How are players getting adjusted to this season with COVID-19 around, and what's different about 2020 training camp then years in the past? Thank you. Christian Ponce
So far, so good, it seems. The first several training camp practices have looked crisp and well-organized, and if you didn't know we were in the midst of a pandemic, you wouldn't notice much of a difference between this training camp and others.
Obviously, there are some noticeable changes, including coaches and football staff wearing masks on the practice field. In addition, the team uses both practice fields on the upper level behind Gillette Stadium for its stretching period. In the past, the offense would line up on one sideline and the defense on the other sideline. Today, we're seeing the defense use one field, with the defenders using both sidelines to create as much physical distance as possible. Same with the offense on the adjacent practice field.
There are also some modifications to the interior of the facility, with certain areas deemed restricted only to football players, coaches, and immediate staff, but otherwise, it's been a fairly seamless transition to this temporary abnormal routine for 2020. Hopefully, circumstances will only improve in that regard. Erik Scalavino
I know it's hard to tell from non-contact practices, but has [running back Damien] Harris made a jump? Put on any size, look fast, any attributes stand out? Really looking forward to him making a splash now that Sony [Michel] is limited [on the PUP list]. Blake Lewis
It is still very early in the camp process, but having watched five practice sessions, including the first full-pads practice this past Monday, I'd say Harris is getting his fair share of touches in the running back rotation. From our Patriots Unfiltered vantage point on the stadium ramps that overlook the practice fields, Harris has been involved considerably and looks like a more confident player, as you would expect of anyone who's enjoyed a full year in this system.
Now that full pads are on, it'll be easier to evaluate where Harris and all the other players are once we have a larger sample size of competitive practices, but at first glance, he looks like someone ready to contribute on a more consistent basis than he did as a rookie last season. Erik Scalavino
With an untested kicker set to start the season with virtually no settling in, due to lack of preseason, what are the odds the Patriots bring in a veteran kicker for camp to push [Justin] Rohrwasser? Could [former kicker Stephen] Gostkowski be given a chance to fight for a spot? If Rohrwasser fails to perform up to BB's standards, who else would you see the Patriots moving for to shore up the kicker position? Damian Smith
It's certainly within the realm of possibility that an experienced veteran kicker, maybe even current free agent Gostkowski, could be added to the roster at some point, but thus far, the Patriots appear content to entrust the job to their rookie fifth-round draft choice. It's unusual for a rookie Patriots specialist – whether it's a kicker, punter, or long snapper – not to have at least one competitor during camp, and depending on how Rohrwasser performs in practice, that could change at any point. However, New England has had plenty of opportunities to add another kicker over the past few months and elected not to. That seems to be a vote of confidence for Rohrwasser. Erik Scalavino
Talk to me about the [running back] Lamar Miller and [cornerback] Michael Jackson signings. Are these camp bodies brought in for competition/ emergency lists, or something more? For instance, is [Sony] Michel behind schedule? Are they already looking towards next year (perhaps moving on/preparing for Patrick Chung's retirement)? Thanks. Benjamin Poor
The opt-outs have left some really obvious needs, experienced tackle, linebacker and tight end. But Bill trades for a corner and signs a running back. Firstly on the corner, do you think that could mean Bill thinks the McCourty Twins might yet not play – they seem uncomfortable – or maybe J.C. Jackson could be traded? For all his good stats, he gets a pass interference penalty nearly every game. On the running back, does this, combined with his lack of game time last year, mean Bill doesn't think [Damien] Harris can carry the load or that Sony [Michel] is a long way off being fit? Len Carmody
I wouldn't read that far into either of these signings. It's not at all out of the ordinary for the Patriots, or any other team in the NFL, to fiddle with their roster at this time of year. In the case of Jackson, he was about to be released by the Lions, according to media reports, but he's still a very young player (age 23) with potential. His intriguing size and speed (6-1, 210, 4.45 40-yard dash) are numbers that seemed to interest New England enough to trade for him, and thus not possibly compete with other teams who might have wanted to sign him.
The 29-year-old Miller, meanwhile, is a proven veteran, but coming off a missed season due to a knee injury. How effectively he can bounce back from that remains to be seen. Both Miller and Jackson add valuable depth to the roster at their respective positions, though. If they are competitive enough to win jobs outright, great. If they are simply insurance policies should a need arise, that's also a bonus. Point is, signings like these happen every year to fill out the roster, and sometimes, they become more than just so-called "camp bodies." It's much too soon to determine where Miller and Jackson fall right now. Erik Scalavino
Considering this [unusual] offseason, what things this year give you optimism for the season? Jason Rollinson, Sydney, Australia
Well, the simple fact that we've started training camp is one, and that league-wide, COVID-19 cases seem to be very low. The latter is crucial, of course, to determining whether or not large group gatherings, like football games, can take place, and as I mentioned earlier in this column, so far, the on-field product we're seeing at camp bears a striking resemblance to years past, in terms of the operation and execution of daily sessions. If the 32 teams can remain vigilant about their health precautions, there's no reason to believe we can't play a significant amount of this season, if not all of it. So, even though you live Down Under, Jason, try not to get too down. Erik Scalavino
With [Dont'a] Hightower opting out and coming to the late stages of his career, do you think he's played his last game as a Patriot? Someone has to take his place, and if they take advantage of the chance, he's gone? William Sparkes
It's something to consider, for sure. Not just with Hightower, but any player of a relatively advanced age who's opted out. Of note in New England's case, that would include right tackle Marcus Cannon and safety Patrick Chung. By the same token, all those men could just as easily be welcomed back, depending on how the roster looks a year from now, including how their replacements perform this season. Erik Scalavino
With the loss of a normal offseason and OTAs, I believe teams will need to make every opportunity count in order to evaluate the players properly. The Patriots don't traditionally do Blue/White scrimmages and rely instead on preseason [joint practice] sessions with other NFL teams. Perhaps this weird year it might be prudent to have one or two B/W scrimmages in the place of pre-season games or scrimmaging other teams. One last question - will there be live online streaming coverage of the practices once the pads come on? Thanks. Ian Hayes
This year's lack of springtime organized team activity practices (the aforementioned OTAs), minicamp, preseason games, and joint training camp practice sessions with out-of-town opponents make it entirely reasonable to expect at least a couple of intra-squad scrimmages here in Foxborough before the regular season begins. If you haven't already been following our daily coverage on patriots.com – including our daily podcasts, video recaps, and Blogservation posts summarizing the practices that started Aug. 12 – I would strongly encourage you to do so, particularly in a year when fans are prevented from attending in person. We'll be doing that and more each day that the Patriots practice this summer, and when and if we learn about any scrimmages, we'll let you know about them. So, stay tuned. Erik Scalavino