Who are the winners and losers from Patriots preseason and training camp?

Patriots

Even with limited preseason reps, Mac Jones has had a strong summer in Bill O’Brien’s new offense.

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) before an NFL preseason football game against the Tennessee Titans Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mac Jones and the Patriots now turn their sights to the regular season. AP Photo/John Amis

After 18 practices and three preseason games, the Patriots are ready to set their sights on the 2023 regular season.

And even though New England will continue to practice this week as it braces for its season opener against the Eagles on Sept. 10, most of the roster battles and other evaluations have come to a close amid a flurry of roster cuts.

At times, it can be tough to gauge players over this month-long stretch, especially given the limited number of competitive reps and coaches’ hesitancy to give starters extended snaps during preseason action.

Still, there are several players on the Patriots roster who helped their case this summer, as well as those who are now looking at an uphill climb with the regular season less than two weeks away.

Here’s a look at some winners and losers from the Patriots training-camp schedule and preseason slate.

WINNERS

QB Mac Jones

Is “Alabama Mac” back?

For all of the discourse regarding Jones harkening back to his collegiate days, “Alabama Mac” is not a standard of play, but rather a mindset that the Patriots QB is looking to get back to — one in which he’s both confident in his own abilities, and especially the system around him.

After dicing up defenses at Tuscaloosa thanks to a versatile offensive scheme featuring plenty RPOs, screens and short passes, Jones is being put in the best position to succeed this season with a Bill O’Brien-led playbook featuring plenty of those hallmarks.

O’Brien’s impact has opened the door for Jones to play to his strengths as an accurate, poised passer. Still, the onus falls on Jones himself to execute out on the field.

Even though he only logged three series this entire preseason slate, Jones made a few strong throws against pressure during his lone appearance against Green Bay.

Jones’s confidence was also evident during training camp practices. As noted by MassLive.com’s Mark Daniels, Jones completed 77 percent (204-of-264) of his passes in competitive full-team drills while tossing four interceptions. 

Last year, he only completed 66 percent (146-of-220) of his passes and was knocked for eight picks.

A bounce-back season from Jones doesn’t mean that the third-year QB is suddenly going to be throwing 50-yard bombs down the sideline with regularity. But when he’s confident and on his game, Jones can conduct an efficient and effective offense.

After last year’s debacle, he seems to have one to work with once again now that O’Brien is steering the ship.

WR Kendrick Bourne 

What a difference a few weeks can make.

After a disappointing 2022 campaign where he reeled in just 35 receptions for 434 yards and one touchdown, Bourne struggled to earn first-team reps with Jones for the first week-plus of camp.

But the 28-year-old wideout has gotten stronger with each practice and rep, entrenching himself as one of New England’s top-three wideouts on the roster.

Bourne, who added 15 pounds of muscle over the offseason, has impressed during preseason reps when it comes to his ability to fight through contact, haul in athletic catches, and also throw out some timely blocks.

But his cutting ability and speed also make him a versatile weapon for Jones, especially with DeVante Parker operating more on the outside and JuJu Smith-Schuster tabbed for reps out of the slot.

If Bourne can revert back to the player who was one of Jones’s most dependable targets during his rookie campaign (800 receiving yards), he could replace Jakobi Meyers as the QB’s most trusted safety blanket in passing situations.

2023 rookie class

Bill Belichick and his staff have to be pleased with how New England’s next wave of talent has fared so far during the grind of training camp and preseason action.

Yes, it’s always good to keep expectations in check when it comes to rookies looking to find their footing up at the pro level, especially once regular-season reps commence.

But so far, New England’s 2023 draft class seems to be littered with young players poised to make an impact right out of the gate.

Here are a few standouts:

CB Christian Gonzalez (1st round, 17th overall) — New England’s first-round pick was thrown into the fire right from the start of minicamp, earning reps as one of the team’s outside corners. Playing on the boundary against NFL competition often leads to plenty of growing pains for young defensive backs, but Gonzalez has held his own in a featured role thanks to his athleticism, fluidity and a (surprising) amount of physicality.

