Only a day remains before the start of New England Patriots training camp and questions as to what the first few practices will look like still linger. Many of these questions arose partly from a slow summer sports media cycle, while others are the result of genuine uncertainty surrounding the team. Without the constants of Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels, and many other Patriots staples, the lack of predictability is new for fans in New England. Gone are the days of expecting 12-4 seasons and first-round bye weeks.
So, before the training camp officially begins, here are the storylines most talked about around the team this off-season and whether they will be fact or fiction.
New England Patriots Training Camp: Five Fact-or-Fiction Preditions
The Patriots Will Run A Shanahan-Style Offense
A lot was made of the Patriots running several outside zone running concepts during their first few practices at minicamp. With the departure of Josh McDaniels to the Las Vegas Raiders, it was not out of the realm of possibility that the Patriots could change how their offense operates. Since Charlie Weis became the Patriots offensive coordinator in 2000, the Patriots have run the “Erhardt-Perkins” offense under many different coordinators.
The Erhardt-Perkins offense prides itself on a smash-mouth, between the guards running game with a play-action-heavy passing game. During the Belichick-Brady years, this offense worked well, controlling the time of possession and strategically isolating favorable receiver matchups. But with the Patriots running zone concepts, many believe the Patriots could transition to a simplified, “quarterback-friendly” offense.
The outside zone offense, popularized by former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, employs zone running plays and bootleg play-action, giving the quarterback a lot of time to find an open target and capitalize on an out-of-position defense. This offense has done wonders for less gifted quarterbacks like Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, and Jimmy Garoppolo, and some believe it could do wonders for Mac Jones.
I find this prediction fiction because of Mac Jones’ processing capability and grasp of the current offense. Not to say that any of the aforementioned quarterbacks are dummies, but in only his first season, Jones showed better processing and in-game awareness than them in a more complicated offense. In his rookie campaign, Jones threw for over 3,800 yards, the fifth most by an NFL rookie quarterback, and led the Patriots to the playoffs. It would seem unwise to force Mac Jones to unlearn many of the concepts from the Erhardt-Perkins system to learn a growingly more popular but dumbed-down offense.
Mac Jones will never be Tom Brady, but part of what made Tom Brady so great was the Erhardt-Perkins offense. It is an offense that rewards smart, efficient quarterback play, and if there are two things that Tom Brady and Mac Jones both are, it is intelligent and efficient.
Mac Jones Will Make a Year-Two Leap
If the Patriots remain in their traditional offense, I see no reason why Jones will not improve! After posting nice, middle-of-the-pack numbers in his first season, Jones proved he was a top-20 quarterback in the league. That said, there were two glaring areas in need of improvement; his arm strength and his fitness. In both cases, heading into the Patriots training camp, Jones has seemed to address them.
In the 2021/2022 season, Mac Jones had more Yards/Attempt than Josh Allen.
Mac had 7.3 yards per attempt while Allen had 6.8. pic.twitter.com/Kw6ZMYvBVc
— ︎Pierce D. (@patsdowney) July 17, 2022
Jones worked with Tom House, a quarterback guru who has trained the likes of Tom Brady and Justin Herbert. Improving his arm strength would bolster an already solid Patriots offense by allowing them to stretch the field vertically. Last season, opposing defenses did not have to worry about Mac Jones airing it out over their heads like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, or Joe Burrow because of his less than robust arm strength. This allowed defenses to run Cover 1 and 2 concepts against Jones and the Patriots, freeing up more defenders to rush the passer or plug running lanes. In addition, Jones cleaned up his diet and looked noticeably more thin at practice.
While he will never become a dual-threat quarterback, being in better shape allows Jones to move in the pocket better and can help his overall fitness and health as the season progresses. If Jones is in good shape early in the season, it stands to reason he will have a lot left in the tank as the playoffs roll around. And if the Patriots want to have a long playoff run, Jones will need to play better than last season.
I see no reason why he will not.
Cameron McGrone Will Be A Difference-Maker
Whoever started the Cam McGrone hype train deserves a lot of praise.
