The first three fully padded practices at Patriots Training Camp followed a similar script.
With quarterback Mac Jones and the offense experiencing growing pains in a tweaked system, New England's defense has had the upper hand, especially on the line of scrimmage. In particular, the Pats offense is struggling to execute the newer aspects of their playbook.
Although it remains to be seen how prominent the zone-based concepts will be this season, the Patriots offense started camp by installing zone blocking schemes, which is a departure from their gap-heavy rushing attack.
"It just happened to work out that we put in the zone runs first, but we've put in plenty of gap plays, and we'll run those too," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "When you're putting in one play, you emphasize and run that, and then you go to something else."
For as long as Belichick's been the head coach, the Patriots are a game plan team on both sides of the ball, meaning they'll call whatever the coaches feel gives them the best chance to succeed against a particular opponent. To the head coach's point, the Patriots will feature gap runs in certain matchups this season and won't be all zone-based.
Still, if the zone-blocking concepts are becoming a feature aspect of their offense, the execution of those schemes needs to improve over the coming weeks to continue down this path, particularly along the offensive line.
The flip side of the offense's struggles is that the Patriots defense has applied consistent pressure at the line of scrimmage and is challenging receivers down the field. At this early juncture, it remains to be seen if the defense has taken a step forward or if its success is a product of the offense's early struggles, but the Pats do look faster and harder to block up front.
After taking in all eight practices, including three days in full pads, here is a position-by-position recap of what has stood out so far at Patriots training camp:
- When practice begins every morning behind Gillette Stadium, the hope is that we'll see the type of consistency and rhythm from Mac Jones that we saw in his rookie season. Unfortunately, Jones looks out of sync and sometimes uncomfortable with what's happening around him. In passing situations with the field spread, Jones looks more like his usual self, and the glimpses we've seen of Mac's deep throws show signs of improvement. But the ball isn't coming out of his hands as quickly or decisively as in the past.
- Rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe's accuracy hasn't always been consistent. But the fourth-round pick appears to have enough zip on the ball and has thrown with decent timing. Zappe has gotten a lot of work in the first two weeks due to Brian Hoyer's absence.
- Speaking of Hoyer, the veteran backup missed five practices reportedly due to an illness. Regardless, the Pats are giving most of the reps to Jones and Zappe.
- Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson look poised to lead New England's rushing attack this season. Both players are fresh and ready to go, have flashed as receivers in camp, and Stevenson has slimmed down some in the offseason. Don't expect either to dominate the carries.
- One of the early standouts from Pats camp is offensive weapon Ty Montgomery. We list Montgomery with the backs since his most likely role is as a receiving back, but we have also seen the veteran work at wide receiver. Montgomery's burst as a ball carrier is better than anticipated, which could also lead to a role as a kick returner. At this stage, Montgomery is not just on the team; he will be incorporated into the offense and special teams.
- Rookie running back Kevin Harris's lower-body build catches the eye immediately; the guy is built like a Mack truck. He has gotten consistent work with the second unit, but his skill set won't truly shine until preseason games begin, when he can show off his power as a runner.
- Fellow rookie running back Pierre Strong began participating in team drills on Thursday, so there is not much to glean from his camp.
- Newcomer DeVante Parker has given the Patriots what we all anticipated: a big target on the outside who can win jump balls and factor into their red zone offense. His chemistry with Jones on back-shoulders and in contested situations is already there.
- Jakobi Meyers continues to be Mr. Reliable on short and intermediate routes. He gets to the right places and catches the ball. As we know, there is something to be said for his consistency.
- It has been a quiet camp for wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who flashed some in non-padded practices in the first week, but hasn't done much in fully padded sessions. The feeling here is that Bourne will emerge on game day regardless, where his energy truly takes over.
- We have seen some signs that Nelson Agholor and Jones might connect more efficiently on deep throws than in Agholor's first season with the Pats.
- Speaking of speed, there's a lot to like about Tyquan Thornton. He can challenge defenses deep, tracks and adjusts to the ball well, and is quicker through his breaks than expected on non-vertical patterns. Thornton could make an impact sooner than expected.
- Tre Nixon and Kristian Wilkerson are in a battle to prove they're worthy of a roster spot, exchanging notable moments. In Wednesday's practice, Wilkerson made a catch over Shaun Wade, the play of the day. On Thursday, Nixon had two catches during team drills that showed off his burst as a route-runner. They both have a chance to make the roster.
