Letters from Patriots Camp 2021: Volume 3
Today was the first padded practice of the year for the Patriots. And there wasn't a hot buttered chance in Hell I wasn't going to be there for it. There's only so much that can be gleaned from guys in helmets and shorts simulating actual football. It was finally time for a ... well, an actual simulation of actual football. So I was on the job. In more ways than one. Let's get right to the highlight of camp so far. If not the highlight of the whole 2021 offseason:
As far as we know, there's no video of it, because it all happened so fast. The Patriots may have footage, but I'm told if they do, Belichick is going to need it as a coaching point for all his skill position players, on both sides of the ball. Just know I'm willing to give up my body for the greater good of the team and of Barstool.
--Now to get to the second biggest dynamic of camp, it was a tough day for Mac Jones. A day after being clearly better than Cam Newton - and after we learned he did an impression of Newton in the obligatory rookie skits - he did a spot on impression of Newton in practice. Which is to say, 2020 Newton in one of those games where he got benched. He threw his first pick of camp, when Ju'Whaun Bentley dropped into coverage from the backside to take a ball away from Jonnu Smith. And he had one dropped by Anfernee Jennings on a quick slant attempt. Another went off Hunter Henry's hands, which you can forgive because it was on a drill practicing deep throws against bracket coverage. Though the intermediate middle of the field was where he struggled the most. And he went just 1-for-6 in 11-on-11s. Overall it was a setback day for the kid and he's going to need to bounce back.
--As for Newton, it was the best I've seen him in the half dozen or so practices I've been to since the spring. He was more accurate. Had some velocity on his pitches. And put some touch on his passes, even when he was on the move, which is something that was rarer than Steak Tartare last year. Like the designed rollout to the right that came back across to Smith on the backside flat. Which seems simple enough, but was in short supply in 2020. He connected with Nelson Agholor with a deep pass to Nelson Agholor on a flag route over Cody Davis that was Gal Gadot-level gorgeous. It wasn't perfect. Early on his almost got picked by Kyle Dugger once and by Jalen Mills another time. Then got PBU'ed by Jonathan Jones in who had position on Tre Nixon. But he connected with N'Keal Harry (who's having a camp for himself) over Joejuan Williams (who isn't), and threw a perfect laser to Hunter Henry. Overall he was 11-for-18 in 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s and clearly Carped the Diem.
--Another thing that made this one unique was that the Patriots brought in a team of officials. Presumably so that Belichick could practice verbally and emotionally abusing them in preparation for when it counts. For their part, the officials are not ready for the season yet, either. On Newton's best play of camp so far, he hit Agholor for about 50 yards in the end zone, and they called it out of bounds. Newton came running the length of the field pointing to the cleat marks and pantomiming that he wanted them to go under the replay hood, but after no further review, the call on the practice field stood. If they had been in midseason form, they would've spent 20 minutes on it while Tony Romo ran out of ways to describe the replay and said "Ooohhh, I dunno, Jim!" 30 times.
--The first sign this was going to be a special day was the helicopter that buzzed me in the parking lot and landed on the practice field. And this was no cheapo local TV traffic copter. This thing was approximately the size of one of those Chinooks they use to carry Army jeeps and carried an even more impressive cargo: Mr. Kraft. Honestly, can you even claim you've made it in this world if you don't own your own helicopter like you're Batman? That was another moment that happened too fast to capture on video. But trust me, the day I'm disembarking from a tricked out chopper on the fields behind Gillette, you all have my permission to roll cameras. I'll even do extra takes if need be.
--The quarterbacks will always be the headline story of this camp. But the reason it was important to see this practice was the chance to see the other positions who've been pretty much going through the motions all this time. Without a doubt, the offense had a huge advantage today. Maybe due to the fact that defenses need to reacclimate to hitting and tackling or something, but the offense dominated. Particularly in the run game.
--Early on Sony Michel burst through a hole made by Michael Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn on the left side that would've been a chunk play if they continued it. Then on back-to-back reps, Michel and then Damien Harris each hit the right side B gap behind Shaq Mason for big gains. And while he had a small sample size, Rhamondre Stevenson looks every bit of his 246 pounds, but doesn't run like it. On one off tackle run, he slipped a tackle, bounced it outside and got around the corner for like 20 yards while the crowd went bonkers. Joint practices and preseason Fauxball games will mean a million times more. But so far so good on the running game this team is going to need in order to put fear into anyone's heart.
--Another rookie who stood out was Christian Barmore, playing at left defensive end in a 3-4 front. I'll confess I didn't see a ton of him there. But what I did see was him putting backup O-lineman Korey Cunningham (6-foot-6, 311 pounds) on his earhole. Which I take as a good sign. He was drafted mainly for his ability to get penetration from the interior of the line, so it'll be interesting if they keep trying him outside in that 5-tech left spot that Ty Warren occupied through a couple of championships.
--The third drafted rookie Ronnie Perkins saw a lot of reps in the special teams units as they ran full speed punt returns. But when he's been on the defense, he's spent time in the offense's backfield:
Though if he got in there today (along with his deplorable potty mouth), I didn't catch it. What I did catch (along with that missed field goal attempt, in case you've already forgotten my heroics) along with everyone else was Perkins staying on the field to get some personal coaching from Tedy Bruschi. It's hard to imagine anyone more suited to mentor a young, versatile linebacker in this system than the Miyagi he's got.
--Two others who stuck around for a good talking to were Newton and Jones, who held a confab with Josh McDaniels, who seemed to be doing all the talking. I'd pay good money to hear what he had to say. But I'm saving my funds for a copy of Jones doing his Frank Caliendo job on Newton.
--I think the main focus of this practice was to bring intensity. Something I gleaned from a coaches voice booming above both fields that said "BRING INTENSITY!!!" Which came minutes after Belichick started the proceedings by huddling everyone on the roster around him for a pep talk. Then they broke into position groups for individual drills. The linemen hit the blocking sled. The receivers worked on getting off the line of scrimmage against an assistant wielding those giant arm pads they use to train K-9 dogs with. Gunner Olszewski fielded punts from the Juggs machine. Then the receivers slalomed around cones set up in a straight line to work on using footwork to run off a defender before they get into their brakes. And just to remind Jake Doleaga that he is, in fact, still at the bottom of the QB depth chart, they had him throwing to the defensive backs to help them work on interceptions. I mention that just in case Tim Tebow is looking for work once his tight end career ends in a couple of weeks. No one threw a nicer interception than him.
--One new wrinkle they've added to the practice field is a windsock, the big kind like you see at airports. Today is was at about half erect, making it still smaller than Brandon Spikes old Chat Roulette video.
--Scheme wise, we saw a lot of what we should expect in the regular season, with a base of 22-personnel, mainly with Agholor and Bourne on the outside and Harry, Olszewski, Jakobi Meyers, Kristian Wilkerson alternating through. For their part, Meyers looks more and more like he's turning himself into a nightmare to cover in between the hashmarks, with his precision route-running and the footwork of a "Dancing with the Stars" cast member. While Wilkerson added another nice touchdown in the back corner of the end zone on a throw from Newton, which is something he seems to be doing every time you see him. There won't be a lot of roster spots for wideouts, so seeing how that depth chart works out will be one of the biggest stories in late August.
--Of course, now that everyone vying for those limited jobs has seen how to catch a ball courtesy of your old pal Old Balls, they know what's expected of them.