The former fifth-round pick in 2021, McGrone, has quickly cemented himself as a Patriots player who many believe can right their linebacker corp woes. At the University of Michigan, McGrone showed great explosiveness, play recognition, and tackling skills, qualities the Patriots look for in all their linebackers. That said, an ACL injury sidelined him last season, leaving many to believe he was the missing link on defense; a fast, athletic, sideline-to-sideline linebacker who can chase down mobile quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Patrick Mahomes.
And, sure. That very well could be the case, but it is far more likely he will be an average, middle-of-the-road player. But I see this prediction as fiction not only for that reason but also because there are other potential playmakers at the linebacking position that the Patriots have up their sleeve. Former University of Alabama and Cleveland Brown linebacker Mack Wilson Sr., veteran Raekwon McMillan, and Josh Uche have an opportunity to play larger roles.
McGrone’s first season will likely start slow and steadily build momentum but never take shape in the way many believe it will. Even after a strong Patriots training camp, McGrone will not be an X-Factor in 2022, but that does not preclude him from being one later down the line.
The Patriots Will Red-Shirt Tyquan Thornton
Second-round pick, Baylor University receiver Tyquan Thornton, surprised many when he was taken by the Patriots 50th overall. Though his 40-yard dash time was the fastest in the draft, his thin build raised several questions and concerns. Could someone as skinny as Thornton survive an entire season injury free? It is a reasonable question and one worth asking, considering injuring your future number-one receiver hopeful could completely derail his career.
But, as I see it, the Patriots will not red-shirt Thornton, in large part because they do not have enough skill at the position to gamble sitting him during his rookie year. His health is important but almost more important is getting Thornton consistent reps in games to give him the best chance to develop quickly. If the training staff can get Thornton stronger and potentially a little bulked up before Week 1 following the Patriots training camp, I see no justification for sitting him.
Perhaps with more talent on the offense, the Patriots could afford to slowly roll out Thornton, but with the bad taste left in their mouth from former Patriot and first-round pick N’Keal Harry still lingering, Bill Belichick and the coaching staff are likely looking to get Thornton up and running early. And as a result, that prediction is fiction.
The Patriots Will Regret Letting J.C. Jackson Go
One of the biggest offseason questions was whether or not the Patriots would franchise tag, sign, or sign/tag and trade Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson. In the end, the Patriots did what they often do and let Jackson walk in free agency. And, despite their late-season defensive woes, as I see it, the Patriots will not regret signing Jackson to an expensive, long-term deal.
Today, good cornerback play is not necessary for a team to succeed. The Bills, Bengals, Titans, and Chiefs all made it to the AFC Divisional Round with largely forgettable cornerbacks. In a league that is becoming increasingly more zone-coverage based, the fact that the Patriots did not sign Jackson shows they are putting more stock in a “positionless” secondary.
Following their decision not to sign him, the Patriots signed hybrid veteran safety Jabrill Peppers, added zone cornerback Terrance Mitchell and brought former Patriot Malcolm Butler out of retirement. These players, the Patriots believe, can help give them the same amount of defensive production as J.C. Jackson, at a fraction of the cost. And when revisiting Jackson’s play last year, I was struck by the amount of luck involved in many of his highlights. This is not to be taken as a pithy critique of Jackson’s play, but as a reminder that the numbers only tell half the story.
Jackson recorded an impressive eight interceptions last season but received them from rookies Zach Wilson (two) and Trevor Lawrence (one), Mike White (one), Sam Darnold (one), Matt Ryan (one), and Ryan Tannehill (one). Those are not elite quarterbacks, and many are not even of starting quarterback quality. And while Jackson’s man coverage was solid last season, if the Patriots opt to run more zone-based defense, their need for a lockdown man-to-man coverage player is not worth nearly $20 million per year.
With that all in mind, it is obvious to me that J.C. Jackson would be a nice Pro Bowl-caliber player on the team to have. But Jackson is not someone who the Patriots cannot live without when looking at how the team is trending. And for that, this prediction is fiction.