New England Patriots WR DeVante Parker solidifying role with big plays, contested grabs – NFL Nation

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

1. Parker’s place: The red zone was a primary emphasis through the first four days of training camp, and it quickly became clear that veteran receiver DeVante Parker is a big part of the Patriots’ plans.

When the space gets tight on the field, the catch radius of a 6-foot-3, 219-pound target like Parker stands out when quarterback Mac Jones is assessing his options.

“Big body, can make a lot of plays, contested catches,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “It’s always nice to add a guy like that and take a little pressure off everybody else.”

One of the signature plays from the early stretch of camp came in a 7-on-7 drill with the ball spotted on the 10-yard line — Jones in the shotgun, Parker split wide to his left.

When Jones released the ball as Parker crossed the goal line, the eight-year veteran was not open. Starting cornerback Jalen Mills, wearing mitts as part of a technique to avoid grabbing, had him locked up.

But Jones delivered a perfect back-shoulder throw and Parker adjusted to it, toe-tapping his feet along the left boundary.

“Mac sees where the defender is. He puts it in a great spot and I’m able to come down to it,” said Parker, who has led the NFL in tight-window catches over the past five seasons (defined as less than 1 yard of separation as the pass arrives), according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

This is likely what Bill Belichick envisioned when the Patriots acquired Parker and a fifth-round pick from the Miami Dolphins in March in exchange for a 2023 third-round pick.

The Patriots might not have a clear-cut No. 1 receiver, but pairing Parker with returning top targets Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne — and drafting speedster Tyquan Thornton (Baylor) in the second round — potentially gives them a deep, diverse group.

Parker, in essence, projects to fill the role of what the Patriots thought they were getting when they drafted N’Keal Harry at the end of the first round in 2019. Harry was traded to the Chicago Bears on July 12 for a 2023 seventh-round pick (and Parker is now wearing his No. 1 jersey).

Parker, 29, has been feeding off the energy of the lively scene at training camp, where thousands have packed the bleachers and hillside each day. After a different tight-window catch in the red zone, he gestured to the crowd and raised his arms in the air, which sparked a roar from those in attendance.

“Big energy,” said Mills, the veteran cornerback who has often been assigned to cover him. “You like to see that.”

2. Real football: Monday marks an important day for the Patriots — the first practice in full pads. That’s the date Belichick has referenced as essentially the real start of training camp. Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux said players at his position “can’t do much” before that point and he expects some jitters. Added Mills: “That’s when we’re playing real football, seeing big guys in the trenches, hearing those pads clapping, and us on the back end, getting to compete with the receivers, jamming them up a little.”

3. Taking charge: Teammates are noticing a difference in Jones in his second season, and longtime team leaders such as Matthew Slater said it’s only a matter of time before the team truly becomes his. “He’s definitely more commanding than he was last year,” added offensive tackle Trent Brown. Jones is usually one of the first players to arrive for practice each day, giving himself 15-20 minutes to loosen up and work on fundamentals.

4. OT switch: Belichick downplayed the team’s offensive tackle flip in the spring — Brown on the left, Isaiah Wynn on the right — as nothing more than the norm of building versatility along the line. But that’s also the way it’s been early in training camp and it seems to have more of a permanent feeling, especially when Brown said of being at left tackle: “It’s feeling like home.”

5. Corner concerns? A significant question looms at cornerback opposite Mills, where veteran Terrance Mitchell received the initial opportunity of camp, and Belichick praised his instincts. The Patriots are the sixth team Mitchell, 30, has been with in his nine-year career. Then there’s 32-year-old Malcolm Butler, who acknowledged he’s “getting in shape” while feeling he’s already knocked off the rust after not playing in 2021. They’ve been the top two options in front of rookie Jack Jones (fourth round, Arizona State).

6. Stevenson’s change: Running back Rhamondre Stevenson reported to training camp at 225 pounds, which he said was seven pounds lighter than last year. But it’s not just the number as much as the type of weight he’s carrying. “I think I got a lot more lean and I feel better overall,” he said. It shows, as Stevenson has looked fluid as a pass-catcher in space, which was one of his offseason goals. The result is that Stevenson is giving himself a chance to stay on the field in the “passing back” role.

7. Simple = success? If there was one common thread listening to Patriots offensive players after the first stretch of practices, it was their optimism about changes to streamline the attack. Stevenson, for one, said it’s “simpler, easier to learn, and you can play faster.” Brown and Bourne were among those echoing those thoughts, with Mac Jones saying: “We are doing a lot of good things schematically to get up there and snap the ball a lot quicker.”

8. Uche’s ‘breakout’: Brown predicts a “breakout year” for linebacker Josh Uche, the 2020 second-round pick who played just three snaps (not including kneel-downs) in last season’s playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills but has shown signs of being a disruptive pass-rusher when healthy. Uche was at his best at Michigan when his weight was in the 230s, and it looks like he’s back in that range now despite being listed on the roster at 245. Uche is moving well in the early days of camp when asked to cover running backs in the flat.

9. Tight coverage: The Patriots’ defense isn’t the only group providing tight coverage; about 200 media credentials were issued by the team for training camp over the first four days, a reflection of how many reporters, camera operators etc., have been in attendance each day.

10. Did you know? The Patriots ranked 11th last season in red zone offense, with a 61.9 touchdown percentage (63 trips, 39 TDs). The AFC East champion Bills ranked eighth, with a league-high 77 trips, and 48 touchdowns (62.3%).

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