When speaking to the media on Tuesday Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained how the early days of camp would strongly resemble the spring. The coach meant in terms of football, but the conditions in Foxborough were rather spring-like as well as the team kicked off training camp.
The two-hour practice took place under overcast skies, mild temperatures and some intermittent drizzle, but that didn't stop the fans from enjoying their first in-person look at the Patriots in more than a year. The crowd wasn't as large as normal but it was quite lively at times, and Cam Newton and many of his teammates seemed to enjoy interacting with the masses.
On the field Belichick's description of what would take place was spot on. The first official training camp practice strongly resembled many of the OTA and minicamp workouts the media was privy to in May and June. The players donned shorts, T-shirts and helmets and while the level of competition was ratcheted up slightly the tempo was by no means full tilt.
"We're obviously not in pads here for several days," Belichick said on Tuesday. "The scheduling is pretty much what it was in the spring during that minicamp period. So, we'll really be continuing what we did there until next week and kind of turn the corner and get into a little different tempo in practice."
The obvious top area of focus was the play of the quarterbacks. Newton received the first reps in the drills, both in 7-on-7s and full team work. Rookie Mac Jones followed and the workload seemed to be divided quite evenly, and both had opportunities to work with front line players and less experienced ones as well.
The results were a mixed bag as the defense still controlled the action, as was the case throughout the spring. Newton held the ball a bit longer than Jones at times, but neither enjoyed much consistent success finding open targets. Much of the work took place in the red zone and the defensive backs did a solid job locking down the receivers.
Safety Adrian Phillips was particularly effective working against tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, neither of whom was able to shake free too often in the end zone. Another tight end, Matt LcCosse, did manage to grab a couple of TDs but that was mostly with Brian Hoyer going against the backups.
Jones did show periods of decisiveness and when that's the case the ball comes out quickly. But that wasn't always on display on Day 1, and his trademark accuracy also appeared to wane at time. He even mishandled a couple of shot gun snaps and had to run a lap after dropping one.
Overall it was just the start of what should be a fascinating competition at the game's most important position. In terms of early evaluations, I'd call the opener a draw with neither doing much to separate themselves from the other.
The quarterback play will be the main focus each day of camp, but here are one man's impressions of other things that took place on opening day.
*Stephon Gilmore was not on the field for practice as he opens camp on the physically unable to perform list. Gilmore is working his way back from surgery to repair his torn quad. The corner has indicated that he is unhappy with his contract and is looking for a bump in pay for 2021, so it will be interesting to monitor if and when he gets back on the field. For now, Gilmore remains out of uniform but he was on the lower rehab field working out with other injured players.
*There was a lengthy list of players who weren't in uniform for the first practice. Over the past several days the team placed 14 individuals on various lists, and most weren't able take part in the workout. In addition to Gilmore, the PUP list included Jarrett Stidham, Dalton Keene, Chase Winovich, Terez Hall, Byron Cowart, Devin Smith, Brandon King, Kyle Van Noy and Trent Brown. Rookies Rhamondre Stevenson, Joshuah Bledsoe and Cameron McGrone opened camp on the non-football injury list. Also, tight end Devin Asiasi was placed on the COVID-19-reserve list after testing positive for the coronavirus. According to reports, Asiasi has been vaccinated and will need to have two negative tests in consecutive days in order to return. Lastly, the Patriots released Smith on Tuesday, leaving the roster at 90 to open camp.
Brown and Van Noy didn't spend much time on PUP as both were in uniform and took part in practice. Van Noy donned a red, non-contact jersey and was limited at times but both he and Brown appeared to take part in most elements. The lone player not spotted who didn't open camp on a list was second-year linebacker Anfernee Jennings.
*Belichick and Matt Patricia spent some time together overseeing some defensive work with linebackers and defensive backs. It's always interesting to watch where Belichick chooses to spend his time during practice.
*Robert Kraft was on the field for most of the morning. He spent a moment chatting with Dont'a Hightower in between a couple of the periods. He later chatted with Brian Hoyer before leaving the fields.