DE Keion White (2nd round, 46th overall) — An injury suffered during joint practices against Green Bay cut into White’s expected preseason snaps, but the high-motor defensive end was a one-man wrecking crew against the Texans in New England’s preseason opener on Aug. 10 (three tackles, three QB pressures). He will join a stout defensive unit up front that should have no issue getting after the quarterback with Matt Judon and Josh Uche leading the way.

LB/S Marte Mapu (3rd round, 76th overall) — Despite spending most of training camp in a red, non-contact jersey while recovering from offseason surgery for a torn pectoral muscle, Mapu still logged plenty of first-team reps with New England’s defense. That’s a credit to the versatile rookie’s athleticism and ability to digest and read plays in split-second fashion. The Sacramento State product holds plenty of promise as a coverage linebacker or hard-hitting safety in New England’s defense.

WR Kayshon Boutte (6th round, 187th overall) — The former five-star recruit out of LSU shook off a sluggish start to minicamp and training camp and could force New England to carry six receivers on the roster after a strong end to preseason play. Along with his 42-yard touchdown against the Packers on Aug. 19, Boutte closed out preseason practices with nine catches off of nine targets last Tuesday and Wednesday. New England might have something here.

P Bryce Baringer (6th round, 192nd overall) — Baringer earned New England’s starting spot as the team’s punter on Monday thanks to his knack for absolutely booting the football. During his 11 preseason punts, Baringer averaged 51.1 yards, including a 69-yard bomb against the Titans on Friday.

WR Demario Douglas (6th round, 210th overall) — The top surprise of training camp, Douglas quickly went from a potential roster-bubble candidate out of Liberty University to a potential roster lock by early August. The 5-foot-8 wideout’s stop-and-start speed and shiftiness allowed him to regularly dice up defensive backs in competitive drills all summer, and he was also more than happy to throw out some heavy blocks despite his smaller frame. He could be a steady contributor out of the gate for New England, at least once his reported nagging shoulder ailment sorts itself out. 

TE Hunter Henry

Henry, much like Bourne, had a season to forget during a dysfunctional 2022 campaign. It should come as no surprise that New England’s woeful red-zone offense (42.2 touchdown percentage, 32nd in NFL) came in the same year that Henry’s production nose-dived (two touchdowns, 29.9 receiving yards per game over 17 games) in Matt Patricia’s offense.

That has changed this summer, with a noticeably lighter Henry (also another year removed from an offseason shoulder procedure that hindered his spring work in 2022) regularly linking up with Jones during competitive red-zone drills during camp.

So long as Henry isn’t tasked with handling more blocking assignments to help a beleaguered offensive line, he should be in line for a strong third season in New England.

Patriots safeties

How the Patriots were going to replace Devin McCourty in the defensive backfield was one of the top question marks entering training camp. But even though New England is opting for a rotation of players to assume the leadership (and playmaking) void created by McCourty’s retirement, there’s been plenty to like from this group.

Kyle Dugger (four interceptions during competitive drills), should be in line for a breakout season — and a significant pay raise.

Second-year Patriot Jabrill Peppers has earned plenty of praise from both Bill Belichick and his teammates for his vocal presence and comfort within New England’s defensive schemes, while Jalen Mills has thrived as a nickel safety since getting slotted over from cornerback.

Add in Adrian Phillips and Marte Mapu, and the Patriots should have plenty of options available as they augment their last line of defense.

LOSERS

The Patriots’ offensive line

Mac Jones and the Patriots’ offense have put together very promising returns all summer long.

But it won’t matter all that much if New England’s porous offensive line continues to kill drives with costly sacks and penalties.

In three preseason games against Houston, Green Bay, and Tennessee, New England coughed up 11 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits and fumbled the ball four times.

Of course, injuries have played a major part in the Patriots’ woes against the pass rush this summer, with seven of the team’s 17 offensive linemen currently either banged up or the mend in Mike Onwenu, Cole Strange, Calvin Anderson, Conor McDermott, Kody Russey, Atonio Mafi and Riley Reiff.

The lackluster returns so far from New England’s depth players like rookie Sidy Sow and second-year pro Andrew Sueber haven’t inspired much confidence either, forcing New England to trade for two tackles on Sunday.

