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Patriots Mini Camp Report, Vol. I

Today I braved the heavy rains of the morning and the muggy heat of the afternoon to bring you coverage of Day 2 of Patriots mandatory mini-camp. I do, and do, and do for you kids. And I ask nothing in return:

--Just so as not to bury the lede, I'll start with Mac Jones. The reports you've been hearing that say he looks physically stronger and is throwing better even than he did in last summer's training camp as he was beating out Cam Newton (even while working with the 2nd teamers) are entirely not exaggerated. By my count (and I'm notoriously unreliable because I'm no better at taking notes than I was when I was missing out on Dean's List at community college), he missed four throws in like 25 attempts. One of those was broken up. One was low over the shallow middle and Nelson Agholor couldn't secure it. And a third went of Kendrick Bourne's fingertips and into the arms of Malcolm Butler. Beyond that, Jones has everyone on missile lock. (Unless he's too close for missiles, and switches to guns. Dammit all, I have GOT to see Maverick already.) This jibes with the reports out of Tuesday's practice where some reporters had him at 23-for-25. And that involved more full squads, whereas today was mostly 7-on-7s. 

--His highlights on this day were a couple of deep balls to Tre Nixon, who of all people is starting to look like a favorite of Jones. He hit Nixon right on the palms on a corner route against Shaun Wade early. And late, he lofted a perfect deep touch pass into Nixon's bucket over Jonathan Jones, which Nixon hauled in with one hand while fighting off JoJones (it's going to take a lot of effort to differentiate our Joneses this year) DPI with his other. But if I had to pick a favorite pass of his, it would be the absolute laser he hit Jonnu Smith with on an out route, just over tight coverage by Kyle Dugger. While acknowledging it's way, way early in the process, McCorkle scans the field, moves, throws and generally carries himself like a guy who is making the crucial, but often elusive, Year 2 Bounce. And if he stays on the trajectory he's on, it'll be more like a Hulk Leap:

--With all the construction going on at Gillette, they've had everything down on the lower practice field, which has long be talked about, but never before seen by mortal man. It's often been considered the stuff of legend. A fairy tale land people tell their children to get them to behave. "Eat all your vegetables or you'll be sent to the field where Dante Scarnecchia made his players run gassers on the hill," they'd say. But I can report to you with mine own, vision-corrected eyes this place is no fable. 

We media credentialed goons were brought there to report back what we witnessed like we were James Earl Jones being allowed out into the cornfield. And what we saw from that minimal distance was wondrous, indeed. The defensive line not only working the blocking sled with hand-punch technique, but also by rolling back and forth to each other a thing that most would describe as an exercise ball, but to a Boomer such as me will always be a Hoppity Hop. A short distance away, defensive backs worked on high-pointing a ball, a quick hands drill that involved catching a tennis ball thrown from just a few feet away, and hand-fighting exercise that involved slapping the hands of a coach wearing oven mitts. As far as the overall experience of watching workouts from Right There, instead of from the media section bleachers, suffice to say you haven't lived until you've heard Matthew Judon belting out  "Livin' on a Prayer" from 30 feet away. 

--While we're on the topic, Belichick clearly had control of the Bluetooth early on, with heavy doses of Bon Jovi, followed by The Who and other assorted Geezer Rock. Later in practice it was M.O.P., which tells me that was Mr. Kraft's time. In between, there was som Likin Park, and I don't know who to attribute that to. But something tells me that would be Matt Patricia's wheelhouse, since they started to hit right around the time he was graduating from RPI. But don't hold me to that. 

--As for Belichick, he had a visitor that he spent more time talking with than any single human anyone could recall. And no one could identify the guy. So intrepid journo that I am, I finally asked the PR staff who his guest was. After a little digging they found out he's Utah St. defensive coordinator/safeties coach Ephraim Banda. Since the Aggies just had their best season ever, going 11-3 and winning their first Mountain West title as Banda's unit was second in the nation with 114 tackles for loss, one can only assume Belichick was picking his brain for any new innovations he's come up with. Either that, or he's one of the Patriots new offensive coordinators. Either way, I envy him because the longest Belichick and I ever got to speak was a radio commercial break. Next time, get a room, you two. 

--Cole Strange has wasted no time bringing his Draymond Green energy to these practices. On Tuesday, he dove at Judon's knees going after a fumble and the two had what old timey baseball scribes used to call "a rhubarb," but now in a less elegant time we just call "going at it." Then after Butler's interception, he and Strange were yapping at each other. So he's already made his presence known to:

1) The best player on the roster in 2021

2) The guy who made the most significant play in NFL history. 

Not a bad way to make an impression when you're not allowed to actually hit anybody, and that's what you get paid to do.

--Speaking of Butler, getting used to his new No. 4 is going to be my personal biggest challenge of camp. The 2022 equivalent of me learning what order the "s" and "z" go in "Olszewski" was the last couple of years. But if you're going to give Adam Vinatieri's numeral to anyone, it might as be another guy who finished off a Super Bowl, so he can do it twice too. 

--Beyond that, it'll be keeping all the Joneses straight. Which will be even tougher given that Marcus Jones is sporting rookie number 52 and Jack Jones has rookie number 53, and they play the same position. More grinding by me. But I don't do it for the glory.

--As far as other new faces, Tyquan Thornton and DeVante Parker were out there as part of the wide receiver rotation (with Thornton in the slot primarily), but didn't get a ton of reps. Everyone is still waiting to see either of them hit the afterburners on Go routes, but the emphasis has been on crossers, digs and out routes for the most part. And Ty Montgomery seems to be settling into his preferred role as a positionless hybrid WR/RB. In particular, Montgomery did a beautiful job snatching a deep cross from Brian Hoyer just over a linebacker's fingertips. 

--One guy who was put on my radar that bears watching is rookie defensive lineman LaBryan Ray, who was Christian Barmore's roommate at Alabama. Even though he's an UDFA, he was given the number 65, which is in there among the draft picks (the numbers start at 50 for the team's first pick and usually go in numerical order from there). Which probably doesn't mean nothing. Ray is 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, and already 24 years old, but was set back with a lot of injuries at Bama. Anyway, he's on my radar. Now, hopefully yours. And when he's an All Pro you can say you heard about him from me first. And I'll conveniently forget whom I heard it from, because I'm like that. 

--Finally, I suppose I'm supposed to give you some dramatic surprise of camp so far. Some amazing thing to get you excited about as a reward for reading this far. So here goes. Here's the biggest surprise in my opinion, because I never thought I'd live to see it. N'Keal Harry on one side of the line, being defended on the other by Joejuan Williams. In my wildest dreams I didn't expect to see them in Pats uniforms in June. And while there's been a little speculation that Harry could switch to tight end, if it was going to happen, he wouldn't have skipped out on OTAs. And as far as Williams, I'm sorry to say it, but I was closer to him today than he was to Emmanuel Sanders on that touchdown in the Wild Card game:

But enough of that. Now is a time to move on. And today was a huge step back toward the next season and the chase for that 7th ring. It's great to be back. No need to thank me. This life chose me.