Bill Belichick made it pretty clear on Friday: The first five practices were all about players and coaches finding their sea legs. Week 2 of “training camp”? The sea will be angry, my friends.
With the opener against Miami less than three weeks out, competition and evaluation will be ratcheted up significantly this week. What are we looking for?
Glad you asked.
THE CAM CURVE
Through six practices, Cam Newton has been outstanding. The Patriots did precisely what they should have done in the weeks leading up to camp and in Week 1 of camp — made it clear there was no preordained starter and that whoever wound up under center would have earned it.
I think we all expected that, by early September, Newton would emerge. But it didn’t take that long for him to seize control of the lion’s share of on-field reps and he wouldn’t be getting those if he wasn’t doing everything else the way the team wanted during the hours of the day they weren’t on the field.
In Newton's 39 snaps in the 11-on-11 periods, he started out 7-for-7 before having a pass broken up by rookie Myles Bryant. In all, he went 19-for-27 on his 11-on-11 passing reps. Some of his nicest-looking completions came to Julian Edelman, who was there on a series of quick strikes from Newton — including one where Newton identified all-out pressure and got the ball out of his hand quickly.
Two of Newton's first three completions in 11-on-11 work, and seven completions in all, went to Edelman on Sunday. The two worked on a side field at one point to talk routes.
Edelman and Newton have been in close communication throughout camp. Chemistry is building.
With Jarrett Stidham limited by his upper-leg ailment, it’s Newton and Brian Hoyer who will be front and center. Hoyer has been very solid himself. And that’s not a surprise. He was very solid last summer too. But the dynamic things Newton can do, the ease with which he seems to be grasping things and the simple fact that — when he’s healthy — he’s one of the league’s best quarterbacks makes it hard to still call this a “competition.”
Can he keep the train rolling in Week 2?
Stephon Gilmore, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, hasn’t been on the practice field since last Wednesday.
According to Karen Guregian of The Boston Herald, Gilmore’s been attending to a personal matter. The Patriots have very good depth at corner and there are plenty of players to take the reps. And Gilmore showed his sharpness last week during the three practices he was involved in. There’s no worry about rust or him falling out of shape.
Still, it’s always better to have good players on the field, so his absence shouldn’t be taken with a shrug. Hopefully whatever he’s dealing with is resolved and there’s nothing dire to be concerned about.
It’s also worth mentioning that players around the league are cognizant of the 2020 landscape as it pertains to their contracts. Melvin Ingram of the Chargers had no guaranteed money for 2020, the final year of his four-year, $64M contract.
Guaranteed money unearned because of a COVID-19-related league shutdown would transfer to a player’s next contract or be paid out in the future if the player doesn’t sign another contract. Ingram quietly held out, the Chargers guaranteed his $14M salary and he’s back to work.
Gilmore’s 2020 salary is $10.5M and none of it is guaranteed. Neither is his $11.5M salary in 2021, the last year of his deal. If that was a sticking point for him and his agent — and there’s no indication that’s the case at this point — the Patriots currently have plenty of cap space on hand to take care of that.
His case isn’t identical to Ingram’s in that Ingram is in the last year of his deal. But given his status right now as DPOY and the very large deals being signed by defenders in the offseason and training camp (nine corners have higher APY than Gilmore) is wouldn’t be a stunner if he hasn’t noticed.
AN OMEN OF RUNS TO COME?
Damien Harris and Rex Burkhead are carrying the load at running back through the first six practices.
Harris, the second-year back from Alabama who was kept on ice for most of 2019 (two games, four carries, 12 yards), has been making the most of his reps. There’s no “wow” factor to his style — he doesn’t have the same lateral quickness as Burkhead or the explosiveness of Sony Michel when Michel has room to run — but he’s stacking up productive days and also standing out as a smooth pass-catcher. That’s an important aspect to keep in mind.
The Patriots were painfully predictable in 2018 when it came to Michel. When he was on the field, they ran 76 percent of the time. Efforts to make Michel a more productive receiver in 2019 didn’t pan out (nor did the prediction from an anonymous NFL exec who said Michel was poised to play like Alvin Kamara in 2019). He caught just 12 passes.
Harris has a chance to do more than just keep Michel’s seat warm as Michel recovers from offseason surgery.
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WHO’S UP AT WIDEOUT?
Julian Edelman is Julian Edelman and he’ll be Julian Edelman until he’s done being Julian Edelman. But somebody else needs to step up at wideout so that the 34-year-old isn’t seeing third-down triple teams this season as he did at times last year.
This should be N’Keal Harry’s time to showcase himself and display the jump that all players make from their first to second seasons. He practiced twice last week and then missed the rest of the team’s workouts. He was back out there Sunday and it wasn’t great.
Last summer, it was easy to see why the team was enamored with him. He bodied people out of the way, made acrobatic catches and seemed physical enough to potentially replace Rob Gronkowski as a player who could go get it. Haven’t seen it yet this camp.
Mohamed Sanu also had a sluggish start last week and that comes in the wake of his sluggish stint last year which was blamed on a high ankle sprain. He’s not very dynamic.
Jakobi Meyers had a terrific camp and showed out in preseason games last year. Through the first six practices, not much.
The two best receivers aside from Edelman have been Gunner Olszewski and Damiere Byrd. The whole group needs to raise its level this week.
After going 3-for-5 on field goals last Monday, rookie fifth-rounder Justin Rohrwasser wasn’t seen for the rest of the week. He re-emerged Sunday and went 2 for 4 in 11-on-11 field goal reps kicking at skinny goalposts (another just missed and would have been good on the real ones). He also was wild when taking reps with no defense and just long snapper Joe Cardona and holder Jake Bailey with him.
Whether it’s an injury holding Rohrwasser back from taking a full complement of reps or some first-job jitters the team doesn’t want to exacerbate, it hasn’t been a good start. And the Patriots have announced the signing of Nick Folk, who could either serve as insurance, take the reps Rohrwasser can’t because of some undisclosed injury or replace Rohrwasser, which would be a tough deal for the kid