FOXBORO — The New England Patriots are officially in training camp.
The Pats were scheduled to hold their third and final practice session of the mandatory mini-camp this past Thursday morning. However, the presence of heavy rain and thunderstorms to hit the area prompted head coach Bill Belichick and the team’s Brain Trust to cancel the third and final practice session.
Just hours later, the team announced their decision to forego the final two organized team activities, originally scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. As a result, the Patriots will not reconvene as a unit until training camp opens in late July.
While the deletion of the Patriots’ late spring calendar might lead some outside of New England to think Belichick might soften his approach, the cancellations aren’t exactly uncommon. Belichick has often done this as a reward for his team’s hard work and performance on the field.
Although two days can only be a small selection for evaluation purposes, the Patriots showed a lot of potential for the upcoming season. While Tuesday’s headlines were dominated by offensive play calls and a possible guard change at the offensive tackle position, Wednesday’s session marked the possible start of a beautiful friendship between a sophomore quarterback-receiver combo.
Still, there were a few other storylines to keep in mind as New England gets closer to the start of training camp in just over a month.
Jack Jones will have an impact
Ever since the Pats opened the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft by picking the troubled but talented corner with the 121st pick overall, speculation that New England could potentially secure the services of a “diamond in the rough” has raged across the region the cornerback position.
While Jones is still a long way from filling the lockdown shoes vacated by JC Jackson at the start of the offseason, the former Arizona State Sun Devil played significant minutes with the starting defense all week. The 24-year-old saw time as a perimeter cornerback and demonstrated pro-level ball skills, collecting an interception and forcing a fumble.
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At 5-foot-11, Jones seems a bit undersized for the position compared to some of the pro receivers he’ll be covering this season. However, he makes up for this with enormous athleticism. Despite some rookie growing pains, Jones seemed a solid prospect as a man-marking corner given his excellent foot speed and ability to change directions to stay on target. His sound field awareness and instinct to approach football should also make him effective in zone coverage.
If Jones continues to see significant repeats among the starters in training camp, he could secure a place among New England’s top cornerbacks in 2022.
Mr. Smith goes to Foxboro
Tight end Jonnu Smith underperformed in his freshman year with the Patriots. He was statistically underpowered; Finished the 2021 regular season with 28 catches, 294 receiving yards and a touchdown in 16 games.
As a result, Smith knew he had to make a notable impact on his position as we head into 2022. His performance during the Patriots’ practice pair was clearly a step in the right direction. Smith often connected with quarterback Mac Jones on some impressive catchers, including an athletic, jumping hold over safety Kyle Dugger on a cornering route. Overall, Smith seemed more familiar with the Pats offense and therefore more comfortable.
At his best, Smith is a prototypical “move” tight end that can be an effective target in the end zone. During training camp, Smith should see an increase in the number of targets he sees in scoring situations. He can also line up for some carries from the backfield via the jet sweep or as a fullback/h-back.
Many happy returns?
After the departure of Gunner Olszewski in the offseason, the Patriots need a return specialist. Kyle Dugger, Myles Bryant, Jack Jones, Tre Nixon, Kendrick Bourne and Malcolm Perry got some work done by returning punts in each of the weekly sessions. Jones messed up one of his punts, earning him a round for his mistake.
However, another rookie cornerback named Jones could still be in line to take on the duties – assuming his health develops in the right direction. Marcus Jones, selected for the third round, donned the infamous red non-contact jersey during minicamp as he continues to recover from off-season surgery. Still, his elite return abilities make him an intriguing option for the Patriots, who value special team skills heavily. In 2020, Jones was named to the All-American Athletic Conference first team as the return specialist for the Houston Cougars after leading the nation with 337 yards on 17 punt returns. He also returned one for a touchdown. If you’re healthy, look for Jones to get the lion’s share of punt return attempts during training camp.
Though several Patriots might be able to handle kickoff return duties, two members of the team were the focus of practice, rookie running back Pierre Strong and veteran hybrid receiver/runner Ty Montgomery. While Strong has the intangibles to be the team of the future’s full-time kick-returner, Montgomery’s experience could make him a more effective option for 2022. Over the course of his career, the ex-New Orleans Saint has gained 1,274 yards on 57 attempts, averaging 22.4 yards per return. His cumulative special team acumen may help his case, as a year ago he took 48% of the Saints’ snaps, both as a kick returner and on coverage teams.