While the New England Patriots’ rookie class still has some work ahead over the coming days, the veteran portion of the offseason workout program is in the books. Following three phases of voluntary workouts, the action concluded with a mandatory three-day minicamp between Monday and Wednesday.
“It’s certainly been good to get the team on the field and to see everybody participate,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during a media conference call the other day. “Some new players that we haven’t worked with before and so, it’s been good. I think the attitude’s been good, work ethics been good, and we obviously have a long, long way to go, but we’ve certainly made a lot of progress, covered a lot of ground here.”
With minicamp now over and no more workouts ahead until training camp, now is the perfect time to look back at the reports coming out of Gillette Stadium over the last few days and draw some careful conclusions about where the team stands and what happened.
1. The Patriots are putting a lot on Mac Jones’ plate
New England invested the 15th overall selection in this year’s draft in Mac Jones, and it seems obvious that the team is not interested in having him learn behind the scenes. The rookie was given prominent opportunities during each minicamp practice and actually out-snapped incumbent starter Cam Newton in team drills on two out of three days.
Jones was the second man up behind Newton through most drills, and while he was not always perfect — he threw three total interceptions — it is clear the team is willing to put a lot on his plate at this early stage in his career. Training camp and the preseason will definitively show how he is handling all the new information coming his way, but the early signs and the coaching staff’s trust in him are encouraging.
Jeff Howe of The Athletic wrote the following about the youngster’s performance.
Jones has been the best quarterback this week, but it will need to continue into August when the Patriots practice in pads, likely with some joint workouts, and play three preseason games. Those will be far more strenuous than non-padded practices in June. That type of atmosphere will also be more conducive to Newton’s ability to make plays with his legs, and that element can’t be discounted.
This week, though, Jones has proven that he is capable of contending for the starting job later this summer.
2. Cam Newton still has the inside track for the starting role
For as good as Mac Jones has looked, Cam Newton still appears to be in the driver’s seat for the starting quarterback position. Not only did he end minicamp on a high note — “He was the best QB on the field today,” noted the Providence Journal’s Mark Daniels on Wednesday — he still has one major advantage over Jones: experience.
Minicamp and the offseason workout program in general are more about learning than competing for spots on the depth, something Belichick has pointed out repeatedly in the past. New England gave Jones plenty of opportunities to learn and gain experience, and anything is possible in training camp, but at the end of the day the job still appears to be Newton’s to lose.
3. New England did not suffer any major-looking injuries
Jonnu Smith and N’Keal Harry seemed to suffer some minor ailments, and others were unable to participate fully as well, but the Patriots made it through minicamp relatively unscathed. That is the bare minimum at this point in time, and a positive development during a time of the year that still very much has the potential to end seasons (just ask the San Francisco 49ers, who canceled minicamp after a series of injuries).
4. Josh Uche will be fun to watch in 2021
The Patriots invested considerable resources in their defensive edge this offseason, but one returnee actually stole the show during mandatory minicamp. Second-year man Josh Uche, who was unable to enjoy the benefits of offseason workouts last year, was a standout performer.
Chris Mason of MassLive wrote the following on Tuesday:
Josh Uche remains a force off the edge and could have picked up three sacks in team drills.
Uche has flashed his talents repeatedly during his injury-riddled 2020 campaign, but he appears to be a realistic candidate to make the famous second-year jump. Together with fellow defender Kyle Dugger and rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore, he appears to be a realistic candidate to turn into a cornerstone of New England’s defense for years to come.
5. Life goes on even without Stephon Gilmore
Even before the Patriots held their first drills on Monday, one thing stood out: star cornerback Stephon Gilmore was nowhere to be seen. An apparent hold-out entering the final year of his contract, Gilmore had already missed voluntary workouts in an attempt to get a new deal. It remains to be seen if he will be successful, but New England moved on without him over these last three days.
Unsurprisingly, J.C. Jackson took over a starting spot in the secondary. The other position, usually reserved for Gilmore, was handed to free agency addition Jalen Mills. Regardless of whether or not this was a reflection of his standing on the depth chart or of his limited experience in the system and need to learn — or, more realistically, both — Mills seems to have made the most out of his opportunities.
