FOXBORO, MA — The Patriots held their fifth training camp practice in shorts and shells on the field behind Gillette Stadium on Monday morning.
On the final day of non-padded practices, Cam Newton was clearly the leading man for the first time in five practices.
Newton finished the session 14-of-21 with his best throws on a quick slant on the goal line to Jakobi Meyers and a far-hash comebacker to Kristian Wilkerson but ended on a low note when a fourth-and-goal fell incomplete on a slant to Nelson Agholor with Jalen Mills in coverage.
The Pats’ starting QB is making strides as an on-script passer, throwing with better timing and accuracy than a year ago. Still, there’s room to grow when adjustments are needed on the fly.
Despite the quality reps favoring Newton, first-round pick Mac Jones was sharp in team drills. Jones connected with wide receiver Isaiah Zuber on a deep post pattern between two defenders and made a near-perfect throw to Agholor in the corner of the end zone that took an excellent play by J.C. Jackson to break it up.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick reiterated that Newton was his starter on Saturday, and the reps indicated that on Monday, but Jones is still lingering (more on that later).
In terms of attendance, offensive lineman Ted Karras (injury) and tight end Devin Asiasi (COVID list) were not present for Monday’s session. The remaining players on the physically unable to perform list and non-football injury list were also absent (Gilmore, Stidham, Winovich, Hall, Cowart, Keene, McGrone, and Bledsoe).
Let’s empty the notebook from day five of Patriots training camp:
1. QB Cam Newton Gaining Ground as Pats’ Starter
The reps with presumptive starters were distinctly in Newton’s favor at Monday’s practice. Cam is throwing the ball with much better timing and accuracy this summer than what we saw last season. But there are still times when he holds the ball too long, waiting to “see it” before throwing it to an open receiver. In one instance, Newton missed an open Jonnu Smith up the seam because he was late to it. He was also picked off by linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley when Bentley got underneath a Jakobi Meyers dig route. Cam did finish strong with a nice anticipatory throw to Meyers on a slant. I’ve seen more good than bad from Newton, and as the incumbent starter, he has done enough so far to keep the job.
2. QB Mac Jones Has Strong Practice, Still in the Mix
Despite Newton leading off drills, Jones had arguably his best practice of camp on Monday and saw a string of 16-straight reps in the middle of practice. Jones finished 21-of-28. The deep-ball dime to Zuber was the highlight, but how the rookie operates in Josh McDaniels’s quick game is where he has the advantage over Newton. Jones made several “leverage” throws to his tight ends, and fellow rookie Tre Nixon, where he read the inside defenders’ positioning and threw his receiver into the open void. Those are the types of hit the top of the drop and get-it-out throws that we’ve seen for 20-plus years in New England. It’s too early to call it for Newton until padded sessions, joint practices, and preseason games. It’s certainly trending in that direction, and it would take a monumental push from Jones for head coach Bill Belichick and McDaniels to trust the rookie, but the Pats’ first-round pick makes great throws in every practice.
3. LBs Ja’Whaun Bentley and Raekwon McMillan in a Camp Battle
Speaking to reporters on Monday morning, Belichick had rave reviews for linebacker Raekwon McMillan. The team signed McMillan, a former second-round pick, in free agency, and the veteran linebacker is around the ball a lot. McMillan broke up one of Jones’s passes and had good coverage on a Newton throw later on. It feels like he’s in a battle with Bentley for the backup MIKE linebacker spot. Bentley needed a good day and got one with his interception of Newton in 7-on-7s. With McMillan’s background on special teams and Bentley’s experience in the system, there’s a scenario where both make the 53-man roster. But they’re in a battle for a roster spot and playing time behind Dont’a Hightower.
4. Kristian Wilkerson Climbing the Wide Receiver Depth Chart
When the Patriots held a few passing sessions out west during the offseason, Wilkerson’s name came up several times in discussions with those who attended those players-only practices. The 2020 undrafted free agent is now making a climb up the depth chart in camp. On Monday, he broke Jalen Mills’s ankles on a comebacker along the sideline and caught a strike from Newton. He has flashed during red zone periods due to his explosive first step and efficiency at the top of his routes. Wilkerson is also working on multiple special teams units, which will help him make the team. With Gunner Olszewski safe as a punt returner, Wilkerson might be looking at a spot as WR4 or WR5, depending on N’Keal Harry’s status.
5. CB J.C. Jackson’s Best Practice of Camp to Date
Jackson wasn’t bad by any means in the first four practices, but he didn’t have much on-ball production. That’s probably a good thing as the QBs would rather attack other defensive backs, but Jackson was in the mix on Monday. He made an excellent read to push Jakobi Meyers out of bounds short of the goal line on a pick play with Jones rolling to his right. He then had perfect technique on a goal-line fade to Agholor, where he played the hands and knocked the ball out when the throw dropped into Agholor’s lap. Jackson and slot corners Jon Jones and Myles Bryant are tough to beat. The rest of the Pats’ corners are shaky.
6. WR Jakobi Meyers is Going to Eat Between the Numbers
It’s always a good time for a quick Meyers appreciation note. His footwork in his releases and at the top of his routes is still the best on the team. Defenders know he’s going to break inside, and they still can’t stop it. Meyers roasted Jalen Mills on arguably his best route, a three-step slant, and still snaps off crossers/digs better than anyone in practice. The guy is a technician between the numbers.
7. TE Jonnu Smith vs. DB Adrian Phillips is Fun to Watch
Easily the best battle of camp so far is whenever Smith lines up across from Phillips. The two have traded blows all camp, with the edge going to Phillips in the early going. Some of their reps are so physical that both guys make cases for a flag if there were refs on the field.
8. Pats’ First Practice in Full Pads on Tuesday
The evaluation period of camp begins when the pads go on tomorrow. Due to the slow buildup, I anticipate that Belichick will get right into it on Tuesday. With full pads, we’ll also be able to start studying the battles in the trenches. Belichick noted this morning that these non-padded sessions are mostly useless when it comes to evaluating line play. The real football finally begins on Tuesday morning.