Stage is set for Patriots QB competition between Cam Newton, Mac Jones

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. QB stage set: Things couldn’t have gone much better for the Patriots this spring when it comes to their quarterbacks, setting the stage for what could be one of the NFL’s most compelling training camp storylines. Can Mac Jones make a run at Cam Newton‘s starting job?

Newton took part in nine of 13 spring practices, saving his best for last, when he was in complete command in Wednesday’s final day of mandatory minicamp. “Cam’s way ahead of where he was last year at this time,” coach Bill Belichick said.

Newton, of course, wasn’t even on the team at this time in 2020. But Belichick’s point was obvious: A year of Patriots experience now has him more assertive at the line of scrimmage, and while Newton’s accuracy was sporadic in practices, there were other times he turned it on and the possibilities looked promising.

And that’s before the pads even come on, when some of Newton’s other best assets, such as the quarterback being a major factor in the running game, shine brighter. Newton always was the first quarterback through drills this spring.

Then there’s Jones, who was No. 2 through drills throughout mandatory minicamp. He has quickly earned respect from Belichick and teammates. “He’s a young guy, but you can’t really just refer to him as a young guy. You can tell he’s been at a place where’s got some coaching,” Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown said. “He’s going to be special here in the future.”

What stood out from watching Jones was how much offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels tested him mentally. In the final practice, when the offense had to rehuddle twice because of Jones’ communication breakdowns, McDaniels wasn’t happy and let him know about it with gusto most often reserved for those who have been around more than a couple of months.

Belichick often says spring practices are about teaching, and the true evaluation comes in training camp, but there’s obviously still some evaluation in the spring — and with Jones, a big part of what Belichick and McDaniels appeared to be evaluating was how much of the load he could handle.

Jones, 22, seemed to ace that test.

When he had it going, the passing game most closely resembled what it had been for the better part of the past two decades from a timing, rhythm and accuracy standpoint. And while there were some predictable hiccups along the way — such as a bad interception on the final day that led to visible frustration in which Jones wound up and almost punched the ground — it seems safe to say there isn’t another rookie quarterback over the past 21 years who is as far along as Jones is in the system this fast.

So, what does it all mean?

Answers will come in training camp when everyone is truly competing for jobs.

2. Gilmore’s statement: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore didn’t report to mandatory minicamp, and while some holdouts can become acrimonious, my sense on Gilmore’s mindset is different. He seems to enjoy being a Patriot, is open to sticking around, and this was his least-expensive-but-most-decisive way of sparking more productive contract talks with the team, so he can feel better about being part of New England’s present and future.

3. Mac’s poise: When longtime safety and captain Devin McCourty was asked his initial impression of Mac Jones, the first thing he said was that the QB “seemed poised.” That was echoed by other players who noted Jones’ experience at Alabama has prepared him well. “That’s a different position being a young guy, because you’re automatically in that leadership role,” McCourty said. “But I think he’s used to that.”

4. Jonnu’s offseason: It wasn’t the ideal mandatory minicamp for big-money, free-agent tight end Jonnu Smith, who appeared to tweak his hamstring on Monday and wasn’t part of any drills after that, other than as a spectator. It’s too early for alarm bells, of course. This has been an exciting offseason for Smith, from signing his four-year, $50 million contract to being an expectant father (which contributed to him working out away from the facility during voluntary organized team activities). In Smith’s absence, 2020 third-round pick Devin Asiasi quietly put together a solid spring, while Hunter Henry‘s knack for effortlessly snatching the football was hard to miss.

5. Brown in town: When healthy and in good physical condition, Trent Brown has been one of the NFL’s best offensive tackles. So it seemed more than a passing note that Brown said he plans to spend the next six weeks — when some players sneak in final vacations before the grind of the season — in Foxborough working with the Patriots’ strength and conditioning, and athletic training staff. He did the same thing in 2018 when he had the best season of his career, and said: “I’m just following that same blueprint.”

6. Mac’s hand size: Watching Mac Jones control the football solidly and deliver it accurately in Monday’s rain-soaked practice led me to seek out this number: 9 6/8″. That’s what Jones’ hand measured at the Senior Bowl and it compares favorably with other highly touted NFL quarterbacks. Former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli has noted why hand size was often viewed as critical in New England, a lesson he learned the hard way with the Patriots’ draft selection of Kliff Kingsbury in 2003.

7. Harris’ solid spring: It is challenging to evaluate the running game in spring practices, when players aren’t in pads, but Belichick sounded pleased with what he has seen from top running back Damien Harris this spring. Belichick said assistant coaches Ivan Fears and Vinnie Sunseri (moving from defense to offense) pushed Harris hard, and “he’s responded well and I think he’s off to a really good start in preparation for the season.” Harris is RB1, with Sony Michel, James White, Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor and Brandon Bolden providing quality depth.

8. ‘Coach’ Adams: The Patriots gave football research director Ernie Adams a nice sendoff Wednesday after his final practice, and even had Adams answer a few questions from reporters beforehand. Adams described his role over the years as “to figure out as many things as I can to help the New England Patriots win football live — whether it’s strategy, personnel or anything else.” He added, “The thing that’s been great about my job is that I’ve never had any constraints put on me. I could go in any areas I thought could help us.” Belichick referred to him as “Coach Adams.”

9. Wedding season: Congratulations, Brian Belichick. The Patriots’ safeties coach and his fiancé, Catherine, will tie the knot June 26, a date that is like a perfectly placed punt inside the 5-yard line when it comes to wedding planning for those who work in the NFL — just after the conclusion of spring camps, and before the grind of training camp.

10. Did You Know: Since joining the Patriots in 2017, nobody has held opposing wide receivers to fewer yards per target (5.9 avg.) as the nearest defender than Gilmore, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He has also allowed a 51% completion rate as the nearest defender the past four seasons, the third-best among defensive backs with 200 targets.



 

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