June 17, 2021

First impression of Mac Jones? Rare to see Patriots rookie keep up mentally

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Mac’s QB mind: Sometimes a first impression of a Patriots player at practice is so obvious, you can’t miss it. A few that come to mind over the years are Deion Branch’s smoothness in and out of his breaks, Wes Welker’s quickness and change of direction, Randy Moss effortlessly gliding down the field while leaving defensive backs in his wake, and Jake Bailey’s sky-scraping punts.
When it came to quarterback Mac Jones on Thursday, it wasn’t as obvious as those examples, and perhaps that’s because a razor-sharp football mind is hard to sum up in one snapshot.
That was one of my biggest takeaways from watching practice: Jones is putting himself in position to possibly compete for the starting job come training camp in July because he’s keeping up with the challenging mental aspect of the Patriots’ playbook.
This is uncommon for rookie Patriots quarterbacks who are adjusting to the volume of information, and also the fast pace in which coaches teach it. It’s a lot to process, and that doesn’t even factor in how a simple shift by the defense can require a reaction from the quarterback that changes everything in an instant.
Along those lines, every throw from Jones in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills Thursday seemed to go to the right place. There was little, if any, indecisiveness. He’s probably further along than any Patriots rookie quarterback, at this point, than anyone who came before him.
This is not to overlook Cam Newton, who on one play, was put in a tough spot when running back Tyler Gaffney made the incorrect read, and Newton was right on it — a reflection that his command of the offense continues to evolve, so it’s premature to write the veteran QB off.
It was one day in shorts and T-shirts in May, which is critical context. But those seemed like encouraging signs for the Patriots.
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Russini: Falcons have received first-round offer for JonesDianna Russini breaks down what could happen in the next few weeks should the Falcons attempt to trade Julio Jones.
2. Julio follow-up: Finances will likely drive how aggressive the Patriots are in pursuit of receiver Julio Jones in a trade, more so than the compensation it would take to acquire him (the Atlanta Falcons are in a low-leverage spot). My sense is the Patriots would love to have Jones — who wouldn’t? — but the finances are significant. Bringing Jones aboard on his current contract would mean other dominoes have to fall to create salary-cap space to get through this season, and there’s also projecting ahead to 2022 when the club is already within range of a $208.2 million cap ceiling. I would be surprised if the Patriots over-extend themselves in any possible trade talks; it would have to be a sweet to take on the financial strain.
3. Attached at the hip: Where’s Matt Patricia at Patriots practice? Usually next to coach Bill Belichick. The two spent a notable amount of time together Thursday, somewhat similar to how it used to be with Belichick and retiring football research director Ernie Adams. The trust between the two is highlighted in those snapshots from practice.

4. J.J. benefits: In 2015, running back Dion Lewis flashed in spring practices, marking himself as a player to watch. I wondered if history was repeating itself with another diminutive running back — J.J. Taylor. The 2020 undrafted free agent from Arizona is getting a great opportunity to show what he can do, with Sony Michel, James White and Brandon Bolden not around, and Damien Harris present but not practicing. Taylor is a fast and fun player to watch.
5. What’s in a number? A jersey number often tells a larger story about a player, with tight end Hunter Henry explaining that one of the reasons he’s wearing No 85 in his first year with the Patriots is to pay tribute to his former Los Angeles Chargers teammate Antonio Gates. Defensive back Jalen Mills chose No. 2 because it was his late uncle’s favorite, and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley’s switch to No. 8 ties to his days at Purdue when he wore No. 4.
As for Belichick putting rookies in non-traditional numbers in spring practices — such as Mac Jones in 50 — third-year receiver Jakobi Meyers said that ongoing tradition was a reminder to him that “we were all basically on the bottom level — rookies who had to show why we belonged here.” Meyers had No. 69 initially, but “when I finally got 16, it felt like a step in the right direction.”
6. Eyes on swing tackle: With projected starting offensive tackles Isaiah Wynn (left) and Trent Brown (right) not on the field Thursday, the Patriots had 2020 sixth-round pick Justin Herron (left) and fourth-year pro Korey Cunningham (right) step in. Herron was a pleasant surprise as a rookie, and he looks like the leading candidate to fill the swing-tackle role, which is an important layer of insurance given the injury history of Wynn and Brown. Time could be up on Yodny Cajuste, the 2019 third-round pick from West Virginia who just hasn’t broken through, in part because of injuries.
7. Onwenu for Thuney: The Patriots didn’t have to worry about the left guard spot for the past five years, plugging ironman Joe Thuney in and never looking back. Now that Thuney has signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency, it was 2020 sixth-round pick Mike Onwenu stepping in to that spot during Thursday’s practice. With Onwenu, David Andrews and Shaq Mason on the interior, the Patriots appear well positioned to absorb the hit of Thuney’s departure, with returning free-agent signee Ted Karras providing quality depth.
8. Cardona on Memorial Day: Patriots long-snapper Joe Cardona, who commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Naval Reserves, was a guest on the “Paul Finebaum Podcast” last week and touched on the observance of the holiday. It’s a similar message he has shared with teammates when called on by Belichick to address the Patriots.
“It is a big day for remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms,” Cardona said. “We have so much to be grateful for here in America. The fact that Memorial Day lines up with the kickoff of summer, a three-day weekend, everyone is excited. But for a lot of people, it’s a somber day of remembrance.”
9. BB’s view: Every once in a while, Belichick will say something that serves as a reminder of how his view of key plays in the Patriots’ franchise history is unique and often untold. One example from this past week was when he referenced Adam Vinatieri’s 41-yard game-winning field goal to beat the Panthers in Super Bowl XXVIII as one of the most underrated kicks of Vinatieri’s career.
Acknowledging the irony of calling a game-winning kick in the Super Bowl as underrated, Belichick cited Carolina’s field-goal rush as the reason why, which required added emphasis on Vinatieri to get the football up quickly.
The Panthers had Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker, Al Wallace, Shane Burton and Matt Willig up front, with linebacker Dan Morgan among those providing a second-level push. The Panthers had also blocked a 36-yard field goal earlier in the game, and Belichick said Thursday they were “one of the all-time great field-goal rush teams.”
Small detail, but one that further helps frame an iconic moment in Patriots history.
10. Did You Know: Over the past 25 years, there have been 11 wide receivers traded for at least a first-round pick, and the oldest players of that group at the time of the trade were 28 (Randy Moss, Joey Galloway). Something to consider when factoring in trade compensation in a possible deal for 32-year-old Julio Jones.