The return of Onwenu and Strange should help stabilize things up front for New England’s O-line. But the tackle position remains a major concern, especially on the right side.

And if more injuries sprout up? Look out.

QB Bailey Zappe

It sure feels like a long time ago that some believed a QB competition was brewing at the outset of training camp.

“Zappe Fever” has considerably chilled this summer, with Jones earning almost all of New England’s first-team reps and executing during those featured snaps.

But beyond Jones’s own strong play, Zappe has struggled to put stack strong practice days together throughout the summer.

Zappe’s lackluster showing against the Titans (8-for-15, 57 yards, three fumbles) sure didn’t help his case. But the backup QB has also lagged behind Jones during competitive practice reps.

According to MassLive.com’s Mark Daniels, Zappe completed 64 percent (160-of-252) of his passes to go with seven interceptions in 11-on-11 drills this summer. 

The gap has arguably never been wider between Jones and Zappe entering their second year together as New England’s QB tandem.

WR Tyquan Thornton

Few players on New England’s roster can replicate Thornton’s straight-line speed — a skillset that turned the former TCU wideout into a second-round pick in 2022.

But after a so-so showing as a rookie, a second-year leap doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards for Thornton, at least based off of the 23-year-old’s performances so far during preseason action.

After playing catch-up last season after suffering a broken collarbone, Thornton has yet to alleviate concerns that his 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame can’t withstand the punishment doled out at the NFL level.

After missing stretches this spring due to a soft-tissue injury, Thornton is now tabbed as “week to week” after landing hard on his shoulder while reeling in a deep throw during joint practices with the Packers.

While Thornton’s durability issues have hampered his chances of capitalizing off of his evident talents, rookies like Douglas and Boutte have made the most of the additional reps up for grabs while he’s been on the mend.

As a second-year pro and second-round pick, Thornton likely doesn’t run the risk of getting cut this summer. But given his injuries and the play from other wideouts on the roster, he does run the risk of being placed in no man’s land on New England’s depth chart unless he takes a major step forward.

New England’s initial running-back depth 

The Patriots’ 1-2 punch of Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott should do plenty of damage this fall.

Elliott’s signing stands as a major lift for New England, who not only needed a capable backup to alleviate Stevenson’s workload, but will also benefit from the former All-Pro back’s short-yardage capabilities, pass-catching talents and proficiency in pass blocking. 

Elliott’s late addition this preseason also helped salvage what was looking like a lackluster running-back grouping behind Stevenson for most of camp.

Even though New England initially featured veteran Ty Montgomery heavily in minicamp as a pass-catching, third-down option, an injury kept him off the field for over three weeks — cutting off some much-needed reps for the versatile back.

And for as much as second-year players in Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris had plenty of opportunity to earn larger roles this summer, neither player asserted themselves before Elliott entered into the mix. 

Strong was eventually traded on Sunday in a 1-for-1 swap for former Browns tackle Tyrone Wheatley Jr., while Harris runs the risk of being a roster-cut candidate before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. 

CB Jack Jones 

It’s been an up-and-down summer for Jones, even looking beyond his obvious legal challenges.

For extended stretches of camp, Jones showcased his ball-hawk tendencies and on-field awareness that helped him pop numerous times as a rookie corner in 2022.

When Jones is playing at his best, New England has three strong boundary corners between him, Jonathan Jones and Christian Gonzalez.

But it hasn’t always been easy sledding for Jones this summer. 

Despite leading all Patriots players in pass breakups during competitive drills, his tantrum and early exit from one practice back in early August raised some eyebrows. 

The 25-year-old defensive back also didn’t end his preseason on a high note Friday against the Titans.

Jones was burned a few times in coverage at Nissan Stadium, giving up a 30-yard reception while also getting flagged for a 32-yard defensive pass interference on what was an under-thrown ball by Tennessee QB Malik Willis.

Jones was also trucked aside by a stout stiff arm from Titans RB Tyjae Spears that eventually resulted in a 19-yard gain.

Jones has all of the talent to be an effective starting corner in the NFL. But now the waiting game begins as the Patriots await word of any potential discipline by the NFL and the next steps following Jones’s next court appearance on Friday, Sept. 15. 


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