FOXBORO, MA — The Patriots’ first padded practice of training camp is in the books, and we know as much about Bill Belichick’s quarterback competition as we did before Monday’s session.
The quarterbacks were in-focus, but the Patriots spent most of the live reps drilling the running game, where just about every offensive and defensive player got looks, and the offense dominated New England’s front seven.
Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, and Brian Hoyer all got mostly equal reps making it almost impossible to decipher who is in the lead for the starting QB job, with Cam and Stidham getting the same number of throws.
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As expected, Stidham and Hoyer are running the offense with more efficiency than Newton at this stage. Stidham was the best of the three today, while Hoyer made the best throw connecting with wide receiver Devin Ross on a 50-plus yard bomb.
Free-agent addition Beau Allen, rookie Anfernee Jennings, and undrafted rookie Jeff Thomas were absent from practice along with the PUP guys, running backs Sony Michel and Lamar Miller. The Patriots also had two new tight ends, Alex Ellis and Paul Butler, at practice.
Here are some practice notes by position group from Monday’s practice session:
– Stidham looked the best out of the three quarterbacks. At the end of 11-on-11s, he made a great read in his drop to see the safety rotation closing the middle of the field (post safety), working inside-out to Damiere Byrd on a comeback route that received applause from Newton and others. Stidham had a play-calling mishap early in practice, but the ball is coming out nicely, and he’s making the right reads out there. Stidham also made a few connections with Gunner Olszewski during the final period of no-huddle work. In a way too early guesstimate, Stidham seems to be the slight frontrunner for the starting job.
All four #Patriots QBs taking snaps before practice. Cam Newton is hype.
— Patriots on CLNS (@PatriotsCLNS) August 17, 2020
– Newton is coming along as quickly as one could expect, given the circumstances. He seems to be cycling through his reads to get a feel for where his answers are in the offense, which led to some late throws and one coverage sack. Newton’s mobility showed up a few times, but the focus remains on learning the same playbook we saw with Tom Brady at QB. Newton’s best throw of the day came on a crossing route to Julian Edelman where Devin McCourty appeared to let up to avoid a collision but had some zip on it. Pats defenders spoke highly about Newton’s arm strength and energy as his voice carries around Gillette Stadium. It was cool to see him cheering on Stidham and the other QBs.
– Hoyer once again took a decent amount of snaps during team drills, but let’s not look too much into that. He threw a great deep ball along the right sideline to Ross and distributed it around nicely. Hoyer always looks comfortable out there, but we know his upside is limited.
– With Michel and Miller sitting out practice, both Damien Harris and undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor had a heavy workload. Starting with Harris, he made a few nice reads running behind Jakob Johnson that got some love from running backs coach Ivan Fears. Harris also caught check-downs from all three quarterbacks and took a long run off-tackle when Shilique Calhoun blew the edge. We should see some more of Harris this season.
– Taylor had a typical up-and-down practice for a rookie. He muffed a punt during special teams drills that led to a lap around the field and dropped a short throw from Hoyer but started to make plays later in practice. Taylor followed an excellent block by rookie Michael Onwenu and Jakob Johnson to break off the biggest run of the day and made some nice plays in space as a receiver. Taylor has some bounce and a slipperiness as a ball carrier, but he’s making understandable mental and focus errors that need to be cleaned up quickly in this shortened camp.
– N’Keal Harry had a quiet practice, and although his feet seem more lively, there are still technique issues to work out.
After consulting with WR guru Brad Kelly, Harry’s footwork through positional drills still needs correcting. His inside foot is not gaining any ground out of route break as he steps in the same spot twice, and we also see an overextension of his outside leg (right) that makes it difficult for him to make that break crisply. Harry’s hips are coming open quicker to make himself friendly for the quarterback, he’s staying up more to avoid getting heavy and low through his cuts, and he’s more violent with his hands now in his press releases. But there’s still a lot to work on at the top of his route.
