After two productive and chippy days of joint practices against the Carolina Panthers, the outlook for the Patriots is much clearer now heading into their second preseason game.
Although nobody kept score in practice, the general feeling was that the Patriots got the better of the Panthers over the two days. Following a near-dominant first practice for the Pats defense, things evened out on day two, but New England was the better team overall.
Most importantly, quarterback Mac Jones and the Patriots offense found a better rhythm against a different opponent than in the practices we saw compared to sessions against their own defense in the first two weeks of camp. It was far from perfect, especially up front, but Jones pushed the ball downfield more regularly and threw with improved timing in the Pats new-look offense.
The Patriots quarterback connected with newcomer DeVante Parker (twice), Nelson Agholor (also twice), and Jakobi Meyers on his notable deeper throws in two days against the Panthers defense. Parker caught two contested catches against single coverage, while Agholor found space on a pair of slot fades in Wednesday's session.
Defensively, New England controlled the line of scrimmage with several splash plays in the backfield and then rounded things out with an impressive coverage performance on day two. The Pats defense stood out as the top unit for either side in terms of consistency.
It was easy to find positive takeaways from two days of joint practices between the Patriots and Panthers. But Carolina made things difficult in certain instances, mainly by applying pressure at a high rate on the Pats quarterbacks and hunting matchups in the passing game with running back Christian McCaffrey.
Here is a position-by-position recap of everything we saw in Patriots-Panthers joint practices this week:
- The good news for Patriots fans is that quarterback Mac Jones looked more comfortable and in rhythm this week, and with each passing day at this point, his timing is returning to normal. It's abundantly clear that Jones sees the field well and puts the ball on his receivers when he is kept clean. But there are still too many protection breakdowns and a few instances where Mac couldn't get enough zip on the ball from muddy pockets. As the Pats QB1 said after Wednesday's practice, when he has room to step up in the pocket and deliver a pass, Jones is a high-level pocket passer. Consistently making throws downfield when he can't get his feet underneath him due to pressure is where problems present themselves, which is the case for most quarterbacks.
- After seeing extended playing time in the preseason opener, rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe mostly sat out the first day of joint practices, giving backup reps to veteran Brian Hoyer. Hoyer made a great pass through traffic to Devin Asiasi to cap off day one. Zappe was the same guy we've seen; accuracy is inconsistent, but he makes some high-level throws up the seams. The fourth-round pick dotted a pass to Tre Nixon on a seam pass where he threw towards Nixon's back shoulder to make the path longer for the safety to alter the play. It was one of the best throws we saw all week.
- Evaluating the running game in practice settings where there isn't live tackling is challenging. You try to watch the movement generated by the offensive line, but the backs aren't necessarily going full-throttle downhill all the time, and they aren't being brought down the ground. Based on the practice eye test, the Pats running game struggled against Carolina's front. But we'll wait for the games to see if runs that look bottled up turn into bigger gains by the backs.
- The Patriots continue to give second-year running back Rhamondre Stevenson opportunities to play in the passing game. Although he's repping in that role behind Ty Montgomery, Stevenson is running with the second unit during two-minute drills where they're mostly passing. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick credited Stevenson for improving the passing game earlier this week.
- Speaking of Montgomery, the veteran RB/WR is significantly involved in the offense. His background as a wide receiver offers intriguing alignment versatility, allowing the Pats to morph formations on the fly based on the defensive structure. Montgomery caught a pass down the right sideline flexed out on Tuesday and then was a reliable check-down target for Jones later in the drive on a route out of the backfield. He looks like a legitimate weapon for the Patriots offense.
- Although things could always change, it's unlikely that rookie running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris will contribute this season. Injuries can pile up. One or both first-year backs could earn more chances with the regulars by showing out in a preseason game. However, the Harris, Stevenson, and Montgomery trio is dominating the reps right now.
- On the one hand, you don't want the Patriots downfield passing game to live off of jump balls to DeVante Parker. But on the other hand, when Mac Jones sees single coverage on the outside, Parker is more 70-30 than 50-50 in contested situations. He was the most dynamic receiver on the field for the Patriots in Tuesday's practice, catching a few passes underneath the defense as well on in-breaking routes.
