FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Thornton’s fit: Given the most recent chapter of the Patriots’ shaky history selecting receivers early in the draft — when they whiffed on N’Keal Harry at the end of the 2019 first round — the status of 2022 second-round pick Tyquan Thornton has been a notable storyline through nine training camp practices.
Just as the Patriots selected Harry over Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf in 2019, they nabbed Thornton this year before a run of receivers that included George Pickens (Steelers), Alec Pierce (Colts) and Skyy Moore (Chiefs).
There are early signs that a 2019-type scenario isn’t repeating itself.
“It’s been exciting to watch him grow, honestly, because he came in a little questionable,” fellow receiver Jakobi Meyers said. “Then he started getting real. Real talented. I’m happy he’s with us.”
The 6-foot-2, 182-pound Thornton, who was the fastest receiver at the 2022 NFL combine (4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash), acknowledged that his arrival in the spring came with some initial turbulence.
“The first week was kind of difficult for a lot of us, just coming from having that transition from college to the NFL ,” he said, adding that he soon settled into a more consistent routine.
Scenes from the bleachers: Speedy WR Tyquan Thornton (2nd round, Baylor) has won over fans early in his first NFL training camp. pic.twitter.com/JRkKywe1Jp
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 4, 2022
In doing so, receivers coach Ross Douglas said of Thornton last week: “He’s gotten better every single time he’s stepped on the field. He truly has a lot of gifts. It’s not just his speed. His ability to change direction, ball skills. He has a good attitude and the guys in the room have embraced him. His development will be key and we’ll get him there.”
Thornton’s reliable hands and ability to track the deep ball have consistently shown up in 1-on-1 drills. Now comes the challenge of transferring that into 11-on-11 drills, where he’s most often working behind Meyers, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne — a foursome that appears locked in atop the depth chart.
Thornton, who has been buoyed by a small section of fans supporting him each day, has also worked as a gunner covering punts — a role that could add value and help solidify a spot on the 46-man game-day roster.
“I like where he is mentally,” Agholor said. “He has a growth mindset, practices really hard, takes good notes.”
Added cornerback Jalen Mills: “We all know he’s fast. I think the biggest thing for me, he’s just not running go routes every single play. You see him working his short-to-intermediate routes as well.”
2. Mac & Judge: Last year, whenever quarterback Mac Jones came to the sideline, he was usually shoulder-to-shoulder with former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Their connection was critical in Jones’ successful rookie season. Who that will be in 2022 could come into sharper focus during Thursday’s preseason opener against the Giants, and it’s likely to be quarterbacks coach Joe Judge.
“You can’t fast-forward a relationship,” Judge said when asked about Jones. “You have to build on it every day. That comes in building trust, that comes in learning each other and how to work with each other, and what that guy needs to help him be at his best. That’s my priority. To me, it’s all about open communication … He’s an intelligent player. He’s a very hard worker. He knows what he likes, he’s willing to tell you. But he’s also willing to try anything if it’s best for the team. He’s been fun to work with.”
3. ‘Inching along’: How big of a deal to make about the early inconsistency of the offense? That question lingers, as there have been more “no chance” plays — in which Jones and rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe have simply tucked the football or thrown it away — than the norm for a Bill Belichick-coached team. Part of that seems related to the Patriots experimenting with new things. Belichick said late last week that the team was “inching along” while adding there are “miles to go” — which seems to reflect where the offense is through nine practices.
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4. Kraft’s candidacy: Belichick touted owner Robert Kraft’s Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy in an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio’s “Movin’ The Chains” program. Kraft is a semifinalist, and while there’s no set criteria for Hall of Famers, Belichick highlighted three layers that bolster Kraft’s case.
“He’s a phenomenal owner,” Belichick said. “You look at what he’s done across the board. He’s made great contributions to the league, in things like the CBA and other policies, and the growth of the league. He’s obviously done a great job here in New England, just keeping the team in New England and not letting it out of here, and the success he’s had. And off the field — just the philanthropy and contributions he’s made to the community.
“You could put him in the Hall of Fame for any one of those. Combine all three together and hopefully we’ll be celebrating in Canton next year.”
5. Godchaux’s value: Belichick opened eyes when he referred to Davon Godchaux as “one of the best defensive linemen in the league” after the Patriots signed him to a two-year, $20.8 million extension. Defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington added context in explaining how Godchaux’s work isn’t easily detectable, but vital to the defense: “His ability to stop the run, defeat blockers and push the pocket to affect the quarterback is [among] the best in the league.”
6. Jonnu’s turnaround: Tight end Jonnu Smith’s 2021 production didn’t measure up to the four-year, $50 million contract he had signed as a free agent, but there are signs that could be changing. “He had a terrific offseason for us,” Judge said. Last year, the Patriots ran just 190 of their offensive plays (18%) with both Smith and fellow tight end Hunter Henry on the field, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information. That number should increase in 2022.
7. Rookie #’s coming: Belichick’s annual tradition of putting rookies in unconventional jersey numbers ends for 2022 this week with the team’s first preseason game, as league rules don’t allow for things like Thornton, a receiver, wearing No. 51. “It’s going to be real sad,” Thornton said with a smile. “I feel like 51 is a part of me now — that big, old jersey and I’m running around. I was having fun with it.”
Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship in action: As Patriots DL coach DeMarcus Covington met with reporters before one practice,
Keith Jones watched the process unfold.
Jones, a grad assistant at Arkansas, has a fellowship position during Patriots training camp. pic.twitter.com/xPPlFHFSIX
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 6, 2022
8. Fellowship in action: As Covington answered questions from reporters last week, Arkansas graduate assistant coach Keith Jones looked over his shoulder. It was a snapshot of the Bill Walsh Coaching Fellowship in action; Jones played for Covington at Tennessee-Martin in 2015 and has been working at Patriots training camp this summer as a fellowship coach. “I always was taught as you continue to climb, you help pull others up,” Covington said.
9. Butler follow-up: When the Dolphins released former Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler with a failed physical designation last week, some wondered if that could mean a return to New England for the interior pass-rusher. That’s unlikely in the short-term, sources say, as Butler must first address a lingering shoulder issue from last season. Meanwhile, LaBryan Ray (Alabama) has caught the eye as a Butler-type possibility — an undrafted free agent making a charge for a roster spot due to his pass-rushing skills.
10. Did you know? This year marks the first time since 2004 the Patriots won’t conclude their preseason with a game against the Giants.