Training camp has finally arrived, which means that we will get our first extended look at the 2021 New England Patriots starting on Wednesday. Obviously, though, camp is a process, which means that the team as it presents itself right now will not be the one taking the field against the Miami Dolphins in early September.
Head coach Bill Belichick himself said as much during his pre-camp press conference call on Tuesday when speaking about the first few days of practice.
“Really this is a continuation of the spring,” he said. “It’s kind of like the minicamp days were. We’re obviously not in pads here for several days. The scheduling is pretty much what it was in the spring during that minicamp period. So we’ll really be continuing what we did there until next week and kind of turn the corner and get into a little different tempo in practice.”
Nevertheless, there will be plenty to watch and talk about during the early portion of training camp. When it comes to Day 1, here are three things we will keep a close eye on.
For the second year in a row, the Patriots are projected to have a competition at the most important position on the field. While incumbent Cam Newton still appears to be the frontrunner to earn the QB1 role, first-round rookie Mac Jones has looked very good during those spring practices open to the media. Accordingly, the two might very well fight for the QB1 job over the course of the summer.
Wednesday’s practice will not bring a decision, but it can give us some first hints about where the two passers are. The quality of reps might be an indication of their current standing on the depth chart, while their performance during team drills will be analyzed closely to see if one of them has a leg up on the other at the moment.
The race will become much more competitive once pads are put on, obviously. For now, however, a few questions can still be answered — from Newton’s comfort level within a new-look offense to whether or not Jones can carry over the momentum he built during offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp.
The Patriots invested considerable resources to rebuild their linebacker group over the last few years, with the additions of Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy this offseason expected to have a major impact on the group. Together with Dont’a Hightower, who is returning after his Covid-19 opt-out last season, they will form the heart of the unit.
The question is not just how those three will be used, though, but also how youngsters such as Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Chase Winovich will be employed. That is especially true considering that Van Noy will open camp on the physically unable to perform list. Will Uche replace him in the projected starting lineup? Will it be Winovich? Somebody else? Wednesday’s practice might provide us with some answers.
The same goes for the competition at the various spots. New England is deep on the edge, with Judon, Van Noy, Uche, Winovich and third-round rookie Ronnie Perkins all expected to be part of the rotation. As far as the off-the-ball group is concerned, however, there appears to be potential for some personnel changes compared to 2020.
Could players like Winovich or Uche move into more of a move linebacker role to also offer depth off the ball? Maybe we will get a first glimpse of that on Day 1 of camp.
The Patriots currently have 13 players on an injury-related reserve list — either PUP or NFI — and while most of them are expected to compete for little more than rotational roles this summer, some projected starters are also among them: the aforementioned Kyle Van Noy as well as cornerback Stephon Gilmore and offensive tackle Trent Brown.
All of them can come off at any point, but until they do their backups will be in the spotlight. At linebacker, players like Josh Uche or Chase Winovich are candidates to help fill Van Noy’s shoes.
As far as the cornerback position is concerned, we already have some indication based on Gilmore’s minicamp absence. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, after all, held out of minicamp in an apparent contract dispute. With him out, New England turned to free agency signing Jalen Mills to fill the starting spot perimeter opposite J.C. Jackson.
When it comes to Brown’s spot as the Patriots’ starting right tackle, Justin Herron might be the next man up come Wednesday’s practice. However, New England has plenty of tackles under contract and it would not be a surprise if some or all of them received their chances to prove their value — at least until the big-bodied veteran returns to the lineup.