We are less than three weeks from the Patriots' first training camp practice of 2021. For the first time since 1993, a first-round rookie quarterback is trying to dislodge a starter.
Mac Jones doesn’t have the arm, size or draft status that Drew Bledsoe did but Bledsoe didn’t have the poise, touch and accuracy Jones is going to exhibit.
So that’s a good place to start with our pre-camp predictions: quarterback.
Mac Jones loses a tight battle
Having already been force-fed a significant amount of information in mini-camp, Jones is going to get to training camp with a true chance to compete with Cam Newton for the starting job. And it’s going to be fascinating to watch unfold.
Newton wasn’t pressed last offseason by Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. It took about four days before it was clear the team looked best with him running the offense but he won by default because Stidham was a pick machine, then hurt his groin. Newton was the safe choice to run a team with nobody to throw to.
Now? There are pieces in place that an accurate, decisive quarterback can take advantage of. Jones will. But so will Newton, who throws it better than people thought he would. Newton wins the job coming out of camp by just a nose, setting up a week-to-week “Can Cam keep his job ...” scenario early in the season.
Jarrett Stidham makes the team
Just as Newton will respond to being pushed, Stidham -- realizing he’s got nothing to lose here in New England -- has days when his performance is impossible to dismiss.
He’ll be lacking in reps with the starters but he’s going to perform well enough with the second team and in peekaboo opportunities against the 1s that the Patriots decide keeping him around is the shrewd move.
With Newton not here for the long haul, a backup to Jones who’s been in the system for three years and has the upside Stidham has is an asset to keep. So what’s that mean for Brian Hoyer? I dunno. Crystal ball foggy.
Stephon Gilmore's absence is brief
At a cost of $50,000 per day of training camp missed, the leverage Stephon Gilmore has gets lopped off in chunks in the first week of training camp.
Before the fines get totally stupid and Gilmore starts missing preseason games at a cost of $390,000 per missed game (his weekly game check), the Patriots find a way to let Gilmore save face and come into camp without the extension he wants. A salary bump from the $7M he has coming to him is coughed up in the form of a two-year extension that is shaped a little like the one Tom Brady got in 2019.
Jakobi Meyers just catches footballs
When training camp started last August, Jakobi Meyers was a little bit of an afterthought. The second-year wideout was running with the backups and getting few chances to shine while the team patiently waited for N’Keal Harry to perform as advertised with the starters. Never happened. Not in camp. Not in the season.
Hence, the emergence of Meyers in 2020 as the Patriots best wideout. And it wasn’t just a case of Meyers being the only game in town. He gets open in short areas. He goes where he’s supposed to. He runs precise routes, has sure hands and excellent body control.
Even with the additions of Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, I’d still put my cash on Meyers being the most reliable and productive Patriots wideout in 2021.
Kyle Dugger turns heads, opens eyes
Harry’s trade demand earlier this week brought to the fore once again the Patriots' travails in the early part of the draft from 2013 to 2019. But the player the Patriots took with their first pick in 2020 -- second-round safety Kyle Dugger -- is going to have a preseason and regular season that helps change that storyline.
Dugger plays with just the right amount of nastiness and has the range necessary to be a top-tier NFL corner. That he’s got Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips with him at safety means he’s going to get a master class in how to play the spot. Add to that the 25-year-old’s seeming maturity and professionalism and you've got a weapon.
Offensive tackle causes consternation
On paper, the Patriots should be one of the best offensive lines in the league. But if they’re going to reach that potential, two players not known for durability -- Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown -- have to stay on the field.
Brown was a two-year disappointment with the Raiders before the Patriots traded for him in early March. Wynn has played just 18 of a possible 48 games since coming into the league as a first-rounder in 2018.
The Patriots absolutely, positively have to get talented depth ready behind those two and it has to show up in camp so that the 2019 disaster of having overmatched tackles doesn’t blow up the offense. OT is a position that will be observed with crossed fingers and held breath.