton’s development, and he never emerged as a reliable offensive threat as a rookie despite logging more than 500 snaps. It’s far too early to draw any conclusions about his Year 2 contributions — and difficult to project what the Patriots’ receiving corps will look like once Smith-Schuster is back in the mix — but the early returns are positive.

Thornton, who’s listed at a slender 6-foot-3, 182 pounds, also said he put on an undisclosed amount of weight this offseason.

— Undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham reportedly told teams before the draft he’d be willing to play a position other than quarterback in the NFL. The Patriots are taking him up on that.

The Louisville product did not take a single snap at QB until after practice concluded, and he was targeted multiple times in the passing game. He dropped one pass but adjusted to pull down a nice grab from McSorley during 7-on-7s.

Cunningham, who’s undersized for the quarterback position at 6 feet, 188 pounds, never played receiver in college. But he was a highly productive ball-carrier, amassing 3,179 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He’s also supremely athletic, testing in the 95th percentile for QBs in the 40-yard dash with a 97th-percentile 10-yard split at the NFL combine.

The Patriots clearly had some sort of plan for Cunningham when they gave him $200,000 in guaranteed money — a record-setting sum for a New England UDFA — and it appears they view him as player capable of contributing at multiple spots. He’ll be a fascinating player to watch in the coming months.

— We’ll be keeping an eye on Douglas, too. The diminutive Liberty product made himself visible multiple times Wednesday.

— Don’t be surprised if you see Henry and Gesicki on the field together a lot this season. Two-tight end sets have been a staple of some previous O’Brien offenses, including the one he ran during his last stint as Patriots OC.

— We got an early preview of the Patriots’ offensive tackle competition, albeit a limited one with Brown not present. Riley Reiff rotated between right and left tackle with the Jones-led top offense. Calvin Anderson was the top-choice left tackle, and Conor McDermott worked in at right tackle when Reiff flipped sides.

The Patriots are hoping for more consistency and sturdier depth at the position this season after cycling through four different starting right tackles in 2022.

— With Onwenu sidelined as he recovers from offseason ankle surgery, Bill Murray stepped in at left guard on the top O-line, getting the nod over the 2023 draft picks Jake Andrews, Sidy Sow and Atonio Mafi. Murray is a converted defensive tackle with just three career regular-season snaps (all on special teams), and he projects as a roster long shot, so it was surprising to see him working with New England’s O-line starters.

— Speaking of working with regulars, Mapu and second-round pick Keion White both saw action with the top defensive unit. Mapu also played exclusively at his listed position of linebacker, answering a key post-draft question. The Sacramento State product mostly was used as a versatile defensive back in college, but while head coach Bill Belichick has said his role could change on a week-to-week basis, it appears the Patriots plan us primarily use him as a second-level defender.

— As reported earlier this offseason, Jalen Mills made the move from cornerback to safety. He was one of several players to log reps in Devin McCourty’s old free safety position, with Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jabrill Peppers and Joshauh Bledsoe all taking turns there, as well. Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick last month said the team was holding an “open competition” for McCourty’s successor, and it’s hard to peg any clear favorite at this stage.

— Among the guests at practice: McCourty, who spent a portion of the morning chatting with an NFLPA representative. Former Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears also watched practice from afar, as he did throughout last season.

— Mills intercepted a Zappe pass in 7-on-7s that ricocheted off Webb. Cornerback Jack Jones and safety Brad Hawkins also had picks, both on throws by McSorley.

— Montgomery saw action at both wide receiver and running back. The multitalented veteran practiced with no limitations after missing nearly all of last season with an injury. Fears recently pegged Montgomery as the favorite to be New England’s third-down back, though Strong should be in contention for that job, too.

— Cornerback Myles Bryant, Dugger, Phillips, Taylor and Douglas all took reps at punt returner. Bryant muffed one. Marcus Jones, a first-team All-Pro return man last season, will be the prohibitive favorite to win that job in training camp, but an undisclosed injury prevented him from participating Wednesday.

— Joe Judge, whom Belichick said will be “involved in a lot of things” this season in his new role on the coaching staff, exclusively worked with New England’s special teams in this practice. Bill Belichick backed his veteran assistant during his pre-draft presser, saying Belichick, not Judge, deserved blame for the scheduling screw-up that resulted in the team losing two OTA practices.

Thumbnail photo via Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports Images
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