FOXBORO — The Patriots got a brief respite from fully-padded workouts. Very brief.
After one day in the lighter shoulder "shells," the full pads were back on Thursday. The result? A physical session that defenders relished.
One of the highlights came at the very end of the practice, when the defense — populated by a mess of new faces — flexed its muscles at the goal line. Cassh Maluia stoned Jakob Johnson. Terez Hall flattened J.J. Taylor. Then Hall and Bill Murray brought Taylor down before the goal line again. Damien Harris punched one in, but the period served as an exclamation point to a day in which the defense thrived.
Let's get to all the nitty gritty details of today's Postcard, including which quarterback was able to avoid disaster with the defense flying around at an impressive pace...
WHAT THEY WORE
Back in full pads. And they were put to use extensively Thursday.
WHO WAS OUT
N'Keal Harry missing once again. It was his second consecutive missed training camp practice. Also absent from the session were Stephon Gilmore, Adrian Phillips, Yodny Cajuste, Derek Rivers, Beau Allen, Tashawn Bower, Sony Michel (PUP) and Lamar Miller (PUP). Julian Edelman was a limited participant.
WHO WAS BACK
Rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings made it out to the field for his first practice of the week. He was sporting a new number, No. 74, as he had been sharing No. 52 with fellow linebacker Brandon Copeland. Reporters would've had a heckuva time trying to figure out which was which had they stuck with the original arrangement. The change indicates that the coaching and scouting staffs might've had a similarly tough time when watching practices back on film.
Undrafted rookie receivers Will Hastings and Jeff Thomas participated in drills for the first time this week, but both were limited in the session. Even in their limited work, though, it was pretty clear that both have impressive quickness.
WHAT THEY DID
Bill Belichick said on Wednesday morning that the team was still in the "teaching" phase of the offseason. But Thursday's workout felt like a competitive one. The offense and defense started going at it early — after their typical warm-up period and drills — with a 4-on-4 period.
That was followed by 1-on-1s between the receivers and corners on one half of one field while the offensive and defensive linemen went at it 1-on-1 on the other half. Then came 7-on-7 work for Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer, not Jarrett Stidham, and an 11-on-11 period.
Following a punt and punt-return period — where Gunner Olszewski was among those returning — the team hit three more lengthy periods of 11-on-11 work, finishing off with live reps on the goal line.
QUARTERBACK REP REPORT
After seeing all three quarterbacks get equal opportunities through three days of practice, Thursday's session took a bit of a turn. At one point in time, Newton and Stidham split reps on one field while Hoyer and Brian Lewerke threw on another. Early in the practice, the first 11-on-11 period of the day, Newton and Stidham took four snaps each and Hoyer received none.
In terms of the passing-specific reps, Newton made more than twice the number of competitive throws that Stidham did.
When it came to physical snaps — run and pass plays included — Newton still held a decided advantage. Newton saw 25 total 11-on-11 snaps. Stidham, meanwhile, saw 17. I had Hoyer down for 17 11-on-11 snaps as well, though about a third came while splitting up the workload with Lewerke.
Newton made the most of his increased opportunities, throwing accurately, apparently cycling through reads at times, preventing turnovers, and even getting verbal at the line of scrimmage. After four days of practice, Thursday felt like Newton's best.
It was a take-what-the-defense-gives-you kind of day for Newton. He hit one nice deep comeback to Damiere Byrd with Jason McCourty nearby in coverage. But one of Newton's best throws was an on-time crossing route that hit Mohamed Sanu in stride during an 11-on-11 period. He also hit Devin Ross on a quick-out pattern that was impressive because it looked like Newton's first read wasn't there, but he quickly moved to his No. 2 option and still hit the play on time. Soon thereafter, he hit Rex Burkhead on a check-down throw after pumping to a deep receiver and thinking better of it.
He wasn't always incredibly decisive, but he took care of the ball and was willing to pick up small gains when they were there. The Patriots offense worked pretty well for about two decades with Tom Brady making similar decisions and throwing with accuracy to the short and intermediate areas.
