Mac Jones' deep throws show potential for a more explosive Patriots attack

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

1. Mac's deep ball: Spring practices are the appetizer to the main menu, and quarterback Mac Jones and the Patriots' offense provided a tasty preview of what they hope to be cooking in 2022.

The main takeaway: There is potential for significant improvement in the deep passing game.

Jones delivered three downfield, tight-window throws in the final practice of mandatory minicamp that couldn't have been placed any better.

There was a high-arc ball down the left sideline to receiver Nelson Agholor, who had rookie cornerback Jack Jones running stride-for-stride with him on a "go" route, so close that Jones was tugging his jersey as the ball arrived.

Then a deep right-to-left crossing route to tight end Jonnu Smith, who hardly appeared open with safety Kyle Dugger in his back pocket, but made a diving catch.

And finally, a 50-yard bomb down the middle to receiver Tre Nixon, who somehow pinned the drop-in-the-bucket throw to his chest with his right hand, as cornerback Jonathan Jones was all over him. Jones seemed stunned at the completion based on his coverage.

They were plays that sparked celebrations from the offense, and veteran safety Devin McCourty referenced them as "haymakers" -- great throws and catches against top coverage.

McCourty said the way the offense and defense traded "big-time shots" against each other this spring, with neither side dominating, is the type of sign he looks for when assessing the potential of a complete team.

Specific to the offense, success in the deep passing game could be the missing piece to becoming a complete attack.

Consider these nuggets from last season, via ESPN Stats & Information:

  • 41% of Jones' pass attempts thrown at least 20 yards downfield were over- or underthrown last season, an off-target mark that ranked 21st in the NFL (league average 36%).

  • Jones ranked 24th with a 38.8% completion rate on vertical routes last season according to NFL Next Gen Stats. His completion percentage above expectation on those throws was -4.5% (26th out of 31 qualified QBs).

  • Jones had his most completions 20-plus yards downfield to receiver Jakobi Meyers (7-of-16), but struggled to connect with Agholor (4-of-17, 0 TD, 2 INT).

  • Patriots receivers ranked 25th with only 1.6 yards of separation on deep balls per NFL Next Gen Stats.

Jones felt "good strides" were made in practice this spring, but stressed that the work must continue.

"We want to be able to do whatever we want to do at any given time, whether that's a run, pass, play-action -- short, medium, or long. We're trying to be able to have a little bit of variety," he said.

2. Rookie hustle: In 2003, when safety Rodney Harrison signed with the Patriots as a free agent, he was practicing at a different tempo and popped receiver Troy Brown on one play. Nearly 20 years later, a parallel could be drawn to Patriots first-round pick Cole Strange, as on the final play of practice Tuesday, the guard got tangled up with outside linebacker Matthew Judon after a pack of players were around a loose football, and there was shouting on the field.

No hard feelings from Judon, who later highlighted something others around the Patriots have said of Strange -- he's always full-throttle (which was a Harrison staple).

"If you saw him, he was sprinting from 30 yards away," Judon said. "Great hustle from him."

3. Eyes on Nixon: Nixon, a practice squad receiver (seventh round, 2021, Central Florida), made two of the most impressive plays this spring, so now the question is if he can carry that momentum into training camp and make a charge for a roster spot. Agholor raved about him ("I don't think there is anybody that trains as hard"), and Mac Jones explained that his connection with Nixon extends beyond the field. They used to drive to the stadium together last season, take their COVID-19 tests, and then enter the building with each other.

4. Kendrick's cake: Receiver Kendrick Bourne was given an excused absence for the first practice of mandatory minicamp as part of his wedding celebration, and the team surprised him with a cake upon his return. It's a moment that reflects the camaraderie and chemistry that can be developed at this time on the NFL calendar.

5. Draft report: First impressions of the Patriots' 2022 class:

  • G Cole Strange (first round): Plug-and-play starter at left guard

  • WR Tyquan Thornton (second): Speed as advertised; work as a gunner could be his ticket to land on the 46-man game-day roster

  • DB Marcus Jones (third): Still in a red non-contact jersey (shoulders); projects as a returner and sub defender

  • CB Jack Jones (fourth): Sticky coverage on the outside; curious to see if he can make a push to start after looking the part

  • RB Pierre Strong Jr. (fourth): Got a look as a kickoff returner, where speed stood out

  • QB Bailey Zappe (fourth): Work ethic not in question; usually one of the last players to leave the field

  • RB Kevin Harris (sixth): Got an earful from special teams coordinator Cam Achord for a blocking miscue on a kickoff return

  • DT Sam Roberts (sixth): Tough to judge much at his position without pads and full contact

  • OL Chasen Hines/Andrew Stueber (sixth/seventh): Did not practice

6. Rookie value: If Jack Jones emerges as a contributor after finishing strong in spring practices, it would highlight the financial value of receiving contributions from those playing on rookie contracts. Jones' deal that he signed Thursday includes a $746,984 signing bonus (paid in two installments) and base salaries of $705,000, $870,000, $985,000 and $1.1 million. So his cap charges are just $891,746, $1.05 million, $1.1 million and $1.2 million.

7. Fight On! As Jack Jones was answering questions from reporters last week, Agholor interrupted by calling out "Fight On!" It was a reference to USC's fight song, as Agholor came out of the school in 2015 and Jones began his career there in 2016 before finishing up at Arizona State. They had a few notable battles on the Patriots' practice field in recent weeks and then shared smiles about their Trojan ties afterward. "I knew Nelly before I got up here; I used to see him around SC," Jones said. "I love competing with him. We make each other better."

8. Belichick and Banda: Coach Bill Belichick has been hands-on with the offense, but in the team's final minicamp practice, he was noticeably hands-off. He spent the majority of the workout twirling his whistle on the sideline and talking with Utah State defensive coordinator/safeties coach Ephraim Banda. Belichick's time is valuable and the extended chat with Banda had me wondering more about his background and what might have piqued Belichick's interest.

9. Health check: Defensive tackle Byron Cowart and rookie offensive linemen Hines and Stueber are among those to monitor medically when the Patriots return for training camp in late July. They haven't practiced this spring, making them candidates for the physically unable to perform list if they don't make strides in the next month. Meyers, running back James White, rookie defensive back Marcus Jones and tight ends Dalton Keene and Hunter Henry were limited, so they have some ground to make up as well.

10. Did you know? Receiver DeVante Parker, who hauled in a deep pass from Mac Jones last week while leaping over cornerback Jalen Mills, has the most receptions on tight-window throws in the NFL over the past five seasons (69), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Julio Jones (63) and Mike Williams (62) are next on the list. Tight-window throws are defined as less than a yard of separation as the pass arrives.