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Letters from Patriots Camp 2021: Volume 1

And so begins another season. A journey that began with my brother Jack and me visiting Patriots training camps at Bryant College in Smithfield, RI in the 1990s, then evolved into taking my sons to the practice field in Foxboro because it's the rarest of all things, a way to entertain kids that doesn't cost anything, is now a career. Even with the NFL still limiting access, it's media credentials and working from the Gillette press box. Overlooking the site of my school's graduation. 

Only in America. 

Anyway, enough of my self-reflection. It's a new season. And a pivotal one. The stakes at this year's camp are as high as they have ever been. In the Dynasty Era or before. 

Last year's camp was an anomaly. A transition year that never got the chance to transition due to an offseason lost to quarantines and opt outs, free agent losses and salary cap prison. This camp is the culmination of an offseason marked by a free agent spending spree that made an oil baron's shopping trip in Milan look like a trip to Dollar General. Plus key veterans returning. And a draft that landed them the exact quarterback they wanted, as well as others they'd targeted. So the stakes are high on this one. There are jobs to be earned.  A new face of the franchise to groom. And new layers at every level on both sides of the ball that have to be fully integrated into the system. It's going to be perhaps the greatest test a Pats coaching staff has ever faced. And fascinating to watch it play out. 

With that as preamble, here are some random observations from Day 1:

--As Belichick promised yesterday, the start of camp was very much a continuation of spring practices. In the way that "Incredibles 2" picked up exactly where the first one ended, even though there was like 15 years between them, there didn't appear to be any backstory or "Previously at Patriots practice... " scenes. Almost this entire first session consisted of red zone work, both in 7-on-7s and full squads, alternating with the ubiquitous special teams run-throughs and position drills. 

--Among the missing was Jarrett Stidham who, along with Stephon Gilmore, Chase Winovich, Dalton Keene and few others, starts the year on the PUP list. With Mac Jones, Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer splitting the reps more or less equally, Stidham isn't doing his chances of extending his Pats career to a third year any favors by being out. But then, if Simone Biles has to be a (physically) healthy scratch from the sport she dominates, maybe everyone gets some slack. 

--As far as the question on everyone's mind, which is actually pretty much questions 1 through n - 1, ,with n representing infinity, which is "Who looked better, Cam or Mac," the answer from today would be Mac. For sure he had the crowd behind him:

Not just when he took the field about 10 full minutes before the rest of the team, but most times he connected on a throw or ran anywhere near the stands (which were about 75% filled on a rainy Wednesday morning), the fans let him hear it. Which makes you realize Newton has been with this team since June of 2020. Through a training camp, an entire season and spring practices, and today was the first time he's ever played in front of a single Pats fan, except for the few who showed up for road games. What having them cheer for the new guy is like for him is anyone's guess. But if he's going to win the mob over to his side like Maximus, the time to start is now.

--And Newton was good. Ish. His arm looks stronger. He got more on his throws with less of that full body shotput heave like we saw at times last year. But still, Jones has a quicker, smoother release, with less effort and more snap to it. 

--Newton and Jones played primarily with the first unit, while Hoyer took his reps with the depth guys. Though Newton took snaps from David Andrews, while Jones lined up behind James Ferentz, if that means anything. Also for what it's worth, Newton led off every set, with Jones subbing in after. 

--They not only ran exclusively red zone drills, every formation was a variation on 11-personnel, with one back and one tight end, though the tight ends often split out into a balanced four man spread. At least that is what it looked like to my vision corrected eyes. Belichick, in what I'll assume was his way of flipping the State Bird of Massachusetts to the media horde, ran a lot of his offense down the far end of the field, away from the media area. Especially during the portion where they were allowed to take video. I don't know how to operate a TV camera, but to these progressive lenses, it looked so far that Chris Kyle couldn't have gotten a decent shot. 

--Newton's best throws were a laser to Kristian Wilkerson along the back line in 7-on-7s and a connection to Kendrick Bourne in the back corner. Unofficially (and it's practice so how official can it be?) he completed about half his throws. He had one pass broken up by Adrian Phillips defending Hunter Henry on a curl route. And he threw two picks, one of which was off target behind Matt LaCosse for the easy pick. The other bounced off James White and was caught by Raekwon McMillan, who was right there in off coverage. White immediately made the veteran move of putting his head down and running a lap. Which the crowd responded to with the biggest cheer of the day, and Matt Patricia's old team responded to by filing a grievance with the NFLPA. Expect a league investigation and a loss of draft picks coming any day now. 

