Although the Patriots began Training Camp last week, the message from the top down in Foxboro was that the real football starts when padded practices begin on Monday.
From the play in the trenches to more physical coverage in the secondary, it's important to take any takeaways from non-padded sessions with a grain of salt. With that said, real football is here, as are the real observations that will provide insight into what we may see come the fall.
The Patriots defense had the upper hand during full team drills in the first four Training Camp sessions. However, in those 11-on-11 periods, there wasn't a running game threat, and the offensive line was at a disadvantage in pass protection with oven-mitt-like pads on their hands.
The oven mitts are a good way to stress footwork, communication, and coach holding penalties out of their linemen. But it's much harder to block without any sort of grip on a pass-rusher.
Plus, the Patriots defense saw the same route concepts for four-straight days in the red zone, where the offense is limited by space and scope of plays. In other words, it's way too early to panic about the offense.
Still, the defense showed more promise than maybe some expected in the first week of camp, especially in the secondary, where cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Terrance Mitchell held things down nicely on the outside in full-team periods. Now, let's see if they can keep it up.
After taking in the first week of camp, here are ten things to watch for as the pads go on in Foxboro:
1. How Does Mac Jones, Passing Offense Look in a "Live" Setting?
New England's second-year quarterback is always top of mind. Mac's overall confidence, command and knowledge of the system, and ball placement against man coverage look improved. However, the offense hasn't looked as crisp in 11-on-11s. One question for Mac: how do his downfield throws from muddy pockets look in live reps? Jones might be adding some improvisation skills to his game, showing flashes of throwing from outside the pocket to buy time for his receivers to get open. But, again, the 11-on-11 work needs work, and making plays happen downfield with a live pass-rush is a must.
2. First Look at Patriots Running Game at Full Tilt
As we mentioned off the top, it's impossible to judge a Patriots offense that will feature a potentially dangerous running game until we see the full system in action. We'll see the running game at full-tilt come Monday. Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson have caught a few shorter passes in drills, but the Pats running back duo is primarily here to carry the football. As we head into padded practices, the question is, how will the Pats blocking schemes look in front of the Harris-Stevenson combination? And is there any room in the backfield for rookies Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris?
3. Revamped Offensive Line Works in Pads For First Time
Along those lines, the Patriots continue to work with Trent Brown at left tackle and Isaiah Wynn at right tackle during team drills. Although, Wynn has seen a few reps on the left side to spell Brown, with Justin Herron going in at right tackle. With starting center David Andrews taking things slow coming off offseason shoulder surgery, it might be a while before we see the projected starting five. With that said, the tackles switching sides and how this unit looks with two new guards is a significant piece to the puzzle. In non-padded practices, the pocket wasn't always great for the quarterbacks in 11-on-11s.
4. Veteran Wide Receivers Battling for Playing Time
As the top group continues to cycle through on offense, it feels like there are four veteran wide receivers on the roster competing for playing time with three significant roles: DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, and Nelson Agholor. Although it's premature to predict a true odd man out, it's unlikely that all four wideouts will receive a large share of the targets. Parker and Bourne sit above the rest, while Meyers come on later in week one. Agholor needs to start making plays downfield, or he might be in a reduced role this season.
5. How Does Rookie WR Tyquan Thornton Handle Physical Coverage?
From the day the Patriots drafted him, Thornton's slighter frame and how he handled physical coverage was a question mark, and the same could be said for minicamp standout Tre Nixon. Thornton certainly has some juice and can release off the line both from an explosion and short-area quickness perspective. But the speedster will see his fair share of physical coverage, even just to test him against press, when the pads go on this week. The Pats might keep Thornton away from press coverage by having him run routes out of the slot.
6. Is the Door Still Open for Others to Emerge at Outside Corner?
A promising development from the first week of camp was that Jalen Mills and Terrance Mitchell are quelling concerns at outside corner. In the early stages, Mills looked fantastic. He has made plays on the ball, forced receivers to make tough catches into his coverage, and looks like he's in cruise control now in New England's system. Mitchell, on the other hand, could give the Pats something similar to what Mills was last year: a steady veteran with good instincts and a high IQ. For now, that'll do. The next step is to see more from rookie Jack Jones in pads. Jones hasn't looked out of place this spring and summer, which is promising. We'll give him a pass as he knocks the rust off, but it's been an up-and-down start to camp for Malcolm Butler.
7. Pats Linebacker Raekwon McMillan Projected Into Large Role
If you've had the chance to visit Training Camp in the first four days, you probably saw number 46 in blue in the middle of the top defensive unit. McMillan, who earned compliments from head coach Bill Belichick for his high IQ and work ethic, is projected as an early favorite to start at linebacker this season. The Pats linebacker has great instincts and can hold up in early-down coverage while also possessing a downhill style that New England covets. We are also seeing trade acquisition Mack Wilson in coverage a bit, and second-year linebacker Cameron McGrone keeps adding things to his plate. Those three and veteran Ja'Whaun Bentley will compete for snaps at inside linebacker this season.
8. Battle at Slot Corner Behind Injured Jonathan Jones
Top slot corner Jonathan Jones (PUP list) and backup Myles Bryant (non-football injury list) aren't practicing yet, so that opened the door for others to show the coaches what they can do in the slot. Second-year corner Shaun Wade and rookie Marcus Jones are both getting their chances, with Jones catching the eye here. With a potential role as a returner on the horizon as well, Jones is acclimating himself quickly to the pro game. It'll be interesting to see how the smaller Jones competes when the physicality ramps up this week. Jones's pass breakup on the final play of Saturday's practice, a speed out intended for Jakobi Meyers, was the type of play that stands out for inside corners.
9. Pats Linebacker Anfernee Jennings Worth Monitoring
Entering his third season with the Patriots, the 2020 third-round pick was somewhat of an afterthought heading into the summer. However, Jennings is no longer on that list, as a three-play sequence saw him disrupt the quarterback on consecutive reps in Saturday's practice. Jennings's explosiveness off the ball popped, a hallmark of his game, along with good length before injuries stunted his development at Alabama. Jennings is also carving out a special teams role. With a void to fill opposite Matthew Judon, Jennings could surprise some people.
10. Building Out the Defensive Line Depth
The top of New England's depth chart along the defensive line feels easy to predict, but some spots are up for grabs to fill out the depth. Although it's hard to judge defensive linemen in non-padded practices, two rookies, LaBryan Ray and sixth-round pick Sam Roberts, have NFL frames and look like players you'll want to see stop the run in full pads.