FOXBORO — The Patriots held an early-morning practice to beat the rain in an intense two-hour practice session that gave the players as close to a game-like atmosphere as possible on Thursday morning.
The first and second-team defense held quarterback Cam Newton to 13 completions on 28 pass attempts with an interception in a dominant effort by the Patriots defense across the board.
As players compete for roster spots, we saw very competitive 11-on-11s with second-year cornerback Joejuan Williams and safety Terrence Brooks making their mark. Williams looked great in coverage on running backs and tight ends while Brooks had an interception for the second straight day. Brooks is emerging as a leader after heavy roster turnover at safety.
The Patriots defense also got contributions in the front seven from Deatrich Wise (two sacks, batted pass), Ja’Whaun Bentley (sack, PBU), and Adam Butler (pressure, run stop).
Although the defense dominated, New England’s rushing attack continues to be dangerous as the very first play of team drills was a 50-plus yard touchdown run by running back Damien Harris. Throughout training camp, we’ve seen the Pats OL open huge running lanes for the backs.
We also got our first live look at undrafted rookie Jeff Thomas, who won his 1-on-1 rep and had two catches in 7-on-7’s that we’ll break down below. Thomas’s play speed was a factor.
The Patriots practiced without captain Devin McCourty for the second consecutive day while rookie linebackers Josh Uche and Caash Maluia were new absences. McCourty was present but wasn’t in pads. Beau Allen, Will Hastings, and Lamar Miller (PUP) were not spotted.
Pats franchise-tagged guard Joe Thuney’s practice ended early when his left hand got caught, and he injured himself. Thuney shook the hand the rest of the practice after consulting with the trainers and did not return. The Patriots can’t afford to lose Thuney.
After practice, both Devin and Jason McCourty addressed their hopelessness in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin. As is the case for many athletes, the McCourty twins seem lost on how to proceed, play, or don’t play. Many Pats also spoke on the difficult position they’re in, feeling forced to use their platforms to promote change.
Although it may be difficult for many to talk about football during these times, let’s empty the notebook from day ten of Patriots training camp:
– As mentioned above, Newton was a bit wild with his accuracy throwing too high or behind receivers on more than one occasion, finishing the practice 13-of-28 in competitive drills. There were open receivers on occasion, but many of Newton’s issues today stemmed from tight coverage by the Pats secondary. The former MVP is always going to have his off days with downfield ball placement, and he held onto the ball a bit too long at times on Thursday, but there are also high-level throws that he makes out there. Newton threw a well-placed corner route to tight end Dalton Keene that the rookie dropped, and he hit both Julian Edelman and Devin Ross in-stride on over routes (crossers). We say it every day because it’s true; the flashes are there for the Newton-led Pats offense, but they’re incredibly inconsistent as they try to get their timing down.
– Jarrett Stidham continued to get out-repped by Newton and was a shaky 7-of-14. He threw well outside of N’Keal Harry on an eight-yard hitch and then missed Devin Ross on a slant from the slot. Although he hit Jeff Thomas along the sideline with a dart and threw the ball with good velocity, Stidham’s accuracy comes and goes by the throw, as does his timing through his progressions. The second-year QB continues to show one play where he looks like a franchise quarterback and then follows that up with several miscues. Improving his consistency overall will decide if he is a future starter in this league.
– Brian Hoyer went 6-of-13 during team drills as he also had some issues finding open receivers but did make the best throw of the day on a laser to Devin Ross, who beat Jason McCourty on a post route for a long touchdown. Hoyer continues to be the most comfortable quarterback in camp, but high-level throws down the field are few and far between when he’s under center.
– Patriots undrafted rookie Jeff Thomas, aka the savior of the offense and Tyreek Hill 2.0, participated in his first live-action in front of the media on Thursday. Thomas caught two balls in seven-on-sevens, one underneath slant on Stephon Gilmore from Cam and another sideline comeback with Michael Jackson in coverage from Stidham. Although Thomas will need to bulk up in the future, his speed is translating into live situations, and you see that the Pats CBs are respecting it; he runs by people more than Damiere Byrd. The question is, can he deal with physical coverage at his size? For those making Hill comparisons, the Chiefs wideout might be on the shorter side, but he’s built like a house. That’s not the case with Thomas.
