After viewing 15 training camp practices and two preseason games, here’s a thought on every offensive player who participated in Patriots training camp this summer:
– Cam Newton: The Patriots’ current starter is improving this summer. Newton looks more comfortable in the offense, and we see fewer of those “WTF” throws where the ball lands at the receiver’s feet, for example. His improved understanding and timing in the offense are allowing for more accurate downfield throws. However, there are still instances where the 2020 Cam creeps back into the picture, especially when holding the football in the pocket. The ball doesn’t come out hot as it should at times, but when his mechanics and timing are tied together as they were against the Eagles, he’s a much better downfield passer. The Patriots need that Cam to show up more consistently, or it will be Jones’s job soon.
– Mac Jones: The mistakes Jones makes are ones you’d expect for a rookie quarterback. These aren’t physical errors in terms of lacking arm strength or inaccuracy. Instead, decision-making issues, where Jones admittedly said he’s still recalibrating his brain to what’s “NFL open” compared to an open receiver in college. As he gets more reps, Jones will make those adjustments, and there are long stretches of competitive team periods where he looks exactly like the QB the Pats thought they were getting. Deadly accurate, quick through his reads and on-time thrower, nimble in the pocket, etc. One throw that stood out from joint practices in Philly was a dime to James White on a corner route in 11-on-11s. Jones started on the right side of the field, stepped up in the pocket to elude pressure coming off the right side, and got to his third look in the progression (White) to drop a dime for six. It’s a matter of time before Jones takes over.
– Brian Hoyer: Hoyer is here to provide insight to Newton and Jones while giving the team another arm to run practice. If he sticks around this season, his value to the team will come as a de facto QB coach and scout-team quarterback. For many reasons, you’d rather Hoyer run the scout team offense during the season than Jones so that Jones can focus on the Pats offense.
– Damien Harris: Harris is having a strong camp and is still the best call carrier among the running backs. His ability to explode into the secondary and make decisive decisions at the line of scrimmage separates Harris from the rest of the group. The third-year running back isn’t a difference-maker in the passing game, but he has reliable hands as a check-down and screen option. Plus, he’s pretty consistent in blitz pickup. One of Harris’s practice habits that stands out is that he finishes every rep in the end zone, regardless of if he was technically “tackled” or not on the play. Harris will get a lot of carries this season and should be the high-leverage early-down back.
– Sony Michel: Whether it’s due to a fully healthy summer or physical improvements made by Michel, he looks quicker than ever before. We aren’t talking about Georgia Sony, but certainly lighter on his feet. Michel told me that he feels more confident in the passing game, which explains why he’s getting to his spots faster and is more decisive as a receiver. He has made quite a few plays coming out of the backfield and even caught a downfield target on a wheel route in Week 2 of camp. Although Harris still projects as the lead back, Michel will get plenty of carries to the point where it’ll drive fantasy football folks nuts that Harris and Michel are in a timeshare.
– James White: I’m not buying those suggesting White could be a surprise trade candidate. For starters, there’s no viable replacement for him on the roster as the receiving back. Taylor isn’t ready to play 40 percent of the snaps, Burkhead isn’t here to split up the role, and White is still solid as a receiver who can create mismatches against linebackers. Maybe the team sees Taylor in a different light, but they’re taking a huge risk if that’s the route they choose. Not to mention White’s leadership. I’m just not buying it.
– Rhamondre Stevenson: The Pats’ rookie is starting to find success after breaking out in the preseason opener. Stevenson has good lateral agility on jump cuts and breakaway speed for a big back. Plus, he runs with solid power and contact balance. He has a long way to go before he’s a contributor in the passing game, both in terms of his hands and learning the responsibilities. Stevenson isn’t going to play unless there’s an injury to Harris or Michel, but based on his recent practice usage, it feels like the team wouldn’t hesitate to put him in a game if that were to happen. He also looks terrific in the preseason games with 12 forced missed tackles. There’s a lot to like about Stevenson’s game, and his time will come. The fumble against Philly was a good teaching moment.
