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Letters from Patriots Camp 2022: Volume 3

--It's not often that I go to three Patriots practices before camp is even a week old. But today, with the team in CBA-allowable full pads for the first time, it felt like a dereliction of duty to not be there. Sure, it's a chore. A difficult, laborious, exhausting, enervating slog. But I do it for you. And ask nothing in return but that, if I don't survive, you'll remember my heroic sacrifice. 

--I have much to say about the actual padded practice part of this padded practice. But until further notice, how Mac Jones and his receivers look will be the lede here. And I'm not about to bury it. While last week's workouts served up massive, Old Country Buffet-sized portions of red zone work, the offense has shifted gears to emphasize deep passing, both in individual drills and 11-on-11s. And for the most part, Jones had his Bluetooth synced with all his wideouts. They all rotated a through a drill where they were single covered by a corner and Jones was hitting them 40 air yards upfield. In short order he connected with DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton, Tre Nixon, and Kristian Wilkerson, with only a ball that Nelson Agholor had to reach for and couldn't haul in to ruin the streak. After Bailey Zappe took a few shots, Jones returned to hit Kendrick Bourne (over Jalen Mills). Then light up the crowd with highlight catches by Thornton again (over Joejuan Williams) at the cone and Parker again (Malcolm Butler), and Ty Montgomery (Jonathan Jones, in his first practice since coming off PUP). Then in 11s, he produced the highlight of the day, hitting Parker on a deep Go route up the left numbers. In McCorkle's rookie season, I stood ready to die on the hill of defending his arm strength (his Football Focus grade on passes of 20+ yards were 88.9 deep left, 94.3 deep right, and 88.8 overall, his highest at any depth), I'm guessing that this year I won't have to. But I will if I must. 

--Jones was less than perfect though. After throwing an end zone pick on Friday due to what looked like a miscommunication between him and Bourne, he threw another in the middle of the field on a pass intended for Thornton, when Terrance Mitchell, in zone, dropped back into the passing lane and it came right to him. Which was surprising just by virtue of the fact he's kept the turnovers to a minimum so far and last year most of his struggles came against man. Later on a deep slant intended for Bourne, he led his target too much and it almost ended up in Mills' hands. At least in this year's camp, every Jones mistake doesn't feel like it condemns us to a future of watching Cam Newton leading the league in 3 & outs.

--While it's a small sample size and most of the workouts have only been in helmets and shorts, you can make a case for Parker being the best player in camp thus far. He's caught every catchable thing. He runs great routes. Gets open deep as well as winning contested balls. And Jones seems to be looking for him as a first option. If you make that case, you'll certainly get no argument from the people in the stands, who go bonkers every time he makes a play or makes his presence known in their general area. He's plays like your IT Guy took your wide receiver in the No. 1 jersey with all the malware and installed a software patch. N'Keal Harry 2.0 actually functions as designed.

--By no means am I under the delusion that Williams hasn't been a crushing disappointment. And I can't look at his 33 without picturing it getting lost in Emmanuel Sanders' jetwash in the Wild Card game. And I'll be stunned if he makes the 53-man roster. But still, that catch Thornton had over him is significant, just for the fact he fought through contact from a corner in the body of 6-foot-3, 212 pound strong safety. Questions about Thornton's 182 pound body and it's ability to get open against press coverage and stand up to the physical punishment are legitimate. There are draft pundits who talk about him like he's a doll a Kindergartner made out of popsicle sticks and paste. So the more he proves he can defeat coverage of guys he's giving away 40 pounds to, the better. 

--Another new face on offense who's presenting a good argument for why he was brought here is Montgomery. The guy who is most likely to fill that hybrid weapon role in an increasingly positionless league, he caught a swing pass from Jones and took it up the sidelines for what would've been a decent pickup, with Jones under center, he took handoffs on inside zone runs, and returned kicks. He may be on the roster bubble by the time cuts come. But with James White's health very much in doubt, Montgomery's third down skills and versatility are what give him the best shot at job security. Keep in mind, they tried Jonnu Smith in that role last year, and it never really clicked. Brandon Bolden was a pleasant surprise, but he's gone. There's always a role on this team for a multi-tool guy, and it would be great to see Montgomery fill that role. 

