Lazar’s Notebook: Patriots Thoughts on the Day Before Training Camp

The Patriots want to break the mold of recent big spenders in free agency failing to meet expectations.

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The Patriots will hold their first training camp practice on Wednesday, beginning a season that has a much different feel than a year ago.

Last summer, the Pats entered their first season without quarterback Tom Brady for the first time in 20 years and did it amidst a COVID fog that sucked the energy out of camp even more. 

After watching Brady win his seventh Super Bowl as a member of the Bucs, Belichick acquired 31 new players while dolling out $159.6 million in guarantees in a free-agent spending spree. 

The Pats’ head coach also drafted a quarterback, Mac Jones, in the first round of April’s draft. Between Jones and the veteran newcomers, the post-Brady era doesn’t seem so bleak. 

Although there was a clear strategy to Belichick’s tour de force in free agency, league history tells us that building a team through aggressive free-agent spending doesn’t usually pan out. 

Year Team Record Playoffs
2020 Dolphins 10-6 missed playoffs
2019 Bills 10-6 lost WC round
2018 Jets 4-12 missed playoffs
2017 Bears 5-11 missed playoffs
2016 Jaguars 3-13 missed playoffs
2015 Raiders 7-9 missed playoffs

Based on data from Spotrac, here’s a look at the top spenders in free agency in total cash since 2015 and how they fared that season. Only one made the playoffs (2019 Bills) out of six teams, and only two had a winning record. Not great. 

However, both the 2019 Bills and 2016 Jaguars rode the wave, making the conference championship round two years after spending big. Buffalo also hit on their first-round QB, Josh Allen, setting the Bills up for long-term success, while the Jags fell back down to earth. 

Patriots fans can feel good about New England’s spending spree because the greatest coach of all time is controlling the chess board, but a quick turnaround this season would break the mold. 

Here are full training camp previews of the Patriots’ offense and defense for those who missed them last week. Luckily, we’ll talk about real developments rather than projections soon.

Below are some last-minute camp thoughts on the Pats:

QUARTERBACKS

– Rookie quarterback Mac Jones continues to make a strong impression on the coaching staff, especially offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Jones and McDaniels spent a significant amount of time together this offseason, both in the facility and away from Gillette Stadium. However, my sense is that it’ll still take a monumental push from the Pats’ first-round pick to become the opening day starter. The Pats want to ride Newton to make sure Jones is completely comfortable before turning the offense over to the rookie. If Jones is ahead of schedule, their thinking could change quickly. 

– Third-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham is an interesting player to monitor this summer. He’s currently on the physically unable to perform list due to a nagging injury from last season, which is odd given how involved he was in spring practices. The days of Stidham developing into a long-term starter for the Pats are likely over, and now the focus is more on him becoming a steady backup for Jones. There’s value in having a good backup quarterback, but Stidham still views himself as a future starter. With only two years left on his contract, the writing might be on the wall for the 2019 fourth-round pick. 

RUNNING BACKS

– Fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson’s presence on the non-football injury list isn’t a major surprise after running backs coach Ivan Fears told reporters that the Oklahoma product is dealing with a few lingering injuries from his Sooners days. Still, missing practice time won’t help Stevenson break the mold of rookie running backs redshirting their first years in New England. As promising as Stevenson’s college tape was, he’s heading in that direction. The Patriots are very high on both Damien Harris and Sony Michel. Harris and Michel will factor into the early-down back role and see significant carries this season. 

– There is plenty of buzz for second-year running back J.J. Taylor. Taylor’s burst, explosiveness as a receiver, and kick return value have those in the building believing he could be the heir apparent to James White. The only hesitancy is that Taylor, who is 5-foot-5, 185 pounds, is undersized to handle his responsibilities in pass protection. As I watch practice this summer, evaluating Taylor’s abilities in blitz pickup will be a focus of mine. There’s no doubt that he brings some electricity to the backfield. 

WIDE RECEIVERS 

– Assuming the Patriots base out of 12 personnel with both tight ends on the field, splitting reps between Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne will be challenging. Nelson Agholor will likely stay on the field to bring an element of speed, while Meyers and Bourne will duke it out for snaps as the primary “Z” receiver. Position battles are often reserved for those fighting for roster spots, but this is one battle where the competition is on for playing time. 

– Seventh-round pick Tre Nixon had a quiet spring as he adjusts to the NFL game and learns a complicated playbook. Based on his college tape, Nixon has an impressive release package and good vertical speed. Scouts were extremely high on him as a potential late day-two target if he didn’t injure his shoulder last season. He could come on later in camp, but will it be enough to make the roster? I’m still intrigued by his ability to run routes on the outside. 

– Among Pats wideouts, Isaiah Zuber made the most headway in the spring. You could see Zuber’s speed become a factor in the way that defenders covered him. He brings a potential gadget element as a ball carrier and is an explosive kick returner. As a depth receiver, that’s a nice blend of skills. Let’s see if he can still separate when the pads go on, and the coverage is more physical. DBs don’t touch receivers all that much in non-padded minicamp practices, so it’s easier for the speedy guys to flash. Can Zuber run and finish through contact? 

