FOXBORO - The New England Patriots returned to their winning ways in the 2021 NFL Season. The team finished with a record of 10-7, while earning a wild card berth after a one-year postseason absence. Despite a disappointing ending to their playoff run, the Patriots have plenty of reason for optimism heading into 2022.
Jonathan Jones, New England Patriots
Marcus Jones, New England Patriots
Jack Jones, New England Patriots
As the Patriots gear up for the upcoming season, they hope to build on their progress from 2021. One of the first steps in that process is the start of organized training activities (OTAs), which are set to begin on Monday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Though many players are expected to garner some attention during the week’s events, here are three of the most-expected prominent storylines on defense.
1. Keeping Up With the Joneses
Though the name ‘Jones’ may arguably be the most important on the team - hello, Mac - the Patriots are also expected to feature it prominently among their cornerbacks in 2022. The Patriots are expected to field a trio of Joneses in their defensive backfield.
Slot cornerback Jonathan Jones, the incumbent among the three, is making his return from offseason shoulder surgery. Despite the offseason additions of veterans Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler, Jones may be the Patriots most seasoned pro on the roster. While his health will be closely monitored in the coming weeks, it is likely a pair of rookie Joneses will be among the top stories at cornerback.
Listed at 5-8, third-round pick Marcus Jones’ lack of size may lead to some questions surrounding his ability to be a starting corner at the pro level. However, his detractors may be doing a disservice by underestimating him. Marcus is a phenomenal athlete with breakaway speed — known for displaying tremendous athleticism on pass defense and outstanding open-field tackles. While he projects best as a slot corner, his elite return skills make him an intriguing option for the Patriots, who place a premium on special teams prowess.
Jack Jones is an intriguing prospect on the outside, with enough versatility to play on the inside, as well. Listed at 5-foot-11, the fourth-round pick is a bit undersized for the position. However, he makes up for it with tremendous athleticism. In New England’s system, he projects best as a man-cover corner due to his stellar foot speed and ability to change direction to stick with his targets. Jones’ sound field awareness and instincts to close in on the football make him effective in zone coverage, as well.
Will all three Joneses call New England home in 2022? The process of answering that question starts on May 23.
2. Family Ties
Though the Patriots offensive coaching staff has occupied much of the attention of fans and media alike, there is still some concern surrounding the Pats’ defensive staff as well. Outside linebackers coach Stephen Belichick is once again expected to hold a major role on the staff in 2022. After a 9-4 start last year, the Patriots defensive performance sharply declined. New England lost four of its final five games, ultimately finishing with a 47-17 playoff road loss against the Buffalo Bills. The defending AFC East Champions scored a touchdown on seven straight possessions.
Since the conclusion to the 2021 season, speculation has been rampant that the team’s lack of an official defensive coordinator may have caused confusion among the Pats players. As a result, Belichick’s play calling may have lost some of its effectiveness, in game settings; primarily in a very tough stretch to close the season.
While Belichick is expected to retain his duties as play caller, he will have ample help with the role from inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. He will also be able to lean upon the wisdom and counsel of former Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and former special teams coordinator Joe Judge, both of whom are expected to play prominent roles on New England’s 2022 offensive coaching staff.
Cameron McGrone, New England Patriots
Josh Uche, New England Patriots
Raekwon McMillan, New England Patriots
3. Three’s Company
The Patriots clearly have a need for speed at the linebacker position, and are relying on a trio of young, agile linebackers to provide it. Despite being one of the most highly-touted Patriots' rookies in 2020, Josh Uche’s 2021 season did not exactly live up to expectations. Still, Uche has the speed, athleticism and system savvy to be a factor in the Patriots defense as an edge rusher or an off-the-ball linebacker. While it remains to be seen whether he will be used as a pass rush specialist or a true every-down move linebacker, he has the skillset to play on the line in the Patriots’ 5-1 looks as well as their 4-2 and 4-3 alignments and also move back if they run a more traditional 3-4. Uche will need to step up his game to earn a prominent spot in the Pats linebacking corps in 2022.
New England once again dipped into the Michigan defensive well with Cameron McGrone’s selection in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-1, 234-pound linebacker has some upside, and has the potential to be a three-down player. He suffered a season-ending ACL injury versus Rutgers in November 2020. As a result, his draft stock plummeted. However, his toughness and impressive range clearly made him worth the investment for New England. Despite not playing a down for the Pats in 2021, he is expected to add both speed and athleticism to the position for 2022.
One of the Pats biggest defensive struggles in 2021 was a lack of speed in executing their coverage assignments. Here is where Raekwon McMillan may be able to thrive in the Pats defense. The former Miami Dolphin signed a one-year deal with the Patriots in March 2021. As such, he was expected to compete for a depth spot on the team’s linebacking corps. McMillan was enjoying a solid camp performance, routinely applying pressure to the quarterback and providing stout coverage in his assignments. His ACL tear during training sadly ended his season before it started. However, McMillan is expected to compete for a roster spot in 2022.