Letters from Patriots Camp 2021: Volume 2

As you can see, on Day 3 of Patriots camp, the crowds are back to full capacity of the glory days, after being about 75-80% over the first couple of days. Which is not only welcome after the place looked like "I Am Legend" last year, it gives lie to what I read a couple of days ago, that the smaller crowd was evidence of a "Brady Factor." Like New England had lost interest and found Pats Fan Life no longer worth living without him. When the real factors keeping people away were actually the evidence of factors such as "Wednesday," "Thursday" and "Monsoon Season." So let this be a reminder there hasn't been an unsold seat to a Pats home game since Mr. Kraft bought the team and Brady was in high school. And that everyone who thought the whole region would abandon pro football and spend our Fall weekends apple picking, leaf peeping and looking at covered bridges like we're Robert Frost can shove it up their Pumpkin Spiced decorative Indian corn-holes.  

--You can also tell it was a perfect day for midsummer football. The kind of warm, sunny morning where you can easily work up a sweat, get your heart pounding and your heavy breathing going. And by "you" I mean the fat guys in Vince Wilfork jerseys staking out a spot on the hill.

--This was another day where the squads were limited to helmets and shorts. Once again making it hard to get any sort of evaluation on anything beyond the passing game, on both sides of the ball. And even with that, there were plenty of drills where the cornerbacks were hampered by big pads on their hands that look like a cross between oven mitts and the round blocks Danny LaRusso used to sand-a the floor of Miyagi Do. Which if fine. The main event on this particular card is Cam vs. Mac: The Palindrome War. The undercard is the new tight ends and receivers. And the rest of the preliminary bouts can wait until the team goes full pads some time next week. 

--And as far at the headline attraction went, I'm giving my judge's card to Mac Jones. By all accounts on Thursday, Jones took the early rounds, but then Cam Newton finished with a flourish, making some great throws in his final few attempts and winning the decision. And Jones was visibly cheesed off about a string of mistakes he made in his last reps. Though to be fair, it came out later that they had him working on some things for the first time and his mental boo-boos were a part of the learning process. Again, this is a team built on allowing errors, but not error-repeaters. And my dreamy but imperfect eyes didn't see many repeated errors out of the rookie. 

--Generally speaking, when Jones misses someone, he's erring on the side of caution. Leading a receiver slightly too far when he's got a defender on his hip. Or throwing it a bit too far outside on an out-breaking route. But almost without exception, keeping it away from the coverage. When he makes a decision, it's quick and efficient and the ball comes out without hesitation. Just as impressively, when he does have to go through progressions, his footwork is impeccable, with a solid base that keeps him in a position to release the ball without his balance thrown off the way some QBs do, like he's trying to beat the runner from behind the second base bag or something. For example, in one 7-on-7 goal line drill, he quickly found Nelson Agholor on a crosser for the score. On the next snap, he got pressured, protected the ball, no one came open as he scanned the field back and forth like a lawn sprinkler before leading his target a half step too much and it went off his fingertips. Two different sorts of plays, one with a positive result and the other a harmless outcome. But if they both came on 3rd down, the team would be walking away with 10 points instead of 7 and a disaster. 

--Newton flashed as well. As he and Jones alternated from one snap to the next in (forgive my cisgender nouns) boy/girl/boy/girl in 11-on-11 red zone snaps, he hit N'Keal Harry in the endzone one play and then Jonnu Smith on the next. Later in 7s, he hit Gunner Olszewski twice in a row, one with a beautiful dart at the boundary in the end zone, and another at the goal line as he stepped underneath coverage from JC Jackson. The problem with Newton is that, with over a year in the system, he still does things that make you go "Hmm."  A bad overthrow of Nelson Agholor, who had gotten behind the safety on a post route. That was followed by a ball batted by Tashawn Bower at the line. And later a pass that landed at the 2, no closer to any receiver than Matt Damon was in "The Martian." Later he went deep to Agholor for a completion that would've been an OPI in any actual game because Newton seemed to lead him into the defensive backs outside leverage. Then toward the later stages of practice, he missed two receivers breaking into the flat in a levels concept and then he and about five other offensive teammates dropped and did push ups. 

--Take anything I say through the filter of a guy who has wanted the Pats to get Jones since about halfway through his last season at Alabama and predicted they'd draft him. So I'm not objective in this, I admit it. And maybe I'm guilty of grading them on different curves. That's fair. But in the times I've seen them on the field together, it just looks like they are either even on the judge's card or Jones is slightly ahead. And given that Newton has Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours more experience in Josh McDaniels' McOffense, if it's at all close at this point, it should tell us that Jones is simply the better quarterback. A better system fit, anyway. And if he's at all got the temperament and leadership and command of the huddle and all that other intangible stuff, the job should be his. 