- As we wrote after day two, Nelson Agholor continues to make plays, and it feels like the best thing for the team is to hold onto the veteran wideout. Even if he's just a reliable depth option for Parker and rookie Tyquan Thornton, Agholor's ability to create vertical shots shows up often. He made one of the catches of training camp by elevating over Jaycee Horn and Myles Hartsfield to high-point a slot fade in the end zone.
- Second-round pick Tyquan Thornton continues to stack good days together. Since corners must respect his speed, Thornton's burst off the line creates intermediate opportunities on in-breakers or comeback routes. His route-running was also on display in red zone work in a similar fashion to his touchdown catch against the Giants in last week's preseason opener. Plus, you see the gravity he has as well. For example, Jonnu Smith caught a crossing route on Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn where Thornton stretching the field prevented the defender on the deep third from helping Chinn over the top. It still feels like the coaching staff is taking it at a slow pace with Thornton, though.
- There isn't much to say about Jakobi Meyers other than he's consistently consistent in his role. It's hard to imagine the team pivoting away from a player who is so reliable in an important spot.
- Kendrick Bourne feels like more of a game player than a practice player, but his quiet camp is becoming more noticeable. It's not time to panic yet, as Bourne wasn't a camp standout a year ago either. But it's odd how uninvolved he is at times.
- If the Patriots don't feel like their depth tight ends are worthy of 53-man roster spots, don't be surprised if Lil'Jordan Humphrey makes a push as a jumbo slot/move tight end. Humphrey played a little detached "Y" tight end in the preseason opener out of necessity. We'll see if he has the blocking chops, but he runs the seam better than Devin Asiasi and Matt Sokol.
- Kristian Wilkerson and Tre Nixon both do some good things. But it's hard to envision a scenario where they are more than practice squad options. Hopefully, Wilkerson is okay after a scary situation in Wednesday's practice.
- We also discussed tight end Jonnu Smith in the piece about second-year Patriots looking for breakout seasons in New England. The Pats are going to put Smith in as many situations as they can to feature his skills as a ball carrier. They're feeding him the ball in these practices.
- Hunter Henry left practice early on day one and didn't participate in Wednesday's session. We'll continue to monitor that moving forward.
- We still aren't seeing enough out of Devin Asiasi. He made a nice grab on the pass from Hoyer we highlighted above but had some ball security issues and was one-half of a botched play that ended in a Panthers interception.
- Without the benefit of film review, it's difficult to fully assess where the breakdowns are occurring along the offensive line. But there are still sequences ruined by pressure on the quarterback, and there isn't a great push in the running game either. The Pats O-Line got the better of the Panthers pass rushers in one-on-one drills. This appears to be more about continuity than actually executing blocks.
- Projected right guard Mike Onwenu was really solid in both practices. He won most of his one-on-one reps and was one of the few guys who consistently held their ground in two-on-two drills. Onwenu is one of the Pats best pass protectors, and we know he brings power to the running game.
- Trent Brown can be downright dominant when he's fully locked in. Some of his one-on-one reps are silly. Just pass-rushers running into a brick wall. At some point, it feels like running behind no. 77 will get the running game going.
- Rookie left guard Cole Strange had a shaky two days of practice. Strange seemed to allow pressure on a few occasions during team drills and was up-and-down in the non-team portions. The biggest area of improvement needed for Strange is his hand usage. He often arrives on time at his landmarks but can't finish with his hands.
- Third-year tackle Yodny Cajuste got all of the starter reps at right tackle with Isaiah Wynn and Justin Herron out. Cajuste had some impressive reps against Yetur Gross-Matos and Amare Barno in one-on-one drills. It didn't seem like he was a major issue.
- Props to veteran James Ferentz. Over the last year-plus, he has developed into a very serviceable offensive lineman after a rough start to his career. Ferentz is the new Ted Karras.
- Ranking the rest of the notable offensive linemen in order of effectiveness: Arlington Hambright, Will Sherman, Chasen Hines, Drew Desjarlais, Yasir Durant, Kody Russey.
- Although his practice was cut short on day two, Deatrich Wise probably had the best practice we've ever seen from him on Tuesday. He worked both Panthers starting tackles for multiple pressures and potential sacks. It was a dominant stretch.