One of Stidham's best throws of the day was put on a rope during the 4-on-4 period to tight end Ryan Izzo, who plucked it out of the air with two hands with Terrence Brooks all over him. Stidham also made an only-where-he-can-get-it throw to Jakobi Meyers in the 1-on-1 period, leading to a diving Meyers grab. Otherwise, there wasn't much positive to note from Stidham's six competitive 11-on-11 attempts.
Newton was mostly accurate when throwing short Thursday, but he will occasionally spike one into the ground, and that's what happened when he missed James White on an angle route early in the practice. There weren't many other outright "misses." Two of Newton's incompletions in team periods came on attempts that would have been quick sacks, which threw the timing of the entire play off. Adam Butler broke through the middle on one, and Chase Winovich came around the left end unencumbered on another.
Stidham was picked twice on consecutive attempts during an 11-on-11 period. The first went to undrafted rookie Myles Bryant when Stidham tried to hit Devin Ross. Then Stidham attempted a deep comeback that skipped short and was picked off by a diving Justin Bethel. That appeared to end one period earlier than expected, from this vantage point. Stidham later short-armed a pass in the flat to Devin Asiasi that went incomplete.
He looked tentative at times Thursday, rather than looking like someone with a live arm who was excited to cut it loose.
Myles Bryant: The undrafted rookie corner out of Washington had himself a day. He picked off Stidham in 11-on-11s and Hoyer in 7-on-7s. He also broke up a Stidham pass headed for Gunner Olszewski in the end zone. He got lost in coverage of Devin Ross during one well-run route by Ross in 1-on-1 work, but otherwise Bryant was impressive.
Front seven: Adam Butler, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche and Terez Hall all submitted sacks on the day. The front seven refused to be pushed off its spot during the goal-line period. And in the 1-on-1s between the offensive line and defensive line, I spotted decisive wins for Butler, Lawrence Guy and Byron Cowart.
Terez Hall: One day after getting boxed out by 5-foot-6, 185-pound running back J.J. Taylor for a touchdown, Hall returned the favor Thursday. The second-year linebacker out of Missouri bottled up Taylor on two separate goal-line carries to end the practice. Hall also had a "sack" on a blitz during 11-on-11s.
Justin Herron: One of the offensive winners in the trenches during the one-on-one period was rookie sixth-rounder Justin Herron from Wake Forest. The 6-foot-5, 305 pounder took care of both Winovich and Uche at different points, introducing both to the turf. Herron set a school record with 51 starts at Wake and could be in consideration for the right tackle job in New England. It still looks like Jermaine Eluemunor has the inside track there, but Herron played well with Cajuste out Thursday.
Damiere Byrd: It was another strong day from the burner of the Patriots receiving bunch. He had a deep comeback bounce off his pads late (the entire timing of the play was thrown off because the offense played through an Adam Butler "sack"). But before that he worked a crafty deep route to beat J.C. Jackson down the field in 1-on-1s. He also got the better of Jason McCourty on an impressive pitch and catch on a deep comeback from Newton in 1-on-1s.
Gunner Olszewski: He hasn't always had the most accurate passes sent his way, but he's moved with impressive burst throughout the week. He got by Stephon Gilmore on a go route Wednesday and showed eye-opening quickness in the 1-on-1 period. If the Patriots are looking for a separator to back up Edelman in the slot, Olszewski might be their best option.
Mohamed Sanu: Still very physical at the catch point — as he showed in a 1-on-1 rep against Joejuan Williams — we haven't seen much in the way of separation from Sanu, who's coming off of an ankle injury that bothered him late last season. Both Williams and Michael Jackson were with Sanu stride-for-stride in the 1-on-1 period.
Brian Hoyer: His day started off with some turbulence as he sailed a deep attempt to Julian Edelman in the 4-on-4s and then underthrew a pass to Gunner Olszewski deep during the same period, leading to a Jonathan Jones pass breakup. Hoyer later went 0-for-4 with a pick (by Bryant) in 7-on-7 work. He was sacked in 11-on-11 work by both Hall and Josh Uche.
Kyle Dugger: It was just one moment, but there was a play in the 4-on-4 period where Dugger was clearly tugging on Devin Asiasi's jersey to help force an incompletion. He'll have to learn to be more subtle with those tactics as he navigates through his first pro training camp.