Earlier today, the New England Patriots returned to practice fields behind Gillette Stadium to hold the first full-contact practice of their 2020 training camp. The session itself focused mostly on the running game and did not yet give a full impression of how the coaching staff views its roster three weeks into camp (most prominently at the quarterback position), but it does allow us and those present to take the closest look to date at this year’s team.
That said, the division into “winners” and “losers” should be taken with a grain of salt: practice is just that — a method to improve and get up to speed. Nevertheless, some players did stand out more than others according to reports by those in attendance for the session.
Winner: WR Devin Ross
While the top of the Patriots’ wide receiver group appears to be set with Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu either locks (Edelman, Harry) or near-locks (Sanu) to make the team, the depth spots behind the trio are up for grabs. Ross is apparently making a strong case for himself early in camp. He was part of a position drill last week that featured the top wideouts — Edelman, Harry, Sanu, Jakobi Meyers — plus James White, and yesterday reportedly caught a touchdown against Stephon Gilmore. Today, he added a 50-yard reception from Brian Hoyer for the session’s biggest play.
Winner: FB Jakob Johnson
New England’s offense focused on the running game on Monday, which naturally led to a heavy workload for the only true fullback on the roster following the retirement of James Develin as well as Danny Vitale’s opt-out for the 2020 season. Second-year man Jakob Johnson served as the lead-blocker on numerous plays, and also caught the eye as a receiver out of the backfield: he beat rookie Josh Uche at one point on a back-shoulder pass. If he can effectively turn into a fullback/tight end hybrid like Develin used to be, he should have a very strong case to be on the team come roster cutdown day.
Loser: RB J.J. Taylor
Coming into the Patriots’ challenging offensive system as an undrafted rookie is hard even in a normal year, but the challenge becomes noticeably tougher without the benefit of offseason workouts. Taylor is not the only player who is impacted by this, but his rawness in particular did stand out on Monday as he had some obvious downs to go with his ups: while he produced some solid runs, he also dropped a pass at one point and later had to run a penalty lap after muffing a punt.
Winner: LB Josh Uche
The Patriots’ personnel turnover in the defensive front seven this offseason has created plenty of opportunities for New England’s young linebackers to carve out prominent roles. Second-round draft pick Josh Uche seems to be well on his way to do just that: the Michigan product was moved all over the formation on Monday, and could factor into the mix at the versatile move position previously held by Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Losers: WR Jeff Thomas & WR Will Hastings
Undrafted rookies, as noted above, are in a tough spot to begin with — even more so if they are unable to fully participate in practice. Such was Jeff Thomas’ and Will Hastings’ fate today: the former was one of three non-PUP players that were absent (and the only one not effectively a lock to make the team), while the latter was limited. With only so many roster and practice squad spots open, every missed practice is also a missed opportunity to prove one’s value while other players competing for roster spots such as the aforementioned Devin Ross leave their mark.
Winner: OT Jermaine Eluemunor
With Marcus Cannon having opted out of the 2020 season, New England has a big hole to fill at right tackle — both literally and figuratively. While a lot can and will change between now and the start of the regular season in September, it seems as if Jermaine Eluemunor factors prominently into the mix. The second-year Patriot, who was acquired via trade last year and tendered at the original fifth-round level earlier this offseason, spent time at both tackle positions on Monday after primarily (but not exclusively) playing guard over the first three years of his pro career.
Winner: RB Damien Harris
Sony Michel and Lamar Miller are still on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), which created opportunities for the other backs to see increased playing time. Rex Burkhead and J.J. Taylor benefitted from this, as did second-year man Damien Harris. The former third-round draft pick, who was essentially redshirted during his 2019 rookie year, looked good carrying the football and also showed up as a checkdown pass catcher from time to time. Harris seems determined to prove his value while Michel and Miller are out.