Cam Newton’s status as the Pats top QB is Training Camp’s top storyline (Photo courtesy New England Patriots)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
New England’s beaches may still be prime, it’s golf courses green and vacation plans remain ready to unfold, but it’s time to think about the Boys of Fall.
Your New England Patriots!
The Patriots reported to training camp in Foxboro over the last few days. COVID testing is all the rage, especially in an NFL that is clearly divided over player’s rights. The ever-effusive Bill Belichick would only offer “quite a few of them, most of them,” when asked if he thinks his team is nearing the NFL’s 85 percent threshold for players and coaches. Assistant line coach Cole Popovich resigned rather than get a jab so clearly this will be an issue to watch not only in Foxboro, but around football.
The NFL Network is reporting that the vaccination rate around the league is trending strong: 85 percent of the league’s players have received at least one shot, and 14 of the NFL’s 32 clubs have vaccination rates over 90 percent. The fact that there are notable consequences for teams that aren’t near that 85 percent mark – including forfeiting games – makes this a topic the players are keenly aware of. Backup tight end Devin Asiasi has reportedly tested positive despite being vaccinated and won’t be on the field at camp Wednesday.
Patriots captain Devin McCourty says that “each individual has a choice to make,” while teammate David Andrews told reporters Tuesday “it is what it is. I think everyone has jobs where you don’t agree with something. Our job is to come in and work and try to be the best team we can be.”
Clearly the NFL is pushing its player’s union hard on this issue.
But onto football. The Patriots have several key players on the PUP list to open camp, including star cornerback Stephon Gilmore and quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Linebacker Chase Winovich, defensive tackle Byron Cowart, receiver Brandon King and rookies Rhamondre Stevenson (RB), Cameron McGrone (LB) and Josh Bledsoe (S) are also sidelined for now.
Gilmore has nursed a quad injury but after threatening not to show through the spring, it’s good just to see him in town. Gilmore, 31, is slated to earn a base salary of $7 million in 2021. That’s significantly below his previous salaries, but no surprise to a veteran who negotiated such a payment schedule when he signed a five-year, $65 million contract as an unrestricted free agent in 2017. He’s pocketed nearly $54 million of that haul but is now in the final year of the deal and is understandably looking for a raise, or a contract extension.
The Patriots should resolve this situation sometime in camp, with a $3-5 million bump making sense on this front. “It was good seeing my guy again,” McCourty said. “He’s one of the best corners in this league and has been the best guy. He makes the defense perform at a different level when he’s out there.”
Here are a few Pats Predictions:
*The Best Patriot rookie from Alabama won’t be Mac Jones. I’ll take defensive tackle Christian Barmore for $1000 please. As ex-Patriot star Kevin Faulk told ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Barmore was a total beast with the Crimson Tide. He dominated a league (SEC) that is stocked with future pros. He will be ready to contribute at nose tackle and runs remarkably well for a big man. “Can’t wait to see what he does. Very disruptive in the SEC, and we always say the SEC is a step below the NFL,” said Faulk, now an assistant coach at LSU.
*As for Jones, he will be behind Cam Newton in Week One (baring injuries, of course). Newton was not good a year ago, the principal reason why the Patriots finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. He wasn’t comfortable in Josh McDaniels’ system and after a contracted COVID he was clearly slowed. This time around he will get another shot, and that opportunity means regular season games.
As he said on a recent ESPN interview, Newton remarked “Mac and Cheese is a person who came in with a business approach… I’m here for him, as well as he is here for me. Our job is to be the best player we can possibly be for the New England Patriots. When Mac was picked there was no ill-feelings.”
* While on the subject of training camp, I’ve seen a lot of football in the summer. Rod Rust, Dick MacPherson, Bill Parcells. It was all good, especially when camp was right here in Rhode Island at Bryant College. Paul Perillo of Patriots.com takes a great look back at those days.
*Nowhere was the Patriots off-season spending spree more important than at the offensive skill positions. It’s impossible not to see the significant upgrade at tight end with newcomers Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Smith is a big target, while Henry can line up in the slot, inside or basically wherever McDaniels wants.
The key pickups, however, are at receiver. Signing two veterans like in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne was a needed move, but are they good enough? They’d better be.
Agholor has enjoyed bright moments with the Eagles and Raiders. Bourne isn’t a big target. Heck only the under-performing N’Keal Harry (6-4, 225) checks that box, but one of those two veterans needs to develop into a number one or two threat. Count on last year’s leading pass-catcher, Jakobi Myers, to figure largely as well. We can easily see the tight end/running back mix catching as many big passes as the wide receiver corps.
*Finally, the depth on defense is what will scream out to fans visiting Foxboro (Yes you can attend practices this summer!).
The Patriots allowed the sixth-most rushing yards in the NFL last season but Belichick has made sure that won’t happen again. First the return of star linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who sat out for COVID reasons, is huge. So is the return of free agent Kyler Van Noy. But the front seven additions of veterans like linebacker Matt Judon, defensive end Henry Anderson, nose tackle Davon Godchaux and rookie Barmore inject proven commodities into the defense.
When it’s time to rush the passer, the Pats will need youngsters like Winovich, Josh Uche and Ronnie Perkins to bring fresh legs. They own plenty of promise.