Patriots training camp: Will Mac Jones bounce back and other questions facing the offense

FOXBORO — Football season is nearly upon us, with the Patriots set to kick off training camp this week in Foxboro. And boy do we have a lot of questions about the team heading into the 2023 season.

Robert Kraft doesn’t want to just return to the playoffs, but he wants to win a playoff game. After a cluster of an 8-9 season last year, we’re not so sure if the Pats can pull that off.

But we’re a long, long ways away from finding out if the Pats can accomplish that lofty goal. First, they’ve gotta figure out who will take the field Sept. 10 against the Eagles, and before that, on Aug. 10 against the Texans. 

Veterans will report on July 25, with the first official practice set for Wednesday, July 26. There are some question marks on both sides of the football, but here we explore the biggest ones on offense ahead of camp.

The Storylines

Can Mac bounce back — and grow — under Bill O’Brien?

It’s all about the quarterback. This is a gigantic year for Mac Jones after he took some steps back last season. It wasn’t entirely his fault, as the Pats offense was an absolute mess under Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a good season with those two running the show. Patricia is now gone, and Judge has been sent to special teams, far far far away from the offense.

Jones could have handled things a little better last season given his number of on-field tantrums, but life should be a whole lot better with Bill O’Brien and his offensive mind at the helm this season. And this is a huge season for both the quarterback in Year 3, and for the Patriots, who have to decided whether or not to offer Jones a contract extension after the year.

Mac gets a bit of a clean slate for 2023, a fresh start with a much better voice in his ear on the sideline. Will that lead to more success between the numbers? Can he exceed what we saw out of him two seasons ago when he put together an impressive rookie campaign? That’s the hope.

There is a lot of pressure on Mac Jones to succeed this season. He is the key to the offense returning to respectability, and the overall success of the team. 

Who will lead the way in the receiving corps?

The Patriots don’t have a top-end receiver for Jones, and a lot of people are fuming that the team didn’t sign DeAndre Hopkins when they had the chance. But the Patriots should have enough to move the ball downfield. Spreading the ball out and sharing the love will be Jones’ best bet in 2023, and O’Brien should help him do just that.

DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton will be the downfield threats. Parker just got a nice extension from New England, and Thornton is looking to really break out in his second NFL season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster should become a popular man in the passing game right from the jump as a slot replacement for Jakobi Meyers, and Kendrick Bourne has some big bounce-back potential after he spent most of last season in Patricia’s doghouse. He was Jones’ favorite target in the QB’s rookie season, and it’d be nice to see Bourne get the chance to make plays every weekend with a new regime on offense.

And don’t sleep on newcomer Mike Gesicki playing a huge role in the passing game. He caught 112 passes for Miami two seasons ago, and maybe O’Brien can unlock what made the receiver/tight end hybrid so successful.

We’ll also be keeping our peepers on rookies Kayshon Boutte, Demario Douglas, and Ed Lee to see if they can make a name for themselves in a crowded crop of receivers this summer.

Who will emerge out of backfield behind Stevenson?

It’s seemingly all Rhamondre, all the time for the Patriots at running back. He nearly doubled Damien Harris in carries last season (210 to 106), and now Harris will be running for the Buffalo Bills. That leaves second-year backs Kevin Harris (18 carries) and Pierre Strong Jr. (10 carries) behind Stevenson on the depth chart.

Can either of them emerge as a solid second option behind Stevenson? We’ll start to get an answer over the next few weeks. 

As for a third-down, pass-catching back, Ty Montgomery is back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for most of last season and — if healthy — will likely get that role. And we can’t rule out a few gadget plays from the explosive Marcus Jones throughout the season.

But until plays start counting, we’ll be keeping an eye on the running back’s snap counts in camp.

Can the offensive line hold it all together?

This is a big one for the Patriots. A good offensive line can mask a lot of issues and open things up for the rest of the offense. The quarterback will have an extra split second or two to make his decisions. Receivers will have a little more time to get open. Running backs could find massive holes to run through. All of that can change a team, and make a so-so offense look like a pretty good one.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of unknown in the trenches for the Patriots. Left tackle Trent Brown was delayed getting to Foxboro for minicamp and was then sent to the lower field for conditioning work after taking part in a single drill. Not a great start for the big fella, who needs to be closer to his 2018 version than what we saw in a lackluster 2022.

We also don’t know who will be playing right tackle, with Calvin Anderson, Riley Reiff and Conor McDermott vying for that all-important spot. Rookie Sidy Sow and second-year tackle Andrew Stueber could be thrust into action early.

At least there should be a much stronger presence on the sideline with new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm taking over. And the the interior of the line is solid, with David Andrews leading the way at center. Mike Onwenu is a stud at right guard and Cole Strange should make a big leap after an up and down rookie season. 

But the Patriots really need Brown to regain his form at left tackle and for someone to emerge on the other side. And if injuries strike, as they tend to do, the line could be in trouble. That would mean trouble for Mac Jones and the rest of the offense.

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