As Thin Lizzy once enthusiastically declared in their 1976 hit of the same name, ‘The Boys Are Back in Town.’
Organized training activities (OTAs) are underway across the NFL, and the New England Patriots have taken the practice field adjacent to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots
Isaiah Wynn, New England Patriots
Ty Montgomery, New England Patriots
With a re-imagined offensive coaching staff, some key veteran additions via free agency, and a rookie class which features a controversial first-round pick, the Pats will have their share of storylines heading into the next phase of the preparatory process for the 2022 season.
As the team moves deeper into OTAs, here is a look at five of the most intriguing Patriots:
5. Isaiah Wynn
It is a rare occasion when an absentee garners a spot on the ‘most intriguing’ list of players during OTAs. However, Wynn’s absence may have wide-reaching implications for 2022. The offensive tackle is entering the final year of his rookie contract, hitting the Patriots’ books with a salary cap number of $10.4 million. New England exercised the fifth-year option in his deal last spring. While making such a move would usually indicate a team’s intention to retain his services, at least for the duration of his contract, Wynn’s case is a curious one as it relates to New England’s best interests.
When healthy, he is one of the more fundamentally sound left tackles in the NFL. However, injuries have plagued him throughout his Foxboro tenure. With rookie Cole Strange already playing a prominent role in practice at left guard, Wynn’s absentee has already provided New England with the opportunity to experience the with alternative lines. On Monday, the Patriots used starting right tackle Trent Brown on the left side, while reserve lineman Justin Herron aligned at right tackle. By not being present, Wynn may be giving the Pats some food for thought when considering his future with the team — especially if Herron continues to impress his coaches.
4. Ty Montgomery
Montgomery may have been considered an under-the-radar signing by the Pats, his role during Monday’s practice could indicate that the team has notable plans for him in 2022. As James White recovers from hip surgery - he was limited in practice Monday - Montgomery was heavily used as a pass catcher out of the backfield. He also worked with the wide receivers during team drills.
For the upcoming season, Montgomery should be expected to settle into an offensive option on third-down, as well as a backfield receiver. At his best, he can provide solid contributions as a hybrid receiver/running back and kick returner. Therefore, he should be New England’s second receiving back behind White and third Z-receiver option [off the line of scrimmage] along with fellow wideouts Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne. Given his prowess as a kick returner, he is expected to compete for that role, as well.
3. Raekwon McMillan
One of the Pats' biggest defensive struggles in 2021 was a lack of speed in executing their coverage assignments. Here is where McMillan may be able to thrive. 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. Despite entering the 2021 season with a significantly upgraded depth chart at linebacker, McMillan was making a strong case for a spot on the Patriots regular season roster. His ACL tear during training sadly ended his season before it started.
However, McMillan is expected to compete for a roster spot in 2022. His usage among the team’s top options on the defensive side of the ball on Monday, appears to indicate that McMillian will be given every opportunity to earn a notable role in the Pats linebacking corps in 2022.
2. Malcolm Butler
While Butler’s return to New England for his second tour of duty is a heartwarming story, it is his contributions on the field which will ultimately decide its success. The 32-year-old will undoubtedly look to make an impact on the Patriots secondary. To do so, he will not need to channel his days as a Pro-Bowl (2015) and All-Pro (2016) performer. He simply needs to play at the level he did during his final season with the Tennessee Titans. In 2020, Butler registered 111 tackles, four (interceptions) and 14 passes defensed for the Titans. He was among the league’s best cover corners, earning a 75.8 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, with a 79.8 coverage grade in zone coverage.
Butler’s signing seems to indicate that the Patriots will look to utilize more zone coverage in 2022, perhaps as the team’s best option for defending some of the speedy receivers residing in their own division. Still, the veteran will face competition for a role on the perimeter, based on the usage of rookie cornerback Jack Jones during Monday’s practice. Jones saw heavy action at outside corner, joining Cole Strange as the rookies who saw the most time on the field during team drills. Jones may be positioning himself as a dark-horse candidate to earn a prominent role in New England’s secondary for 2022.
Raekwon McMillan, New England Patriots
Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots
Jack Jones, New England Patriots
1. Mac Jones
While several positions will earn their share of attention in the coming weeks and months, all eyes are still on the quarterback. As such, Jones still tops this list. Overall, the 23-year-old had a productive day on Monday. He completed 11 of 14 passes in 7-on-7 drills, while connecting on 7 of 9 in full team drills. His synergy with receiver Kendrick Bourne was on full display during an enthusiastic celebration of the wideout’s one-handed catch. Jones and Bourne also hooked up on a well-placed deep shot during 11-on-11 drills.
While it may be early to make any meaningful evaluations, especially in non-contact drills, Jones seems intent on avoiding the dreaded ‘one-hit-wonder’ moniker. He has adapted a stricter offseason workout regimen, incorporating a healthier diet in the process. As a result, he has looked leaner and has impressed his teammates with his work ethic and leadership skills.
Jones’ progress from last season, his working relationship with rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe, and his relationship with expected quarterbacks coach Joe Judge, will continue to be among the most monitored storylines heading into training camp.