Midway through the opening practice of Patriots training camp, rookie quarterback Mac Jones took a snap inside the 5-yard line and started scanning the end zone for options.
Over the middle? Nothing. Across the back line under the goal post? Nothing. Jones then swiveled his head, shoulders and hips to the left and let a dart go toward the back pylon. It got there at the same time ass-hauling wide receiver Kendrick Bourne arrived. All Bourne had to do was put his hands in front of himself, close his fingers and get his feet down. Bourne did all three. Touchdown.
Those were the kind of plays that characterized the first day of 2021 training camp for Jones.
The rookie first-rounder wasn’t flawless. But he was very, very good in an understated way. What’s that mean? Try this. Jones doesn’t make jaw-dropping throws that are a tribute to size, strength and genetics like a Justin Herbert or a Trevor Lawrence. But Jones does make an interesting amount of eyebrow-raising throws where the window is tight and time is tighter. And that kind of accuracy and decision-making from an unimposing pocket passer really stood in contrast to the number of scattershot, delayed reaction throws from Cam Newton on Wednesday.
The Senator has the full breakdown on the day the two quarterbacks had -- numbers and everything -- but the rookie got the drop on Bill Belichick’s anointed starter on Day 1 and that was the story of the day.
Players were in shorts, helmets and jerseys during the two-hour workout. Belichick promised on Tuesday that the first few workouts would be an extension of minicamp in terms of tempo and contact and that pads wouldn’t come on for a while. As a result, any contact was very light and incidental contact even as the team worked extensively on red-zone and goal-line running game. But it was competitive as fans returned to training camp after a year away from Gillette thanks to COVID.
Those that showed up wondering whether springtime enthusiasm over Jones’ minicamp performance was warranted had to leave as believers. Not because he was ripping throws over cornerbacks or 30 yards downfield. But because -- over and over -- the ball came out on time and where it was supposed to go. Never mind Newton for a second.
Comparing apples-to-apples, Jones against rookie season Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett or Jarrett Stidham, there really is no comparison. For those players, the early-camp befuddlement was amusing and alarming. Only Garoppolo truly got it under wraps. Jones has yet to go through a stretch where he just doesn’t know whether to poop or go blind.
It’s got to get harder for him. They haven’t even had pads on yet. He hasn’t gotten jostled, never mind getting hit. But if you were wondering if the minicamp edge in performance that Jones had over Newton would hold up when camp began, the answer is yes. Yes it did. A few other observations.
Pass catchers shine on Day 1
One thing that really stood out on Wednesday was that the Patriots haven’t had an array of pass-catchers this good since 2017. Last year, they entered camp with N’Keal Harry, Damiere Byrd, Julian Edelman, Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers at wideout with Ryan Izzo, Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi at tight end. It was a beat down. In 2019, it was Edelman, Harry, Braxton Berrios and Philip Dorsett at wideout with Izzo and Matt LaCosse at tight end. In 2018, the team still had Edelman and Gronkowski but Cordarelle Patterson, Chris Hogan and Dorsett were the other main guys when camp began.
With Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith aboard at tight end and Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Meyers as the top wideouts it should be a fair fight between the offense and defense when practice rachets up. Last year, it wasn’t.
Meyers, Bourne and Agholor all had very solid days. Know who else did? N’Keal Harry. The disgruntled wideout whose agent earlier this summer requested a trade was on the receiving end of a couple of touchdowns and competed well. While it may not change his mind about wanting to stick around, at least he got off on the right foot. Now we’ll see if the day-to-day consistency which has so far eluded Harry can show up.
Other Day 1 takeaways
- One aspect of camp which never fails to amuse is the wild cheering from fans when a player is taking a penalty lap for some infraction.
The first lap of this camp went to second-year offensive lineman who got a nice hand. But the fans went berserk when Jones bungled a handoff and the ball hit the ground. It’s unclear whether fans are cheering the lap in good fun and know it’s punishment or if they actually think it’s a star turn for the guy. And I don’t have the time to take a poll. Just know that it never fails to draw a smile. Yodny Cajuste also had to take a lap.
- Trent Brown and Kyle Van Noy both took part in practice after being listed on the active/PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list on Tuesday. Van Noy was in a non-contact jersey for his reps. Players missing practice were Stephon Gilmore, Chase Winovich, Byron Cowart, Brandon King Terez Hall, Dalton Keene and Jarrett Stidham were all absent and are on the PUP list.
- Rookies Rhamondre Stevenson, Cameron McGrone and Josh Bledsoe are all on the non-football injury list and didn’t practice. Anfernee Jennings also missed. He’s on no list at all. Gilmore -- who’s in the midst of a contract imbroglio -- came up from the lower fields where rehab work is done around 11:15 a.m. and watched the last 45 minutes of practice attentively.