PATS REPORTER

Perry: Five things I'm looking for at Friday's Patriots scrimmage

PATS REPORTER
Patriots QB Jarrett Stidham
With Cam Newton gaining the inside track on the starting job and Brian Hoyer a known commodity, Phil Perry says the Patriots need to take a long look at Jarrett Stidham to evaluate the second-year QB.
AP Photo

FOXBORO — The Patriots will hold what the team is calling a "game simulation" on Friday afternoon inside Gillette Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.

What that simulation looks like is still to be determined. Will it be a team scrimmage, with players in full pads, "thudding" one another to stop plays — not tackling to the ground? Will it be more of a walkthrough inside the stadium just to simulate a game-day experience while giving players an opportunity at mental reps? Is there any chance we see live tackling since this might be the closest the Patriots get to a preseason game in this unique offseason?

Let's operate under the assumption that whatever happens, it'll be competitive.

Here are five things we'll be looking for from the session...

MORE REPS FOR STIDHAM

Cam Newton, by all indications, is on track to be the starting quarterback for the Patriots when the Dolphins visit Foxboro Week 1. He needs all the reps he can get to become more fluent in the language of the Patriots offense. But that doesn't mean the time for evaluating Jarrett Stidham has come and gone.

Even if the competition is over, even if it's hard to envision any scenario in which Stidham plays over a healthy Newton this season, he needs as many reps as the Patriots can give him. Why? Because the Patriots would benefit by having as much information as possible on the second-year quarterback.

Bill Belichick has said in the past that he has to balance preparing his team for the here-and-now while also looking ahead to field a team down the road. Well, down the road, there is no definitive plan at quarterback.

 
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Newton — who quoted a country song on Instagram recently saying, "I'm not here for a long time, I'm here for a good time" — is on a one-year contract. The Patriots could place the franchise tag on him if they so choose, but if they opt to let him hit free agency, then he could pull in a lucrative free-agent contract elsewhere in 2021.

Then what? Do the Patriots dip into the draft at the position? It should be well-stocked in the first round with players like Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields and North Dakota State's Trey Lance likely available. Do they place all their chips on a free agent younger than Newton? Dak Prescott, Jacoby Brissett and Jameis Winston could all be available. Or do they roll with Stidham?

Stidham has dealt with an upper leg injury that limited him in practices going back to last week, but when asked if he was healthy enough to be a full participant in practices at this point — he made 14 competitive throws in Thursday's practice and did not appear to be hurt, per our Tom E. Curran — he indicated that he was.

“Yeah, I definitely feel like I’m out there, and I’m excited to be out there with everybody," Stidham said. "All of us are very fortunate to have a great medical staff here, so I’m feeling good, and I’m just excited to be out there with the guys."

If he feels good, if there are no physical limitations on him at this point, then Stidham should get every non-Newton rep Friday. And perhaps the same should be true moving forward after Friday's workout.

Again, it's all about information. Last preseason, Bill Belichick had Stidham drop back to pass 111 times, per Pro Football Focus. Only Joe Webb of the Texans (136 dropbacks) took more. Without any preseason games on the books this offseason, the competitive snaps that Stidham takes in practices or scrimmages remaining before Week 1 may be the best last chance the Patriots have to see what they have in Stidham.

How is Stidham viewing QB competition?

Brian Hoyer has looked solid at times this summer, but the Patriots know what they have in him. As Belichick said last summer, when Stidham received all the backup reps in a preseason game against the Panthers, "Brian's played a lot of football."

The same is true now. Hoyer has played a lot of football. Keeping him on the roster would make sense — particularly if the Patriots want to protect against the repercussions of a quarterback contracting COVID. Hoyer knows the offense. He'd be a fine emergency fill-in.

But Stidham needs the work that's left over after Newton gets his. He needs the work if he's going to be the No. 2 to Newton. But Stidham also needs the work because the Patriots need to have a better idea of what they have in him before they get to next offseason. Maybe the lion's share of the backup reps will go to Stidham starting Friday.

 

AERIAL ATTACK TAKE FLIGHT?

While it looks like Newton is set to be the go-to guy for Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick in a couple weeks, that doesn't mean that the Patriots offense has been humming along in recent practices. The running game has looked OK, though it's hard to get a good gauge on that when there is no live tackling. The passing game, meanwhile, has struggled at times.

