It’s beginning to feel like football season in Foxboro.
The New England Patriots will hold their first padded training camp practice of the summer Monday morning. It’ll also be the first practice that’s open to non-team-affiliated media members, giving reporters their long-awaited first look at Cam Newton in a Patriots uniform.
Here are eight storylines we’ll be watching as the start of the regular season draws closer:
1. How are the quarterback reps divided?
This year’s marquee roster battle is the one behind center: Newton vs. Jarrett Stidham vs. Brian Hoyer. It’s the Patriots’ first true starting quarterback competition since 1992, and it’ll be fascinating to monitor over the next three weeks.
Newton is by far the most accomplished of the three and should win the job if healthy, but the order of reps in one early passing drill last week went Hoyer, then Stidham, then Newton, then undrafted rookie Brian Lewerke — a sign the former NFL MVP won’t simply be handed the job. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the plan is to let the competition “declare itself” on the practice field, and with no preseason games this year, the winner might not be revealed until Week 1.
2. When will we see Sony Michel (and Lamar Miller)?
Both running backs currently are on the active/physically unable to perform list. They can be removed from that list at any time but cannot practice until that happens.
As for Michel, who’s recovering from offseason foot surgery, the Patriots reportedly aren’t sure whether he’ll be ready to go in time for their season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 13. So it’s likely we won’t see much, if any, of the 2018 first-round draft pick in training camp.
Miller’s status is less clear. He signed with the Patriots last week after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, ending a streak of five consecutive years with at least 870 rushing yards. If he comes back healthy this summer and Michel remains sidelined, Miller has a solid chance of entering the season as New England’s lead back.
So, too, does Damien Harris, the 2019 third-round pick who essentially redshirted as a rookie. Harris played well in limited preseason action last summer, has garnered rave reviews from position coach Ivan Fears and could take on a much larger role in Year 2 if he looks the part in camp. Veteran Rex Burkhead also impressed during last week’s non-padded practices, according to Paul Perillo of Patriots.com.
3. Are either of the young tight ends ready to start?
The Patriots have high hopes for Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene after drafting both in the third round, but will either be prepared to start against Miami? With no spring practice, no preseason and an abbreviated training camp due to COVID-19, that might be a tough ask. Bill Belichick said last Friday the Patriots’ rookie class as a whole is “in deep water, in turbulent water” as they attempt to rapidly adjust to the NFL game.
Asiasi played in a pro-style offense at UCLA and should have an easier transition than Keene, who played H-back at Virginia Tech. Keene also will compete with returning second-year pro Jakob Johnson for fullback reps. The Patriots should look to add a veteran to this group, as 24-year-old Ryan Izzo (six career NFL appearances) currently is their most experienced tight end.
4. Which receiver hopefuls stand out?
If we assume Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu and special teamer Matthew Slater are making the team, that leaves just two or three roster spots for Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Jeff Thomas, Will Hastings, Isaiah Zuber and Devin Ross to fight over. That’ll be a fun bunch to watch. (Early prediction: Byrd, Meyers and Thomas make the cut.)
We also want to see how Sanu is moving on his surgically repaired ankle and whether Harry, who appears to have slimmed down a bit, has improved his route-running. The 2019 first-rounder made a slew of acrobatic catches last summer but struggled to create separation and suffered multiple injuries, including one that sidelined him for the first half of his rookie season.
5. Who plays right tackle?
No Marcus Cannon — who opted out of the season — and no clear favorite to replace him. The current candidates are Korey Cunningham, Yodny Cajuste, Justin Herron and guards Joe Thuney and Jermaine Eluemunor, both of whom played tackle in college. This is one of New England’s most important roster battles, as right tackle is the lone wild card in an otherwise locked-in starting O-line.
6. How will the rookies fit in on defense?
Top pick Kyle Dugger boasts enticing versatility and eye-popping athleticism at the safety position, but it’s tough to envision him leaping straight from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne into Patrick Chung’s vacated starting spot. Dugger reportedly got off to a strong start last week, though, and could push veterans Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks for Chung’s usual role if that trend continues.
Meanwhile, the losses of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency coupled with Dont’a Hightower’s opt-out created clear opportunities for the Patriots’ stable of rookie linebackers — second-round pick Josh Uche, third-rounder Anfernee Jennings, sixth-rounder Cassh Maluia and UDFA Scoota Harris. Given the current makeup of New England’s depth chart, it’s likely at least one of them will see substantial playing time early in the season.
7. Who returns punts and kicks?
Both returner spots will be up for grabs this summer with Olszewski looking to reclaim his punt return position after a season-ending injury and a number of players battling for kick return duties, handled last season by Brandon Bolden. Olszewski, Dugger, Byrd, Thomas, Zuber and undrafted rookie running back J.J. Taylor all should be in the mix for one or both of those jobs.
8. Can Justin Rohrwasser handle the pressure?
Rohrwasser isn’t competing against any other kickers in Patriots camp — he’s currently the only one on the roster — but the legacies of Stephen Gostkowski and Adam Vinatieri loom large over the fifth-round rookie. We typically don’t pay much attention to kicking drills in training camp. That will change this year as Rohrwasser looks to prove he was worthy of being the first kicker selected in the 2020 NFL Draft.