New England Patriots veterans report for training camp Tuesday. They’ll take the field for their first full practice Wednesday morning. Football is on the horizon in Foxboro.
With camp set to kick off, we examined the biggest question facing each Patriots position group.
QUARTERBACK: Cam Newton or Mac Jones?
It’s more a question of “when” than “if” with Jones, the Patriots’ highest-drafted QB (15th overall) since Drew Bledsoe. He will be New England’s starting signal-caller before long. But can he beat out Newton to win that job this summer? That’s a realistic possibility.
Our money is on the incumbent, though. Newton should be better this season with a deeper knowledge of the offense and a much-improved supporting cast, and head coach Bill Belichick — who’s spoken highly about the 2015 NFL MVP at every turn — probably would prefer not to start an untested rookie in Week 1.
The undercard battle between Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer will provide intrigue, as well, as one will likely be sent packing by the end of the preseason.
RUNNING BACK: Who makes the cut?
The Patriots currently have six running backs deserving of roster spots: Damien Harris, Sony Michel, James White, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. They typically carry no more than five.
So, who gets the boot? That could hinge on how Stevenson performs this summer. He’s a roster lock as a fourth-round draft pick, and if he convinces the team he can be an immediate contributor, the Patriots could consider trading Michel, who’s entering the final year of his rookie contract.
WIDE RECEIVER: Can Nelson Agholor live up to his contract?
N’Keal Harry’s fate will generate more preseason headlines — it seems increasingly likely the 2018 first-rounder will be either traded or cut before September — but Agholor is far more important to New England’s offensive success.
The Patriots are paying Agholor No. 1 receiver money (two years, $22 million, $16 million guaranteed) putting pressure on the 28-year-old to replicate the season he had for the Las Vegas Raiders a year ago, when he ranked second in the NFL in yards per reception (18.7) and scored eight touchdowns as one of the league’s premier deep threats. That was an anomalous campaign for Agholor, who never topped 12.4 yards per catch during his tumultuous five-year stint in Philadelphia, making his hefty contract the most controversial investment of New England’s offseason spending spree.
The Pats had arguably the league’s worst receiving corps last season. They need Agholor (along with fellow newcomer Kendrick Bourne and lone 2020 standout Jakobi Meyers) to be part of the solution.
TIGHT END: How will the Patriots deploy Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith?
Thirty-one NFL teams ran at least 90 plays out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) last season. The 2020 Patriots, meanwhile, utilized that package on a mere 22 total snaps and passed the ball on just eight of them. Expect those numbers — along with New England’s putrid tight end receiving stats — to skyrocket now that Henry and Smith are aboard.
We’ll be closely monitoring how offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels positions Henry and Smith, who should form the franchise’s best tight end duo since Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Smith didn’t take part in voluntary OTAs and hurt his hamstring early in minicamp, so we didn’t see much of the two together this spring.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Can their top tackles stay healthy?
Even after losing star guard Joe Thuney in free agency, New England’s O-line has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best this season — if it can remain intact. Projected starting tackles Isaiah Wynn (left) and Trent Brown (right) both have dealt with multiple major injuries in recent years, with Wynn appearing in just 18 of a possible 48 games over his three-year career and Brown missing 16 contests during his two-year stint with the Raiders.
The Patriots have two solid backup options in 2020 sixth-round picks Mike Onwenu (who’s expected to replace Thuney at left guard) and Justin Herron, but another extended absence from Wynn or Brown would leave them worryingly thin up front.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Can this unit stop the run?
After fielding the NFL’s worst run defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA a year ago, the Patriots made strengthening their D-line a clear offseason priority. They signed three veterans early in free agency (Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Montravius Adams), re-upped Lawrence Guy and Carl Davis, and traded up in the second round to draft Christian Barmore. It’s difficult to properly judge trench play during non-padded spring practice, so our first true look at this new-look bunch of big bodies will come this week.
EDGE DEFENDER: Is the Patriots’ pass rush back?
At points during the spring, the Patriots put Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Josh Uche rushing the quarterback together in obvious passing situations. That sub package group is far more formidable than any the team fielded last season, when New England ranked near the bottom of the NFL in sacks (tied for 26th) and forced fumbles (tied for last).
Consider this: Chase Winovich led the Patriots in sacks and total pressures in 2020, and he could have a hard time getting onto the field this season. Ditto for Ronnie Perkins, the team’s intriguing third-round draft pick.
LINEBACKER: How will Dont?a Hightower look after a year away?
“Hopefully we get the same Hightower we got in 2019, but we’ll see.” That’s what inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo had to say about New England’s returning defensive leader back in June, admitting he couldn’t predict where the 31-year-old would be at physically after his yearlong COVID-19 opt-out.
Losing Hightower was a gigantic blow to the Patriots’ defense last season, and if he can play at or near the level he did in 2019, when he was a Pro Bowler, he’ll be arguably the team’s most important defensive addition. Hightower looked fit and lean during spring practice. Will his body hold up once full contact commences?
CORNERBACK: Can the Patriots resolve the Stephon Gilmore situation?
Gilmore reported to training camp last week — avoiding what would have been daily $50,000 fines — but remains unsatisfied with his current contract. The 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year reportedly would accept either a multi-year extension or a simple bump to his $7 million base salaries, but as of Monday night, no new deal had been struck.
Gilmore also is on the active/physically unable to perform list as he recovers from the partially torn quad that ended his 2020 season. Until he’s fully healthy and his contract status is settled (a one-time pay raise still seems like the most likely eventual outcome), expect to see a lot of Jalen Mills, Joejuan Williams and Michael Jackson opposite J.C. Jackson in practice.
SAFETY: Can Kyle Dugger take a Year 2 leap?
The Patriots have high hopes for Dugger, their top pick in last year’s draft. The Lenoir-Rhyne product started seven of New England’s final eight games as a rookie and should take take on an even larger role this season, playing the Patrick Chung role as a versatile safety/linebacker hybrid.
Dugger’s athleticism, size, versatilty, football IQ and penchant for dishing out bone-rattling hits make him one of the Patriots’ most exciting defensive players to watch, and he’ll continue to improve as he gains more experience in areas like man coverage. He has legit star potential.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Who wins the kicker competition?
Nick Folk beat out a rookie kicker (Justin Rohrwasser) to win the 2020 starting job. He’ll need to do so again this summer, with big-legged Michigan product Quinn Nordin — the Patriots’ lone undrafted free agent — in camp to challenge him. Folk was excellent last season (92.9 percent on field goals; two 50-plus-yard game-winners) but turns 37 in November.