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The “actual” football, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick calls it, has begun.
The pads were on and popping Tuesday, with the revamped defense showing its mettle against New England’s massive offensive line.
A few flags flew as Clete Blakeman led an officiating crew onto the grounds to give teams an idea of what will and won’t be called now that full contact has commenced.
And for the first time so far in Patriots training camp, one quarterback was overwhelmingly better than the other and made the first big stroke in the team’s likely quarterback competition.
Tuesday, that man was Cam Newton.
Here’s more on that and on who else stood out in the Patriots’ first padded practice.
The 11-year veteran operated Tuesday like he’s been through all this before.
Newton took what the Patriots’ aggressive defense gave him throughout the day and rarely put the ball in harm’s way – his first pass of the day in 7-on-7s, which was nearly picked by Kyle Dugger, not withstanding (more on that later).
Then, as practice progressed, he started laying out ropes all over the field. His best toss of the day was a highlight 50-yard score to Nelson Agholor on a deep crossing route that beat Dugger. He also dropped a perfectly thrown end fade into Hunter Henry’s breadbasket from 15-yards out in the red zone, fitting it in before a trailing Dugger could get there.
Anyone questioning Newton’s arm strength needn’t trouble about it right now. The velocity on his throws is as good as it’s been in a few years. He also generally has shown improved accuracy, which might be partly due to him appearing to dip his shoulder less on throws down the field.
There was still a specter of last year’s issues with throws to his left on an out route he skipped to Kristian Wilkerson during a simulated “drive” in his last segment of practice. But for the most part, even his incomplete throws were on target Tuesday.
He also was a big part of the team’s run-heavy practice, running a few quarterback draws and working on read-option veers that proved successful last season. That’s another sign of how much the Patriots’ offense appears to be tailoring itself to Newton’s skillset heading into 2021.
To fully cement himself as the team’s starter, he’ll need to show both consistency and production — two things Bill Belichick harped on last week even though he proclaimed Newton QB1 until someone unseats him.
Tuesday was one padded practice. More will come this week. Then he’ll have to show his improvement in preseason games and joint practices.
But if Tuesday was any indication of readiness to start Week 1 of the 2021 season, the arrow is pointing very much in Newton’s direction.
Tuesday was one big teaching moment for Jones, who found out how difficult NFL life and be when the pads come on.
To be clear, the rookie’s struggles Tuesday weren’t physical; he looked fine throwing the football and didn’t seem the least bit affected by the shoulder pads (why would he be?).
It was his usually slick decision-making that failed him.
His two lowlights of the day were a couple of “Dear God, what are you doing?” throws directly to linebackers during team segments. The first was picked off by Ja’Whaun Bentley, who barely had to move in zone coverage to swipe a pass intended for Kendrick Bourne on an in-breaking route.
Later in 11-on-11s, he hit linebacker Anfernee Jennings nearly square in the chest looking for a slant route, but Jennings dropped the pick.
He also threw an interception to Myles Bryant during 3-on-3 drills after throwing too late on a crossing route. That won’t count against his overall practice totals since it didn’t occur during team segments.
Also, that play was different than the other two: the thought process was correct. The throw just wasn’t great. To an extent, you can live with that kind of pick in training camp practice. Newton’s nearly intercepted ball to Dugger early in practice is a good example: the veteran made the right read, trying to fit the ball to Henry in the sideline hole in the Cover 2 defense, but the throw was a bit too flat. Those things can be re-calibrated.
But on the aforementioned Jones throws during team segments, it looked like he simply didn’t see the linebackers there and was making an anticipation throw to where he expected his receiver to be. But even if his targets had been where he expected, the ball still would’ve found the hands of those defenders. Those are unforced errors we haven’t yet seen from him.
He also didn’t see a wide-open Jakobi Meyers waving his hands in the middle of the field at one point in team drills, instead scrambling to his left and throwing a pass along the sideline that was broken up by Joejuan Williams.
Jones did have a pretty throw on a corner route to Nelson Agholor in red-zone team segments that should have been a touchdown, but Agholor, for whatever reason, couldn’t keep his feet inbounds.