- The Panthers had a tough time running between the tackles when Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux were out there for the Pats. Godchaux has been a force this summer.
- The coaching staff seems to be buying into LaBryan Ray more and more. He is starting to get some run with other regulars and made a nice chase-down play on a stretch run in Wednesday's practice. Ray has the frame and athleticism to play in the league.
- Quick-hitters: Henry Anderson continues to elevate to the top unit when Wise isn't in there. Carl Davis might be a practice squad elevation type but should have a role in certain game plans as a two-gapping nose. Sam Roberts and Jeremiah Pharms need big preseason games to make the team.
- With the season fast approaching and joint practices on the docket, Matt Judon turned it up a notch this week. It feels like the Pro Bowler can flip the switch whenever he wants. It was nice to see Judon emphasizing setting a sturdy edge during run periods.
- Sweet pass-rush moves in one-on-one drills are nice, but Anfernee Jennings is the guy who consistently does his job in team drills, which are more important and translate better to real football.
- Thought Ronnie Perkins made his first impact play when he set the edge of the defense, allowing Ray to run down the ball carrier. Maybe a sign that the light is coming on for Perkins, who is also repping on multiple special teams units. His spot feels safe for now as a depth piece and special teams contributor. But there needs to be more plays like the one on Wednesday for him to see the field on defense.
- Wish Josh Uche was more impactful over the last two days. He seemed like he was in the mix with the Pats living in Carolina's backfield on Tuesday, but he didn't stand out individually.
- DaMarcus Mitchell is someone the team is training to be a core special teams contributor. It's probably not enough for him to make the 53-man roster this year, but he's a prime practice squad candidate.
- The Pats linebackers had issues sticking with Christian McCaffrey in coverage. Obviously, that isn't surprising, but get ready to see plenty of safeties on the field against teams with dynamic pass-catching backs and tight ends.
- Mack Wilson closed in a hurry on several plays in coverage. His play speed to limit yards after the catch stood out all week.
- Jahlani Tavai continues to get some looks at inside linebacker. He had a few nice interior blitzes during Tuesday's practice.
- Nothing earth-shattering to report on Ja'Whaun Bentley and Raekwon McMillan. They're solid early-down options. The hope here is that Cameron McGrone needs more reps to return to his pre-injury self.
- Jalen Mills was one of the best players on the field for the Patriots in two days of practices with the Panthers. He had no issues defending DJ Moore or Robbie Anderson, with multiple PBUs and instances where he had extremely tight coverage. It was impressive.
- Jonathan Jones is holding his own at outside corner. You worry about him getting matched up against bigger receivers, but if the Pats can manage that, he should be fine on the boundary.
- We continue to see rookie Marcus Jones and Myles Bryant alternate in the nickel role, with the elder Jones playing on the outside. I'd give the slight edge to the rookie, who had a nifty interception on a Baker Mayfield throw on Wednesday. But Bryant has a good chance to make the team as well.
- Although he's still just a depth option, the light might be fully on now for Shaun Wade. He was on the wrong end of a highlight-reel grab by Derek Wright, but he is consistently in phase to make plays on the ball and is starting to pile up the PBUs.
- Rookie Jack Jones is an aggressive ball-hawk. He's got excellent closing burst and eventually will jump one of these passes for a pick. But there's some boom-or-bust to his style of play.
- This is by far the best position group on the Patriots roster. New England goes potentially five deep at safety while undrafted rookie Brenden Schooler is likely to stick as a Nate Ebner-type.
- Offseason acquisition Jabrill Peppers plays with noticeable energy and play speed. Peppers began ramping things up this week, and he was around the ball a lot. He broke up a pass in the flat and generated pressure on a few blitzes.
- It's apparent that Schooler can fly around and lay the wood, traits that could make him a standout on special teams. It's a numbers game to find a spot for him. But he's a special teams ace in waiting.
- Tristan Vizcaino has kicked well this summer, drilling a 53-yarder on Wednesday. Although Nick Folk's job is not in jeopardy, Vizcaino could find a job elsewhere this season. If not, he's valuable depth on the practice squad.