Lazar’s Notebook: Patriots Offensive Changes Remain as Mac Jones, Tre Nixon Continue to Shine

FOXBORO, MA – The Patriots held day two of their mandatory minicamp on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium in a two-hour session on Wednesday afternoon.

The Patriots started with positional drills, full-speed 7-on-7, an up-tempo 11-on-11 walkthrough with the first team versus the second team, and a lengthy special teams period before ending practice with more team drills.

After several changes came to light on day one, the biggest takeaway from Wednesday’s session is that things stayed the same on both sides of the ball.

The Patriots’ offense continued to drill outside zone schemes with Trent Brown at left tackle and Isaiah Wynn as the right tackle, while second-year wide receiver Tre Nixon had another standout day.

We’ve called New England’s offensive scheme shifts to a Shanahan-Style twist in the past, but we might need to amend that to more McVay-Esque formations and schemes. Shanahan, like former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, uses a fullback. The belief here is that the Pats will run zone schemes out of 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) and 12 personnel formations (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) instead of two-back sets.

Defensively, New England looks about the same schematically, with just about every rostered corner having an opportunity to play outside corner. Unlike on offense, the Patriots’ defense doesn’t appear to be going through a major system overhaul.

Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne returned to practice after missing Tuesday’s session. Nick Folk, Quinn Nordin, Carl Davis, Byron Cowart, Andrew Stueber, and Chasen Hines were not spotted. Rookie corner Marcus Jones was still in a red non-contact jersey. James White, Jakobi Meyers, Hunter Henry, and David Andrews were limited.

Here are nine takeaways from a lengthy day two at Patriots minicamp on Wednesday:

1. Pats QB Mac Jones Drops More Dimes But Ends With Interception

During team drills, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones was sharp again, finishing 19-of-24 with an interception off Kendrick Bourne’s hands. Jones was a little late and off-target on the throw to Bourne but otherwise was in full control. Mac continues to make high-level deep throws to Tre Nixon, Jonnu Smith, and Nelson Agholor into tight coverage. His touch and accuracy of him on his deep ball have stood out throughout the spring. Along with the downfield dimes, Mac is coming out of his shell more each day by celebrating after big plays and talking over miscues with teammates. Jones’s leadership and downfield accuracy are the real deal. He looks great.

2. Pats WR Tre Nixon Continues to Shine in Spring Practices

Patriots second-year wide receiver Tre Nixon’s excellent spring continued with a one-handed catch on a deep crosser with Jon Jones in tight coverage. Jones appeared to pin Nixon’s left arm, leaving Nixon with one hand to make the catch, and the Pats wideout secured it against his body for the play of the day. He also ran away from Shaun Wade on a crosser in 7s (Wade has struggled in the slot) and caught another ball over the middle against Jones. What separates Nixon from the Austin Carr and Riley McCarron’s of Patriots lore? The high level of difficulty on Nixon’s catches against the Pats’ top slot corner. If Nixon were doing this as a top-100 pick, we’d already be fitting him for his red jacket. Nixon also fielded punts during today’s practice, which is notable since he’ll likely need to carve out a role in the kicking game to make the 53-man roster.

3. Busy Day for Pats Rookie CB Jack Jones Once Again

Although Jones is having some “welcome to the NFL” moments this spring, it’s hard to ignore the number of reps he’s getting with a wide-open competition at cornerback. On Wednesday, the Pats rookie had some good battles with Nelson Agholor, with Agholor beating him on a go ball down the right sideline and running away from Jones on a dig route. But Jones had a short memory, coming back to break up a pass for Agholor late in practice. Jones is still adjusting to NFL receiver speed and might be seeing things early on in the route that he hasn’t before from nuanced pro wideouts (Agholor beat him clean at the line on the go ball). Still, Jones is competitive in coverage and bounces back and forth between the scout team and first-team defense. At the very least, he’s in the mix, which is notable for a rookie in spring camp.

4. Pats Inside Linebacker Rotation An Early Question Mark

If there is one area of ​​the depth chart that is still very unsettled, it’s at linebacker, where the Patriots are holding off on elevating intriguing 2021 fifth-rounder Cameron McGrone, at least for now. Ja’Whaun Bentley and Mack Wilson are the top tandem right now, with Ronnie Perkins, Raekwon McMillan, and Jahlani Tavai in the mix. It’s early, so expect McGrone to get his shot from him eventually. But we haven’t seen it yet. Josh Uche and Anferenee Jennings are getting reps at EDGE rusher. This group desperately needs a young linebacker to emerge as an impact player, or they might need to put in a call to Dont’a Hightower.

5. Pats Rookie RBs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris Get Some Run

Both rookie running backs had plenty of touches on after a slower start to the spring for Strong particularly. Strong has an explosive gear that was on full display when he broke away from Devin McCourty on a quick out from the backfield during 7s. Strong was also returning kickoffs during special teams periods, an intriguing role for a running back with 4.37-speed. As for Harris, his size and power from him, even in a non-padded session, immediately stand out. Harris is also catching more passes as a check-down option than expected. Although it’s a moot point to evaluate the running game without pads, both rookies are involved already.

6. Pats Rookie WR Tyquan Thornton Shows Off Speed ​​With Go Ball

A 5-foot-8 slot corner with 4.62-second speed against a 6-foot-2, 4.28-second burner isn’t a fair fight for Myles Bryant. But Tyquan Thornton ran right past Bryant in an early 7-on-7 period to catch a deep ball from Brian Hoyer. It still feels like Thornton is a year away with his physical development from him, but he can fly, which does create some chances underneath the defense. As much as we all want to see Thornton break out, taking it slow with his development of him is the best option given where his body and route tree are currently.

7. Pats TE Jonnu Smith Makes Highlight-Reel Catch

Another player making steady progress this spring is tight end Jonnu Smith. Smith once again had the whole offense cheering when he elevated over Kyle Dugger to high-point a ball from Mac Jones on a corner route. It was the second-straight day where Jonnu went above the rim to make a catch over a Pats defensive back (Adrian Phillips yesterday). It’s beginning to feel like Smith’s struggles last year were more mental than physical, so there’s hope that he can break out in year two with the Patriots.

8. Replacing Gunner: Kickoff and Punt Returners on Wednesday

A low-key sneaky battle to monitor throughout the summer is how the Patriots replace All-Pro returner Gunner Olszewski. Here’s how it’s looking so far in minicamp:

Punts – Tre Nixon, Jack Jones, Kendrick Bourne, Malcolm Perry

Kickoffs – Ty Montgomery, Pierre Strong

Note: Rookie return man Marcus Jones remains limited due to offseason shoulder surgeries.

9. Bill Belichick Chats With Utah State DC Ephraim Banda During Practice

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick spent nearly the entire practice talking with Utah State defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda. Obviously, we have no idea what they were talking about, but it seemed like it was mostly all ball. The Aggies won the Mountain West championship last season after transitioning to an even front (4-3) to unlock their playmaking linebackers. That is one theory as to what Belichick and Banda were discussing.

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