Patriots

Patriots training camp Day 3 takeaways: Cam Newton, Nelson Agholor star

Newton outplayed Mac Jones for a second straight day, while Agholor shook off an early drop for a big day.

Cam Newton Mac Jones Patriots
Mac Jones (left) and Cam Newton fire passes during a drill. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
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You wanted to see Patriots quarterbacks air it out at training camp? You finally got your wish on Friday.

Though the Patriots continued their focus on red-zone work on Day 3 of training camp, they finally gave their quarterbacks space to work and took the training wheels off Friday.

Interestingly, it was the veteran Cam Newton once again having the slightly stronger performance — this time from beginning to end — while Mac Jones nonetheless continued holding his own and making eye-opening throws that belie his rookie status.

Plus, one of the Patriots’ prized free agents put his stamp on Friday’s practice in a big way.

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Here’s what happened.

Cam Newton stakes his claim.

For the second straight day, Newton made headlines for the good parts of his day far more than the bad. The difference was that it didn’t take him until the last team segment of the day to get things going.

Newton was the best quarterback on the field from start to finish Friday, marking a consistent improvement over the first three days of camp.

He’s dispelling doubts about his arm strength (for the moment) by threading balls through tight coverage, including a dart to N’Keal Harry on an end zone slant that snuck past a defender’s outstretched hand. He also lasered a touchdown to tight end Matt Lacosse on a tightly covered stick route during half-field drills in the low red zone (inside the 10 yard-line).

The veteran also displayed better anticipation Friday throughout practice. One of this best throws of the day came on a corner route to Gunner Olszewski in the final team segment. As with yesterday’s touchdown throw to Brandon Bolden, Newton cut the ball loose before Olszewski turned for the ball and place it well toward the sideline for the score.

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He also finally made some progress connecting with new receiver Nelson Agholor in team drills.

Newton hit him on a deep post for a touchdown, redeeming an earlier miss on a deep throw down the middle of the field. (To be fair, the touchdown might not have counted in a game because Agholor pushed a defender for a possible offensive pass interference.) Then, he and Agholor hooked up for arguably the play of the day – strike high along the backline of the end zone that Agholor made a spectacular leaping grab on.

All those highlights did come with a few misses, of course. One errant deep ball in an early team segment begged the question, “Who was he throwing that to?” He also threw an end zone route to no one in particular during 7-on-7s, though that appeared to be due to tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith running the wrong routes.

Overall, this kind of performance – if it remains consistent – will keep Newton the Patriots starter going into the season. Next week’s padded practice and the preseason games that will follow will tell more about how his positive trend will translate against “live bullets,” as he calls them.

Mac Jones up-and-down, but still improving.

Jones’s fade and frustration at the end of Thursday’s practice didn’t seem to linger too much on Friday as the rookie started out strong.

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He continues to impress with his ability to go through progressions with solid fundamentals and deliver passes with anticipation. Though he didn’t connect with receivers on his deep throws Friday (which wasn’t entirely his fault), the rookie’s deep ball simply looks more aesthetically pleasing than Newton’s – he times it up well and allows his receivers time to run under the ball with his touch.

If Agholor had been able to haul in the fade route Jones launched during the first 11-on-11 drill (which he should have), it would’ve gone down as the play of the day by far.

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But Jones’s best play on the day was no less impressive than that one would have been.

On his fifth play of the morning, he called for a sight adjustment with his receivers at the line of scrimmage and proceeded to float a beautiful toss to the right corner of the end zone to Kendrick Bourne. It was thrown so early it was hard to tell who the target was until Bourne appeared and ran under it.

Later, Jones hit Bourne on a corner-post route right out of his break, standing in the pocket with excellent patience as the play developed. He also proved he could step up amid pressure and deliver down the field, as he did to Olszweski on a seam route early in the day.

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Those kinds of plays make you wonder if you’re really watching a rookie out there.

But the first-round pick did have a few more unexpected misses on Friday, pulling Jakobi Meyers out of bounds on an end zone corner route.

Jones also had another underwhelming finish to practice, though that perspective might be a bit different if Devin Ross hadn’t dropped a surefire touchdown on a slant route. The defense victimized him in that last 11-on-11 red-zone segment. He got “sacked” on the first snap, saw Kyle Dugger break up a pass, then was forced into a poor slant throw to Agholor by an aggressive blitz.

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The important thing to keep in mind, of course, is that Jones continues to push forward and improve on the whole despite his less-than-perfect patches.

He displays good fundamentals and confidence in what he’s supposed to do on each play, which typically can take rookies quite a lot of time to develop.

Rest assured: Jones has the skills to earn the starting job for the Patriots, and he still has plenty of time to make his case.

Agholor bounces back, starts to separate himself.

Both Cam Newton and Mac Jones have been trying for more than a month to hit Nelson Agholor on a deep ball with no avail.

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Newton aired one out to the speedy receiver on his second throw of the day on a long post route that split the two deep safeties, but it was a touch too far. Jones put up a well-thrown fade route that fell off Agholor’s hands — a maddening reminder of the problems that have plagued the explosive, but drop-prone pass-catcher.

So when Newton dialed Agholor up on another deep post during the second 11-on-11 team segment, it didn’t seem to matter that the new Patriots receiver pushed off slightly to make the play over a defensive back and probably would’ve been flagged in a real game. He had finally caught a deep touchdown.

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From that point on, Agholor couldn’t be stopped.