– Pretty uneventful day for N’Keal Harry, who lost his rep to Joejuan Williams in 1-on1s and had some bad luck on his targets during team drills (batted passes, landed out of bounds, etc.). Harry continues to win mostly in contested catch situations, but that’s not necessarily bad; it’s who he is as a receiver.
– Speaking of Byrd, he has his moments where he uncovers and creates opportunities. However, his 40 time doesn’t exactly translate to targets down the field. Instead, he uses his speed more to get DBs to push vertically and then stops on a dime to get open. He gets open on comeback routes along the sideline and is a challenging cover in 1-on-1s, but he couldn’t even take D’Angelo Ross deep on Thursday. He’s showing more as an intermediate threat than a guy that takes the top off the defense.
– Devin Ross had another strong practice. He’s not only standing out in camp but now it seems real that he’ll contribute during the season. Ross shook JMac with a great stem on his post route on the touchdown from Hoyer. He also shows a good understanding of spacing and finding quick passing lanes for his quarterbacks. Ross runs good routes, has strong hands, and is savvy within the system. He looks like Jakobi Meyers with a thicker frame and more speed.
– Gunner went 3-0 in 1-on-1s with two wins over Michael Jackson and one against Myles Bryant. He then caught a touchdown in the back of the end zone from Hoyer during team drills. Another good day for the “Gun Show” at Pats camp.
– Undrafted rookie Isaiah Zuber would likely get more love if so many other wideouts weren’t popping off in camp. Zuber has decent speed, strong hands at the catch point, and the body control and flexibility to adjust to throws outside his frame. Zuber went down to snag a low and behind throw from Brian Lewerke to end practice on Thursday. He’s unlikely to make the initial 53-man roster but is a good stash on the practice squad. He also has return skills.
– Third-round pick Dalton Keene is getting tons of opportunities with fellow rookie Devin Asiasi limited due to an ankle issue. Keene is working well with Newton on crossing patterns off of play-action and leak outs into the flats, but he’s still dropping too many passes. Newton hit him perfectly on a corner route in 7-on-7s where the tight end was open, but the pass bounced right off his hands. Keene’s downfield route running is improving. However, he seems too focused on the route itself that he’s dropping passes.
– Damien Harris saw an opening between center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney, and took off to the end zone to open team drills. Harris’s explosiveness stands out above the rest of the Pats running backs, and he continues to catch passes out of the backfield. Michel and Burkhead will also get carries, but Harris is clearly New England’s best back in camp, as we’ve said numerous times.
– Undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor broke off some nice runs as well. His pacing and burst to set up cutback lanes on zone schemes are terrific for a young back. Plus, we know what he can do in space and as a receiver. For Taylor, making the initial roster is a numbers game, and we know how the Pats feel about playing rookie running backs, but he adds a dimension to their backfield in space that they don’t get elsewhere.
– The starting offensive line continues to create running lanes for the backs consistently, mostly off the left side behind Wynn and Thuney. In goal-line work, the Pats tossed the ball outside to Taylor with a pulling Wynn in front of him. Wynn cleared out Joejuan Williams on his pull, and Taylor walked into the end zone. Harris’s long TD run was a massive hole right up the middle. The Pats OL’s success says something about the state of New England’s run defense, but they’re also a terrific unit.
– Rookie Justin Herron impressed once again during one-on-one drills with wins over Anfernee Jennings and Nick Thurman. Herron can mirror edge rushers pretty easily with his foot speed and isn’t getting bull-rushed as often as expected. He’s taking to the coaching extremely well to shorten his stems when he anchors rather than giving ground with long strides.
– Don’t think I’ve seen Shaq Mason lose a one-on-one yet in decisive fashion. There are always close ones that have a winner towards the end of the rep, but Mason avoids quick losses. He looks determined to show that the narrative last year was incorrect.