Curran: Another rough day for Patriots offense Thursday

Particularly in two-minute drill practice periods, Belichick's defense has dominated. There have been very few receivers uncovering for Newton — or the other quarterbacks for that matter — and even when they have broken free down the field, the throws haven't been pinpoint. During Thursday's fully-padded practice, the offense was hitting on its passes at about a 50 percent clip. And that was with starting safety Devin McCourty sidelined. Not ideal.

The Patriots are still looking for a consistent second option behind Julian Edelman, and they could use a good day from their tight end group.

Devin Asiasi, who has looked like the most capable receiver in the group, has been limited lately after being hobbled in Tuesday's practice. N'Keal Harry has had positive moments this week after missing most of last week's on-the-field work, but more consistency from the second-year wideout will be key in helping the passing game improve.

GOING UNCONVENTIONAL?

If the passing game is not looking like New England's forte, particularly early in the season as Newton works on becoming more comfortable in the playbook, then they may have to turn to the art of deception in order to consistently make headway. Luckily for them, they have a quarterback accustomed to running those types of misdirection running plays.

Reporters aren't permitted to detail anything run that qualifies as "unconventional," but it will be interesting to see just how much of the offense in a scrimmage-like setting consists of those types of plays. Is there simply a package of a handful of formations and calls? Will there be a heavy dosage of those elements on early downs? How much, meanwhile, will the Patriots turn to the Shanahan-system concepts that seemed like a good fit for Stidham prior to Newton's arrival?

The style of the Patriots offense — particularly on early downs, since the drop-back passing game on third down will remain critical — will be fascinating to track in a game-like setting.

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WHAT'S UP UP FRONT?

The Patriots have several roles in their front seven that need filling: Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins are no longer around; Danny Shelton is gone and would-be replacement in Beau Allen hasn't practiced in front of reporters; an additional big body at the line of scrimmage might've been beneficial even before any departures this offseason.

 

Ja'Whaun Bentley looks like the player most likely to take on Hightower's role, in my opinion. After that? Josh Uche, a tremendous athlete, could be the best bet to replace Collins, but he was missing from Thursday's practice. There remains a battle between outside linebackers Chase Winovich, Derek Rivers and Shilique Calhoun over who should deserve the most reps in Van Noy's absence. Winovich and Rivers have popped the most recently, but Calhoun is the most experienced and has been stout against the run at times.

Byron Cowart could be someone who helps make up for Shelton's departure and Allen's absence. Bill Belichick called him one of the team's most explosive players earlier this week. And that additional big body? That might be a big body they already had in the mix who simply . . . got bigger.

Deatrich Wise added some bulk to his frame — presumably to help him hold up against the run in Belichick's two-gapping 3-4-style defense — but he's remained one of the team's best pass-rushers in camp. In just about every practice, he's found himself in the backfield to disrupt the quarterback's pocket.

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The defense has looked very much ahead of the offense in practices this week. But how will Bentley, Winovich, Rivers, Cowart and Wise look when (and if) the competition gets ratcheted up a notch?

OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE UNHERALDED

If this is the closest thing the Patriots will have to a preseason game, then it makes sense that those who may benefit the most would be the players who typically benefit so significantly from those annual summer exhibitions: The unheralded types who spend the month of August on "the bubble," desperate for a path to employment.

Some names to keep an eye on who could help solidify their roster spot with a nice performance?

Second-year receiver Devin Ross has been one of the top underdog stories of camp. Bouncing around the league as a young undrafted wideout — from Tennessee in 2018 to Philly to the Patriots practice squad last year — he's been among the team's most consistent pass-catchers in camp. Can he crack a position group that could use a little depth?

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Undrafted rookie receiver Jeff Thomas, who appeared more active on Thursday, could open eyes if he can provide an element of athleticism and pure speed that the position is lacking beyond Damiere Byrd. Running back J.J. Taylor, another undrafted rookie, has been impressive as a runner and receiver in recent weeks. Can he keep it up and earn a role on the 53-man roster? If so, he may have to stand out as one of the team's top returner options.

Recently-acquired corner Michael Jackson could help his chances with another day of physical play on the outside. Late-round picks Michael Onwenu, Justion Herron and Cassh Maluia have impressed at times but could improve their standing with contributions in game-like conditions as well.