– Brandon Bolden: Many Pats fans are tired of the Bolden tropes. The 31-year-old always gets his fair share of carries during camp, with New England spreading those around to avoid overworking anyone. Bolden looks good, especially as a receiver who could do some Burkhead-like things to spell White this season. We know he’ll contribute in the kicking game plenty as well. There’s a chance that Bolden is initially waived to keep Taylor on the roster and then re-signed once an active player goes on IR. But he’s not getting cut based on performance, more due to having six capable RBs.
– J.J. Taylor: Taylor brings a level of juice out of the backfield that the Patriots don’t have elsewhere. He’s an explosive runner who uses his low center of gravity to his advantage to run through tackles. Taylor is a good pass-catcher, but you have to work around his limitations due to his size. The 2020 UDFA has a tiny catch radius, and his slight frame sometimes fails him in blitz pickup. Still, he could play a role if he develops as a kick returner, and eventually, Taylor could take over for White.
– Nelson Agholor: it’s a breath of fresh air to see a receiver in a Patriots uniform who is a legit downfield threat like Agholor. Yes, he has his issues with drops, but Agholor consistently gets open downfield and is a better route-runner than anticipated. Drops are overrated to an extent seeing that Agholor’s nine drops only made up 15.8% of his overall targets last season (what he did on the other 85% of his targets is more important). Sure, you’d like him to drop fewer passes, but the Pats desperately need an in-flux of speed. Pats fans should gladly take the big plays and schematic advantages Agholor’s field-stretching abilities bring to the offense. He’s the only one opening up space for Meyers, Bourne, the two tight ends, and the running game, and we saw that on Meyers’s touchdown catch against Philly.
– Jakobi Meyers: Meyers is the quiet assassin on the Patriots offense. To the casual observer, the Pats wideout doesn’t do anything particularly flashy. But when you watch his footwork and how consistent he is at the catch point, Meyers is an absolute pro. His release work and cuts in his breaks are very impressive, while he has stronger hands at the catch point than he gets credit for (he’s probably their most consistent contested-catch receiver). As we see every day at practice, Meyers is going to eat between the numbers.
– Kendrick Bourne: There are a lot of positive takeaways from Kendrick Bourne’s first summer with the Patriots. He’s a technically refined route runner with solid footwork at the top of routes to create enough separation. Bourne also has incredibly strong hands, and his body control in the air and ability to work the sideline is better than expected. The veteran wideout won’t run by anyone, and a few route-running miscues are beginning to stand out. Bourne needs to win with his savviness as a route-runner, so his success is contingent on grasping the playbook. There were a few instances in Philly where he didn’t seem to end up in the right place based on the coverage. Those route conversion issues need to go away.
– N’Keal Harry: As we reported first on Friday, Harry’s avoided a serious injury and will be ready to go by Week 1. The areas of improvement for Harry are noticeable in practice. He is lighter, more explosive off the line, and harder to cover than in his first two seasons. Some of that is due to losing weight this offseason, while another aspect is more confidence. Plus, at 6-foot-3, he brings a size element to the WR room that the others on this list don’t bring to the table. However, Harry’s drop on a perfect deep ball from Jones last Thursday night is a microcosm of his career. That’s an example of a receiver making a catch attempt harder than it needs to be, and Harry seems to do that often. Run under the ball and walk into the end zone. Instead, he dives for it and injures himself. Just when it felt like the light was coming on, and it did for a moment when he blew by Eagles corner Zech McPhearson, Harry takes another step back.
– Kristian Wilkerson: Wilkerson is a difficult evaluation. He’s far from the first Pats wideout to have a flashy start to the summer. Some of those receivers, such as Maurice Harris, disappear once the competition ramps up. Others, like Jakobi Meyers, turn into NFL players. Where Wilkerson falls in that spectrum remains to be seen. Two things are true about the Pats wideout, however: 1. He has the physical profile and enough route-running smarts to get open in this offense, and 2. Wilkerson is smartly picking the brains of ace special teamers to carve out an integral role in the kicking game. In the last few practices, Wilkerson is having tons of issues with drops. If that continues, well, maybe he’s another Maurice Harris.
