April 21, 2024


Marsh Gas

Taking an early look at what the Patriots will be up against in the AFC East


Let’s take a trip around the division to preview some of the questions facing each team ahead of training camp. Starting with the Patriots . . .

1. Will Mac Jones have a go-to guy?

Former Patriots player personnel executive Scott Pioli raised this question this past week.

“Who is the guy that [Mac] can count on?” Pioli said on NFL Network. “Tom Brady always had a go-to guy, and those guys were generally versatile, smart, and dependable. Mac needs to find out who those guys are, or who that singular guy is in order to make things go to the next level for him at the quarterback position.”

Jones’s top receiver last year was Jakobi Meyers, who hauled in 83 passes for 866 yards and two touchdowns. Meyers has become a reliable target over the past two seasons, showing off his toughness on several occasions with critical third-down receptions.

As a rookie, Jones also established a strong rapport with wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, whose 55-catch, 800-yard season cashed a few contract incentives, and tight end Hunter Henry, who led the team in receiving touchdowns with nine.

The offense, on paper, certainly looks promising, even without an elite pass catcher. Bourne and Henry will be back with a year of experience in the Patriots’ system. Tight end Jonnu Smith has the potential to bounce back after a disappointing 2021. Trade acquisition DeVante Parker should be in the mix as a downfield threat. The same goes for Nelson Agholor. Tre Nixon, hand-selected by Ernie Adams in the seventh round in 2021, and Tyquan Thornton, drafted in the second round this year, could earn some snaps, too.

New England’s running back room should remain a strength, with Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and James White returning.

There is no shortage of weapons. Pioli wants to know who Jones’s go-to guy will be, but a “by committee” approach with multiple contributors seems much more likely.

2. How will the offensive line fare?

In order for the offense to operate at a high level, protecting Jones will be key. The Patriots lost two of their starting offensive linemen as well as their position coach this offseason, so changes are coming.

The official depth chart lists Isaiah Wynn at left tackle, first-round draft pick Cole Strange at left guard, David Andrews at center, Mike Onwenu at right guard, and Trent Brown at right tackle. But the tackle positions seem fluid, as Wynn lined up on the right side during minicamp.

The line, plagued by a lack of continuity, got off to a rocky start last season. The unit could be in for a similar start this year. Even though Joe Burrow advanced to the Super Bowl as the most-sacked quarterback of the regular season, the O-line needs to limit its number of penalties and hits allowed in order to give Jones his best chance.

J.C. Jackson is now in Los Angeles after signing a big contract with the Chargers.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

3. How does the secondary hold up without J.C. Jackson?

The Patriots will face some elite wide receivers this season — Hill, Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and DeAndre Hopkins — but they’ll be without Jackson, the cornerback who would normally take on those assignments last season.

While safety remains one of the Patriots’ greatest strengths, cornerback is arguably one of their bigger question marks. Jonathan Jones will be back after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, so his return to the slot will be beneficial.

The Patriots also brought back 32-year-old Malcolm Butler, signed Terrance Mitchell, drafted Marcus Jones and Jack Jones, and retained Shaun Wade, but none can replace Jackson (lost to the Chargers in free agency) in the way that Jackson stepped up after the Patriots traded Stephon Gilmore. Jalen Mills will start, though the spot opposite him is up for grabs.

The Patriots started to play more zone-based coverage in the second half of last season, so that may well continue in 2022. Regardless of whether they rely on zone or man-to-man, the Patriots will need players to step up at cornerback and linebacker.

As for the rest of the AFC East . . .

1. Can the Bills advance to the Super Bowl?

It may seem silly to ask this question ahead of training camp, but the Bills are the preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl and for good reason. Just look at the way they dismantled the Patriots’ defense in the wild-card round and then went toe-to-toe with the Chiefs in the divisional round.

2. How will Tua Tagovailoa perform with a revamped offense?

With Hill, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, running back Raheem Mostert, tight end Mike Gesicki, and offensive tackle Terron Armstead, the Dolphins boast their best roster since drafting Tagovailoa fifth overall in 2020. This year will certainly be informative, especially considering the team’s looming decision on Tagovailoa’s fifth-year option.

Much of the criticism surrounding Tagovailoa focuses on his inability to throw the deep ball. Last season, Tagovailoa averaged 7.03 air yards per passing attempt, which ranked 30th among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts. Even with a new coach and improved personnel, Miami’s chances of competing in the division seem to hinge on Tagovailoa’s performance.

3. How ready is the Jets’ youth?

The Jets have collected a number of talented young players, most recently with their 2022 draft class, led by cornerback Sauce Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson, edge rusher Jermaine Johnson, and running back Breece Hall. While the Jets seemed destined for a fourth-place finish, they may no longer be a walkover. Since 2016, the Patriots are 12-0 against the Jets with an average margin of victory of 20 points.


Jones serves it up for fans

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones served ice cream to fans at Charlestown’s Hood Park on Friday.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Sunday is National Ice Cream Day, but Patriots quarterback Mac Jones started the celebration a couple of days early.

Jones and his girlfriend, Sophie Scott, were on hand Friday afternoon at Hood Park in Charlestown to hand out samples of his customized ice cream flavor, “Mac Attack,” to hundreds of fans. A long queue extended well down the block, with many decked out in No. 10 jerseys or other Patriots gear. The first folks in line said they showed up at 8 a.m., eager to meet Jones, who wasn’t due to appear until noon.

