Tom E. Curran

Six things I learned at Patriots-Packers joint practices

Tom E. Curran shares his biggest takeaways from his time in Green Bay.

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GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- What will we see Saturday night when the Patriots cap their week with their preseason game against the Packers? A cameo from the starters? A quarter or more? Or nothing at all? Listening to Bill Belichick’s zoom conference on Friday, he seemed to indicate the hay is pretty much in the barn.

“We had, I don’t know, upwards of 150 snaps,” Belichick began before ruminating a moment. “I'm not sure exactly what the number was … it's probably more than that. I’d have to add them all up. It might be closer to 200 when you get into the kicking game and all that, but we’ve had a lot of snaps here. So, we've benefited a lot from working against the Packers.”

In other words, that nearly three-hour workout on Wednesday and the two-plus hour practice on Friday provided ample opportunity to see 1s vs. 1s and 2s vs. 2s. The improvement from Wednesday to Thursday for the Patriots was very noticeable. They had, overall, an excellent opportunity to learn a ton about their team.

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What did we learn from the sidelines watching five hours of competitive workouts? Glad you asked.

Jabrill Peppers will be a big factor

Nobody is going to replace all the things Devin McCourty brought. Speed, tackling, smarts, leadership, the ability to get things organized and be the lead dog on that defense? No one can do all that at the same level all at once. But Jabrill Peppers’ role in his second year with the team is going to grow. I thought Peppers was one of the most underrated Patriots last year with his aggressive playing style and speed. This week, we saw an edgy style of leadership from him that is a bit different from the comparatively buttoned-down style McCourty brought.

In early 2022, NBC analyst and former Patriot Rodney Harrison leveled an allegation that the Patriots were a “soft” defense particularly in their Wild Card loss to the Buffalo Bills to end the 2021 season.

Jerod Mayo responded to Harrison soon after, saying “They outcoached us, outplayed us, it was a tough game. I'm not going to sit here and offer excuses. What I will say to Rodney --- because this is like the third time this has come up as far as what Rodney has said in this regard --- if you zoom out and look at the season as a whole, we ended up third in points per game, which is really the most important thing, and I think sixth or seventh as far as yards per game. If you go into a season saying you're gonna have these numbers -- obviously the expectation is always to be number one -- but number three and number seven ain't bad.

"And so, when he says things like the Patriots defense is soft and isn't good, it's like, alright, buddy. I know that’s what you're supposed to do, but at the same time, let’s look at it from a season-wide perspective and not just a playoff perspective."

Mayo also added that he wanted to see new leaders emerge and assume the mantel carried by McCourty and Dont'a Hightower. In Peppers, the Patriots seem to have a vocal one developing who could bring a nastiness that filters through the group.

Kayshon Boutte needs to be taken seriously

Demario Douglas barely played in the first preseason game. He’s out with the starters constantly and the skillset he brings is unique among Patriots pass-catchers. He’s rightfully grabbed most of the attention in camp. But the other rookie wideout who's been opening eyes and is out there EVERY SINGLE DAY is Kayshon Boutte.

The wide receiver room is tough to gauge. DeVante Parker is the X and the Patriots love him but he’s not striking fear the way elite-level wideouts do. In my opinion, Kendrick Bourne is the Patriots' best hope for explosiveness but he just doesn’t seem to get the looks I figured he’d get after his excellent 2021 season. JuJu Smith-Schuster will be a more than adequate replacement, it appears, for Jakobi Meyers. Tyquan Thornton gets hurt a lot. And his quiet days vastly outnumber his splash plays.

Boutte is consistent, shows excellent hands and body control and seems to be where he’s supposed to be pretty much all the time. I think Thornton – despite his alarming speed – is getting passed by Boutte in this camp.

Zeke is such an upgrade

The fact Ezekiel Elliott was immediately installed ahead of second-year back Kevin Harris this week speaks volumes. And Elliott’s apparent conditioning (good) and ability to pick up the offense (also good) means he is plug-and-play as the Damien Harris replacement for this year.

It does make one wonder what took so long to just sign the guy, especially when they got him on such a low number. But now that he’s here, the Patriots have their Damien Harris replacement and probably an upgrade there too.

I’ve always thought Rhamondre Stevenson’s best comp was Elliott in terms of playing style. To have a 1 and 1A in the backfield with similar skills and styles is helpful, especially when you add in the flex position versatility of Douglas to perhaps be the third-down pass catcher the Patriots haven’t had.  

Zappe is backstepping

You can blame the protection. You can blame the receivers. You can point to Bailey Zappe’s shining Thursday flurry of red zone production when the offense scored six times in six plays. But overall, Zappe’s had a tough go of it. Among the eight sacks he took Wednesday, too many came when he just couldn’t get the ball out in time and scurried around trying to make plays.

And though he capped an end-of-practice two-minute drive with a touchdown to Boutte, the earlier part of that exercise was a throwaway jamboree. On at least three occasions in about an eight-play span, Zappe couldn’t find anyone and heaved the ball over the sidelines.

He’s a good, smart, accurate thrower. He’s got good leadership skills. He’s not getting cut and shouldn’t be. But he’s scuffling in practices with accuracy and decision-making in a way I did not expect.

Malik Cunningham isn't a sideshow

These joint practice reps are highly valuable. And it appears that Malik Cunningham’s work in the preseason opener paved the way for Bill O’Brien to experiment more this week to see what Cunningham can do as a change-of-pace quarterback because Cunningham got limited but steady use with the starters.

How did O’Brien and Bill Belichick feel he did with those chances? How much more can he do? Usage next week in the Tennessee joint practices will be a tell. My experience tells me, they’re going to keep pushing forward unless and until it appears he’s hit a wall. What will that look like in the regular season? Depends what the rest of the preseason and the behind-closed-doors practices in late August look like.

But it’s very clear this isn’t a lark at this point. It’s a concerted effort to mix in some dual-threat ability at the position.

Keion White is a handful

We saw it in the preseason opener against the Texans. And we saw it on the practice field this week. White’s speed/power combo is electric. On Wednesday, I watched White start an inside rush against the Packers' left tackle, feel contact on his left shoulder and then spin hard to the outside. He left the tackle grasping at air and Packers backup quarterback Sean Clifford staring at disaster.

The injury sustained Thursday is a concern but it would have been a bigger concern if the team took him right to the training room. It did not.

Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo talks about the versatility of 2nd round pick Keion White, who has been very impressive in training camp
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