As the time ticks closer for the Patriots to begin their 2021 season the chatter surrounding the team has focused on the new additions and the surprising surge of third year wide-receiver N’Keal Harry. There has been a lot of optimism coming from training camp practices and finally the opportunity to prove it true is here in the Thursday night showdown against the Washington Football Team. Fans have eagerly been waiting for the new season to kick off after the disappointing 7-9 campaign the team slogged through last year. The return of the COVID opt-outs, the free agency frenzy, a loaded draft class, and the progression of Cam in year two have fans eager for the season to start. In the meantime, the Pats will get into mid-season form with three preseason match ups and two rounds of joint practices, one each with the Giants and Eagles. Before that, here is a list of items to watch for in the first preseason match-up tomorrow night.
I. Cam Newton- To say the team and Newton were disappointed with the results of last season would be an understatement. Cam came out on fire at the beginning of the season with three strong performances before landing on the COVID-19 reserve list. Over the three-game stretch before contracting the virus, Newton was responsible for 863 all-purpose yards and 6 total touchdowns and only two turnovers- not bad production for player in his first year with the team and no preseason games under his belt. After returning from his stint on the reserve list, Newton cooled off dramatically. He seemed overwhelmed by the complexities of the offense as it sputtered for long stretches of the remainder of the season. Cam was pulled late in games in favor of Jarrett Stidham on multiple occasions. The season reached a low point in Miami when passing back James White began calling and setting the protections for the offense while he was on the field.
Newton didn’t only fade physically down the stretch but appeared more and more lost within the confines of the offensive design. He was often pressing to make big plays and forcing all aspects of his game. The Patriots offense is a schedule-based attack, staying ahead of the sticks and often living to play another down. For much of last year the offense was stuck in neutral and forcing plays down the field. In week 17 last year, Newton suddenly grasped the concept of checking down when downfield targets aren’t there and keeping the offense on tempo. For decades the offense made hay with check-downs to running backs and tightends, a concept that was missing for 15 games last season. In the clip below Newton hits the top of his drop, sees his downfield options are taken away and swings a pass to Michel in the right flat.
Not every check-down is going to result in this kind of catch and run, but it often gives your playmakers a chance to do something with the ball in their hands. Positive yards are always the goal of any offense, and the check-down is a vital part of that equation in the New England offense.
Newton will get limited snaps tomorrow night, but seeing him keep the offense on tempo and set his own protections will say a ton for his progression within the New England system. If he continues to struggle pre-snap and identifying his spots after, the competition between him and Mac is only going to get louder. Speaking of which….
II. Mac Jones- From all accounts coming out from practice, Mac has looked like the real deal. He is not the athletic specimen that a Cam or Lamar or Trey Lance is but New England has had plenty of success with QB’s rocking dad bods. Mac hasn’t been immune to rookie mistakes in practice but he has been quick to learn from the coaching points and has avoided making the same mistake on repeated occasions. He has a good grasp of the playbook and has been more than adequate in setting his protections and identifying his hot reads before the snap. Essentially, for everything Cam was last year, Mac has not been in training camp.
Being a successful practice player and successful game player are two completely different things at any level of the sport. He needs to continue his positive momentum when the bullets start flying Thursday night. The goal for Mac should be keeping the offense on schedule, taking what the defense gives him, and not making a costly mistake. Sound familiar Patriots fans? The Pats will win games with Mac at the helm if this is how he plays. Mac has been confident in the pocket, often hitting his receivers at the top of his drop and leading them into run-after-the-catch situations. There have not been many reports of him putting his receivers in a bad spot or leading them into contact. Someone else did that for a while here…
In continuing with those comparisons, Mac is a cerebral player, not one who is going to dominate someone with other-worldly physical traits. His pocket movements have been small and nuanced, sliding away from pressure while keeping his eyes down field. If he can continue that trend when the hits are going to be real, it will go a long way to putting him firmly into the starter competition discussion.
Mac has been proficient in working through his reads. Often a rookie will stare down his first read and force the ball there regardless of what the coverage is giving him. Veteran defensive backs live for these match ups as it is easy to bait a young guy into those throws. When Brady was serving his four-game suspension for Chris Mortensen’s false reporting, it became apparent Garoppolo was a legit talent at QB in his second game as starter.