--Jones also completed more or less half his passes, with some outstanding throws among them. Including (though not limited to) a couple of perfect touchdowns that hit guys in stride just inside the boundary. One to Bourne, whose momentum took him onto the next field where he kicked a pylon and shouted to the clouds (Note: This guy is going to be a blast), and another to current roster bubble resident Marvin Hall. A good percentage of Jones' misses were the good variety. At least the acceptable kind. On a flat route down by the end zone, he led JJ Taylor too much and at 5-feet-6, his dive couldn't reach it. But he Taylor had tight coverage on him in trail technique. And the coaching point there should always be to err on the side of leading the receiver too much rather not enough, as we're reminded by every analyst every time there's a long pick-6. 

--And another quality miss came when Jones threw it away under the goal posts when he was facing pressure up the middle. Later he hit Sony Michel on a little crosser under similar pressure. Which confirms something I was convinced of in OTAs: That Belichick is putting his thumb on the scale when it comes to the rookie. Which is to say, Jones faces pressure the other QBs can't. With the players unpadded, there's no way to block pass rushers without the coaches telling them not to rush. (Short of implementing a "1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi" rule, which I think was banned by the last CBA.) I think the coaches are throwing extra rushers the other QBs don't face. For instance, Newton connected with Brandon Bolden on a play where he had enough time to smoke a brisket. Whereas Jones is being forced to get the ball out faster. And this is a good thing. 

--And Jones' best throw came against just such pressure. It was a second reaction play in which he had to step up and away from a rusher and found Gunner Olzsewski scraping along the back line for a hookup that was sexier than anything on this season of "Love Island." Usually I hope that the guys with the difficult-to-spell names get released from camp early. But I'm glad that they released Devin Smith yesterday and in his third camp, I can type Olzsewski on the first try. 

--As for Hoyer … Oh, who cares. I almost passed out from boredom deciding where to go with that sentence. Moving on …

--There's one name I haven't mentioned. Not because he didn't do anything, but because he did. And he deserves his own paragraph for it. N'Keal Harry is fighting for his Patriots career life, and he went a long way toward saving it. He had a diving catch of a Newton pass in the corner of the end zone that was worthy of a Web Gem. And high pointed a Jones pass over Joejuan Williams, who is 6-foot-3. Which is exactly the kind of catch that was supposed to be his patented move - the Stink Face to his Rishiki - but it's been in short supply over the last two years. In the battle for limited wide receiver spots behind Nelson Agholor (who added a TD off a Jones pass after shaking coverage from Justin Bethel), Bourne, Olzsewski and Jakobi Meyers, Harry and Wilkerson helped themselves. Isaiah Zuber, who stood out so much in the spring, had a drop on an easy crossing route and did nothing else to distinguish himself. There will be a lot of asses fighting for very few chairs when that music stops. 

--Be forewarned: The Patriots have tackling dummies they have added arms to. Which might not sound like a big deal. But when the Olympics has robots doing everything including shooting baskets, it's just a matter of time before they add hands, legs, feet and brains to these things and we are the architects of our own doom. 

--Unlike OTAs when there was a lot of music, we got just a short interlude of Geezer Rock. Basically the stuff that comes out of every work truck idling next to you at a red light. AC/DC, GnR and Aerosmith. The FM Classic Rock gamut, from A to B. The lack of Hip Hop tells me Mr. Kraft was not in the facility, because that's his jam. 

--I'd love to have more assessment of the defense, but in a practice like this, there's not much to add other than who defensed what pass. I mean, Henry Anderson batted down a ball at the line. And Kyle Van Noy was moving well for a guy sporting a red, no-contact jersey. And the defensive backs ran an interesting goal line drill where they took outside leverage and worked on coming underneath/in front of the receiver. Then reversed it from inside-to-out. But at this stage the front-7 are not much more than kids in the school play who play the snowman or the tree and don't get any lines. Not until the pads come on, which is expected to be the middle of next week. 

--So in the grand scheme of things, in what really matters, which is The Palindrome War, Jones won this skirmish. But he's still a rookie. Which on this team means the victor doesn't get the spoils. He still had to carry Newton's helmet.

Lord help me, I love this so. It's good to be back.