(UPDATE: The Patriots were forced to cancel two OTAs practices as punishment for violating the NFL’s offseason training policies. Their first practice in front of reporters now is set for Wednesday, May 31.)
Monday marks an important milestone in the New England Patriots’ preparation for the 2023 season.
It’s the first day of organized team activities — the voluntary, non-padded, non-contact practices that NFL clubs hold for several weeks each spring. The Patriots have 10 OTAs scheduled, plus a three-day mandatory minicamp, before they break for the summer in mid-June. Reporters will be permitted to watch six of those 13 total sessions, per the team, with the first of those coming this Thursday.
Head coach Bill Belichick has long said teaching is the primary focus of spring practices, with the evaluation of roster battles not beginning in earnest until training camp kicks off in late July. And we’ve seen plenty of Patriots players flash in May and June before fading in August.
Roster spots and starting jobs aren’t won or lost in OTAs. But this is a time for players, both new and returning, to make a positive impression and position themselves on the proper track.
With that in mind, here are five members of New England’s 90-man roster with the most to prove this spring:
QB Mac Jones
The only logical place to start this list. Jones is coming off a nightmare sophomore season defined by inept coaching, on-field outbursts and thousands of Patriots fans calling for him to lose his job. Can the heralded arrival of new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien help Jones recapture the franchise QB potential he showed as a rookie? The answer should be “yes.” Jones still is a talented signal-caller, and O’Brien is an uber-experienced offensive mind with a history of developing quarterbacks. Some moderate growing pains should be expected as everyone adjusts to the new scheme, but if Jones doesn’t look sharp in spring practice, he can expect to hear more Bailey Zappe chants in training camp.
OT Trent Brown
Brown projects as a starter at either left or right tackle, but his spot on the 53-man roster might not be guaranteed. The Patriots can free up $8 million in salary cap space by cutting the big-bodied bookend, so his performance bears monitoring in relation to veteran newcomers Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson, as well as fourth-round rookie Sidy Sow and 2022 seventh-rounder Andrew Stueber.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Can Smith-Schuster be an upgrade over Jakobi Meyers? That’ll be the expectation after the Patriots controversially let the reliable Meyers walk in free agency and replaced him with the former Pittsburgh Steelers standout. Meyers was New England’s top receiver for the last three seasons, but Smith-Schuster has been the more productive and explosive player in his career. The big questions: How quickly can he pick up O’Brien’s new Patriots offense, and can he replicate Meyers’ mental connection with Jones, with whom he hadn’t thrown before arriving for offseason workouts last month?
CB Christian Gonzalez
Gonzalez was widely viewed as a top-10 prospect in this year’s draft before he fell to the Patriots at No. 17. There will be an adjustment period for him, as there is for all rookies, but he’ll be expected to immediately contribute — and quickly develop into the true lockdown corner that New England lacked last season. We’ll find this week whether New England views him as a Day 1 starter — as last year’s top pick Cole Strange was — or plans to work him in more slowly in a deep position group that also features Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Jack Jones, Marcus Jones and Myles Bryant.
Whoever’s replacing Devin McCourty at free safety
Steve Belichick last month said the Patriots were holding an “open competition” to find the retired McCourty’s successor. They have more than a half-dozen players on their roster with free safety experience — including 2022 starting cornerbacks Mills and Jonathan Jones — but no obvious 1-for-1 replacement for their longtime defensive leader. They’ll likely lean on multiple players to fill that void. One dark-horse candidate to watch, though, is third-year pro Joshuah Bledsoe, who’s seen minimal game action in his career but often subbed in for McCourty in training camp last summer.