6. Isaiah Zuber is breathing down N’Keal Harry’s neck
The story appeared to be a familiar one for N’Keal Harry: he showed promise, then he got hurt.
Jeff Howe observed the following on the second day of minicamp:
Whenever he seems to build momentum in the offseason or training camp, he gets nicked up and misses time, so he can’t afford to miss the minicamp finale. Harry has slimmed down this offseason, too, no longer looking like a move-tight end, and he probably got leaner to reduce the wear and tear.
Harry was back on the practice fields on Wednesday, though, and seemed to not have skipped a beat. That is good news for him given that second-year man and former rookie free agent Isaiah Zuber is seemingly breathing down his neck. Zuber had some positive moments during open organized team activities and minicamp, and while still a tier below Harry in terms of rep quality, a lot can change during training camp and preseason.
7. Jakobi Meyers has a case for WR1
With offseason additions Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne still learning the ins and outs of the Patriots’ famously challenging offense, Jakobi Meyers showed that he has a case as the team’s number one wide receiver — at least until those two get up to speed. Meyers continued to be a reliable pass catcher during minicamp and alongside Agholor and Bourne seems to form the projected top-three at the moment.
8. The Patriots are using Vinnie Sunseri to coach running backs
Bill Belichick made an interesting statement during his Wednesday press conference: Vinnie Sunseri, listed as “Defensive Assistant” in the Patriots’ 2020 media guide, had been working with the running back group and position coach Ivan Fears.
“Ivan and Vinnie have worked hard with Damien [Harris],” Belichick said about the two coaches and the third-year running back.
Sunseri played safety during his brief NFL career, but he a) has spent time with the running backs this offseason and b) has some experience at the position from his high school days. Whether or not his employment during minicamp is a sign of a bigger role in the future, especially with Fears already 66 years old, or just him helping the backs read their defensive keys is not known.
It certainly will be interesting to watch his development heading into training camp and the preseason, though.
9. The offensive line is shaping up as expected
With Isaiah Wynn returning after skipping the voluntary portion of offseason workouts, the Patriots’ offensive line is starting to take an expected shape: Wynn will resume his role as the team’s left tackle, with offseason trade acquisition Trent Brown playing on the right side of the formation.
Add an interior offensive line consisting of guards Michael Onwenu and Shaq Mason, and center David Andrews, and you get the following projected starting lineup:
- LT Isaiah Wynn
- LG Michael Onwenu
- C David Andrews
- RG Shaq Mason
- RT Trent Brown
Ted Karras, who filled in for Mason on Tuesday, will be the top interior backup. No surprises there.
10. Kicker competition? What kicker competition?
Even though New England currently has three place kickers under contract, any other outcome than Nick Folk winning the battle would be a major surprise. Wednesday’s practice was further proof of that as ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss pointed out:
Nick Folk is as steady as they come. He was 3-for-3 on end-of-practice field goals from 40-50 yards, while Roberto Aguayo (hitting the left upright) and Quinn Nordin each were 2-of-3.
As opposed to most other positions on the roster, the kicking spot can already be evaluated at this time of the year: kickers do not have much scheme-related responsibility and are not all that impacted by the switch from no-contact to full-contact drills.
While undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin in particular showed his strong leg, Folk will earn him the job if he can keep up his reliable performances.
11. There is a lot we do not yet know about this team
While it is easy to draw conclusions based on spring practices, fans and reporters alike need to be careful not to read too much into them. As noted above, the focus is primarily on learning rather than competition, and on building team camaraderie and familiarity among the individual units. Completion percentages, interceptions and would-be sacks are nice statistics to recognize practice accomplishments, but they all have to be viewed in proper context.
Until the team puts on pads and performs in a more competitive setting than this week’s it is hard to speculate on depth charts and who may or may not make the roster. It will be done regardless — time is aplenty during the offseason — but don’t be surprised if a lot changes during the summer: the standouts of today can be the roster cuts of tomorrow, and vice versa.