The New England Patriots went into the 2020 season with two unusual challenges: A pandemic (just like everyone else), and the departure of the greatest quarterback of all-time, Tom Brady. For just the second time since 2003, the Pats failed to reach the playoffs.
Entering the 2021 campaign, however, there’s optimism among Pats fans that the team can be competitive in the AFC and perhaps make a deep postseason run. Given the splash of talent added in free agency and the first-round selection of quarterback Mac Jones, there is more of a buzz entering this season than last. The two days of Patriots training camp and one in-stadium practice that I’ve been to have reflected that. Here are notes I’ve gathered from those three days, Saturday the 31st, Wednesday the 4th, and Friday the 6th. Note that none of these days featured full pads.
Cam and Mac have each been solid in my opinion. On Saturday, Jones was the first player out on the field and on Wednesday he was one of the first. As loud as the cheers for Mac were, the cheers for Cam were noticeably louder. Some of that probably has to do with the fact that more fans trickled in between the 11 minutes on Saturday and the 5 minutes on Wednesday that Cam jogged on after Jones.
Cam, as we know, likes to have fun at practice. While the three other QBs do the dynamic stretching on their own, Cam does his stretching amidst the WRs. Kendrick Bourne, free-agent acquisition from the 49ers, has seemingly made good friends with both Cam and Mac. Cam has consistently played to the crowd while Jones has pretty much stuck to himself. Neither observation comes to my surprise given the stages of their careers and their personalities. In Gillette Stadium on Friday, Cam twice went out of his way to find and give a football to fans, something that we all loved to see back in his Carolina days after scoring a touchdown.
On Saturday, both Patriots QBs did well in the warm-up throws of 20+ yards. Then when each QB got a couple of red zone reps, Jones connected with Nelson Agholor in the back of the endzone and also had good awareness with the pass rush and dumped it off to a running back. Cam threw a slant in the endzone to Hunter Henry but it was dropped. Then he stood in the pocket for a while waiting for someone to get open––the defense of course instructed to not get too close to any QB–– before finally firing a strike to tight end Matt LaCosse. One time during a middle-of-the-field drill, Mac and Bourne had a miscommunication as Mac threw the ball as if Bourne was going to do a back-shoulder route. Instead Bourne kept running vertically.
Both QBs struggled to get a rhythm in the red zone the second time around. Cam went 1-4 and Jones went 0-4. Cam’s lone completion was a back corner pass to Bourne, while his three incompletions were a deliberate throw into the ground over the middle to N’Keal Harry, and a well-covered route to Agholor. Jones’ four straight incompletions were to double coverage on Bourne, a pass batdown by Davon Godchaux, too high for Jakobi Meyers, and a tipped screen pass to Brandon Bolden. Both QBs did well to finish practice. Jones stayed after practice for a few minutes to get some extra work in with Hunter Henry.
On Wednesday, the QBs did some warm-up throws into the endzone. All the throws were good except for one when Meyers put his hand up as he was about to break quickly into the endzone. Cam overthrew him. Later on, Mac had three consecutive completions. The first one was a deep route to Meyers, the second was from the shotgun where he rolled to the right to avoid Matthew Judon and find Meyers again, and the third one was along the left sideline on a wheel route to Jonnu Smith.
Both QBs threw a pair of picks. Cam tried a 20-25 yard pass over the middle that got picked off. Then, on the first play of 7 on 7s (no lineman), all the pass catchers were well covered as Cam tried to squeeze a throw to Meyers. JC Jackson read it perfectly and picked it off. Mac began his series of 7 on 7s connecting with N’Keal Harry three times before finding Meyers over the middle for 15-20 yards. However, his two INTs followed. He got overly ambitious and slightly overthrew Jonnu, who got his fingers on the ball but it didn’t matter. The very next play he overthrew Tre Nixon. Seemingly cautious at this point, Mac almost committed a third straight INT on a screen pass before coming back with two completions, including a deep ball to Gunner Olszewski.
On Friday in Gillette, the Patriots split up into two teams: Team White with Cam vs. Team Blue with Mac. Longtime Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels was with Mac for the duration of the scrimmage. The “scrimmage” was half speed, at best. On Mac’s first drive, he had back-to-back 20-25 yard completions to Kendrick Bourne and then had a beautiful 45-yard pass to Kristian Wilkerson down the sideline. On Cam’s first drive, he lasered in on N’Keal Harry multiple times for multiple completions, including a comeback route and a slant.