TIGHT ENDS 

– Dalton Keene is sort of a lost soul for the Patriots right now, but fellow second-year tight end Devin Asiasi is a different story. Asiasi started to come on at the end of last season and was very noticeable in the spring. Asiasi was getting to the right spots and testing the defense vertically up the seams in minicamp. Opportunity will be an issue with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in the fold, but it looks like Asiasi can hang. He could be a valuable backup to the two big-ticket tight ends, with Henry, in particular, having a notable injury history. 

OFFENSIVE LINE 

– Starting right tackle Trent Brown has remained in the Foxboro area this offseason and is in good shape heading into camp, I’m told. Brown had a similar offseason plan that led to a career year with the Patriots in 2018. Both sides are hoping it works out as well as it did last time, and with the future at both tackle spots uncertain, Brown sticking in New England beyond this season wouldn’t surprise me. 

– For the first time in his NFL career, 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste is healthy. He’ll take part in training camp and compete for a roster spot. Don’t sleep on Cajuste. Although health remains a question mark, he’s highly skilled and well-built with excellent tape at West Virginia. Cajuste has the tools to develop into a starting offensive tackle, but he’ll need to prove that he stayed sharp after so much time away. 

DEFENSIVE LINE

– Keep an eye out for free-agent addition Montravius Adams. Adams is one of a few signings by the Pats that didn’t receive a huge contract, but he was in the mix during minicamp and could be the sixth big-body on the team. Byron Cowart and Adams find themselves in a camp battle this summer. 

EDGE DEFENDERS 

– We know that both Josh Uche and Chase Winovich can play in the league. Uche’s play speed, ability to rush the passer and versatility make him a very intriguing player going into his second season. Winovich, on the other hand, is still a difficult rusher to block on passing downs. Some have floated that Wino might be a potential trade candidate due to his struggles to fit into the Pats’ defensive system and the depth at edge defender. For that to come to fruition, Uche will need to play Wino off the roster. Winovich might need to prove he can play on and off the line to stick beyond his rookie contract. 

LINEBACKERS 

–  Entering the final season of his rookie deal, Ja’Whaun Bentley’s performance will be worth a look. Bentley is a bit of a dinosaur in today’s game. He’s a thumping linebacker who can’t play in space, making him a target for opposing offenses. Offensive coordinators forced Bentley to move laterally against the run and attacked him in coverage last season. He was playing a much larger role than he should have been. But with Uche, Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and the hybrid safety crew in the fold, Bentley can go back to playing a first-down role. Still, you wonder if there are enough snaps in that role these days, making Bentley a potential surprise cut or trade candidate. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

– As I wrote in my Saturday mailbag, a strong camp could ramp up extension talks for cornerback J.C. Jackson. Jackson is in a similar position as Jonathan Jones in 2019. Jones was playing on a second-rounder RFA tender and had a tremendous summer. Then, the team signed him to a three-year extension in early September. It’ll be harder to find common ground on the money aspect with Jackson than it was with Jones, but Jackson is setting himself up for a new deal. 

– The year-two leap for Kyle Dugger is one of the easiest things to predict about this defense. Dugger flashed as a physical force against the run as a rookie but has some things to clean up in coverage. Mainly, he needs to work on his footwork and technique at the top of routes. Dugger’s focus this offseason on the field and through film study is improving his football instincts in coverage. The team wants him to anticipate routes and read combinations with more precision, leading to more success. If he can build on his play against the run and trust his eyes more in coverage, look out. 

– Another Pats defender that we’ll keep an eye on is second-year defensive back Myles Bryant. Bryant, a UDFA find by Belichick last season, is a strappy slot corner with some flexibility to play safety. He played multiple spots in the backend as a rookie, but with Jones handling the slot and Jalen Mills adding to a deep secondary, where is the playing time for Bryant? He should still make the roster regardless, but Bryant could easily play more than projected. Hopefully, they find a way to get him on the field. 

– Speaking of Mills, I’m fascinated to see how the Patriots deploy him. There’s a plan to use him a lot. Otherwise, the contract makes no sense. Mills struggled as an outside corner with the Eagles due to a lack of patience at the line of scrimmage. He bit on every fake, committing his hips in one direction, making it easy for receivers to get open. The Pats could coach that out of him and then use him all around the secondary. I think you’ll see Mills line up everywhere from outside, box safety, deep safety, and over the slot. He’s here to replace Jason McCourty. 

– My biggest concern about the Patriots’ roster heading into camp remains at the outside cornerback position. Stephon Gilmore and Jackson are one of the best CB duos in the NFL. But behind them, the depth is worrisome. Joejuan Williams is a wildcard, Michael Jackson is a fringe roster player, and Jalen Mills was a liability on the outside in Philly. The onus is really on Williams to step up. 

SPECIALISTS 

– I don’t believe we’ll get a true kicker competition between veteran Nick Folk and UDFA Quinn Nordin. Nordin has an impressive leg, but Folk is coming off a great year. Unless Folk falls off a cliff, his job is safe.

– Due to injury and opting out last season, special teamer Brandon King hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2018. King is a locker room favorite and one of Belichick’s guys. But he has very little dead money on his contract, only plays in the kicking game, and again, hasn’t played in two years. It’ll be interesting to see if King makes the team.