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Summary from the Final Week of Camp
The context clues from the preseason finale suggested Cam Newton had won the Week 1 job. Newton played just two possessions, while Mac Jones was “auditioned” into the second half, which tends to speak volumes. Of course, it didn’t mean anything as Newton was released on Tuesday. Bill Belichick must have loved what he’s seen of his rookie throughout the summer. Jones certainly had the support of longtime beat writers like NBC’s Tom Curran before Belichick made it official. “There’s no on-field reason for Newton to ever take a meaningful, regular-season snap for the Patriots while Jones is upright and able,” Curran opined last week. According to Curran, Jones “turned out the light” on the debate by looking “absurdly effective” in joint practices with the Giants while Newton looked on.
For the first time in what feels like decades, Bill Belichick has provided the world with a bit of clarity in his backfield. The Sony Michel trade appears to set up clear roles for Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and pass-game specialist James White. The one-dimensional Michel was redundant, with Harris and Stevenson showing so well between the tackles. For his part, Stevenson seems to have taken early criticism from running backs coach Ivan Fears to heart. He’s looked dominant in preseason action, with a power and speed blend capable of both big plays and hard-nosed interior grinding. Still, Harris looks poised to pace the backfield for as long as he can stay healthy. Patriots.com’s Erik Scalavino figures he’ll “almost assuredly see the majority of carries, at least early on in the season.” Reserve J.J. Taylor is an interesting case: he’s hung around the practice squad and roster and drawn glowing praise from Coach Fears. The fact that he’s in the running for the punt-return job likely locks him in, but stranger things have happened – especially with core Belichick special-teamer Brandon Bolden around. Taylor dazzled in the preseason finale.
The Patriots barely used Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor in the preseason finale, then pulled both from the game early. Meyers says he learned extensively under Julian Edelman and seems comfortable in the slot, where he could conceivably draw an Edelman-like number of targets. Agholor is more of an unknown who underwhelmed for five years before parlaying a mediocre 2020 into this contract. Early-camp reviews were glowing, but he’s missed chunks of practice with injuries since then. It shouldn’t surprise to see Meyers pace this group as he did for most of 2020 when he averaged 60 yards from Week 6 on with a 26% target share. The new-look Patriots don’t throw much to their wideouts, so the threadbare depth isn’t a priority. Kendrick Bourne is most prized for his fundamentals and blocking, while Matthew Slater and Gunner Olszewski are primarily special-teamers.
The crown jewel additions in free agency, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, have predictably bounced on and off the field with injuries. Both, however, are poised to suit up for Week 1. Henry is back at practice, albeit in a red non-contact jersey and shoulder brace. With Henry watching from the sidelines for much of August, Smith made splash plays of all kinds; he’s earned the No. 1 role. The athletic Devin Asiasi should be the No. 3.
The Patriots are reinventing themselves centered on the defense. “Let’s get real,” Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald wrote last week. “The fate of the 2021 Patriots rests largely on [defense]… And that’s going to be the Patriots meal ticket going forward.” To that end, Coach Belichick is back to building versatile units and using them creatively. He’s assembled a batch of versatile playmakers that can shift around to cause havoc. Matthew Judon looks like the steal of the free-agent class. But the shiniest star is probably cornerback J.C. Jackson, fresh off a breakout 2020 and an offseason that saw his peers use terms like “ballhawk,” “really impressive,” and “truly special.” He may even prove to make the great Stephon Gilmore expendable.
Gunner Olszewski was named the league's All-Pro returner by the Associated Press last year and should be a lock to handle the role again in 2021.
Summary from Week 3 of Camp
Mac Jones continues to assert himself into a full-blown quarterback competition. Cam Newton is the likely Week 1 starter; he followed up a strong week of practice with a great showing in Thursday’s 35-0 win over the Eagles. Jones entered in the second quarter and promptly led three long touchdown drives of his own. The rookie has steadily improved since the start of camp, according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. Howe sees “a looming opportunity” for Jones to claim more starter snaps. This week’s joint practices with the Giants to will better illustrate whether Jones has a shot at pushing Newton for an early role. Newton claims coach Bill Belichick hasn’t even tipped his quarterback plans to him. "You know the answer to that question,” Newton said when asked if he was the presumed starter. “You know he hasn't said that.”
The backfield will always be a committee under this regime. Against the Eagles, both Damien Harris and Sony Michel ran with the first team. Rhamondre Stevenson and J.J. Taylor were given extensive looks in the second half. Scatback Taylor’s roster spot looked secure as the primary kick returner even before he racked up 111 yards from scrimmage Thursday night. The drama lies in whether Stevenson can unseat the fragile, plodding Michel as the No. 2. Early results have been wildly positive; Stevenson averages 8.5 yards-per-carry and has scored three touchdowns in the preseason. The rookie is “more comfortable, more confident, playing faster” as camp has gone on. Michel’s roster chances have been a topic of much debate. It’s probably a good sign he hasn’t played much in the games, and most beat writers’ roster projections keep him around. But Stevenson is doing a fine job of shortening the leash. Harris appears locked into the lead role; he also hasn’t played many full-contact snaps.