The New England Patriots returned to the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium on Wednesday morning, holding the first session of their 2023 training camp. While it was still “football light” due to an absence of full pads or live contact, it did give spectators a first glimpse at the team heading into the new season.
To recap the session, please make sure to check out Pats Pulpit beat writer Brian Hines’ practice recap. Before we turn our attention to Day 2, however, let’s clean out that camp notebook to put an official wrap on Wednesday.
Patriots Training Camp Notebook: Day 1
JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves a positive first impression: Arguably the Patriots’ high-profile free agency signing, Smith-Schuster was a no-show during spring practices while still recovering from injuries sustained in 2022. The team was willing to play things slowly, with training camp being the target date for his practice debut.
He was indeed on the field on Wednesday, and appeared to take a full workload of reps. He ended up catching only one pass in competitive drills, but nonetheless left a positive early impression.
“We are really excited to have JuJu. It’s good to see him out here today,” Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said after the session.
“He has been working. The guy loves ball, the guy wants to compete, and the guy is tough. I know we are used to seeing those kinds of players at his position around here, so I don’t think with having JuJu in here, it’s a new face and a new name. But I don’t think that it will be a big deviation from what people around here are accustomed to seeing.”
Smith-Schuster seemingly enjoyed his practice debut, too. Not only did he bring a noticeable energy to the session and interacted with the crowd both during and after, something quarterback Mac Jones also pointed out.
“JuJu loves football and you can see the juice that he brings. He’s definitely really embraced everything,” Jones said post-practice. “He’s working really hard, always doing the right thing, so we just got to be consistent.
“I know that he can bring that veteran leadership; that’s one of the guys I’m talking about when I say, ‘Played a lot of snaps in the NFL.’ So, just to hear his experience, whether it’s with other quarterbacks, coordinators or against other defenses, it’s really cool just because I like to pick people’s brains as well. I’m really happy to have him and the guys that we have in that room.”
Smith-Schuster’s leadership skills were also mentioned by another of his teammates, fellow wide receiver DeVante Parker.
“He’s brought that veteran experience,” Parker said. “He can teach the young guys what they need to know. He’s a great player, too.”
Smith-Schuster is scheduled to meet with the media for the first time this summer on Thursday, giving us an opportunity to get his perspective on his time in New England up until this point.
The Patriots offense has Kyle Dugger excited: Coming off a disappointing 2022 season, the Patriots made some major investments in their offense. Most prominently, the team brought back former assistant coach Bill O’Brien to resume the role of offensive coordinator he last held in 2011.
O’Brien’s impact on the unit has been notable, and the group appears to be headed in a positive direction again following the one-year stint of de facto coordinators Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. And don’t take it from those watching from the sidelines, either: safety Kyle Dugger also expressed excitement about the unit on Wednesday.
“They definitely have a lot of things they get to, and they can make it look a lot of different ways,” he said. “It only makes us better and makes them better as well, and challenges us. So, I’m definitely happy to see it. … You love to see things that are going to make the team better, and make you as defenders better in practice and things like that. You love to see that kind of stuff. So, it just makes me excited about the season.”
One of the changes O’Brien seemingly implemented was a focus on more 12 personnel sets with two tight ends on the team. For Dugger, having to defend both Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki poses a challenge — one he and the entire defense seem to embrace.
“They are just two points of emphasis on offense — two guys that are really good in the red area, really good in space, and do a lot of things really well. It just makes us better, challenges us,” he said. “It’s great work for us. At the end of the day, it makes us better. It’s good.”
Jack Jones not part of the top secondary, yet: After his arrest at Logan Airport earlier this offseason left him in legal limbo, Jack Jones was with the team to start camp. Where he was not, for the most part, was the starting lineup: the sophomore cornerback spent most of his time with the second-stringers — a continuation, to a degree, of his spring usage.
Of course, back then, the team eventually opted to give him starter-level reps as well. As for Wednesday’s practice, however, the top secondary mostly consisted of outside cornerbacks Christian Gonzalez and Jonathan Jones, slot cornerback Myles Bryant, and safeties Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers.
Andrew Stueber continues seeing reps at left tackle: The Patriots used veterans Trent Brown and Riley Reiff as their top options at offensive tackle on Wednesday. The depth behind them was no less interesting, though, with second-year man Andrew Stueber seemingly the next man up on the left side of the line.
Stueber missed virtually all of 2022 after suffering a hamstring injury in the spring, and still appears to be facing an uphill climb to make the team. That said, his versatility to play both left and right tackle is apparently being explored by the coaching staff this summer — something that might ultimately help him stick around as a swing option.
The rest of the second-string offensive line, meanwhile, consisted of rookies Atonio Mafi and Jake Andrews at left guard and center, respectively, as well as Chasen Hines and Conor McDermott filling the right guard and tackle spots.
Matthew Judon’s status worth watching: The Patriots enjoyed some strong attendance for Wednesday’s session, with only the four players on injury-related reserve lists not participating. However, not everybody had the same workload. Among those getting fewer reps than their teammates was one Mr. Matthew Judon.
The Pro Bowl linebacker does not appear to be dealing with any injury, and was in good spirits playing catch with fans before the session. Given his importance to the defensive operation, however, his status over the next few days will be worth watching.
Lawrence Guy does not skip a beat: Due to an apparent contract dispute, the veteran defensive tackle opted to stay away from spring workouts and even held out of mandatory minicamp. On Wednesday, however, Guy took the field alongside his teammates and resumed his role as a top early-down option along the interior defensive line.
Whether or not the issue has been resolved is not yet known, but Guy showing up certainly does not hurt him from a fiscal perspective. Had he stayed away, the Patriots would have been able to fine him $50,000 per day.
Patriots still enjoy plenty of fan support: Following Wednesday’s session, the Patriots announced that a total of 6,081 fans were counted in attendance. The fairly high number of spectators despite the week-day setting created a high-energy atmosphere, that also left an impression on the players.
“They’re excited,” said safety Adrian Phillips. “It was tough last year, so when you come back this year and see the fans out there, see the support, you love that. You just want to make sure you’re doing everything to help them out and win.”
What’s next: The Patriots will be back on the practice field on Thursday at 9:30 a.m. ET, with doors opening at 8 a.m. ET. Make sure to follow Pats Pulpit (@patspulpit) as well as our very own Brian Hines (@iambrianhines) and Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) for updates.