– Derek Rivers had a speed-to-power bull rush during one-on-ones that jolted Korey Cunningham back ten yards into the quarterback. Rivers always had good explosiveness and length, but he’s now using a long arm technique to get underneath tackles and create leverage. We’ll see if it translates into games, but we are looking at a different practice player.
– Deatrich Wise dominated the end of practice during a competitive two-minute drill. Wise had two sacks and batted another pass down at the line. He continues to harass the Pats quarterbacks and offensive linemen. He’s having a terrific camp.
– Byron Cowart batted a pass down at the line of scrimmage and registered a run stop. His play strength and explosiveness continue to stand out. He’s going to be a factor in the interior DL rotation this season.
– Adam Butler continues to play extremely well with several moments where he penetrated the line of scrimmage to either pressure the quarterback or blow up a running play. Butler was always explosive and fluid off the ball, but now he’s adding block anticipation to his repertoire.
– Anfernee Jennings made a few nice plays against the run with a sweet stick on Taylor. Jennings was flowing to the puller when he caught Taylor jump-cutting outside and met him in the hole. We continue to see Jennings improve each day after he missed a few practices early in camp. Between him and Uche, the Pats have young building blocks at linebacker.
– John Simon did John Simon things on Thursday by setting a stout edge. The offense tried to run off his edge in 11-on-11s, and he wasn’t having any of it, just a strong end of the line player.
– Brandon Copeland’s experience, versatility, and special teams abilities check every box for the Patriots, but he’s losing snaps to the younger linebackers. Copeland will most likely make the team for the reasons listed above. However, he might already be buried on the depth chart.
– Stephon Gilmore was toying with dudes today. During 1-on-1s, Gilmore erased both Mohamed Sanu and Julian Edelman with terrific mirroring work with his back to the quarterback. He’s one of the only Pats DBs that trusts his technique to play most of the down with his back to the passer. He mirrored both Sanu and Edelman in a basketball-like stance and then read the receiver’s hands to look for the football. Gilmore nearly intercepted both passes but settled PBUs instead. What a stud, even on the practice field.
– 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams had his best practice of camp. Things started with a win over Harry in one-on-ones, then a nice contest on a scramble drill throw to Rex Burkhead in the corner of the end zone followed. Williams’s size, physicality, and lack of long speed suggest that he might be better suited to play as a TE/RB stopper in the box. That transition seems to be happening this summer.
– Second-year corner D’Angelo Ross had two pass breakups on throws intended for Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry. Ross, who is only 5-foot-9, did well to contest Harry’s jump ball and break up the pass. He then stayed with the speedy Byrd on a deep ball from Newton that fell incomplete. Ross had a terrific camp last summer, and although he hasn’t stood out as much this year, he has sticky man coverage skills that fit the system.
– Terrence Brooks continues to have a terrific camp with another interception and pass breakup on Thursday. Brooks is trying to be a better communicator in his second season with the team, aiming to carve out a leadership role in the secondary with Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon’s departures. He’s also getting his hands on more passes because he’s playing freely now that he mastered the system. Brooks can play down in the box or as a half-field safety in certain situations. Plus, he contributes on special teams. He’s an ascending player in New England’s secondary.
– Free-agent addition Adrian Phillips is starting to make plays. Phillips stuck with Rex Burkhead on a corner route out of the backfield to eliminate the passing lane and force an incompletion. With Phillips, Brooks, and rookie Kyle Dugger, the Pats have plenty of box safety options to replace Chung. Phillips had a quiet first nine practices, and missed a few as well, but has the type of NFL experience to make a late push. Add in his special teams value, and it’s hard to envision an out-right release. He should have a roster spot. Although, if Dugger continues to ascend, Phillips becomes somewhat expendable.
– Rookie kicker Justin Rohrwasser kicked better today, going four-for-six with a few makes on the skinny goal posts. Nick Folk made all six of his kicks, though, and remains a more consistent option. Rohrwasser’s unit was also flagged for delay of game.
– Jake Bailey only attempted four punts during the session but was excellent with hang times of 4.63, 4.80, 5.05, and 4.90. The 5.05-second punt was majestic and easily went over 50 yards, maybe even closer to 60. Bailey might be an All-Pro punter someday.