The New England Patriots were back on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium on Monday for their first full-pads session of this year’s training camp. While the setting was markedly different from years past due to the Coronavirus pandemic — from no fans being in attendance, to a reduced media contingent, to the social distancing and hygiene guidelines that have been implemented by the club and the NFL — the session itself had the makings of a typical mid-August workout.
With that said, let’s clean out the notebook from what was the fifth full-team practice of the summer.
Business as usual on Day One in full gear
After putting on their pads for the first time all offseason, the Patriots held a session that had a familiar vibe to it: the team focused primarily on the running game when on offense and defense, a continuation from previous years. This meant a heavy workload for New England’s backs, led by second-year man Damien Harris — one of the standouts from Monday’s practice — as well as veteran Rex Burkhead and rookie J.J. Taylor, as well as the linemen on both sides of the ball.
Chase Winovich is turning into an every-down defender
The Patriots’ return to a certain level of normalcy was also mentioned by linebacker Chase Winovich during his media conference call after practice.
“It definitely does feel more normal, all things considered,” said the second-year man. “When you’re out there on the football field you can kind of forget about the situation and everything that’s going on in America, because you’re just so focused on what your assignment is and the fact that you have to go out there and the fact that you have to go out and smash your body against another human. You definitely have to be in the right mental space and focus.”
Winovich himself, meanwhile, appears to be on his way to turn into an every-down linebacker for the Patriots. With Kyle Van Noy’s free agency departure creating a sizable hole along the defensive edge, the former third-round draft pick seems poised to fill it: after being used predominately as a situational pass rusher during his 2019 rookie season, Winovich saw increased action on early downs as well during Monday’s practice — a potential sign of things to come.
Experience shows at this early stage of the quarterback race
New England has three players realistically competing for Tom Brady’s former job, and there is no clear frontrunner at the time being. That said, Monday’s practice — one that offered only limited opportunities for Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer — showed that experience within the system is certainly a plus at this early stage of camp: while Newton is still adapting to the Patriots’ notoriously challenging offensive scheme, Stidham and Hoyer appeared to be more comfortable going through their reps.
That said, there is a long way to go for all three quarterbacks. Stidham may have been the best of the bunch on Monday, but Newton and Hoyer will also continue to get plenty of opportunities to prove their value and standing within the competition.
No fans, no problem
As noted above, the Patriots held practice in front of a clearly decimated crowd: the stands that are normally packed with around 20,000 spectators were empty, while only a handful of reporters — a group that naturally cannot create the energy that thousands of fans can — were present. Even though the team will have to get used to this new environment, it does not sound as if this adaptation process poses any problem for the team.
“It’s different. It’s different for everyone in the league,” said cornerback Stephon Gilmore during his media availability after practice. “We just have to bring our own energy every day, and I think we’re pushing each other as a team and that’s what it comes down to: bring our own energy and try to be there for each other, try to execute our game plan. That’s what it’s going to take this year with everything going on in the world.”
Gilmore was essentially echoing Bill Belichick’s thoughts on the topic.
“That’s all out of our control, so we’re going to try to focus on the things that we can control,” said the Patriots’ head coach before practice was kicked off. “Certainly, we have a lot of practices throughout the course of the year where there aren’t fans there, so I don’t think that’s something the team is unaccustomed to. Actually, we are accustomed to it. So, we’ll control the things that we can control and the things we can’t control, we’re not going to worry about.”
Josh Uche leads an overall solid rookie performance
With free agency and the Coronavirus opt-out period bringing some considerable personnel turnover, the Patriots’ rookie class finds itself in the spotlight this year. As for the group’s first padded practice, there were some positives and some negatives — as had to be expected.
Day Two draft picks Josh Uche and Devin Asiasi were the two most active players. While Uche was moved all over the defensive formation and showed his potential as a move linebacker in the mold of Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, Asiasi was one of the more actively involved offensive skill position players and showed some good hands and advanced route running skills. The two men could very well fill prominent roles for the Patriots this season.
Safety Kyle Dugger, tight end Dalton Keene, linebacker De’Jon Harris and kicker Justin Rohrwasser, also had their moments on Monday, even though they were a bit more quiet than Uche and Asiasi.