– Gunner Olszewski: We haven’t seen much of an improvement as a receiver from Olszewski this summer. Although he still has time to stay on the Edelman trajectory, Gunner only flashes minimally when it comes to making plays as a wideout. Sometimes you see his return abilities translate as a route-runner, but it’s nothing to write home about. Olszewski will make the roster as a return specialist.
– Tre Nixon: New England’s seventh-round pick hasn’t practiced this week due to an unknown injury. Nixon flashed more in the slot than he did as an outside receiver. He needs to pack on some muscle to cut it in the NFL, as his frame is noticeably on the smaller side, making getting off physical coverage on the outside an issue. Nixon made some plays on the Pats’ option series running quick-hitters over the middle with Mac as a slot receiver. The assumption was that Nixon could stretch the field on the outside. But if he’s going to develop into an NFL wide receiver, Nixon might be more successful inside in an Edelman-type role.
– Isaiah Zuber: After a strong showing in spring practices, Zuber has mostly disappeared in training camp. The speedy wideout isn’t creating the same separation now that the pads are on, mainly due to the physical nature of press-man corners. We’ll see if the Pats give Zuber a chance to return kickoffs or as a ball carrier on offense eventually. Right now, he’s a long shot to make the roster.
-Devin Ross: Ross is a practice squad player in the NFL. His inside-outside versatility will allow him to mimic different roles, but he’s a long shot to make the 53.
– Hunter Henry: Before the shoulder injury, Henry was practicing as advertised in his first camp with the Pats. The veteran tight end isn’t a burner, but he wins with sound technique and good body positioning as an inside receiver. Plus, he’s a reliable run blocker. Henry, when healthy, looks the part of a chains-mover in the Pats offense. One would expect to see plenty of “Y” option this season from Henry, where he’s free to read out the coverage and get himself open between the numbers. Greg Olsen made a living on that route with Cam in Carolina.
– Jonnu Smith: The one word that describes Jonnu Smith is explosive. He challenges defenders with his speed coming across the field, up the seams, and after the catch. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is already scheming up plays to get Smith into space, whether it’s crossing over the middle off play-action, drag routes underneath the defense, or releases into the flat. Smith is everywhere. He does everything well.
– Devin Asiasi: Asiasi finally returned from the COVID list and is now ramping things back up after the positive test. The good with the second-year tight end is that he’s a solid run blocker while he has enough straight-line speed to get up the seams. However, he needs to finish through contact, as he struggles to catch the ball in contested situations. Asiasi is a solid TE3 on the depth chart behind Henry and Smith. With the top two tight ends banged up, we’ll learn a lot about Asiasi over the last week or so of camp.
– Matt LaCosse: LaCosse is a serviceable NFL tight end if he’s in the right spot on the depth chart. But he got knocked out of Monday’s practice on a massive hit from Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett. Plus, he doesn’t have Asiasi’s upside and wasn’t a top 100 pick a year ago. LaCosse isn’t a big-time people mover in the running game, but he gets his guy blocked more often than not. He also isn’t a difference-making receiver but will catch the ball when he’s targeted. Again, he should be no higher than a backup tight end on the depth chart. Still, if he gets released by the Pats in favor of Asiasi and carrying fullback Jakob Johnson, LaCosse could find a roster spot elsewhere.
– Jakob Johnson (fullback): Johnson is a good lead blocker and gives the Pats what they need at the position. He won’t do anything in the passing game other than if he’s left open in the flats, but we’ve seen the success New England’s had with a fullback in the backfield. Although the plan is to play mainly 12-personnel this season, they’re an injury away to Henry or Smith from moving back to a 21-personnel base on early downs. Johnson is in a good position to make the team.
– David Andrews: Andrews missed a few practices with a minor hand injury, but he’s back out there now and looks like his usual self. There’s nothing extra to add on Andrews. He’s a consistent contributor, a good communicator, and an excellent leader. The Pats are lucky to have him centering their O-Line.
– Shaq Mason: the Mason-Brown combo on the right side of the offensive line will generate some movement this season. Like Andrews, Mason looks like his usual self in practice. His combination blocks with Brown are thunderous, while he’s still an effective puller and shut down Fletcher Cox a few times in pass pro during joint practices. Mason is a very steady presence at right guard and an old-school people-mover.