Seeing any play like this one, where Mac looks off the single high safety and works to a tertiary read on the backside of the play design will be telling for just how far along he is as a cerebral QB. He doesn’t need to do this every play, but having one or two throws like this tomorrow night will answer a lot of questions for the coaching staff and front office.
III. Christian Barmore- Viewed by many as a steal in the second round, Barmore has also been stringing together impressive performance after impressive performance at practice. He has been an absolute bear for the offensive linemen to handle in one-on-one pass rush drills and his obvious natural ability has popped on the practice field. He has “heavy-hands”- a good thing for a defensive lineman but not for a receiver- meaning his initial punch and lift coming out of his stance often gets the offensive lineman off balanced and moving backwards. It’s easy for certain position groups to shine in one-on-one position drills so it will bear watching to see if Barmore can continue to be as disruptive tomorrow night as he has been in practice. Getting a stud in the middle of the defensive line will be icing on the cake for a defensive front that is already oozing with talent.
IV. Ronnie Perkins- Continuing with the rookie theme the young linebacker from Oklahoma has provided an occasional splash play in practice. Also viewed as a teal in the third round, after dropping due to character concerns, Perkins will have to string together some very strong preseason performances to have a shot at being a gameday active this season. The Patriots are not afraid to let their young linebackers sit a season (Winovich and Jennings are recent examples) before expecting them to become key role players. The front seven is loaded with talent and experience, to earn consistent playing time Perkins is going to have to be consistent and disruptive. He already faces an uphill battle for playing time and Winovich, the Patriots most disruptive pass rusher a season ago, is yet to be activated off the PUP list. Perkins’ college coaches often mention his constant hustle and heart when discussing his game. Winovich received much of the same praise coming out of Michigan. While Belichick appreciates constant effort, he is more concerned that that effort is being funneled towards doing your assigned job and not trying to make every play. Watch for Perkins effort but also his ability to do his job consistently against a live opponent.
V. N’Keal Harry- It wasn’t too long ago that New England faithful were ready to drive him to the airport for a trade for a bag of used balls. In fact, Harry and his agent formally requested a trade on social media about a week before camp officially begun. Since the start of camp Harry has been a completely different player then his first two years in the league. He has been quick in and out of his cuts, explosive off the line, and catching almost everything thrown his way. N’Keal has never been a burner or even that great of a separator at the position dating back to his college days. What he is, is a circus catch machine and a run after the catch monster. A lot of his production is going to come from schemed plays that allow him to make plays after getting the ball in his hands and on throws where he isn’t necessarily “open.” That second part will only materialize if the QB trusts him to come down with the ball in a 50/50 toss. You build that trust in practice and by continuing to make those plays in games. N’Keal has gotten off to good starts in camp the last two years before injuries sidelined him and his positive momentum was stunted. Look for Harry to make some circus grabs tomorrow but more importantly, to stay healthy.
VI. Quin Nordin- The undrafted kicker out of Michigan was known for his leg in his college days and has maintained that reputation through his first training camp. What he wasn’t known for was his accuracy. His first few practices continued that trend, often booming kicks with jaw dropping power but not often sending them exactly where he wanted-similar to early reports of Jake Bailey during his rookie season. However, in the Gillette stadium practices Nordin has been accurate from distance and closer. He has made kicks from 57 (!!!) yards consistently when presented with the opportunity. The Pats gave Nick Folk a decent amount of money to stay around this season, the kind of contract that says “you’re our guy.” For Nordin to unseat Folk (and to continue the Pats streak of having an undrafted rookie on the roster week 1) he’ll have to be perfect in his opportunities in games.
VII. Health-The most important aspect of every preseason is keeping players healthy. Nothing is more devastating than losing a key player in an ultimately meaningless preseason exhibition. Even little knicks and dings to bubble players can be disastrous to their chances of making the team while any major injury is completely undesired.
Have fun watching the game tomorrow night! Hopefully the team stays healthy and can put together some exciting progress in live action. Hopefully your camp crush makes a few plays too!