Lazar: Cam Newton, Mac Jones, and Other Takeaways From Patriots OTAs

The Patriots held their first OTA practice open to the media on Thursday.

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FOXBORO — The Patriots held their first open practice of the offseason program in an hour and 30-minute session on the training camp fields behind Gillette Stadium on Thursday.

There were 62 players present for the voluntary workout with a slew of notable absences: Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, James White, Matt Judon, Sony Michel, Chase Winovich, Kyle Van Noy, Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown, Jonnu Smith, and rookies Christian Barmore, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Tre Nixon were among those not spotted.

Damien Harris, Dalton Keene, Anfernee Jennings, Cameron McGrone, and Joshuah Bledsoe (right arm in a sling) were at practice but didn’t participate in drills.

All four quarterbacks on New England’s roster were present, led by Cam Newton and Mac Jones, as were top free-agent additions Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Borne.

There were a few noteworthy coaching tidbits, mainly the presence of “retired” football research director Ernie Adams. Some retirement, Ernie, who was doing Ernie things at practice.

Also, head coach Bill Belichick spent the first half of practice chatting with Matt Patricia. Belichick said this morning that he was “extremely glad” to have Patricia back. Although Patricia doesn’t currently have an official title, it appears he’ll be heavily involved with the Pats this season.

Before we get into other takeaways, it’s important to note that these OTA sessions aren’t evaluation periods. These are essentially fast-paced walkthroughs with no pads or contact.

In particular, there’s no point in evaluating the trenches as the two lines are working on the communication and mental aspects of the game.

With that said, here are nine takeaways from our first look at the 2021 New England Patriots:

1. QB Cam Newton Leads off Drills, Arm Looks Strong

Starting quarterback Cam Newton led off every practice period and threw the ball with good zip. Newton’s arm strength passed the eye test, with the ball coming out well. There weren’t any major changes to his throwing motion. That was the same. He was staying taller through his release, which could’ve been a coincidence, but it felt like a focus on a higher release point and keeping his shoulders level. Newton had a few spotty throws in terms of ball placement, but his arm was strong, and he looked a little svelte as well.

2. QB Mac Jones Follows Newton in Drills

The Pats’ first-round pick went after Newton in drills followed by Jarrett Stidham then Brian Hoyer. We didn’t see Jones push the ball downfield much, but the coaches tried throwing a few coverage wrinkles at him to see how he reacted. In one drill, the receivers ran the same route combination and the defense rotated through a variety of coverages. Jones appeared to make good decisions. During 7-on-7 drills, the defense threw a coverage disguise at Jones that led to a check down. The rookies’ best throw during 7s came over the middle with a little pump-fake to get the zone-dropping linebacker to bite, but Kristian Wilkerson dropped an on-target throw. He also set the MIKE and slid the protection to pick up a disguised blitz during a pass protection drill, then zipped a pass behind the blitz to Nelson Agholor, which was impressive. Again, there weren’t many downfield throws for Jones, but it was clear that the coaches wanted to make him read through different coverages, and he handled that well. It’s early, but Jones is progressing quickly.

3. WR Nelson Agholor a Welcomed Sight With Explosiveness

The way Agholor moves on the practice field puts into perspective how dire things were with the Pats’ wideouts over the last few seasons. The new Pats wideout runs routes at a different pace compared to the rest of the group. He has good explosiveness off the line in his vertical stems, breaks down quickly at the top of the route, and got a rise out of teammates during a YAC/tackling drill when he made a nifty move to avoid a “tackle” attempt. Agholor also had the highlight of the day in 7s on a 40-ish yard bomb from Brian Hoyer, where he got behind the defense and made a great catch adjustment. Agholor looked the part of an $11 million wide receiver and was already the clear-cut leader of the pack.

4. TE Hunter Henry’s Route Detail Stands Out

Like with Agholor, Henry’s movement skills and route-running ability were on a different level compared to the tight ends since Gronk’s departure. Watching Henry run routes followed by Devin Asiasi, Matt LaCosse, and Troy Fumagalli put things in perspective. Tight ends coach Nick Caley used Henry’s route to teach the others on more than one occasion, and Henry’s technique was apparent even against air. On one play, Henry ran a stick-nod where he sold a stick route by flashing his eyes and hips back to the QB, then broke up the seam, much to the delight of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Caley. It must be a breath of fresh air for the offensive coaches to have two real NFL weapons in Henry and Agholor.

5. WR Kendrick Bourne Looks Like Younger Sanu

I made this comparison when the Pats signed Bourne, and today’s practice made me like it even more. Bourne doesn’t wow you with speed or explosiveness off the line, but he’s built well and is smooth through his breaks. He has a good mental grasp of the game and feels like the type of receiver the team hoped they were getting when they traded for Sanu. Although he isn’t as flashy as Agholor, Bourne is steady and knows how to run routes at the NFL level.

6. RB J.J. Taylor Praised By Coaches for Blitz Pickups

Out of the 62 players at practice, only two were running backs, with J.J. Taylor and Tyler Gaffney as the only backs present. That meant a lot of run for both, including a walkthrough where the offense practiced setting the MIKE and picking up different rushes. Taylor was in there on several occasions and was making the right pickups, including a nice decision on a blitzing linebacker. Taylor’s mental acumen for picking up the blitz is noteworthy as it is often, along with ball security, a major reason why the Pats don’t play rookie running backs. Taylor is also a likely candidate to play on passing downs due to his abilities as a receiver. With Rex Burkhead not currently on the roster, there’s an opportunity there.

7. Safeties Kyle Dugger, Jalen Mills Rotating Through Various Spots

Both Dugger and Mills were rotating quite a bit on the backend, with each taking reps from various alignments. That isn’t a surprise this time of year, but with Devin McCourty absent, it was an opportunity for both to play close to the line of scrimmage and deep. They worked well off of each other on a few occasions during 7-on-7s.

8. Pats’ Projected 11-Personnel: Agholor, Bourne, Meyers, Henry, Taylor (for now)

I would expect to see a whole lot of this group when the Pats are in 11-personnel. Jonnu Smith will bump out one of the receivers while Harris, Michel, and White will be the lead backs instead of Taylor. Still, those first four names plus Smith will get leaned on heavily.

9. P Jake Bailey Booming Kicks to Gunner Olszewski and Troy Brown

It’s always cool to see New England’s All-Pro tandem working together during special teams periods alongside Pats Hall of Famer Troy Brown. Olszewski looked about the same as a receiver and a punt returner, with the latter being a good thing. Bailey was booming kicks once again. I never thought I’d say that a punter truly excites me, but Bailey puts on a show.