The pads came on and the intensity was ratcheted up on Tuesday but the headline to the day had less to do with big hits and more to do with noticeable misses.
Rookie quarterback Mac Jones scuffled at times through the run-heavy practice, looking for the first time during 2021 training camp like, well, a rookie. And Cam Newton? Sharp. Sharp in 1-on-1s, sharp in commanding the running game and sharp in 11-on-11s with three of the day’s best completions.
And that’s a departure. Through the first five workouts which were performed in shorts, jerseys and helmets, the Patriots were practicing to Mac Jones’ strengths: accuracy, quick decision-making. He throws it quicker and more precisely than Newton and -- while Newton acknowledged he was overthinking things -- Jones was just letting it rip.
But on Tuesday, Newton looked fully in command. It started in 1-on-1 drills where both quarterbacks were throwing to receivers matched up on the outside. Newton -- who always throws with a lot of oomph -- had the best completion of that session with a back-shoulder completion to N’Keal Harry who was matched up with Jonathan Jones. Meanwhile, Mac Jones threw a pick to Myles Bryant who was in coverage on Jakobi Meyers.
Newton had two stellar throws in 11-on-11 – a 50-yard hookup with Nelson Agholor over safety Kyle Dugger and another throw to tight end Hunter Henry that came off play-action near the goal line. That one also came on Dugger.
With the Patriots to get everyone accustomed to contact, the running game was a focal point. It was easy to see the advantage Newton creates because he’s a ball-carrier and has to be accounted for as more than just the guy handing off. It’s 11-on-11 as Bill Belichick has said in the past, not 10-on-11. The defense is spread more thin and it seems there’s more room to run. There were a few reps of read-option, quarterback rdraw and designed outside runs with Newton. Plays which, when Jones is in there just won’t happen often if at all.
Interestingly, it was after a session of running players that Jones appeared to draw the ire of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. After a couple of run stuffs, Jones gave way to Brian Hoyer. McDaniels got after Jones, seeming to exhort him to be faster and louder with his presnap calls and alerts. After a rep where Hoyer was precisely that – fast and loud – McDaniels seemed to point and say, “See? Do it like that!”
Though Jones had a nonsensical pick among his six competitive throws and a dropped interception on a throw which may have been even worse than the one that was caught, Jones wasn’t an utter disgrace start-to-finish.
He had some productive throws in 1-on-1s and never looked totally lost. But it was a departure from what we saw for the first five days when Jones looked like no other Patriots rookie quarterback had in terms of command.
On this day, Jones regressed while Newton impressed.
Playing the hits
Even though the pads came on, there weren’t any major collisions. And that was certainly by design. This was a toe-in-the-water type of day with contact although the session was more than two hours long and had a lot of active full-speed reps.
The early portion of practice featured a lot of 1-on-1 work. DBs against receivers both in the passing game and in perimeter blocking; OL vs. DL matchups, run-force work, etc. One interesting departure, though, was the Patriots were tackling to the ground. In the past, almost exclusively, the team has just practiced with “thudding” which means the hit is made but the defensive player holds the ball-carrier up. On Tuesday, they were going to the turf. I asked corner Jonathan Jones why.
“I think just to get back into football,” he explained. “Just to get into it, get a couple live sessions going. We’ve got three preseason games this year, so I guess that kind of factors into it -- a little less time to actually take guys to the ground and I think that plays a big part in it. The closer you get to game speed and game action it’s always good. Day after day, the more days you can get out there and get closer to game speed it’s always good.”
Josh Uche, Christian Barmore stand out
The pass-rushing 1-on-1s are always a highlight and two defensive players who really stood out were rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore and second-year linebacker Josh Uche. Uche won reps easily with a speed rush on Korey Cunningham then a stutter-step to an inside swim move to beat Yodny Cajuste.
Barmore used his explosive first step and heavy punch combined with some absurd grip strength to ragdoll offensive linemen on two occasions. Another nice rep came from defensive lineman Bill Murray who moved Mike Onwenu around. Matthew Judon also got around Onwenu on the edge with straight speed and a good bend and Rashod Berry treated offensive lineman R.J. Prince like a shopping cart.
- Barmore needed medical attention later in practice to check on his right foot. His progress will be watched, especially with free agent Henry Anderson missing Tuesday’s workout after getting on Monday. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan also left practice midway through. McMillan’s been having a good camp.
- There was a little dustup when N’Keal Harry and Kyle Dugger got tangled up after a play. They were separated but Uche got involved before the matter was broken up. The defense, perhaps flummoxed by the post-snap activity, seemed to screw up a substitution immediately after and had to take a lap.
- It’s interesting to see the multi-purpose reps the Patriots concoct. For instance, there was a punt block/scoop-and-score station in which Nick Folk was the stand-in punter. When the snap went back, Foles would allow his soft punt to get blocked while nearby the real punter, Jake Bailey, would let one rip. At the other end of the field, a returner would field Bailey’s punt and head upfield while whipped a giant blocking pad at him to mess with his timing.
- There’s been a fair amount of speculation about Sony Michel’s relevance now that Damien Harris has emerged as a top running back as well. I think you need both and the Patriots are splitting the reps like they think the same.
- Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson provided the best run of the day, popping off right tackle and getting low enough to armadillo through the low-tackle attempt by Myles Bryant. Stevenson gained about 15 on the play.
- Among those doing individual laps for miscues – Mike Onwenu and Ronnie Perkins.