Without that play on his belt, it seemed as if Jones failed, for the first time since training camp started, to provide any particularly notable (in a good way, anyway) moments.
As with Newton’s day, this performance deserves the caveat of it being just the first day of padded practice. There’s no reason to think Jones won’t adjust to the defense’s speed and the contact on the outside.
But it was also a stark reminder to the first-round rookie who’s making a push to start Week 1: playtime’s over.
Tuesday was the first day the Patriots go a true look at how both teams will play in the trenches with pads on. And boy, was that battle fun to watch.
The Patriots offense implemented its run game heavily Tuesday only to see the defense routinely own the line of scrimmage and stuff their ball-carriers early.
Defensive tackles Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, and rookie Christian Barmore continually stood blockers up or burst through the line of scrimmage to blow up plays in the backfield. At one point, Deatrich Wise Jr., who’s known mainly for his pass-rushing ability, busted through Shaq Mason to get a tackle-for-loss on James White.
These are great signs for a Patriots run defense that ranked among the league’s worst in 2020.
Later in practice, though, the offense started to get things going on the ground, even forcing the entire defense to run a lap for losing a rep down by the goal line.
Jonnu Smith’s ability as a lead blocker on the edge stood out as well as a few early runs that saw Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu clear a massive hole on the left side for Sony Michel and the massive Trent Brown get outside to kick out a blocker on a pitch to the right.
Iron sharpens iron, they say. With the run defense looking far more formidable so far, it’ll be fun watching these two trench units make each other better.
You might have heard it before, but it bears repeating: Josh Uche is a blur on pass rushes.
At one point, he torched reserve tackle Yodny Cajuste around the edge during 1-on-1 drills so hard Cajuste might not have been there at all. His bend and big-time speed will be fun to watch in a pass-rushing role this season.
The rookie Barmore also showed out during 1-on-1 wins, winning five reps on his own and showing off an impressive array of hand-fighting moves. Some of them resembled stab moves made famous by all-time great pass-rusher Reggie White, whom Barmore said he used to watch on YouTube.
The second-round rookie tackle did suffer a minor injury at practice, getting his left foot examined by team trainers and getting his feet re-taped. But he stayed on the practice field.
-Rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson brought the crowd to its feet by running over defensive back Myles Bryant during team drills. Bryant came in low for a big hit during a live tackling drill, but Stevenson absorbed it and kept going for a big gain.
To this point, the fourth-round rookie has mainly made plays in the passing game with soft hands out of the backfield. But runs like that are why the Patriots drafted him. You’d better bring your whole body, arms included, if you want to bring him down.
-Newton had a sideline throw on 7-on-7s to Smith that, despite being caught, drew some jeers from the media tent at first glance.
As Smith ran a wheel route against zone coverage, Newton threw the ball high and along the sideline to Smith, who stopped to snare the ball and get both feet in bounds for a beautiful catch.
The throw was deemed “off-target” by several observers, who wondered why Newton didn’t lead the tight end up the field. The reason, as it turns out, had to be seen from another angle: cornerback Jonathan Jones was driving down on the throw from above and might have intercepted it if it had been thrown low and out in front.
Newton’s reputation as a scattershot passer doesn’t earn him much benefit of the doubt in these moments, as also seen with a play last Wednesday where some claimed he was “bailed out” by a diving N’Keal Harry on what was actually a pinpoint back-shoulder throw.
But it’s interesting to see how some of Newton’s throws are perceived versus those of his competition.
-Clete Blakeman’s crew launched a couple of flags during early half-speed drills, including one for an offensive holding penalty and an offensive pass interference call on a pick play where receivers started blocking too far down the field.
Defensive back Justin Bethel also got dinged for a defensive holding call against Isaiah Zuber during 1-on-1 WR/DB drills.
Several cornerbacks had been wearing circular mitts on their hands during non-padded practices to avoid holding penalties. But with the pads on, it’s time to find out what’s allowed and what isn’t as far as defensive contact.
-Linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who’s had a solid camp, left practice early after pulling up on a punt coverage drill.
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