--Which brings us to the offense itself. The story of the offseason has been the way they're transitioning away from Josh McDaniels' scheme into some "streamlined" version of the McOffense. And what we've seen so far - especially today with the pads on - looks to be more closely aligned with a Mike Shanahan [EDIT: Of course I meant Kyle. This’ll learn me to work in the press box where a bunch of emotionally needy media types are jibber jabbering] or Sean McVay type of attack. Designed to stress the edges of defenses with a ton of zone blocking, motioning from the tight ends, misdirection, and some play action off of outside zone run looks. It's a topic that's worthy of a deep-dive blog all by itself, so I won't get too lost in the weeds on it now. But to scout this team it might be more helpful to look at 49ers or Rams games than the stuff Jones was running last year. 

--And to that end, it seemed today as though Matt Patricia was calling the plays. Although last week it was still some combination of Patricia, Joe Judge and Belichick. Although for all anyone can tell from that distance, Patricia might be wearing an earpiece and getting his calls from Ernie Adams sitting at the console of a secret lair under his house.

--The offensive line looks to be set, with Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown switching sides, Wynn to the right and Brown now on the left. They'll get no argument from me on that. Brown's first tour of duty here in 2018 was arguably the best season by a left tackle we've seen here in the Dynasty era. And while Wynn hasn't been anywhere near as terrible as the talk show imbeciles would have you believe, I'd rather see him in that Marcus Cannon slot, lead blocking and getting out ahead of screens, than full time taking on opponent's quick twitch pass rushers. The anti-Wynn crowd can take some comfort in knowing he committed a false start and had to run a lap. So feel free to wait on hold for 45 minutes to say, "Hey guys! Wynn's in midseason form!" and congratulate yourself for your unique wit, dummy. 

--The defense's version of Montgomery - although he's a much longer longshot to make the 53, seems to be Brenden Schooler. He's been seeing a lot of the field. Mainly on special teams, where they had him peeling back to block for the kickoff returner, but also seeing some reps alongside Jabrill Peppers in a two-deep split safety look. He's tall and lean as hell. He played both sides of the ball at both Oregon and Texas. And while he might need a season or two to actually contribute, it's hard to take your eyes off him. And you can see him filling that novelty role as the Pats white defensive back, in the mold of a Nate Ebner or a random Ventrone brother. 

--A new face I hadn't seen before was No. 80, WR Josh Hammond, who appeared in two games for Jacksonville last year. If he somehow lands a spot in a crowded wide receiver room, prepare yourself for death by a thousand Jurassic Park references. "He did it. The son of a bitch, he did it," and so on. 

--As you'd figure with the pads coming back on, a lot of the practice was taken up with blocking sleds, pass protection drills, and some kind of pit drills down the far end of the field. Though from that distance, I couldn't tell if they were double teams, 1-on-1 or both. It would be great to have a big screen with close ups of those, though I have a better chance of seeing heaven than that. And even if the Pats did, the NFL would quickly outlaw it as some advanced form of cheating to gain a competitive advantage. Maybe someday NFL+ will provide that level of coverage instead of just finding new ways to make you pay for the old coverage. Anyway, whatever they were doing, you'd see more full contact drills at your typical Pop Warner practice. I'm being totally serious. The NFLPA might be the weakest union in all of sports and have won zero job security for their members. But they have succeeded in making camp less physical than ever before.

--Lastly, my favorite drill was the cornerbacks working on a short-area change-of-direction, that ended with a coach tossing them a tennis ball. I'm sure a young Belichick would've run the same drill Patches O'Houlihan-style. But it's a softer world, I guess.

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