The six-year pro continued to separate from defenders with ease throughout the day, stretching the field the way few Patriots receivers have done in the past two seasons at least.

But he also hauled in a few impressive “hands”-catches in the red zone, including a brilliant adjustment to a ball thrown behind him by Jones and a sensational jumping grab away from his body on Newton’s high throw in the back of the end zone.

Agholor being a consistent threat to make plays down the field and in the red zone with his quickness might be the biggest wild card for the Patriots offense this year. His ability to frighten defenses with his speed will make tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, who both had great days catching the ball, even more dangerous and will open up opportunities for possession receivers like Meyers and Bourne.

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Both Newton and Jones know that well, and they showed it by each working extra with Agholor after Friday’s practice to continue getting a feel for his speed and comfort level.

Hopefully getting that deep-ball monkey off his back will key a training camp breakout for the intriguing pass-catcher.

Dugger starting to dominate.

A day after telling reporters he was a “completely different player” than he was as a rookie, Dugger showed everyone in attendance exactly what he meant on Friday.

The second-year safety flew around the field in pass coverage, recording two pass breakups on the day – both on throws from Jones. The latter was particularly impressive as he came streaking across a formation to break up a crossing route to tight end Matt LaCosse, showing off his 4.49 speed. The other came as he dug the ball away from receiver Devin Ross in tight coverage.

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The Patriots are finding space for Dugger even with starting safeties Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips on the field. Specifically, it looks like Dugger could be a candidate for being an extra defensive back when the team goes with “big nickel,” allowing him to essentially function as a third “box” safety that can cover tight ends or receivers in the slot or come downhill like a linebacker against the run. On his pass breakup, he was the sixth defensive back on the field alongside corners J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones as well as safeties McCourty and Phillips.

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It will be interesting to see if he sees strong competition from Mills for those extra defensive back snaps once Stephon Gilmore returns. Right now, he’s making as strong a bid as anyone in camp for a big role.

Quick Hitters

–Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made it a point to alternate Newton and Jones frequently in the red zone during the first team segment. Sometimes, they were even switching out every play, something that hasn’t happened before.

The quarterbacks responded by staging a mini-duel. Over the course of four plays: Newton threaded a touchdown to Harry on a slant; Jones barely missed a highlight-reel touchdown throw to Meyers, who caught the ball out of bounds; Newton hit the tight end Smith on a crossing route; and Jones found LaCosse for a score on an out route.

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The pads might not be on yet, but the competitive element is absolutely on display.

–At one point during warm-ups, Newton seemed displeased with one of his practice throws. After asking for the ball back and re-trying the throw, he walked away and appeared to simulate stepping toward a target and keeping his shoulder tighter to his body.

When asked by Boston.com about that moment, Newton called it a “self-diagnostic check-in” with himself.

Sometimes, he said, “you don’t feel certain things are hitting the way they’re supposed to, as far as pop, zip on the ball, feeling your feet on the ground, understanding that you got a little more power to uncoil. You still have to check in with yourself and know that, ‘Alright, are my feet planted? Are my shoulders and my feet involved, and not just throwing it with my arm?’ It’s a full-body type of technique that the arm gets credit for.” 

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Newton has reportedly worked with quarterback guru George Whitfield this offseason to try to clean up some of his mechanical issues from last season. On the whole, there doesn’t seem to be a noticeable difference in his throwing motion or footwork to the untrained eye.

–Reserve center/guard Ted Larsen got rolled up on during the final team segment of the day and was slow getting up off the turf. While he walked off under his own power, it will be worth monitoring his health over the coming days. The veteran has rotated in with the starting offensive line frequently during spring practice and training camp.

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–After the defense slipped up as a unit on Thursday, it was the offensive’s turn to commit a few unit-wide blunders.

The entire offense had to drop and do push-ups on multiple occasions as punishment for mistakes — most notably after Henry and Smith appeared to get crossed up on their routes after Newton audibled on the goal line during a team drill.

–Trent Brown said after practice that he’s been working well with newly minted offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo, who took over as the main O-line coach after sharing duties last year with Cole Popovich.

That said, he misses longtime coach Dante Scarnecchia, who coached the big tackle during his first go-round in New England.

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“I was just telling the guys the other day I wouldn’t be mad if coach ‘Scar’ came and cussed me out one good time,” Brown said with a laugh of Scarnecchia, who spoke this offseason about his experience with Brown.

The Patriots tackle also shared an update about his brother, who was gravely injured in an ATV accident before OTAs (“He’s doing good, making a lot of progress…”), and revealed some new body art that’s normally hidden beneath his knee braces: a prominent tattoo on his left leg of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech.

“I was just dedicating this leg to a lot of civil rights leaders,” he said, noting he got the artwork done in a few months ago. “I’ve got Malcolm X down here, Muhammad Ali.” Eventually, though, he said he might add a few offensive tackles he admires to the sleeve, with Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace at the top of his wish list.

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–Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson saw his first action of training camp since coming off the PUP list. Though he didn’t see much playing time during team segments, he did have a nice touchdown grab on an option route during half-field passing drills from Newton.

Stevenson faces an uphill climb to earn snaps with a loaded stable of running backs ahead of him on the depth chart. But making things even more complicated is the re-emergence of Brandon Bolden, who has featured prominently as a change-of-pace back along with James White.

But if the fourth-round pick can establish himself, he could create some interesting roster decisions by the end of camp, especially for the soon-to-be free agent Sony Michel.

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