The New England Patriots are set to open their 2021 mandatory minicamp on Monday. Over a three-day period, the team will continue working on teaching and implementing early schematic concepts and taking the next step in its development.
The main difference to the other offseason workouts, of course, lies in the name. While organized team activities are voluntary, all healthy players on the team’s 90-man offseason roster have to be present for this week’s mandatory practices or potentially face fines.
With all that said, let’s take a look at some of the most intriguing storylines as we head into minicamp.
How will the quarterbacks look?
The biggest story of the Patriots’ offseason remains the state of their quarterback position. They re-signed incumbent starter Cam Newton and veteran backup Brian Hoyer before and during free agency, respectively, and also invested a first-round selection in Mac Jones in the draft. Add third-year man Jarrett Stidham to the picture and you get an interesting group of players that do not have any set spots on the depth chart.
While nothing will be decided during minicamp week, the three days worth of practices will give each player an opportunity to keep building on previous experience.
For Newton, this means getting back into a rhythm after a recent hand injury and also trying to hold onto the QB1 role. Stidham and Hoyer, meanwhile, will attempt to build on the momentum they seemingly created last week.
Then, there is Jones. The rookie was behind Stidham and Hoyer during last Thursday’s open practice, but played a more prominent role during the first two such OTAs. Head coach Bill Belichick has repeatedly stated that offseason workouts would be more about teaching than evaluation and competition, which means that minicamp could see the rookie’s workload change once again.
Either way, Jones will get his first opportunity to perform in a full-team setting this week. That alone will be important for his development.
Which previously absent players will return?
So far this offseason, three of the Patriots’ practices were open to the media. While attendance changed each time, the final of those sessions last Thursday did not see the following players participate:
WR Nelson Agholor*, LB Rashod Berry*, RB Brandon Bolden, DT Byron Cowart*, K Nick Folk, CB Stephon Gilmore, DT Lawrence Guy, LB Terez Hall*, RB Sony Michel, QB Cam Newton*, WR Devin Smith, TE Jonnu Smith, RB James White, OT Isaiah Wynn
*previously spotted during OTAs
Five of the players listed here participated in at least one of the first eight OTA practices leading into Thursday, which leaves nine that have yet to make an appearance this offseason. That group includes some notable names: team captains Lawrence Guy and James White, starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn, early-down running back Sony Michel and free agency investment Jonnu Smith.
The biggest among them, however, is Stephon Gilmore.
Not only is the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year coming off a challenging season that ended early due to a quad injury, he also is in the middle of ongoing contract talks after being scheduled to play at a salary of “only” $7 million this year. A return on Monday would be an indicator about Gilmore’s mindset and his relationship with the club at this point in time.
Unless treated as an excused absence — which might be a sign of good faith from the Patriots’ point of view — the veteran defender is obviously required to report for minicamp. If not he will be subject to fines: the team can fine him $15,515 for one missed day, $31,030 for a second and $46,540 for a third. In total, Gilmore could lose up to $93,085 if he decided to stay away from minicamp this week.
How will the offseason acquisitions fare in this setting?
Coming off a 7-9 season as one of the league leaders in salary cap space, the Patriots made some major investments over the course of the offseason.
On offense, tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne and offensive tackle Trent Brown are all projected to play sizable roles this season. On defense, tackles Davon Godchaux and Montravius Adams, linebackers Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy, and defensive back Jalen Mills are in the same boat. Accordingly, all of them should see considerable reps over the next three days.
Add a rookie class led by the aforementioned Mac Jones, and you get a team that has rebuilt a large part of its roster over the last few months. The Patriots now have to hope that they adapt quickly to life in New England and develop into the players they were brought on board to be. Minicamp is a crucial step in this development.
How will the position battles develop?
New England has built a deep roster over the last few months, but there are only so many spots available on the 53-man squad with cutdown day less than three months away. A lot can and will happen over the coming weeks and months, and minicamp will not make or break any player’s chances to make the cut. That said, we could get a first look at a very early depth chart at some key positions.
Quarterback: As noted above, quarterback will remain the position to watch the entire summer. The Patriots will likely rotate players at the position but it will be interesting to see who gets the most opportunities, and who will share the field with which players.
Running back: Sony Michel was absent during voluntary workouts but should be back on the practice fields this week. The former first-round draft pick, who saw his fifth-year contract option for 2022 declined earlier this offseason, will compete against Damien Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson for practice reps.
Wide receiver: Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers should be considered locks to make the roster. Add key special teamers Gunner Olszewski and Matthew Slater, and only one or two spots might be open for competition. Former first-round choice N’Keal Harry is among those fighting for the possibly open spots.
Offensive tackle: Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown appear locked into the starting roles at left and right tackle, but the spots behind them are up for grabs. Justin Herron, Yodny Cajuste, Korey Cunningham and rookie William Sherman are projected to fight for them.
Interior defensive line: Five interior defensive linemen are locks to near-locks when it comes to making the team — Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise Jr, Henry Anderson, Christian Barmore — but it will be fascinating to see how the team employs them in practice. Also: Who will position himself to join them on the roster?
Outside/edge linebacker: With Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy and third-round rookie Ronnie Perkins being added to the rotation, the Patriots’ edge group suddenly is one of the deepest on the roster. Chase Winovich and Josh Uche should also join them on the team this fall, but their roles are not set in stone — as are those of other outside linebacker options currently under contract.
Off-the-ball linebacker: Dont’a Hightower’s return is big for the Patriots, but it remains to be seen who will fill the off-the-ball spots alongside him. Ja’Whaun Bentley? Anfernee Jennings? Somebody else entirely? Minicamp might give us an early look at the options.
Cornerback: Regardless of Stephon Gilmore’s status, the Patriots’ cornerback group is still one of the deepest on the roster. J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills are the next men down the depth chart, with some intriguing talent behind them as well — from former second-round pick Joejuan Williams to former rookie free agent Myles Bryant.
Will any surprise contributors emerge?
J.C. Jackson — an undrafted rookie who emerged during offseason workouts and ultimately earned not just a roster spot but a starting cornerback role — is just one example of a player standing out in minicamp and using his performance as a foundation to carve out a role on the team. It is impossible to tell at this point in time who might follow his example, but the Patriots do have some candidates to do just that.
Wide receiver Isaiah Zuber and linebacker Raekwon McMillan, for example, are just two of the players who left a positive impression during the open OTAs. Other under-the-radar players will try to do the same this week.