Analysis

5 burning questions to answer as Patriots training camp begins

All eyes will be on who wins the Patriots' quarterback battle between Cam Newton and Mac Jones, as well as what happens with star cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

Cam Newton Mac Jones Patriots
Cam Newton (left) passes the ball during spring practice as Mac Jones looks on. Steven Senne/AP
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The best time of the year is finally here: the Patriots and other NFL teams are about to kick off their training camps in earnest this week. Real football is on the horizon.

Head coach Bill Belichick will get a better idea of the return on the pricey free-agent investments meant to wash out the bitter taste of 2020. The defense gets one of its best players back on the field as another one of its stars plays a game of chicken with the organization itself. And fans will get to watch the future of the franchise duke it out with a former NFL MVP for the starting quarterback job.

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(Also, hurray for fans being back at training camp.)

Here are a few of the big questions we’ll (hopefully) learn the answers to at Patriots training camp in the coming weeks.

Patriots quarterback competition
Mac Jones throws during Patriots OTAs while Brian Hoyer and Cam Newton watch. – Steven Senne/AP

Who seizes the starting quarterback job?

Thanks, Captain Obvious.

There might not be a more anticipated quarterback battle in all of football this season, with the former MVP Newton trying to fend off the first-round rookie Jones for as long as possible.

Based on the rookie’s solid spring practice, there’s no reason to doubt reports that he’ll get an honest chance to win the starting job.

But the incumbent won’t be easy to dislodge.

Newton comes into this competition with a decade more of NFL experience than Jones, including his time in the Patriots offense last year. Both he and Belichick have suggested the quarterback has a far clearer understanding of the offense than he did last year. That “pre-snap comfort” seemed to manifest itself in Newton’s nearly flawless final spring practice.

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Still, the buzz about Jones’s progress — both from inside and outside the organization — is hard to ignore. Newton was nowhere near as bad in spring camp as a few viral videos or media reports might have you believe. But aside from that last day of minicamp, Jones looked better on the whole despite some turnovers.

But as coaches often say, things can change when the pads come on.

The outcome of this competition likely ultimately rests on Newton’s shoulders. Even though Jones throws the ball better and is progressing well in his understanding of the offense, Newton, even at 32 years old, is the better overall player.

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If Newton completes passes, runs the offense efficiently (e.g., makes the correct reads and gets the offense into the right play), and avoids turnovers, he’s going to stay the favorite to start Week 1.

But if the veteran falters in practice or in preseason games while Jones looks like he can’t miss? The future might arrive a little earlier than expected in Foxborough. It’s also entirely feasible that the rookie could force his way onto the field during the season even if Newton isn’t playing badly if his mental progression in the offense merits it.

And with this roster at his disposal, Jones could potentially have more success than any other rookie quarterback this season if/when he eventually gets his chance.

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One another note, there might be some resolution with the third quarterback spot if the report that Brian Hoyer is refusing the COVID-19 vaccine and cannot physically attend quarterback meetings is true. Assuming Hoyer meets the same fate as assistant coach Cole Popovich, come on down, Jarrett Stidham.

Stephon Gilmore Patriots
Stephon Gilmore. – Steven Senne/AP

Will Stephon Gilmore win his battle with the Patriots?

On one hand, at least Gilmore opted not to hold out and reported to camp early so the team could get a feel for his health. But without a new contract, this saga isn’t over yet.

Gilmore has made it plain he doesn’t want to play for the $7 million he’s under contract for this season, and the Patriots knew that well when they fronted him money last season.

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Now, he’s likely to “hold in” at training camp until the situation is resolved, resting his recovering quad in the meantime. That means he doesn’t lose $50,000 a day for not reporting to camp, and the Patriots’ medical staff can monitor his progress.

It also means Gilmore could have a front-row seat to see if his leverage gamble pays off in real-time.

With the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year on the sidelines, the Patriots will have to rely on J.C. Jackson as the team’s top corner. He’s not as good as a healthy Gilmore, of course. But a solid performance from last year’s breakout star could convince the Patriots to invest in him long-term rather than the soon-to-be-31-year-old veteran.

On the other side, how do backup cornerbacks — including versatile defensive back Jalen Mills — perform in Gilmore’s place?

Mills might be the first man in line to take over for Gilmore — having already done so in minicamp — due to his experience as an outside corner. But he’s not great outside the numbers, being better suited to safety at this point. The problem is that Joejuan Williams might not be a better option either, and the Patriots might not want to make Jonathan Jones move away from his more comfortable slot corner spot.

The Patriots’ best option by far is to get Gilmore healthy and get him back on the field. But that means they’ll have to pay up. With a multi-year extension for a cornerback on the wrong side of 30 feeling unlikely, they’ll have to at least bump his pay up significantly this season, likely through some new incentives.