Mac found Jonnu Smith in the endzone on two separate occasions each on a seam route where Jonnu utilized his athleticism to secure the catches. Cam had a pair of completions to tight end Matt LaCosse on one drive before standing still in the pocket for a while and finally dumping it off to James White. He also threw two straight touchdown passes to cap off one drive. Meanwhile, for Mac, Kendrick Bourne proved to be his ole’ reliable pass-catcher in some of the later series.
Cam will be the starter for Week 1, but many believe Mac will take the job at some point during the season.
There’s been a lot of good buzz on N’Keal Harry from the Patriots beat reporters. I’ll get to him in a moment. I want to start with someone who I know will make an impact on this Patriots team: Jonnu Smith.
Jonnu appears like he will get used a lot this season. It was almost as if every time I looked up there was Jonnu making a catch and run. Obviously, he can haul in the seam passes in the red zone. He was also used as a running back though, as we saw him in motion and have the ball pitched back to him going to his left. On the wheel route that he received from Jones, he had been in motion, and once the ball was snapped Jones faked the handoff to him. There were also multiple screen passes to him. McDaniels clearly wants to get him in space this season as he’ll offer a dynamic to the Pats offense that was not present last season.
N’Keal Harry carries himself like the number one wideout on the team in the drills. He looks the part, so to speak. Against the half-speed defenses, both quarterbacks, especially Cam, like to look for him with the comeback and back-shoulder routes. He also makes himself a large target on the slant passes. I’m hoping that he can break out this season.
As mentioned with Kendrick Bourne, he’s been a great chemistry/upbeat guy. I think he’ll be a safety blanket near the line of scrimmage and also mix in a few big plays. Nelson Agholor has been in and out of practice, but in time he was on he was decent. Nothing crazy. And then Jakobi Meyers is just a solid player. He seems to be the guy that the QBs tend to find open in the back of the endzone. He looks spry. Meyers will make plays for this team.
The guy who I hope makes the team because I think he’s a good player and can be an emerging X-factor for this team is Kristian Wilkerson, number 17. He constantly looked impressive in the drills. He’s strong, quick and agile. When Mac had those two straight INTs and almost a third straight on Wednesday, it was Wilkerson who stepped up for him on the ensuing play on a comeback route. We also saw him get some reps in on special teams. Should he make the team, I can see him popping up randomly in some game in late October/early November where Patriots fans leave the game thinking “Where did this guy come from? He’s good.”
Hunter Henry has been solid. Obviously, he had that drop in the endzone on Saturday the 31st but it’s just one play. He stayed after practice that day to get in some extra reps with Mac. On Wednesday’s practice, he ran a route and fell down. My immediate concern was his ACL because he tore that a few years ago. He got right back up thankfully; it seemed to just be an innocent slip. He actually injured his shoulder more recently. Matt LaCosse is large; larger than Henry.
It’s hard to gauge anything meaningful with the running backs because the defense wasn’t allowed to tackle them in the days that I went. I will say that Damien Harris is first-team all quads. He carries himself like the featured back, as he should be. Sony is fine and James White as we know is mister ole’ reliable. J.J. Taylor should be used as a change of pace scatback every once in a while.
Other guys: Brief notes
Trent Brown is massive. He makes Jonnu look small. David Andrews has a friendly presence. Brandon Bolden likes to play to the crowd. Harvey Langi looks physically impressive and his chances to make the team probably improved after the season-ending injury to fellow linebacker Raekwon McMillian. Brian Hoyer looked shorter than anticipated at the practice field next to Gillette but looked taller inside Gillette. Matt Judon likes to talk and just has a good vibe to him. The backup kicker, Quinn Nordin, on the Saturday practice missed multiple kicks pretty badly, but in Gillette on Friday made field goals of 57 and then 55 yards, respectively, within 5 minutes of each other, in opposite goalposts. Nick Folk was on the exercise bike on Friday.
Interactions with fans/Other notes
Stephon Gilmore and Chase Winovich were not present at any of the three practices as they deal with injuries. Steve Belichick tossed the football around before Wednesday’s practice for a good 10-15 minutes.
J.J. Taylor, Joejuan Williams, and Isaiah Wynn waved to the group I was with when they heard their name being called. On Saturday, Jalen Mills tossed his gloves into the crowd of Patriots fans and a pile of about a dozen kids fought to get them.