FOXBOROUGH — A seven-pack of observations and insights from attending eight of the Patriots’ 12 training camp practices:
▪ Offensive tackle is a mess. The Patriots went with the “kitchen sink” approach to address their holes at the tackle spots. They brought back left tackle Trent Brown. They re-signed Yodny Cajuste and Conor McDermott, who combined for nine starts at right tackle last year. They signed 12-year veteran Riley Reiff and fifth-year veteran Calvin Anderson in free agency.
That’s five players with NFL experience. Enough depth, in theory, to not have to use a high draft pick on an offensive tackle.
But through two-plus weeks of camp, the situation is a mess. The line has only one starter intact (center David Andrews), and Mac Jones is running for his life at practice.
Cajuste was released in May. Anderson has yet to participate, as he was placed on the non-football illness list (we obviously hope everything is OK). And Brown hadn’t taken any team reps this camp until Tuesday, when he took a handful.
So starting at left tackle has been Reiff, a 34-year-old journeyman who might not have much left and hasn’t played on the left side since Christmas Day of 2020. And at right tackle is McDermott, whose play in the final six games of 2022 was part of the reason the Patriots needed to upgrade the position.
The line is simply overmatched in practice. On Sunday, three straight plays got blown up by the pass rush, resulting in two sacks and a stuffed screen pass. On Tuesday, Jones scrambled on busted plays more than Lamar Jackson.
Brown still hopes to be ready for Week 1, but even he is coming off an inconsistent season. The Patriots need him back in a hurry, and had better keep looking for more tackles.
▪ DeVante Parker can be a No. 1 receiver. Yes, the Patriots could have used DeAndre Hopkins. On paper, they don’t have an elite receiver, or enough firepower to keep up with the Chiefs, Bengals, and Bills. They don’t have a receiver that necessitates special attention.
But the 6-foot-3-inch Parker can be dangerous. There he was Monday going up and over 6-2 cornerback Isaiah Bolden for a 40-yard catch, earning a fist-bump from Bill Belichick. Parker has had at least one of those catches pretty much every practice.
Parker’s 2022 season was quietly promising. Though he had only 31 catches for 539 yards and three touchdowns, he made them count. He had a deep ball (25-plus yards) on 29 percent of his catches, the highest percentage of any player in the NFL (minimum 17 catches).
Parker’s problem is staying on the field. Last year he missed four games with knee and concussion injuries, and was limited in three others. In his seven years in Miami, Parker played in all 16 games just once.
So far, Parker has been healthy and productive for every training camp practice. If he can stay in the lineup, he is one of the best contested-catch receivers in the NFL and could be a dangerous red zone threat.
▪ Matthew Judon got a nice contract extension, but drama looms. Judon is practicing like a menace again now that the Patriots have taken care of his contract. He was going to make $11 million-$12.5 million based on games played and All-Pro awards. Per ESPN, Judon now will make $14 million-$18 million, which includes a $7 million signing bonus, meaning he gets more money up front.
It was a nice gesture by the Patriots, who “didn’t have to, if we’re being quite frank,” Judon acknowledged. But it sets up another showdown next offseason. The Patriots gave Judon a raise by moving money from 2024 to 2023, leaving him on the books for just $6.5 million next year. The last time the Patriots did this, Stephon Gilmore got a raise in 2020 and was traded in 2021.
▪ Bailey Zappe says the offense is ahead of schedule. The Patriots are learning a third offense in three seasons, but Zappe said Bill O’Brien’s installation is going well.
“We’re way ahead of where we thought we were going to be at,” Zappe said Monday. “We’re really deep into red zone, third down, open-field stuff, so just got to keep stacking days. I’m sure there’s more install to be done, but I’d say we’re around 80 percent.”
▪ Tyquan Thornton’s skinny wrists are coming into play. The Patriots apparently weren’t fazed that their 6-2, 185-pound receiver reportedly had the thinnest wrists in the 2022 draft at 6⅛ inches. But issues with Thornton’s skinny frame and lack of hand strength are cropping up at camp.
There’s no question Thornton is a burner, but he struggles on contested catches. At least twice in recent practices he made a beautiful play on a deep ball only to have it knocked out of his hands by the defensive back.
▪ The Patriots need a third-down running back. They tried James Robinson, but that didn’t work. Now Ty Montgomery is hurt, leaving only youngsters Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris, plus J.J. Taylor, who hasn’t been able to stick on the active roster in his three seasons.
Belichick rarely entrusts that James White/Kevin Faulk role to a youngster, since it’s mostly about blitz identification and pickup. So the Patriots have been looking at veterans Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, and Darrell Henderson, who all can stick their nose in on a blitz. The Patriots need to sign one soon and get him integrated into the offense.
▪ There are no signs of a quarterback competition. Zappe certainly has his moments, and even some practices where he plays better than Jones. But there is zero sign of a competition between the two young quarterbacks. Jones has taken reps almost exclusively with the 1′s, while Zappe is almost exclusively with the 2′s. In 2021, when the Patriots did hold a legit competition, Cam Newton and Jones split first-team reps almost evenly.
Then there’s the peripheral stuff: Jones being chosen to do the post-practice interview for NFL Network; Jones taking Elliott and other free agents out for dinner; JuJu Smith-Schuster saying of Jones, “He’s a spark of our offense. It starts with him, and we kind of just all feed off it.”
That doesn’t mean the coaches don’t also like Zappe. And all bets are off if the Patriots have a disastrous start or Jones gets hurt again.
But Jones is the quarterback, and outside of an injury, it’s hard seeing anything that can happen in training camp changing that.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.