Patriots D [608x342]
Patriots D [608x342] (Credit: Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

Jackets fill vacancy with ex-Wild coach Evason

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Determined defense: Rookie quarterback Drake Maye threw two interceptions in a practice last week, and one of the first things he said in an interview afterwards was how challenging it is to face the Patriots' defense.

"Our defense does a great job, so we're getting great work out here [as an offense]," Maye, the No. 3 pick of the 2024 draft, said. "A lot of different pieces. They can do a lot of different things. They do a good job disguising. They do a good job bringing different blitzes. I think that's what makes them special."

In an offseason in which significant scouting and coaching resources were devoted to securing Maye as the hopeful quarterback of the future, in addition to using six of the team's other seven draft picks on offensive players, Maye's comments served as a reminder of sorts.

Oh yeah, the defense!

The Patriots' D was one of the NFL's better units in 2023, allowing an average of 3.3 yards per rush, the lowest mark in the league and lowest in franchise history since the AFL-NFL merger (1970). The unit didn't receive consistent support from the offense yet finished seventh in the NFL in fewest yards allowed (301.6 per game), fifth in fewest first downs allowed per game (17.9) and sixth in third-down efficiency (opponents at 36.3%).

Those results came despite playing without leading sacker/outside linebacker Matthew Judon (biceps) and cornerback/2023 first-round pick Christian Gonzalez (shoulder) since the fourth week of the season. And now with everyone back other than veteran defensive tackle Lawrence Guy Sr., reserve linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. and reserve safety Adrian Phillips, coach Jerod Mayo said: "We're going to be ahead because we return a lot of players. That was one of the goals coming into the season."

It has shown at times in voluntary spring practices, such as Tuesday in a session open to reporters in which the defense mostly put the clamps on the offense in the red zone, notably frustrating veteran quarterback and current starter Jacoby Brissett at one point.

"It's definitely nice to have some continuity. We're pretty much doing the same things, with some wrinkles here and there. We get to keep building on a great foundation," veteran safety Jabrill Peppers said.

The biggest change has come on the sideline and in the meeting rooms.

Former head coach Bill Belichick and his oldest son, linebackers coach/play-caller Steve Belichick, are no longer here. DeMarcus Covington, who served as defensive line coach the past four seasons, was elevated by Mayo to coordinator.

Covington, 35, was also given latitude to hire new assistants such as D-line coach Jerry Montgomery (formerly of the Packers), inside linebackers coach Dont'a Hightower (the former Patriots great) and outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins (formerly of the Giants/Ravens), while retaining cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino and safeties coach Brian Belichick.

Mayo, who was often the leading coaching voice in the defensive meeting room in recent years, plans to have Covington fill that role this year so he can be more of an overseer in his head-coaching role. In recent weeks, Covington shared part of his message.

"I talked to the players about the ability to be uncomfortable doing things. You have to go through growth pains. You have to be uncomfortable to get comfortable. Making sure we try to thrive and not be comfortable," he said. "That's how I am and that's how I want our players to be."

Of his X's and O's philosophy, Covington said: "I think about players, not plays. How can we use our players the best way? How can we use our strengths to the best of our ability? Once we figure out what players do well, we will put them in the right positions by the calls."

Voluntary spring practices have laid a foundation for Covington & Co. to learn more, while also allowing them to take a closer look at under-the-radar players who could complement the returning core, such as defensive tackle Armon Watts, outside linebackers Oshane Ximines and William Bradley-King, and inside linebacker Sione Takitaki, among others.

Watts, who joins the Patriots after playing for the Steelers, Bears and Vikings over the past three seasons, called the Patriots' scheme "a little more complex, but in a good way." He noted how coaches give linemen multiple options within the same call, which leads to the variety of looks the unit can show.

That variety has challenged Maye and others on offense at times, while sparking promise that the defense will once again be a strength of the team.

"It's a high ceiling with the guys we have and what we're capable of," Watts said.