– Third-year wideout Devin Ross stole the show with some smooth route running and burst. The highlight of the day was a 50-yard deep ball from Hoyer over Joejuan Williams, but the 5-foot-9 Ross has a clear speed advantage over the 2019 second-round pick (not a great matchup for Williams). Ross made a grab on a curl route later in practice against JC Jackson that showed his ability to separate at the top of his routes, and he also beat Stephon Gilmore in team drills on Sunday. In a typical year, he might have a chance to make the roster. But his day felt very Mo Harris-like. Some flashes for sure, but we’ll see if he can do it consistently.
– Gunner Olszewski started a little slow but was Stidham’s go-to target during the no-huddle portion of practice that ended the session. His ability to separate underneath the defense quickly was there. As for fellow 2019 undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, it was a quiet day for no. 16, although he did catch some passes from Hoyer during the two-minute drill.
– Damiere Byrd’s presence was notable as he saw a lot of work and was syncing up well with Stidham. On Stidham’s comebacker along the sideline to Byrd, the free-agent addition shook Jason McCourty at the top of the route and set up his angles well to shield McCourty from the catch point. Byrd’s lack of size is apparent, though, and he needs to create space for himself at the line of scrimmage to keep the coverage from riding him downfield. Still, the Pats like what he brings to the table.
– Sanu and Edelman looked like the savvy vets that they are at Monday’s practice, clearly ahead of their teammates. Edelman made some nice grabs from Newton on a crossing route and stick/option route during team drills. Sanu’s technique and route running are great to watch amongst a group that struggles with the fundamentals.
– The star of practice was fullback Jakob Johnson. Johnson made several big blocks as the lead blocker for all three running backs, landing a huge block on rookie linebacker Cassh Maluia. Later in practice, he also made a nice adjustment to snag a back-shoulder seam ball with Josh Uche in coverage. Johnson looks like he’s in great shape and was noticeably impacting the running game with his blocking.
– Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene were two of the busiest players in Monday’s practice. They rotated in and out with each other, almost rep by rep, and each got some praise from the coaching staff for their blocking. Both also caught a few passes underneath the defense with good timing to get to their spots. Keene nearly beat fellow rookie Kyle Dugger up the seam, but the pass was too far in front from Hoyer. Asiasi and Keene are working on where to line up and the playbook at this stage. They were playing a little slow as they try to process their route adjustments and assignments.
– Ryan Izzo got a loud cheer from teammates early on in practice with a great kick-out block at the point of attack on an outside zone/stretch play. Izzo wasn’t as active as Asiasi and Keene during passing drills, but the coaches seemed happy with where he’s at as a run blocker.
– Jermaine Eluemunor, a trade acquisition from last September who rode the bench in 2019, was featured heavily in practice at both left and right tackle. After practicing mostly at guard last season, Eluemunor is working almost exclusively at tackle. He made one nice block to wash down a slanting Brandon Copeland at the point of attack to free up a rushing lane for Rex Burkhead, but we didn’t get to see a ton of live pass protection reps. The veteran is in the driver’s seat to win the starting right tackle job.
– Yodny Cajuste got his reps at both tackle spots, but it was a sloppy day for him and the coaches were in his ear often. That’s not an indictment on Cajuste, it’s one practice, but Eluemunor is ahead of him on day one. With this being the first padded practice of camp, it’s also the first time we truly get to evaluate OL play. The Pats are bringing Cajuste, who missed his entire rookie season due to injury, along slowly.
– Both rookie guards Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron opened holes in the running game, and they heard some praise from OL coaches Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo. Onwenu’s size is as advertised, and you can see the force he gets when he plays with proper pad level and footwork into his engagements. He didn’t do anything on Monday to make me doubt his ability to make the team. Herron also did well passing off T/E stunts in two-on-twos.
– The interior of the Pats offensive line, combined with left tackle Isaiah Wynn, looked as good as expected on the first day of pads. In particular, the left side was moving guys off the ball in the run game with both Wynn and Thuney looking extremely impressive. They were mauling the starting front seven on the ground.
– Hjalte Froholdt and recently signed free agent Tyler Gauthier both rotated in at center during practice. Froholdt will need to improve his technique this summer and back up multiple spots on the interior, or he might be on the bubble in his second season.
