New England Patriots training camp storylines: A revealing summer for Mac Jones (and his TBD play-caller)

The New England Patriots open training camp on July 27 with a new-look coaching staff, an ascending quarterback in Mac Jones, and unprecedented competition.

New England Patriots rookies report to training camp Tuesday, and the team’s first on-field practice is just a week off. Ahead of the Patriots’ 63rd training camp, we take a close look at the five biggest storylines surrounding the six-time Super Bowl champions.

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5 storylines for New England Patriots training camp

The Patriots in 2021 reached the playoffs for the 18th time in 21 years — and did so with a rookie quarterback. But an offseason of unprecedented change in the AFC has Bill Belichick facing his stiffest competition yet in his bid to return to the Super Bowl for the 10th time as the Patriots coach.

With Josh McDaniels gone, who will call offensive plays?

We’ve written thousands of words on this topic already, and they’re readily available — for free no less! — both on this website and over at PFN Pass. We’ll surely write thousands more in the months to come.

It’s a fascinating dynamic. Everything Belichick does is a bit different. He’s an eccentric who’s been rewarded for his eccentricity to the tune of eight Super Bowl rings, dating back to his time as an assistant with the New York Giants.

But even by his standards, it’s a bit wild that Belichick’s top two offensive coaches heading into 2022 — Matt Patricia and Joe Judge — are failed head coaches who have never called offensive plays before. Neither has tight ends/fullbacks coach Nick Caley, who’s also reportedly in the mix. Which might be why none of them have been formally named the successor to Josh McDaniels, now the HC in Las Vegas.

The Athletic in June reported that “it’s trending in Patricia’s direction” that the former Patriots defensive coordinator will be the Patriots’ new de facto offensive coordinator, but no decision had been made. And we can’t fully rule out Belichick doing the job himself if none of his lieutenants are up to the job.

Does Mac Jones have the potential for greatness, or has he already peaked?

That palace intrigue has come during a critical moment in quarterback Mac Jones’ career. The 2021 draft’s 15th overall pick made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, leading the Patriots to the playoffs in a season in which he completed 67.6% of his passes for 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

By any fair evaluation, Jones exceeded expectations in 2021 and was easily the best QB in a rookie class that had serious star power. And it’s encouraging that Jones is in far better shape in Year 2 than he was as a rookie. But questions remain about whether he has the physical gifts to make the leap from good to great.

Jones is excellent at throwing to the second level, but he was far below average throwing to the third. Jones’ passer rating on attempts between the hashes thrown beyond 20 yards in 2021 was a ghastly 19.0 per Next Gen Stats — a full 65 points below the league average.

Jones also wasn’t as accurate as someone without A+ arm strength needs to be. His on-target rate (76%) and bad throw rate (17.7%) were both middle of the pack.

The Patriots got Jones some help in the offseason — drafting speedster Tyquan Thornton in Round 2 and trading for former first-round pick DeVante Parker — but nobody in that locker room is talented enough to elevate Jones to greatness. He’ll have to largely do that himself.

Will the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense take a step back after a bunch of key losses?

It’ll depend largely on how effectively the Patriots replace J.C. Jackson.

We’re not saying their front-seven pieces are irrelevant — they’ve lost nearly two decades of experience at linebacker with the departure of Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy — but Belichick has largely made it work with scheme.

However, his system doesn’t work without top-tier cornerback play, and in the past, he’s paid a premium to guarantee it. Not so in 2022, when the Patriots don’t have a single cornerback among the top 30 in salary.

Expect a spirited camp battle at both boundary CB spots, with Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones (who is best suited as a slot corner), Terrance Mitchell, Malcolm Butler, Shaun Wade, and rookies Marcus Jones and Jack Jones all getting long looks.

What’s the Patriots’ plan at running back beyond Damien Harris?

New England hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2016 (LeGarrette Blount — 1,161), but Damien Harris looks like a lock to be the next if he stays healthy. He fell just 71 yards shy of the milestone despite missing two games last year.

But a Patriots back hasn’t had 250 or more carries in a season since Blount’s 2016 campaign, so expect another committee approach by New England in 2022. Rhamondre Stevenson, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry as a rookie, will be a big part of that committee.

It’ll be interesting to see who emerges as the Patriots’ pass-catching running back, particularly with James White reportedly still a bit gimpy 10 months after suffering a hip injury that required surgery. That could open the door for rookie Pierre Strong Jr. (taken in the fourth round) to take over that role. That’s a gamble, however.

Only two teams — the Eagles and Rams — are spending less on running backs than the Patriots this year ($7.1 million total). We’ll soon see if that thriftiness is savvy or reckless.

Are the Patriots playing for a Wild Card, or can they hang with the Bills?

The Buffalo Bills entered the 2022 offseason as the AFC East’s most talented team, and nothing that’s occurred since has changed that. In fact, the gap between the Bills and Patriots may have even grown in the last six months with Buffalo’s signing of Von Miller.

The Bills are favorites to not only repeat as division champs, but win the Super Bowl. The Patriots, meanwhile, will have to fend off the Dolphins (and perhaps even the Jets) in what looks to be the best AFC East from top to bottom in decades.

Adam Beasley is the NFL Director for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.

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