The New England Patriots need all the time on the field that they can get. And yet they have already lost a pair of practices, with the team violating NFL rules for offseason workouts, which led to the punishment of canceling two organized team activities.
The violation may have been a clerical error regarding a meeting, but, as a result, quarterback Mac Jones and new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will have to stay off the field after their first few sessions together.
These practices are voluntary. They’re non-contact. They’re about installing the offense. Typically, coach Bill Belichick is pleased with how the team performs in these practices and cancels the final few sessions to boost morale. And these practices aren’t always a strong indicator of where the team sits. For example, Jones was outstanding in 2022 OTAs only to flop (along with the rest of the offense) in training camp and the regular season.
But that doesn’t make OTAs useless. The Patriots are slipping in the AFC East. With a new coordinator in O’Brien, New England should probably maximize every minute on the field. O’Brien is doing one big reclamation project, searching for ways to bring back better versions of just about every player on this offense.
Jones had an awful year under offensive playcaller Matt Patricia in 2022 — despite the quarterback showing promise in 2021 under Josh McDaniels. DeVante Parker was once the No. 1 receiver in Miami, only to fade in the Dolphins offense and practically disappear in New England. Receiver Kendrick Bourne had a breakout season in 2021, only to fall into the doghouse in 2022. Tight end Mike Gesicki was an afterthought in the Dolphins offense after coach Mike McDaniel arrived, which is why Gesicki landed with the Patriots in free agency. Even JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is coming off a strong season in 2022, was most productive in 2018.
The rookies should have been better last season, given their draft position. Guard Cole Strange finished with a 54.6 grade on PFF, which isn’t particularly impressive given his first-round status. Receiver Tyquan Thornton barely saw the ball. Even in a three-game stretch from Week 15 to Week 17, when he played 50-plus snaps in each game, he never logged more than three catches in a single game. And that total came on seven targets for 60 yards.
The list of underachievers goes on and on.
The only player who is coming off his best season is running back Rhamondre Stevenson, whose production wowed, particularly as the big back served in both the rushing game (210 carries, 1,040 yards and 5 TDs) and the passing game (69 catches, 421 yards, 1 TD). He was the team’s lone bright spot last year, though his production came after injuries to James White (who retired in August) and Damien Harris.
This is a get-right season for just about every person on New England’s offense. It starts with Jones, who is not securely seated in QB1 position. Quarterback Bailey Zappe has indicated he wants the job. And the coaching staff hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility that a quarterback competition could take place.
The Patriots need to focus on getting Jones back into a competent role as the team’s game manager — which feels like an unambitious goal, given that’s exactly what he was in Year 1. But it’s where he’s sitting after a year when he lacked command due to poor offensive line play and staggering offensive incompetence. The Patriots won’t get more competent off the field. They need to install O’Brien’s offense and begin to figure out not just what went wrong in 2022 but how to reverse those issues in 2023.
So, no, the loss of a few OTAs isn’t the end of the world. But the Patriots have a lot of work to do, particularly when you consider the New York Jets added Aaron Rodgers, the Buffalo Bills kept their roster intact after winning the division and the Dolphins now have a healthy Tua Tagovailoa while adding cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
It’s going to be a difficult year for the Patriots.
They suffered worse than they should have in 2022 due to unforced errors. They can’t afford more of them in 2023, and yet, here is an example of just that — of starting on the wrong foot (after shooting themselves in that same foot). The Patriots have to hope it’s only a hiccup in their path back to contention, rather than a harbinger of another season filled with headaches.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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