Our Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry have been able to witness multiple practices first hand in Foxboro the last two weeks and have both walked away with plenty of perspective.
They share their points of view on a handful of topical issues emerging from training camp.
Here’s the thing about Damien Harris
Tom E. Curran: As much as I’ve sniffed dismissively that he doesn’t really do anything that’s eye-catching, the fact he’s been out there as the lead back every day counts for a lot. I don’t know if our guy has fumbled yet. I do know that – on Thursday – he blasted through a wide hole on the first rep of 11-on-11s and took off like Forrest Gump. He is a full-on, North-South runner, so for those of you who’ve lamented the running style of Sony Michel – and you are a legion – you will see a different back if Harris is out there more this year.
Phil Perry: He was a third-round pick. Sony Michel, meanwhile, was a first-rounder one year prior. Michel also recently came off the physically unable to perform list and looks healthy. He's going to play. Simple as that. The Patriots like the way that Harris runs the football. He appears decisive. He runs hard. He catches it well enough based on what he's shown in training camp. But Michel -- as underwhelming as his 2019 was -- is going to get opportunities when he's in uniform. That's one of the perks of being taken in the top-32 and playing on a rookie contract. I'm expecting less work for Harris come Week 1 than I expected for him last week, prior to Michel's activation. That's even if Harris is the more dynamic runner -- and I think he is. It may take a Michel injury for Harris to get his chance to be the team's answer at the position on first and second downs.
When it comes to Brian Hoyer …
Curran: The Patriots have a good but somewhat sticky situation on their hands. They signed him in the offseason telling him he’d have a chance to start. The acquisition of Newton squashed that. But the reality is that -- at the moment -- he’s the most competent of the three Patriots quarterbacks in terms of getting the team organized at the line, interpreting defenses through a Patriots lens and managing. So do the Patriots keep three quarterbacks – Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Hoyer? Do they release Hoyer and hope he agrees to go on the practice squad? Would Hoyer be the next-man-up in a game situation if Newton went down? My hunch is that at some point this year, he’s taking meaningful snaps.
Perry: The Patriots might be able to get him through waivers and onto the practice squad. The question is, do they want to risk it? I wouldn't. New practice squad rules allow for players with any level of veteran experience to land there. But if Hoyer is released next week, there's a chance a backup-needy team snags him. That'd leave the Patriots with their two most talented passers, but a) they'd have less insurance at their most important position if there happened to be a COVID outbreak in the locker room and b) they'd be without the player who is most fluent in the offense. That second piece -- as well as his accuracy in the short area of the field -- has allowed Hoyer and Stidham to continue to split reps even as Newton has received the lion's share in practices. Perhaps the most surprising result of Jarrett Stidham's early-camp injury isn't that he hasn't been able to compete with Newton for the No. 1 spot. It's that he hasn't clearly taken the No. 2 position from Hoyer. I suggested last week that Stidham needs to get every non-Newton practice rep, just so the Patriots can see what they have in him this summer. That the Patriots haven't chosen to do that already says a lot about their feelings on both of Newton's backups.
Cam Newton is …
Curran: Not washed. Which means smartass Tom was incorrect with this tweet from April.
I didn’t even have a Cam GED in April so that wasn’t an educated appraisal. Now, I feel like I’m a little smarter about what he brings. His enthusiasm is truly infectious. And it’s so consistent, so bold, so free of self-consciousness that the cynicism I had that it was not authentic was completely wrong. It is organic. It’s who he is. And it’s similar -- though obviously not the same -- to the vibe Tom Brady brought. Cam Newton feels like the right guy at the right time.
Perry: Healthy. Looks that way, at least. What I'd be interested to see is if the Patriots take advantage of what look like fresh legs more often than we've seen in training camp practices. Reporters won't be allowed to watch full practices for the next two weeks leading up to the first game of the season. Any chance that's when the offense starts to transition and revolve more around Newton's rushing ability? While we've seen some "unconventional plays" that we can't describe -- per camp reporting rules -- the Patriots offense still largely looks like ... the Patriots offense. But using Newton as a pure drop-back passer, particularly with weapons that could have trouble creating separation and easy throwing windows, probably wouldn't be maximizing his strengths. At some point -- again, maybe that's over the next two weeks, when reporters don't have an all-access pass to practice -- I'd expect the team to incorporate more quarterback runs (and fake quarterback runs) into the plan. That threat of the run is what has made Newton who he is.
Camp’s most pleasant surprise …
Curran: Byron Cowart. There are a lot of guys out there to be surprised by on both sides of the ball. But the second-year defensive tackle from Maryland has been on the field consistently with free agent acquisition Beau Allen out. And he’s a handful in the middle. The Patriots traded up in the fifth round of last year’s draft to select Cowart and he had a very good camp and especially looked solid in the preseason games. I have a feeling he’s going to be a factor up front for this team.
Perry: Kyle Dugger. He's been limited lately and unable to participate in competitive periods of practice. But prior to suffering whatever it is that he's suffered, he looked like one of the team's best defenders. He got his hands on the football every day. He showed the ability to move around the defense. Talent-wise it looks like the Patriots hit on their first pick of this year's draft, a second-rounder from the Division II ranks. Other candidates for this honor? Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise, Jermaine Eluemunor, JJ Taylor and Nick Folk.
Camp’s biggest disappointment ...
Curran: The inconsistency of N’Keal Harry. I’ve written about it plenty. The talent and potential are undeniably there but – to again refer to Forrest Gump – his game is a box of chocolates. You never no what you’re gonna get.
Perry: Jarrett Stidham. This was a chance for him to not only compete for a job, but prove he deserves consideration to be the starter next season and beyond. That could happen over the next two weeks as he gets healthier and the Patriots get ready for the regular season. But his having to deal with physical limitations -- he dealt with a leg injury that prevented him from playing in competitive periods for a few days -- was in some ways a worst-case scenario. Having an opportunity to evaluate him and determine how capable (or incapable) he is was, from this point of view, was one of the most important items on the checklist for Patriots training camp this summer. By missing time, the team missed out on those opportunities.