The New England Patriots held their fourth straight practice on Thursday, once again wearing full pads while doing so. Between the quarterback competition heating up, to some impressive rookie performances, to players of note not participating, the session itself was a rather eventful one. With all that being said, let’s clean out the notebook from yesterday’s two-hour workout on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
Absentees are starting to add up
While rookies Anfernee Jennings and Jeff Thomas returned, a total of 10 players were absent for yesterday’s practice — most notably the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots’ top cornerback was a full participant through the first three days of the week, but was a no-show on Thursday for undisclosed reasons. Gilmore’s absence naturally catches the eye given his role and status as the league’s premier shutdown cornerback, but nevertheless does not appear to be a cause for concern just yet.
The main issue is that the list of players not partaking keeps steadily growing.
Besides Gilmore and the three players on the physically unable to perform list — Sony Michel, Lamar Miller, Brandon King — the Patriots also were without N’Keal Harry, Yodny Cajuste, Beau Allen, Adrian Phillips, Derek Rivers and Tashawn Bower. Harry in particular is noteworthy, considering that the team invested a first-round draft pick in him just last year but had to see him spend parts of his rookie campaign on short-term injured reserve. Every missed day of practice robs him of a chance to bounce back in Year Two and build a rapport with the quarterbacks.
Speaking of whom...
Is Cam Newton starting to pull away in the quarterback competition?
On Thursday, former league MVP Cam Newton had his best day of practice since joining the Patriots. He did not stand out in any particular way, but looked more comfortable operating New England’s offense than he had earlier during the week. On top of it all, he also saw an uptick in opportunities after reps were split rather evenly between Monday and Wednesday: Newton attempted 17 combined passes in 11-on-11s and 7-on-7s compared to 16 for Brian Hoyer and just six for Jarrett Stidham.
Does this mean that he is pulling away in the race? Not necessarily, but the 31-year-old appears to be building some momentum after also being the lone quarterback to not throw an interception yesterday. The next few days, and the distribution of reps in practice, will give us a clearer understanding of how the coaches view the competition — and whether or not Newton is indeed turning into the frontrunner to earn Tom Brady’s former job.
The backup offensive tackle competition is heating up
While Yodny Cajuste missed Thursday’s practice, the other offensive tackles on the roster had a neat battle going. With Jermaine Eluemunor currently well on his way to earn the starting spot at right tackle, projected backups Korey Cunningham and Justin Herron each had their moments. While the former had one of the most impressive blocks of the day when he took safety Terrence Brooks out of a running play, the latter was competitive during one-on-one drills and seems to be developing a nice rhythm.
With Cajuste slowly fighting his way back after missing all of his 2019 rookie season due to an offseason procedure on his quad, Cunningham and especially Herron have started making some noise to possibly earn the number three/swing tackle spot behind projected starters Eluemunor and Isaiah Wynn.
Brandon Copeland shares his first impressions of the Patriots
The last two seasons, Brandon Copeland got a close look at the Patriots twice a year. Now, the former New York Jets linebacker has changed the green and white for the red, white and blue — and his first impression of New England’s defense is a positive one compared to other teams he has been on over the course of his eight-year career in the NFL.
“On other teams I’ve been in, it’s not typical that your nose tackle would have a thorough understanding of what your safety was doing or your cornerback,” said Copeland during a media conference call on Thursday. “By us doing that and understanding that here, it allows you to play much faster on defense because you just know where everyone is around you, you know where to push the ball to — all of that type of stuff.”
Copeland started his career as a rookie free agent signing by the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, and later also spent time with the Tennessee Titans and Detroit Lions before arriving in New York in 2018. Along the way, he formed an image in his mind about how New England’s defense was operating.
“When you thought about Patriots defense, you thought about guys focused on the details of their craft,” he said. Based on his statements about the unit, it seems as if that picture has been an accurate one to begin with — especially when it comes to communication, as Copeland noted.
“I think communication has been amazing here,” he said. “Guys talking to each other, guys working with each other, guys coaching each other up. I think that that’s just a beautiful thing.”
Gunner Olszewski continues to stand out
One year ago, Gunner Olszewski was in the middle of not just transitioning from the Division-II level to the NFL but also from cornerback to wide receiver. Fast forward to the summer of 2020, and you find a player who has established himself as a serious candidate to earn a spot on the Patriots’ receiver depth chart: Olszewski continues to stand out due to his improved route running and physicality compared to his rookie season.
On Tuesday, he was one of the most impressive players during 1-on-1s before also catching a pass during team drills from Brian Hoyer — one of the best offensive plays of the day, with the Bemidji State product perfectly executing his comeback route. If Olszewski can continue to build on his impressive start to training camp, he will be on the team come September and could even play a prominent role on offense after being almost exclusively used as a punt returner in 2019.
So far, he is the second-year wide receiver with the most impressive jump in his development and as a result performances.