Upon arrival, Jones greeted the crowd and thanked everyone for waiting in the summer heat. His final message — “Go Pats!” — was met with cheers. Among those in attendance were Jones’s parents, Gordie and Holly.

Jones then took his spot in the Hood ice cream truck, where he and Sophie spent an hour dishing out small cups of ice cream. Fans had five flavors to choose from, but the vast majority picked “Mac Attack,” a cookie dough concoction with blue swirls. The flavor was available only on Friday.

“I had a taste testing and picked what I liked,” Jones said. “Hopefully, everybody enjoys it as much as I do. I like to use ice cream as my cheat meal. When I work really hard, I’ll get a good ice cream in once a week or so.”

Since the Patriots drafted him 15th overall last year, Jones’s profile has continued to grow, but he’s made a conscientious effort to partner with a number of local brands. In addition to Charlestown-based Hood, Jones also has endorsement deals with NOBULL, a Boston-based fitness brand, and Brockton-based HarborOne Bank.

“That’s what I want to focus on, doing good in the community, meeting different people, and working with brands that mean a lot to New England,” Jones said.

The Greater Boston area is starting to feel more like home to Jones, who has popped in and out while traveling quite a bit this offseason. With training camp starting soon, he plans to lay low for the next week and a half.

“I love Boston,” Jones said. “The area is great. The people are really nice. I’m looking forward to a big season. Everyone loves sports. It’s a big sports community, so they expect a lot. I’m just looking forward to putting it on the field.”


Gronk shifting focus to business

With his football career seemingly over, Rob Gronkowski is moving into his business ventures.Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for Encore Beach Club at Wynn Las Vegas

Rob Gronkowski sure is acting as though his NFL career is really over.

Back in Boston last Tuesday for an event to promote his brother Chris’s Ice Shaker company, Gronkowski stressed he is ready to foray into the business world. Although his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, seemed to leave the door open for a possible return to football this season, Gronkowski insisted he’s not planning a comeback.

“I’m done,” he said, emphatically. “I’m done playing football.”

Three of Gronkowski’s brothers, Chris, Dan, and Gordie, along with father Gordon, whom they call “Papa Gronk,” were in town for the event. The group organized and participated in a fitness class, which Chris used as an opportunity to point out that younger brother Rob is no longer in tip-top shape.

“Did you see him at the workout today?” Chris quipped.

Gronkowski announced his retirement last month, hanging up his cleats a second time after a two-year stint in Tampa Bay with quarterback (and longtime friend) Tom Brady. Apparently not even a call from Brady could change Gronkowski’s mind, at least for now.

Obviously, things could change, as Gronkowski seemed equally done with football when he first retired in 2019. The usually gregarious, playful Gronk was emotional at that time when explaining his decision to step away, detailing the extent of the pain he endured over nine NFL seasons. But once Brady switched teams in 2020, Gronkowski decided to return to the field. His initial retirement lasted just a season.

If Gronkowski does in fact stay retired this time, he’ll have no shortage of career options, starting with his brother’s Ice Shaker company. Chris pitched the business on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in 2017, earning a $150,000 investment for a 15 percent stake from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and former Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Rob Gronkowski, however, recently bought out Rodriguez to take over his share.

“I wanted to find a way to be a part of it,” Gronkowski said. “It’s my turn to start. I’ve never really been a part of it because, you know, I was playing professional sports my whole life. So, this is an opportunity for myself — and what better opportunity than to step into my family’s business?”

Other possible opportunities for Gronkowski include broadcasting — he debuted as an studio analyst on Fox during his last retirement — or launching a venture of his own.

As far as where Gronkowski will be? He still has his home in the Boston area and plans to spend time in New England — a place he reiterated he loves — just not on a full-time basis.

One thing’s for certain, though. If Gronkowski does come out of retirement, he’ll be suiting up for the Buccaneers. Even though Gronkowski retired as an unrestricted free agent, he has made it clear that he will only catch passes from one quarterback: Brady.

Former Patriot Jason McCourty announced his retirement Friday.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Former Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty announced his retirement Friday afternoon. In an eight-minute video narrated by his children, McCourty captured the ups and downs of his 13-year NFL career. His kids poked fun at the amount of losing he endured while a member of the 0-16 Browns of 2017, before celebrating his Super Bowl win while with the Patriots. McCourty entered the league one year before twin brother Devin, so it’s fair to wonder whether Devin will follow suit and retire after the coming season. He signed a one-year, $9 million contract this offseason to return to the Patriots . . . Ahead of the enshrinement ceremony for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, four of the eight inductees spoke to the media this past week. Former Patriots defensive tackle Richard Seymour, former Packers safety LeRoy Butler, longtime coach Dick Vermeil, and former 49ers defensive tackle Bryant Young reflected on their careers and shared their thoughts on the honor. Former Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli will speak next Tuesday. The Class of 2022 will be inducted in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 6 . . . When the Patriots visit Pittsburgh in Week 2, they won’t be playing at Heinz Field but rather Acrisure Stadium. For the first time in more than two decades, the home of the Steelers will have a new name. Acrisure, an insurance company headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., will be the stadium’s lead sponsor for the next 15 years. According to Heinz’s statement, Acrisure was willing to pay “significantly more” than the food processing company could justify. Financial terms were not released. Steelers president Art Rooney II indicated, though, the giant ketchup bottles that sit atop the Jumbotron still may stay.

Nicole Yang can be reached at [email protected] her on Twitter @nicolecyang.


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