And it sounds like he has those thing:

While we're talking Hip Hop, the one song played at this workout was Young Jeezy's "Thug Motivation 101." So maybe Jones got top pick that one? 

--Another thing about Jones is that McDaniels is always on his shoulder like the tiny Devil Jerry that tells me one extra shot of Fireball won't kill me. Late in the practice Thursday, the coach gave him a weapons grade chewing out. Which makes me more confident in my theory the coaches are giving him a trial by fire. A fraternity hazing in which he's going to be sent through the hot oven and not just babied. And I think it speaks volumes that when post practice interviews were being lined up outside the media tent, the announcement was made that Brian Hoyer would be there, Newton would be there, and they would have to see about Jones because he usually does a ton of extra throwing after practice. Me: 

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--Jones best throws were nothing short of brilliant. In 11-on-11s he drilled one in to Agholor perfectly in stride on a deep slant. Followed that with a precision drop-in-the-bucket over the defender to Kendrick Bourne in the corner of the end zone. And his best moment was a deep laser-guided missile to Olszewski that he hand-caught just outside the numbers. When he subsequently couldn't connect with Jonnu Smith who was in tight coverage up the sidelines, he kicked the dirt in frustration. Which probably meant even more extra throws after everyone else left. So yeah, it's fair to say I'm into the kid. 

--Circling back to the media, I was standing at the entrance to the press area talking to a security guard I know when someone without credentials but with a colored wrist band almost walked in. And the guard said to him, "VIP section? Yeah, it's over there." So from the top to the bottom, this organization gets that the media is the UIP section. I wouldn't have it any other way. 

--Among the skill position guys, Harry made a nice catch or two, but nothing along the lines of the highlight reel plays he made Wednesday. The guy who stands out most right now is Agholor who, in addition to the aforementioned deep slant he caught, elevated in the back of the end zone to grab a bullet from Newton and hauled in a crosser from Jones while wearing a defender like a meat suit. He's got a reputation for super duper dropsies, but so far he's hauled in everything he should have and gotten his hands on some balls he had almost no chance at touching. 

--Hunter Henry stands out too. He high pointed a ball in individual drills, came down with it, and spiked it. Hard. I don't know if I'm emotionally ready for this yet. But there is a void in my soul shaped like a tight end who high points and slams balls into the turf. And while I'm not ready to make a commitment yet, maybe, just maybe he can be the guy to fill it. 

--Jonnu Smith gets a huge reaction from the crowd every time he touches the ball. As does Jakobi Meyers. Smith on the promise he shows, I guess. And maybe for his pretty impressive interview game so far:

And Meyers for the obvious reason that he was a quarterback at NC State, went undrafted, was forced into the WR1 role by default and ran circles around Harry last year. You can tell the public is not ready for him to get shipped down the depth chart by Agholor and Bourne, no matter how likely that's the scenario playing out.

--I love this stuff about Smith talking about a "Boston TE Party" and Henry talking like this:

--The more Harry is doing everything you can ask of him: putting in his work, playing well and saying nothing, the more you realize his agent did him no favors popping off the way he did. Apparently he assumed that this Dynasty was built on giving players opportunities because their paid representatives would really like to see it happen? 

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--With all due respect, Hoyer is to Pats practice what the Zamboni is to a hockey game. When he takes over with the bubble roster guys, it's time for a beer and a leak. 

--Fifth string QB Jake Dolegala only ran individual drills with a handful of receivers. Which I suppose just meant more reps for the other three. But it's a terrible look for Jarrett Stidham that he's missed all three workouts with his career on the line. Watching a second year man out of Central Connecticut State pass you on the depth chart in your third season is not what you expect when you sign your letter of intent to Baylor or transfer to Auburn. 

--Ted Karras limped off the field. But it was under his own power and it sort of looked like he dodged a bullet after a scary moment or two before he got to his feet. 

--Overall, for practices as limited as these are, there's a lot to unpack. And that's a great thing. The energy is high. Newton was screaming at the top of his lungs while they ran from one drill to the next. And from the stands to the field to the interview areas where they set up these big wooden backdrops that look like giant Stratego pieces, there's just a generally positive vibe as we further transition into a post Brady, post Gronk, post Julian Edelman world. If nothing else, at least no one's talking about who's miserable because their business partner isn't allowed on the team plane and how soon they're going to leave once the season is over. So on a spectacular day in late July, let's count that blessing at least.