2. Shortened camp? Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt made the point last week that the Patriots have installed a significant part of the offense and have already gone through it twice, so when players return for training camp in late July, it will be the third time through for most of them. That makes one wonder whether the Patriots will utilize all three days of this week's mandatory minicamp for on-field work, as they might feel they've reached a point of diminishing returns.

An initial practice is scheduled for Monday, but it wouldn't be surprising if the three-day mandatory minicamp is shortened/altered in some fashion.

3. 'Surprise' guests for Brady: Patriots owner Robert Kraft, speaking after the Myra Kraft Community MVP Awards last week, looked ahead to Brady's in-stadium Patriots Hall of Fame induction Wednesday.

"Over his career, he showed some of the great values of America overcoming the odds through hard work and being a great human being. It will be great that we have a full stadium to honor him, which includes hundreds of his former Patriots teammates," Kraft said. "We'll also have some real outstanding, surprise guests that are coming out of respect to Tommy and his legacy. We're honored to have his whole family and all the fans that respect what he did for us." 

4. Topgolf visit: Mayo said his goals this spring were to give players a "basic understanding of fundamentals and X's and O's, build camaraderie and get out of here healthy." In the camaraderie department, he arranged a team visit to Topgolf on Wednesday.

5. Maye's smarts: Maye recently made an impression on fifth-year veteran receiver K.J. Osborn with his film study and communication. Osborn shared that he had a practice repetition with Brissett in which he later determined he could have altered his route based on the coverage from the defense. Turns out Maye had the same thing in mind.

"His locker is two lockers down, and he said, 'K.J., I wanted to tell you something,'" Osborn relayed. "He wasn't even the quarterback [on the play but] he's locked in, watching film, giving me a tip. That's somebody you can see is studying the game."

6. Camp storylines: Judon's anticipated presence at mandatory minicamp -- and any potential progress/advancements with his contract status as he enters the final year of his deal scheduled to earn $7.5 million -- is one of the team's top storylines of an otherwise routine camp. Judon hasn't been spotted at any of the voluntary practices leading up to this week.

Meanwhile, after Maye took reps immediately after Brissett in last week's practice open to reporters -- which was a change from prior weeks when those repetitions went to Bailey Zappe -- does that continue into this week?

7. Waiting on run game: In his first two NFL seasons with the Vikings, Osborn played in a similar West Coast-based offense to what the Patriots are now running under Van Pelt, with Gary Kubiak and Klint Kubiak as coordinators. From that experience, Osborn cautioned anyone from reading too much into what the 2024 Patriots offense looks like in non-padded spring practices -- such as Tuesday when the unit mostly struggled in the red zone.

"It's hard to tell without pads, because in any offense -- but especially this one -- you have to have the marriage of the run and pass," he said. "If you watched Cleveland [where Van Pelt coached], they had a really strong run game. They had some really good tight ends, which I think we have here. That opens up the pass game, opens up the play-action, opens up the RPOs, [and] whatever [else] we have."

8. Austin's time: Mayo said when Patriots defensive coaches concluded their evaluations at the end of last season, they looked at rookie cornerback Alex Austin and said to themselves, "This is an NFL player."

The Patriots had signed Austin in early November after he was released from the Texans' practice squad, and the 2023 seventh-round pick (of the Bills) played in five games at the end of New England's 4-13 season. Now he's further carving out a niche, often getting snaps across from starter Gonzalez in spring practices when veteran Jonathan Jones isn't present.

9. Brissett boosters: One theme that came through clearly in interviews with Patriots offensive assistant coaches last week is how much respect they have for Brissett. Van Pelt called him a "stud" while noting he's had an "exceptional spring." Quarterbacks coach T.C. McCartney reflected on his time with Brissett in Cleveland in 2022 and how Brissett's confidence in himself has contributed to how "he's embraced the role of trying to help people."

10. Did you know: Defensive tackle Christian Barmore led the Patriots with 8.5 sacks last season. If he leads the team in sacks in 2024, he would become the first defensive lineman to do so in back-to-back years since Trey Flowers (three straight from 2016-2018).