FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Four (non-padded) practices into New England's 2021 training camp, we've reached our first break in the action. Sunday will be a day off for the Patriots before they get back on the practice field Monday. With that in mind, it might be a natural time for all of us to catch our collective breath and assess where we stand with the most scrutinized roster battle this summer: quarterback.
Realistically, this two-man race features incumbent veteran Cam Newton and rookie first-round draft choice Mac Jones, even though the Patriots currently have five passers in the system, including PUP-listed Jarrett Stidham. Longtime veteran Brian Hoyer and newly re-signed 2020 practice squad holdover Jake Dolegala are the others.
After selecting Jones this spring, head coach Bill Belichick declared that Newton remained New England's starting quarterback despite Jones' arrival on the scene – an assertion Belichick maintained this Saturday morning when he fielded questions from reporters prior to practice. However, it's apparent that the job which Newton held all last year is being contested. After all, NFL clubs don't draft QBs in the first round just to keep them on the bench, at least not for very long.
Yet, without the benefit thus far of full-padded, full-contact practices, how can we accurately evaluate these two players to ascertain who might have the lead in their ongoing competition?
For starters (no pun intended), let's refer briefly to history. During the Tom Brady era, there was never any doubt about who the starter was. Brady typically saw the first and the majority of training camp practice reps, while his backups, whoever they happened to be at the time, took noticeably fewer snaps. Brady needed more of the work because he was going to be the one leading the team in the regular season.
In this camp, though, Newton and Jones appear to be getting an even number of opportunities. Reaffirming what Belichick declared again Saturday, Newton has been the first quarterback to take snaps in most drills and team periods throughout these first four days of camp, followed by Jones. It would therefore stand to reason that Newton is No. 1, both on his jersey and on the depth chart.
That said, the kinds of plays that Newton and Jones are being asked to call during 11-on-11 periods are virtually identical. This would seem to suggest that the coaching staff wants to have an apples-to-apples comparison, if you will, of the two passers in order to make a balanced evaluation of their performances.
Hoyer has taken a fair number of reps as well, though not necessarily on plays that resemble what the other two had run. The recently reclaimed Dolegala (he'd been with Green Bay of late) is still getting readjusted to life in New England and is being worked in slowly. Stidham, who began camp on PUP (the physically unable to perform list), has undergone a surgical procedure, according to media reports, and could be out for a considerable time – something Belichick alluded to earlier in the week in comments to reporters.
Meanwhile, to this observer's eyes, Jones has more than kept pace with Newton, whose play throughout the spring and early summer sessions has looked very much like it did throughout the Patriots' 2020 season. In my estimation, that's less an indictment of Newton and more a testament to how well Jones has digested what he's been fed of the Patriots playbook so far.
Enough rookie quarterbacks have come through Foxborough over the years – think Hoyer, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Mallett, even the most recent in Stidham – to give us a reasonable understanding of what to expect from young QBs in their first Patriots camp. Most hold onto the football too long, at least initially, because they're thinking too much about what they're supposed to do. Some of their passes can be wildly inaccurate or late on arrival, giving the defense ample time to defend the throws. We've seen very little of this from Jones after his first four days of training camp.
It's imperative to note here as well that practice statistics aren't as significant in judging the competition as many media observers would lead you to believe. Simply keeping track of how many passes these players complete is both unfair and unreliable.
For example, in many of the drills we see in which the QBs are facing some sort of defensive personnel, there are times when the defense is advised to allow the play to unfold so the offensive coaches can assess whether or not the passer made the proper decision. Sometimes, it's fairly obvious, but only the coaches know exactly when this is and if the result was favorable to the QB.
An incomplete pass (the result, perhaps, of a drop by the receiver) might have been viewed by the coaches as a good play by the quarterback because he made the right decision about where to throw the football. What's more, a touchdown pass thrown 10 seconds after the snap usually isn't a positive result because, had it happened in a game, the pass would never have been thrown because the quarterback would likely have been sacked long before he threw it. Numbers, you see, can be misleading if you aren't in possession of all the corresponding facts.
What we must rely on at this stage are mostly intangible observations. Does the player look comfortable in the pocket, confident in his throws, in command of the offense overall? Is he showing improvement in these areas from day to day, even period to period during practice? Does the offense look cohesive or disjointed when he's under center or in the shotgun?
The answers to these questions are entirely subjective, of course, and can be difficult to quantify. Both Newton and Jones have made their share of great plays, as well as mistakes, though neither has yet to separate himself from the other. Saturday may have been Newton's most productive this summer, but as Belichick also advised reporters beforehand in response to a question about the QB battle, "We'll take a look at the whole situation. I don't think you want to evaluate players at any position off of one or two plays, or maybe a day, so… I'm sure it'll be a hard decision."
To this point, both Newton and Jones are doing their best to make it so.