Patriots Observations: Mac Jones Makes Strides With Cam Newton Out

After an uneven practice Monday, Jones was much sharper


FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots were without quarterback Cam Newton for a second straight practice Tuesday, resulting in another heavy workload for rookie challenger Mac Jones.

How did Jones fare? Let’s dive into our practice observations from Tuedsay:

Helmets and shells.

After practicing in full pads Monday, the Patriots dialed down the intensity ahead of Wednesday’s joint practice with the New York Giants. New England and New York also will practice together Thursday ahead of their preseason finale Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.

Did not participate:
QB Cam Newton
QB Jarrett Stidham
WR Devin Ross
WR N’Keal Harry
S Malik Gant
CB Stephon Gilmore
RB Brandon Bolden
S Joshuah Bledsoe
LB Cameron McGrone
LS Brian Khoury
LB Terez Hall
OL R.J. Prince
OL Marcus Martin
TE Matt LaCosse
WR Tre Nixon
DT Nick Thurman
DT Byron Cowart

TE Hunter Henry (red non-contact jersey)
DB Myles Bryant (red non-contact jersey)

Henry (shoulder) remained on the main field throughout practice — an improvement from his previous participation level — but did not take part in team drills. Bryant practiced for the first time since being knocked out of New England’s preseason opener with an undisclosed injury. He did participate in team drills.

Bolden, LaCosse, Bledsoe and Nixon ran through rehab/conditioning drills during practice.

Ross, Gant, Khoury and Prince reportedly were released ahead of Tuesday afternoon’s 80-player roster cutdown deadline. Martin or Thurman could be cut, as well, as the Patriots entered the day with 85 players on their roster.

Top running back Damien Harris was slow to get up after tumbling over edge rusher Ronnie Perkins on a rushing attempt in 11-on-11s. Harris appeared in good spirits once he reached the sideline, however, and later returned to the field.

Given free rein to take all first-team QB reps Monday, Jones stumbled, turning in an uneven performance in the Patriots’ first practice sans Newton.

The rookie was much sharper Tuesday.

Jones completed 29 of 36 passes during 11-on-11 drills, including a 26-for-30 start. His 80.5 percent completion rate was a significant step up from the 54.8 percent mark he posted Monday.

It is important to note that this latest practice was non-padded and therefore featured a less aggressive pass rush and that some of Jones’ reps might not have been fully competitive. Still, this was a marked improvement for the first-round draft pick, who’s attempting to unseat Newton and win the Week 1 starting job.

Jones’ favored target was Jakobi Meyers, who was on the receiving end of two of the QB’s prettiest completions. The first — a diving catch in the end zone against slot cornerback Jonathan Jones — was the play of the day. On the second, Jones moved within the pocket, stepped toward the line and fired a short touchdown pass to Meyers during a two-minute drill. The latter prompted a brief back-and-forth with veteran edge rusher Matt Judon, who was in a position to crush the young QB had Jones not been wearing a red non-contact jersey.

All told, Jones completed 7 of his 8 passes to Meyers, whom he targeted just once Monday. His lone miss came when Meyers was wide open on a deep corner route. Jones also had a strong connection with tight end Jonnu Smith, who finished with five catches on six targets with a two-minute-drill touchdown of his own.

The quick-pace scoring strikes to Meyers and Smith came during Jones’ best stretch of practice. He went 9-for-10 during a two-minute period, with his lone incompletion coming on a deep ball to running back Sony Michel that appeared to be intentionally overthrown.

The bulk of Jones’ work came against the Patriots’ starting defense — an encouraging sign for the first-year signal-caller. That unit did give Jones trouble in a few red-zone situations, however. Jones threw two interceptions in or near the end zone, both on targets to wide receiver Gunner Olszewski.

On the first, Jones threw slightly behind Olszewski, allowing cornerback J.C. Jackson to tip the ball to safety Devin McCourty. On the second, Jackson outmuscled Olszewski on a quick slant for a pick of his own.

Jones’ biggest test — and greatest opportunity — yet will come Wednesday against the Giants. Newton, who is sidelined due to a “misunderstanding” over COVID-19 testing protocols, will miss that practice, as well, before returning to the field Thursday.

By our count, Jones has taken a total of 79 reps and attempted 67 passes in 11-on-11s during Newton’s absence, completing 46 (68.7 percent).

Third-stringer Brian Hoyer went 4-for-10 with an interception in limited 11-on-11 action and 3-for-3 in 7-on-7s. Jones was 2-for-4 in 7s with a drop by Isaiah Zuber.

— Tuesday’s practice was heavy on situational work, with the majority of Jones’ series either simulating a two-minute drill or taking place in the red zone (or both).

Head coach Bill Belichick added a “gotta-have-it” competitive element to the last three rounds of 11-on-11s, which began near the goal line. The offense was forced to do pushups after failing to score on consecutive third downs (Jackson’s interception against Olszewski and a Hoyer incompletion), and the defense had to drop down after Jones hit Kristian Wilkerson for a touchdown against Jalen Mills.

— Jackson got his revenge on Olszewski after the wideout/return man beat him for a touchdown on a similar slant route late in Monday’s practice.

“He got me yesterday, so I came back out (and) said, ‘I can’t get beat on that route again,’ ” Jackson said. “It’s all about competing, you know? Making each other get better each and every day.”

In addition to his plays mentioned above, Jackson also broke off his receiver and ranged across the field to intercept a Hoyer deep ball to fullback Jakob Johnson. He’s easily been the Patriots’ best cornerback in camp with Gilmore sidelined.

— Being targeted on two intercepted passes spoiled an otherwise productive practice for Olszewski, who caught each of his first four targets.

— Smith’s five catches included two contested grabs against safety Adrian Phillips, who’s owned Smith and Henry throughout training camp.

— Monday’s most involved receivers were relatively quiet Tuesday. Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor combined for just two catches on three targets from Jones during 11-on-11s. Each received nine targets from Jones during the previous practice.

Agholor also caught one pass from Jones in 7-on-7s and one from Hoyer in 11s. His lone target from Jones in full-team drills came on the final rep of the day.

— Running back J.J. Taylor, who’s caught all eight of his targets across two preseason games, beat linebacker Harvey Langi on a wheel route for a big gain from Hoyer.

— Cornerback Joejuan Williams saw an uptick in reps with the top defense, rotating at times with Mills. The 2019 second-round draft pick seems to have improved his standing over the last two weeks after entering camp on the roster bubble.

— Kyle Van Noy broke up a pass to Smith on Jones’ first snap of 11-on-11s. The versatile linebacker has had a nose for the ball this summer. Safety Kyle Dugger also had a breakup in the end zone on a goal-line trick play.

— Rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson continued to take reps as a kick returner, which is a relatively new role for him. An apparent mistake by Stevenson on one return prompted an animated outburst from special teams coordinator Cam Achord.

Taylor and Dugger also returned kicks.

— After ceding field-goal duties to Nick Folk on Monday, undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin was the Patriots’ lone placekicker in team drills. Most of his kicks were toward a set of narrower goal posts positioned at one end of the practice field, but in our estimation, 4 of his 7 attempts would have been good on regulation posts.

On Nordin’s last miss, Judon broke through the line and nearly blocked it, likely by design. He had an eighth attempt blocked by Dugger under similar circumstances. (That block hit Dugger in the face, causing his helmet to fly off.)

Nordin got off to a strong start in training camp, but his chances of beating out Folk took a hit when he missed a 36-yard field goal and two extra points in last week’s preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

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