*In what is sure to be my first of dozens of quarterback-related tidbits that likely doesn't mean anything, Jones took snaps from David Andrews before practice while Newton worked with Ted Karras and Hoyer was with Marcus Martin. What does that mean? Likely nothing.
*Incidentally, Jones was out early before practice began and was one of the first players to arrive. He spent several minutes working on his techniques and footwork drills as he prepared for the workout.
*Most of the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work took place in the red zone. The condensed area allowed the defensive backs to really lock down the receivers, a job that was made a bit more difficult because the cover men were wearing the boxing glove-type mittens to help keep them from holding. There were a few occasions where pass breakups and interceptions appeared to be hindered by the handwear.
*N'Keal Harry made news a few weeks ago when his agent requested a trade, and since then he has been an afterthought to most. The third-year wide receiver has yet to make an impact after being selected in the first round in 2019. But on Wednesday he was able to make a couple of plays and stood out in a positive way. He made a nice catch on a quick, low throw from Newton in traffic. Newton's timing on the play was solid as Harry made the catch immediately coming out of his break with little room to operate. Later Harry was wide open after a quick out route and caught another TD. It wasn't all positive for the embattled receiver as he appeared to on a different page than Jones and had another potential touchdown glance off his hands. It's hard to know where Harry's mindset is after the trade request but at least for one day he appeared to be ready to go to work. The challenge now will be stacking consecutive days in an effort to rehab his career.
Check out photos from the first day of Patriots Training Camp on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.
*The offense also took some time to work on the running game during the red zone drills. It's always hard to evaluate the backs and blocking without pads but both Newton and Jones took four reps each with two of them resulting in handoffs. Devin Harris, Sony Michel and Brandon Bolden got the carries on those plays. Both quarterbacks also tried some short throws and neither was particularly accurate. Jones fired low to LaCosse, forcing the tight end to dive on a catch inside the 5. Newton threw one short to Smith but was short of the goal line. Newton also was forced to pull down his first attempt and ran toward the left pylon, much to the delight of the crowd. While the fans enjoyed seeing Cam take off, the coaches likely were disappointed he couldn't find a viable receiver to throw to.
*Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels went to Jones to discuss things following one of the red zone periods. Jones did a nice job of hitting a wide open Nelson Agholor with a decisive throw in the end zone, but finished with a play that looked choppy as he was under heavy pressure and was forced to throw it away. McDaniels' talk came immediately after.
*The goal line passing took place in both end zones, and at one point as the players switched ends Newton spent some time interacting with the crowd. Newton drew a nice applause when he entered the field, and the fans seemed to enjoy the quarterback's fun-loving style as he tried to pump them up.
*Jones' best throw of the day may have been a strike to Kendrick Bourne for a touchdown in the left corner of the end zone. Bourne ran a nice out route toward the back corner pylon and Jones' throw was perfect to the outside and on the hands of the receiver. The coverage wasn't bad, but Jones' accuracy was on full display for the score.
*Later in practice Newton had an opportunity to make a similar throw to Bourne but missed high and wide. On the next snap, his was late and well behind Henry and his pass was picked off by Phillips.
*There were a number of laps run on the first day of camp. In addition to Jones' jaunt, veteran James White hit the road when he allowed an easy pass to glance off his fingers for another interception. Yodny Cajuste and Justin Herron also ran laps for false start infractions.
*The special teams work involved the kickoff teams with Bolden, Kyle Dugger and Marvin Hall handling the return duties.
*Belichick had the troops run through some pursuit-angle drills with the ball carriers receiving short passes from quarterbacks while taking hits from pads before heading upfield. The defenders did up-downs before chasing their targets for work on their open-field tackling techniques. Gunner Olszewski shows great quickness during these periods.
*The entire team retreated to the hills at the far end of the fields for some conditioning runs after practice.
*Henry, Smith, White, Lawrence Guy, Dont'a Hightower and Phillips spoke with the media following practice. The players were at makeshift podiums with limited media allowed to ask questions from several feet away. They were the first in-person interviews at camp since 2019.
*Training camp continues on Thursday with practice set to begin at 9:45 a.m. The session is open to the public but autographs will not be allowed. Gates open at 8:30 a.m.