– Michael Onwenu: watching Onwenu work at guard is a treat. His skill set is better suited for the position because it allows him to unlock his play strength more often. The second-year pro is holding up in pass protection on the interior just fine and allows the Pats to pull a guard to either side with Mason in the other guard spot. As monstrous as the Mason-Brown combo platters are, Onwenu and Wynn deliver some big blows as well.
– Isaiah Wynn: Wynn’s injury history will follow him around everywhere until he’s healthy for an entire season. But his talent on the field is never in question. Wynn has smooth feet and a strong upper body, making him effective in all phases. His footwork is always noticeable, but something that flies under the radar is how strong he is from the waist up. Wynn’s grip strength and upper-body power allow him to latch onto defenders and move them. If he can stay healthy, Wynn will be one of the better left tackles in the league this year.
– Trent Brown: Brown’s build-up in camp is going a bit slower than anticipated. That’s not to say that Brown is washed, but we’ve seen him have issues getting to his set points. In other words, some of the speed rushers are turning the corner on Brown, which you’d expect from a hulking tackle, but we didn’t see that in 2018. The good news is that he’s just as strong of a run blocker as before, and he’s starting to improve his play speed in pass pro. The Pats practice faster than other teams, so hopefully, it’s just an adjustment period for Brown. I’m not concerned.
– Ted Karras: A knee injury sidelined Karras for the start of padded practices, but he’s back out there and is a steady backup to the starting interior linemen. Karras won one rep and tied another with Fletcher Cox, which is impressive and provides excellent depth. He would start at center or guard on other teams.
– Justin Herron: Other than moving Onwenu back to tackle, Herron is the most reliable backup the Patriots have at OT. He won all three of his reps in one-on-ones during Tuesday’s joint practice with Philadelphia, including a clean win over starter Genard Avery. It’s hard to say if Herron has starter potential, but he’s a reliable swing/third OT. Another good day-three find by the Patriots on the O-Line.
– James Ferentz: Ferentz isn’t better than Andrews or Karras yet, but he’s having a breakout camp of sorts. The Iowa product is significantly better than in the last two camps, with improved play strength and a good understanding of his assignments. There might be a team that’s thin on the interior who scoops up Ferentz in the cutdown process if he’s waived. It’s not an automatic thing that Ferentz will make it back to the practice squad anymore.
– Yodny Cajuste: We have seen Cajuste start to find a rhythm over the last week, and that concluded with a strong performance last Thursday night. After two years off due to injury, it makes sense that Cajuste would be rusty. He has immense potential with tackle-like foot speed and a strong upper body. We’d like to see the Pats hang onto Cajuste as a developmental player. He could be a reliable third tackle or even a starter if he stays on the field.
– William Sherman: The Pats’ lone rookie on the offensive line is having a tough summer. We have him down with only one win in one-on-ones against Rashod Berry, who is no longer on the team. It’s hard to describe what’s going on with Sherman because everything is messy. His feet stall, he leans too far forward in his stance, he exposes his chest too often. It sucks being so negative about a player, but Sherman looks lost.
– Korey Cunningham, Alex Redmond, R.J. Prince, and Marcus Martin are practice-squad talents. Cunningham has experience in the system, so he’s a strong candidate to return on the practice squad for depth purposes. But nobody in this group is playing well enough to warrant a spot on a competitive 53-man roster.
– Nick Folk: Folk’s injury could put an end to the kicker competition before it really got off the ground. The good news for Folk is that he has experience and a great 2020 season on his side. The bad news is that Nordin looks legit, while Folk struggled with his accuracy when he was healthy earlier in camp. It’s getting harder and harder to project Folk as the Week 1 kicker.
– Quinn Nordin: Nordin has an absolute cannon for a leg to the point where some of his kicks look good from 60-plus yards. The talent is undeniable, but we saw the inconsistent accuracy that plagued Nordin in college rear its ugly head against the Eagles. If Folk is healthy, I’d be surprised if Nordin wins the job. As an NFL kicker, you need to be nearly automatic from inside 40 yards.