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Last week, the buzz around Patriots OTAs was all about the offense and how Mac Jones already looked like he stood a good chance of supplanting Cam Newton as the team’s starting quarterback.
He still might, whether it happens in Week 1 or some other time this season. And Friday’s injury to Newton’s throwing hand will only ramp up speculation in some circles about the future of the quarterback competition.
But Friday’s OTAs proved things are still a work in progress with the first-round rookie passer as well as the rest of the Patriots offense.
That said, if you want to see the New England defense return to form after a down year last season, days like Friday show that swagger is clearly on its way back.
Here are some thoughts on the quarterbacks, the voracious defense, and more from the second day of media availability at Patriots OTAs.
After completing his first two throws of 11-on-11s, Newton’s last throw of the segment — a deep ball down the right sideline to Nelson Agholor — came up well short of its target.
The reason: he appeared to have hit his throwing hand on a teammate’s helmet during his release.
Moments later, Newton threw a corner route during position drills that looked like it had less zip than he showed earlier in practice.
He immediately walked over to the trainers and team doctors, who were looking at his right hand. He later returned to the field, appearing to stretch out his thumb while standing behind the other quarterbacks.
A few receivers, Josh McDaniels, and even owner Robert Kraft walked up to Newton to check on him and take a closer look at the troublesome hand as the quarterback worked on it alone.
When asked about Newton’s hand after practice, Agholor passed on the answer: “I’ll let him speak on that.”
Though the quarterback didn’t seem to be in tremendous pain, he didn’t throw another pass. Still, he stayed around the team for the rest of practice and could be heard at times cheering on his unit during competitive drills.
It may be little more than a minor setback, and Newton generally looked solid — much as he did last week — in other portions of the non-padded practice. But it will bear watching at a time when Newton’s future as the starting quarterback is already under the microscope.
There’s no question Jones already throws the smoothest-looking ball out of any of the four quarterbacks. But Friday was an example of Jones needing more work on the little things.
The rookie noticeably worked apart from the other quarterbacks during the first position drills, focusing on stepping up in the pocket under pressure with Josh McDaniels and another coach while the other passers worked with receivers and tight ends.
Later in practice, McDaniels chided him for stepping backward instead of sideways to avoid a soft pad thrown at him during one such drill and later for overthinking his footwork during a dropback drill where he had to step up in the pocket.
Jones did have a sleeve on his right calf, suggesting his mobility may have been hindered and perhaps explaining some of the missteps.
But he also looked less-than-stellar in 11-on-11 drills (for what that’s worth in these kinds of practices).
Jones checked the ball down almost exclusively and held on the ball too long on a few occasions before doing so. His results on his three “down-the-field” throws: a tipped pass, an overthrown deep ball to Jakobi Meyers, and a throw up the seam right into the arms of linebacker Kyle Van Noy, whom Jones didn’t see dropping into coverage. Van Noy dropped the interception.
Does any of this mean Jones won’t be ready to compete for the starting job in training camp? Not at all. The Patriots seem pleased with the work he’s putting in to learn the playbook, and he’s reportedly “earned a lot of respect” for his work habits.
But when Bill Belichick said this morning he “has a long way to go,” perhaps there was more to that than just his learning the playbook.
He’s good, but he’s still a rookie.
To be fair to Jones, it was hard for the offense to get anything going against a defensive unit that played like a pack of raptors in team segments.
After Newton completed his first two passes of 11-on-11s — a swing to J.J. Taylor and a hitch route to Isaiah Zuber — the defense cranked up the pressure, with Deatrich Wise Jr. “sacking” Newton on his third snap when the quarterback held the ball too long.
A blitzing Myles Bryant then tipped Jones’s first rep of the segment — a deep comeback to the right side — causing it to nearly be intercepted. Then Christian Barmore burst up the middle for another “sack” on Jones.
Van Noy nearly picked Jones. Justin Bethel batted down a deep comeback from Brian Hoyer intended for Nelson Agholor.
And with every bit of pressure, dropped pass, or forced check down, the defense grew more and more rowdy, thoroughly taking over the segment with their contagious energy.
How much can we read into this with no pads on? Not much, unless perhaps you want to remark on the defense looking a good deal faster than the offense — which is likely to remain true.
The defense also had one key advantage in the drills: the offense solely threw passes and never ran the football. Knowing you can pin your ears back and rush the passer on every snap removes a lot of thinking on the defensive side.
But it was hard not to feel the swagger the unit had in a year they’ve spoken often about returning to 2019 levels of dominance.
At least for one day, the oft-overlooked Stidham looked like the best quarterback on the team.
He had by far the three best throws of the day from a Patriots quarterback — two darts on deep dig routes over the middle to Isaiah Zuber and Jakobi Meyers and one deep comeback to Kendrick Bourne down the left sideline.
Moreover, those throws were made decisively and with good anticipation, and he moved up well in the pocket in the midst of pressure. He even got the first reps in the team’s second 11-on-11 segment before Hoyer and Jones.
Practices like Friday are a reminder of what the Patriots saw in Stidham when they made him a fourth-round pick two years ago. That can only be good for his future with the team.
The signing of Brian Hoyer makes Stidham’s position on the team precarious. Though he clearly throws the ball better than Hoyer — who can do little more than throw check downs — his knowledge of the offense makes him an ideal teacher for the heir-apparent Jones.
Stidham might still face an uphill climb to make the final 53-man roster. But playing as he did today in training camp will only help his case.
From where press were sitting, it was hard to tell whether any of the kicks Nordin or Roberto Aguayo attempted on the “narrow goalposts” on the far field went through the uprights.
But there was a clear difference between how the two kickers looked when they were lining up kicks from 40-plus yards.
Aguayo’s kicks never came up short, but they also didn’t have much height or power behind them.
Nordin, on the other hand, has a leg that can best be described as a cannon.
For perspective: not only did he easily reach the goalposts from 50 yards out, but his kicks also landed nearly halfway up the kicking net sitting at least 10 yards behind the posts. That suggests those kicks might have been good from at least 65 yards.
And it wasn’t just the distance: the kicks had so much height on them that they flew well over the tops of the uprights themselves. Good luck blocking those.
Nordin certainly doesn’t have a guaranteed road to starting with Nick Folk — who’s been solid for the team the last two years — back in New England on a new contract.
But don’t be surprised if the undrafted rookie makes a strong push for the job — either this year or next — if the Patriots can keep him around.
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