- Hunter Henry is Hunter Henry. He will make plays on third down and be a big-time factor in the red zone again this season.
- We are still waiting to see if the Patriots unveil more schemed touches for Jonnu Smith, maybe in a hybrid H-Back role so that he can use his standout trait as a productive ball carrier.
- Devin Asiasi's improved routes, especially his ability to disguise the break point, have stood out to teammates. Belichick also had nice things to say about him this week.
- The biggest question after two weeks for the offensive line is, will there be any scheme-related casualties? Some of the bigger power blockers, such as Mike Onwenu, could lose out to more athletic options if the zone concepts are here to stay.
- Two athletic linemen who stood out are OT Justin Herron and guard Arlington Hambright. Herron looks like a really solid swing tackle with starter potential. Hambright might be more of a Ted Karras replacement as an interior swing player, but his athleticism does shine in zone schemes, and he has gotten more opportunities than expected.
- Cole Strange has taken a lot of coaching and is improving, with a good rep against Christian Barmore in one-on-ones and a successful two-on-two period where they were repping zone blocks on Thursday.
- Isaiah Wynn doesn't look out of place at right tackle. We've been impressed with his transition so far.
- Davon Godchaux has looked terrific since signing the deal. He wrecked an 11-on-11 period on Thursday, shooting the right side A-Gap into the backfield for a tackle for loss. Godchaux has been unblockable at times in the run game.
- As we wrote about this week, Christian Barmore is having a great camp and is an absolute game-wrecker at times, especially as a pass rusher. His one-on-one pass-rush moves are by far the best on the team. His rise to potential Pro Bowler would be a huge deal for this defense.
- Lawrence Guy and Henry Anderson have rounded out the base defensive package in early-down run situations as defensive ends with Godchaux in the middle of the line.
- Two potential sleepers to make the roster are LaBryan Ray and Jeremiah Pharms. Ray is explosive and could contribute on passing downs. Pharms is a wide body who can play the run as a two-gapper on the interior and has some burst out of his stance.
- Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson are bringing more speed to the second level of the Pats defense. McMillan reads the run very well from off the ball, while Wilson is an explosive blitzer and can play in coverage.
- Ja'Whaun Bentley might transition to more reps on the line of scrimmage with the emergence of McMillan at inside linebacker. That could keep Bentley out of space.
- Since the questions are coming, there isn't much to point out about Cam McGrone. That's not to say he's doing anything wrong, per se.
- With Matt Judon picking up where he left off from his Pro Bowl season, the battle for the edge defender spot opposite of him is on this summer. We could see the Pats mix and match, with Anfernee Jennings factoring in on early downs while Josh Uche continues as a designated pass rusher.
- As we also wrote last week, Jalen Mills has already solidified himself as New England's top cornerback and has held down his assignment very well. Although he hasn't faced another opponent yet, Mills has looked the part against the Pats wideouts.
- Veterans Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler have each gotten their chances opposite Mills in the first two weeks. Mitchell has been more steady, but Butler has come on as of late. This remains an open competition between the vets.
- Dating back to the spring, rookie Jack Jones's coverage skills have translated to the NFL level. There are details to work out about his game, including absorbing New England's different calls and checks, so expect the Pats to remain patient with his development.
- Fellow rookie Marcus Jones is doing exactly what we all expected: playing primarily in the slot and returning punts. Jones has been competitive in coverage, and there's a good chance he's the punt returner on day one. He will have a role in his first season, but the slot still belongs to Jonathan Jones.
- The Patriots have great safety depth, and the group's talent is showing out at camp. Second-year DB Joshuah Bledsoe has emerged as a potential contributor, playing near the line of scrimmage and deep safety. Bledsoe has looked like a regular out there.
- Kyle Dugger's pick-six of Mac Jones to end last Saturday's practice is hopefully a sign of things to come from the third-year pro. Dugger was left free to roam on the play and stepped in front of DeVante Parker to take it to the house. Dugger looks great when his eyes are on the ball.
- Undrafted rookie Brenden Schooler has a shot at making the team as a core special teamer. He receives tips from Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, and Cody Davis at every practice and is on several special teams units.