– Lawrence Guy was once again a pleasure to watch play football. Although the offense controlled play in the running game, Guy got the last laugh after defeating a combination block on the strong side of a play while swallowing J.J. Taylor. He’s in mid-season form.
– Adam Butler continues to get early-down work now that the Pats have a hole there, and Beau Allen was absent from practice. There were times where pad level was still an issue for Butler, but he made a great stop on a wham play where he blew up the whammer and ruined the whole play. Butler was already a dependable pass-rush specialist a year ago, and he’s starting to round his game out as a three-down player.
– We didn’t see third-round pick Anfernee Jennings, but Josh Uche was active in his first padded practice. Uche was moving around the defensive front but mostly took snaps at inside linebacker. He seems focused on learning his run fits at this early stage, taking mental reps while on the sideline and talking through his reads with Ja’Whaun Bentley. There’s a lot to like about Uche’s skill set. But he’s obviously in the learning phase right now.
– Chase Winovich is an exciting player this season as he attempts to make the year-two leap. Wino was playing an every-down role. Although he didn’t make any splash plays on Monday, it’s clear that his workload will increase dramatically, which is no surprise after the offseason departures on defense. He made a nice play chasing down the back from the backside during team drills.
– Brandon Copeland was another active member of the Pats linebacking corps. He did a decent job setting the edge along with John Simon and Winovich. Copeland looks comfortable out there already; this isn’t his first rodeo. The same goes for Simon.
– Sixth-round pick Caash Maluia got his chances during Monday’s practice. Not a ton of highlights to report, but he’s cycling in along with Uche and the vets. The Pats seem to like his football IQ and smarts.
– Stephon Gilmore wouldn’t make any grand proclamations about taking his game to an even higher level this season, but he looks ready to go. None of the wide receivers came close to beating him during team drills.
– We saw a lot of second-year corner JoeJuan Williams. Williams got beat on the deep ball to Ross, but nearly made a late play on the ball after recovering nicely using his length to contest the catch. Williams’s physicality at the line of scrimmage showed up a few times, and the Ross play was just one play in the first practice. Don’t read too much into it. He’s getting every chance to carve out a role.
– JC Jackson, Jason McCourty, and Jon Jones made their usual plays out there. When the starting secondary was together during team drills, it was challenging to find open receivers. This group looks like it’ll shut things down once again this season.
– New England’s top pick in the 2020 draft, Kyle Dugger, was extremely active during Monday’s session. Dugger was getting coached up by Devin McCourty all practice. He looks the part of a tight end stopper and made a fantastic drop underneath a deep curl route off of play-action to take away the QBs first read, much to the excitement of his more experienced teammates. Dugger is catching on quickly and could see immediate playing time if the trend continues.
– Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks also rotated in along with Dugger. Brooks made a nice interception jumping a quick-hitter to the tight end during team drills, and Phillips seems to be the most positionally sound player of the three at the moment. The Pats have some options to replace Patrick Chung.
– We didn’t see a ton of Cody Davis on Monday. He rotated in at free safety a bit for McCourty, but Devin got a lot of the reps. The McCourty twins looked like their usual selves.
– Kicker Justin Rohrwasser was a little shaky in our first view of the rookie. He went 3-for-5 on his kicks, narrowly making two of them, from about 40 yards or so. Let’s not overreact to one practice, but it definitely could’ve been a better day for the rookie. He missed wide left, then barely made his second one, before missing wide right, then finishing strong with two makes. If his inconsistencies continue, the Pats might want to bring in some competition.
– Jake Bailey was Jake Bailey: punting boomers. Nothing to worry about there. He looks ready to go, as does his punt coverage unit that had some fun at the returners’ expense at times. Both Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel were all over the returners.
– We didn’t see any kickoffs, but the Pats had a three-man rotation returning punts led by Gunner Olszewski. Gunner is still the leader in the clubhouse to be the primary punt returner. Undrafted rookies J.J. Taylor and Isaiah Zuber joined him. We didn’t see Dugger or Edelman return any punts.