The New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers returned to the fields behind Gillette Stadium on Wednesday for their second and final day of joint practices. The session looked a lot like the first, with tensions rising high yet again.
Make sure to check out Brian Hines’ practice recap if you haven’t yet. For everything else that transpired, let’s clean out the notebook.
Jalen Mills does not concern himself with the CB1 label. Bill Belichick won’t call him a No. 1 cornerback, and neither will the man in question himself: Jalen Mills pointed out after Wednesday’s session that he is not concerned with any labeling of his role on the Patriots’ current position depth chart.
Even though he looked very good going up against some talented competition the last two days with the Panthers, Mills’ focus continues to be on something else.
“I don’t really get into that,” he said after Wednesday’s session. “I think the biggest thing I try to focus on is playing my technique in and out, and when my number’s called just making plays for my team, for the guys depending on me.”
Mills originally joined the Patriots last offseason and spent his first year in the system as a starter opposite Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson. With Jackson having left for Los Angeles and the team in need of solidifying its starting lineup, the 28-year-old has stepped up.
Mills has played some impressive football all summer, and against the Panthers was the best defender on the field both days. Needless to say that he can feel good about the summer he is having.
“I think it’s going pretty well,” he said. “I still have a lot of things I can work on as far as press technique, off technique, zone technique as well. But that’s also what I have the guys around me for, guys like [Adrian Phillips] and Dev[in McCourty]. When they see certain things they can tell me certain ways I can play it, or the coaching staff as well.”
Practice apparently came close to being canceled. Just like Tuesday’s session, the one on Wednesday also saw a major fight break out. Shortly after Patriots wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson remained on the ground after absorbing a hard hit from Panthers safety Kenny Robinson on a kickoff drill, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey started a brawl that spilled into the stands.
Both Wise Jr. and McCaffrey were eventually ejected, as was Robinson (for the second time in two days). According to Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield, the joint session came close to being called off at that point.
“Coach Rhule was just saying that, ‘Any more fights, we’re canceling practice and we’ll go against each other. So let’s just not waste these opportunities to go against other competition and work on our craft,’” Mayfield said after the session. “You know it’s going to get chippy, we’re competing, but just be smart.”
No other issues came up, even though the Patriots were obviously not happy with the Panthers’ conduct especially in the immediate aftermath of the Wilkerson injury.
Devin McCourty reacts to losing Malcolm Butler and Joejuan Williams for the year. The Patriots lost two members of their cornerback depth chart this week, with Malcolm Butler and Joejuan Williams both being sent to injured reserved. With them joining the reserve list at this point in time, neither is eligible to be reactivated at a later point in the season.
After Wednesday’s practice, team captain Devin McCourty was asked his thoughts on the two veterans being forced to sit out the rest of the year.
“Tough. Malcolm’s kind of in my stratosphere of being older. Anytime you go through that it’s tough, mentally,” McCourty said. “Texted him the other day, just for all of us, him, Joejuan, being positive, always being there for those guys. Fortunately, I’ve never been on IR but the feeling of not always being around the team, the camaraderie, the brotherhood we’ve built, you kind of miss some of that.
“So, I think it’s important within your group to always stay in contact with those guys, encouraging those guys to come in, just to continue to get that feeling. Just talking to retired players, that’s what they miss the most, being able to walk into a locker room, just sitting around, hang out, laugh with the guys. Just trying to make sure those guys are always staying in the mix. Group chats and different things like that, we always try to create that and keep that going.”
Butler and Williams were no locks to make the Patriots’ roster and primarily running with the depth players at their position throughout camp. Nonetheless, their departure weakens the team’s depth and overall experience at the cornerback spot.
For Mac Jones, it’s all about eliminating bad plays. Even though it showed some promising development during its two days with the Panthers, the Patriots offense as a whole remains a work in progress. Nonetheless, quarterback Mac Jones is confident in the group’s direction and feels that only a few issues need to be fixed.
“I think there’s only a handful of bad plays,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “If you really know football, you can see there was only a handful of bad plays out here. You take away those bad plays, whatever it is — four or five a day — and then everyone’s saying it’s a great day.
“So, at the end of the day, we play each play as if it has a life of its own. Slot each play, and don’t look forward and don’t look back. But, at the same time, you want to make the adjustments like I talked about, and we definitely did that pretty well. You have to keep doing it and eliminate the really bad plays.”
The Patriots offense has had its fair share of bad plays this summer, with several falling into the “no chance” category. The number of those did go down compared to earlier training camp practices, but there were still several plays especially on Wednesday that saw Jones either get would-be sacked or simply toss the ball away without any real chance of a completion.
Matt Rhule is full of praise for Tyquan Thornton. Before joining the Panthers in 2020, Matt Rhule spent three years as head coach at Baylor — the final two of those working with Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton. On Wednesday, the two reunited again; Rhule now in Carolina and Thornton a rookie wide receiver with the Patriots.
After the session, the Panthers’ coach spoke about the 22-year-old and did not hold back with his praise.
“He’s an amazing football player and an even better person,” Rhule said. “The people in this community are going to love him. He’s going to play when he’s banged up and do whatever he can to help the team. I love him personally as a guy and he’s a great football player. He’s got a huge opportunity. He’ll get bigger and stronger and knowing him, he loves football.”
Spending his freshman and sophomore campaigns under Rhule, Thornton appeared in 27 games with 13 starts. He caught 65 passes for 1,136 yards and eight touchdowns. He spent two more years in school before entering the NFL Draft earlier this year.
The Patriots eventually traded up in the second round to bring the 6-foot-2, 185-pound speedster aboard.
Joe Cardona put on his second uniform after practice. The loyalties of Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona extend far beyond the gridiron; he also is part of another team, the U.S. Naval Reserve. Besides his football career, Cardona is currently serving as a Lieutenant and Wednesday was another reminder of that: