FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Thornton in the (red) zone: The Patriots’ offense has had a red zone problem, but with two dynamic plays in just his second NFL game, rookie receiver Tyquan Thornton showed he can be a central part of the solution.
Thornton’s work inside the 20 has been a revelation to those who viewed him as more of a straight-line speedster coming out of Baylor, after he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.28 at the NFL combine.
“To be that fast and stop that quick, man, that’s tough,” fellow receiver Jakobi Meyers said. “A lot of guys couldn’t do that, to be able to stop on a dime and at the same time get up to 4.2.”
Thornton’s 2-yard touchdown catch last Sunday in the 38-15 win over the Cleveland Browns showcased one reason why he projects to be a major part of the team’s red zone offense after missing the first four games of the season because of a broken collarbone. He faced press coverage from cornerback Greedy Williams and was uncovered quickly on an over route.
Veteran receiver DeVante Parker, now in his eighth NFL season, was among those impressed.
“He crossed the defender up on the line and was able to get open. It’s footwork and the upper body -- shoulders, head moving and everything -- making the defender think you’re going one way, but go the other,” Parker said. “For a tall receiver to move like that is good.”
Parker also noted that the 6-foot-2, 182-pound Thornton has a “long stride,” which showed up when he took a fourth-quarter handoff on an end around, galloping untouched into the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown.
Thornton’s work helped the Patriots finish with one of their best red zone days of the season (three touchdowns in five trips). They still rank 29th in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage (9 TDs in 20 trips), an area that looms as critical as they prepare to host the 2-4 Chicago Bears on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“For a tall, linear-built guy, he has a lot more looseness than you would think," offensive assistant Joe Judge said. "He definitely has some savvy to him, a lot of natural ability of just having a feel for where the defender is.
“Obviously, he has top-end speed. That’s no secret. I think the thing that really kind of jumped out at us in training camp was seeing him in short space, of how well he moves in and out of cuts, and how elusive he is right there.”
2. Monday night memories: Ahead of the Patriots’ first Monday night game of the season, players and coaches reflected on their memories of watching the weekly event as kids. Kicker Nick Folk told the story of how he and his brothers Erik and Greg had piano lessons every Monday from 5 to 6 p.m. PT, splitting 20 minutes apiece, so the big debate was who got to go first so he wouldn’t have to miss kickoff.
For Bill Belichick, it was watching broadcasters Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford.
“Monday night highlights, that was big," he said. "That was before Boomer [ESPN's Chris Berman] had his ["NFL PrimeTime"] wrap-up, and that was kind of your only chance to see what the highlights from the weekend were. Usually, you waited up until halftime, watched the highlights, then went to bed. That was my routine if you could make it that long.”
3. Zappe’s likeability: Rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe won over a lot of fans with his play over the past 11 quarters and a mix of genuineness and humbleness in media interviews. One of the common themes in social media interactions with followers has been how Zappe’s emergence and steady improvement made watching the team fun.
So when Mac Jones ultimately returns -- and signs point to it likely being Monday night -- that’s part of the dynamic he’s stepping back into from a public perception standpoint.
As for within the locker room, safety Devin McCourty described it this way: “Zap’s been awesome. Mac’s been awesome. You saw Mac start the year, then Zappe come in and we win two games, so it creates the whole story. But I think overall, guys are just appreciating things and having a good time. That feeling of winning is what everyone is chasing, and I would say the last two weeks have been a lot of fun. That’s been more of the focus than ‘How is it with Zappe?’ And ‘How is it with Mac?’”
4. QB spot solidified: By the end of the week, one player said it was a battle to see which quarterback – Jones or Zappe – would be the last off the field after practice. They’re pushing each other, and the result is that the Patriots have further solidified the most important position on the field.
5. Belichick’s legacy: If the Patriots beat the Bears on Monday night, Belichick will pass legendary Chicago coach George Halas for sole possession of second place on the all-time wins list with 325, including playoffs. Don Pierson, who worked at the Chicago Tribune starting in 1967 (Halas’ final year as coach) and covered Halas as owner until his death in 1983, thinks highly of Belichick.
“I think he’s the best coach in history. I don’t think there is any question -- he’s past [Vince] Lombardi and everybody, just by the record, the number of games he’s won and the playoffs,” Pierson said. “The Bears won six championships under Halas, but those weren’t playoffs. They [played and] won one [postseason] game. The Patriots, it’s just incredible how dominant they’ve been.”
Pierson rubbed elbows with Belichick, as both were on the panel to pick the top 100 players in NFL history as part of the NFL’s 100th season.
“Of all the people, I think he did more work than any of us,” Pierson said. “He watched film, asked questions, talked during our meetings. He was unbelievable.”
6. Meyers extension?: The Patriots’ bye comes the weekend of Nov. 12-13, and sometimes that can be a break when the club looks ahead to contract-related business in hopes of striking an early extension. Along those lines, Meyers is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season. His performance -- a team-high 24 catches for 321 yards and one touchdown -- has him in position to command a nice payday. Thus, the team would be wise to be proactive in talks.
7. Draft trades: In his 23 years leading the Patriots’ football operation, Belichick has never been on the clock on draft day and traded a future pick in an earlier round to select a player. One reason he’s avoided it is what has unfolded for the Panthers in their draft-day deal with the Patriots this year.
The Panthers were aggressive in acquiring the Patriots’ third-round pick (No. 94) in exchange for a fourth-round pick (No. 137) and 2023 third-rounder -- as they targeted quarterback Matt Corral. Now, with the Panthers (1-5) struggling and selling off assets such as running back Christian McCaffrey, that third-round pick could potentially be as high as No. 64 (there are only 31 first-round picks in 2023 due to Miami Dolphins' penalty).
8. Montgomery’s status: Belichick wouldn’t reveal if the ailment that landed veteran running back Ty Montgomery on injured reserve after Week 1 is of the season-ending variety, which some might view as an indication it is. Montgomery had sprained his ankle in the preseason finale, and it would have been easy to assume he aggravated it in the opener. But a source close to Montgomery said the running back's injury is different from the ankle, and something related to his upper body.
9. Pats in 3-3 pack: The Patriots are one of 10 teams with a 3-3 record, which is a higher-than-usual total. Elias confirms this is just the fourth season in NFL history with at least 10 teams at 3-3 through the first six weeks. There were 11 teams at 3-3 through six weeks in 1985 and 2012, and 10 teams in 1989. ESPN Analytics rates the Patriots as having the eighth-lowest odds among those teams to qualify for the playoffs, at 31%.
10. Did you know? After the Patriots signed special teamer Raleigh Webb off the Ravens' practice squad Wednesday, Webb is now set to become just the second player from The Citadel to ever suit up for the franchise. Kicker Greg Davis, who played in nine games in 1989 before Jason Staurovsky rejoined the team, is the other.