Until then, it’s a staredown. Who blinks first?

Kendrick Bourne Patriots
Kendrick Bourne makes a catch during OTAs. – Mary Schwalm/AP

Will Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne be worth the investment at receiver?

We know the Patriots wanted to go into 2021 with a better receiver room than they did last season. That’s why they went out and spent significant free-agency money not just on tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith but also on receivers Agholor and Bourne.

Few experts doubt what Henry and Smith — the two best tight ends on the free agent market — will bring to the table. They head into this season as likely the two biggest focal points in the passing game.

The question is: how much better is the receiver room, really?

Neither Agholor nor Bourne exactly blew the doors off during spring practice despite some flashes by both.

Agholor’s ability to take the top off the defense was apparent, though his quarterbacks struggled to connect with him down the field. But his questionable hands also showed themselves at points, and he didn’t get open as often as you’d expect from someone with his speed.

Bourne, meanwhile, turned heads with a number of leaping grabs over corners and has some ability to find holes against zone defense. But his average speed and route-running didn’t win him much separation from defenders in man-coverage. That’s not a great sign for a team whose receivers couldn’t get open last year.

Some of it might be a matter of experience in the offense, but it feels somewhat curious — maybe even ominous — that former undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers easily looked like the team’s best receiver in the spring. After that, the Patriots’ most interesting receiver in OTAs and minicamp was Gunner Olszewski.

Meyers being the best receiver for the Patriots could be fine. But Agholor and Bourne can’t be far behind if the offense is to truly realize its potential this season.

Aside from monitoring the pecking order of the top three receivers (Meyers, Agholor, Bourne), the backup receiver battles will also be interesting.

What ends up happening with N’Keal Harry, whose agent publicly requested a trade from the team? If he departs, who sneaks on the final roster in his absence? Assuming Olszewski is a lock, which he would seem to be, Isaiah Zuber and Tre Nixon could be battling for one last spot.

bill belichick kyle van noy
Kyle Van Noy (left) and Bill Belichick in 2019. – Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Who survives in the loaded linebacker room?

Arguably no position group on the entire Patriots roster got better from last year to now than the linebacking corps.

Thumping veteran Dont’a Hightower is back manning the middle of the Patriots defense after opting out in 2020. The team signed Pro Bowl edge rusher Matthew Judon and brought the ever-reliable Kyle Van Noy back into the fold after a year in Miami.

What’s more, New England also drafted Ronnie Perkins in the third round of the 2021 draft and could get a big sophomore leap out of Josh Uche, who rampaged through spring camp.

The competition for playing time will be incredibly intense in the best way possible. That means some familiar faces could find themselves on the outside looking in this fall.

At outside linebacker, everyone lines up behind Judon and Van Noy. With Uche on the ascent, that could leave Winovich and Perkins battling it out for snaps as situational rushers and special teamers. While both are widely projected to make the team, it will be interesting to see if Perkins makes enough noise to make Winovich expendable.

Meanwhile, Hightower’s return creates a logjam at inside linebacker that could produce some very interesting battles.

2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings is a favorite in several projections to make the roster. But he’ll also have to compete with veteran Ja’Whaun Bentley as well as Terez Hall, Harvy Langi and the oft-injured but talented Raekwon McMillan.

It all comes down to how many linebackers the Patriots opt to keep. Last year, they had four players listed each at inside and outside linebacker. A similar situation this year could leave a big name on the outs.

Sony Michel Patriots.
Sony Michel. – Charles Krupa/AP

Is this Sony Michel’s last Patriots training camp?

As soon as the Patriots left Michel’s fifth-year option on the table, the 2018 first-round pick was in the crosshairs this training camp.

Damien Harris certainly looks like the team’s lead back heading into the season, and James White, J.J. Taylor and Brandon Bolden all stood out in the passing game during spring practice.

On top of that, the Patriots could also look to find a role for brusing rookie back Rhamondre Stevenson, who still has a lot to learn but showed some burst and soft hands as a pass-catcher when healthy. (Stevenson is starting training camp on the PUP list.)

The fourth-round pick could certainly end up getting the old redshirt year while he learns the NFL ropes, thereby ensuring Michel’s spot on what’s likely his last year with the team.

But if Stevenson is able to take the field and show what he can do, he’ll probably render Michel — a rather average runner who doesn’t offer much in the passing game — unnecessary.

Might we see a trade for a late-round draft pick in his future? Would the Patriots just cut him and save some money? Or could he surprise everyone and assert himself as a No. 2 option behind Harris?

It’s almost time to find out.

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