FOXBORO, Mass. — Here’s a rundown of everything we observed Thursday in the New England Patriots’ eighth training camp practice:
After a lighter day Wednesday — and with an in-stadium walkthrough on tap for Friday evening — the Patriots were back in full pads.
Did not participate
OLB Matthew Judon
TE Dalton Keene
RB James White (physically unable to perform list)
OL Chasen Hines (non-football injury list)
OL Andrew Stueber (NFI)
The reason for Judon’s absence was unclear. This was his first DNP of training camp.
Keene, White and Hines ran through conditioning drills on a separate rehab field, wearing workout clothes.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Jabrill Peppers returned to practice after missing Wednesday. Butler was a full participant, while Peppers spent the second half of practice on the side field.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer also returned after being limited Wednesday, taking his first competitive reps since Day 1 of camp.
Mac Jones went 15-for-20 in competitive 11-on-11s, including one period against the Patriots’ scout-team defense. Against the first-team D, Jones was 7-for-11, with two throwaways forced by pressure and/or tight coverage and a J.J. Taylor drop. Another incompletion came on an apparent miscommunication with tight end Jonnu Smith, who ran a different route than Jones was anticipating on a rep near the goal line.
Jones also scrambled on one rep and took a “sack” on another.
Even with Hoyer back, rookie Bailey Zappe took all second-team reps in 11s. He struggled, going just 1-for-5 with a sack. Tre Nixon dropped one of Zappe’s passes, but it was thrown slightly behind him.
Hoyer’s only competitive action came in 7-on-7s. He went 2-for-4, with Jones going 3-for-3 and Zappe 4-for-4.
Linebacker Jahlani Tavai suffered an apparent leg injury on the final full-team rep of practice. He remained down on the field for several minutes before being helped to the medical tent by team trainers.
Head coach Bill Belichick spoke highly of Tavai earlier this week, saying in a Sirius XM NFL Radio interview that he expected the 25-year-old to be a “big factor … on all four downs” this season.
— The Patriots’ offense showed improvement after looking rough in the first two padded practices.
The Jones-led passing attack operated more smoothly despite some continued protection breakdowns and separation issues. The ground game, though, remained stuck in neutral.
Patriots ball-carriers repeatedly were stuffed at the line, with New England’s defensive linemen often overwhelming their offensive counterparts.
Davon Godchaux, who signed a two-year contract extension earlier in camp, was especially disruptive, snuffing out two handoffs to Ty Montgomery. Linebacker Cameron McGrone also flashed on the scout team with two stuffs against Kevin Harris, including one full-blown tackle.
The Patriots are overhauling their run game this season, abandoning the fullback position and implementing more zone-blocking concepts. That transition has not been particularly smooth thus far.
— Smith and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers were Jones’ top targets in team drills. They combined for 10 of the QB’s 18 completions, with each hauling in five.
— Running back Rhamondre Stevenson upped his participation level after spending most of Wednesday’s practice on the rehab field, but the Patriots held him out of team drills. That resulted in much more first-team opportunities for Taylor, who’s mostly worked with Zappe’s group since the start of camp.
Taylor caught his first three targets from Jones before dropping one in the flat on the final play of practice.
— In another notable backfield development, rookie Pierre Strong was a full participant for the first time this summer. The speedy South Dakota State product rotated with Harris on the second team during 11-on-11s, logging one carry.
With White’s recovery from hip surgery potentially stretching into the season, Stong has been viewed as a candidate to take on some of the veteran’s third-down back responsibilities. His delayed start to camp didn’t help, but we’ll see if he can make up some ground now as the Patriots prepare for next Thursday’s preseason opener against the New York Giants.
— Josh Uche turned in a couple of impressive reps in lineman 1-on-1s and also helped force the “sack” Jones took in team drills.
Guard Mike Onwenu also had a strong 1-on-1 rep against Christian Barmore, who’s been a menace in those drills this week. Kody Russey did well against Godchaux in another; David Andrews stonewalled Daniel Ekuale; and Isaiah Wynn and Justin Herron both shut down edge rushes from Ronnie Perkins.
Assistant O-line coach Billy Yates pulled first-round draft pick Cole Strange aside after a 1-on-1 battle against veteran Lawrence Guy. Yates’ lesson appeared to be focused on hand placement.
— With Judon out, Anfernee Jennings stepped into his outside linebacker spot on the top defensive unit.
Jennings entered camp as a relative afterthought after struggling as a rookie in 2020 and spending all of last season on injured reserve, but he’s put himself in contention for a roster spot so far this summer.
As Belichick noted Wednesday, the fact he’s finally healthy has helped. That wasn’t the case last summer, when injuries wiped out his entire preseason before his more to season-ending IR.
— Arlington Hambright continued to rotate with Onwenu at right guard on the first-team O-line. The former Chicago Bears draft pick appears to be firmly in the roster mix at this stage.
— Adrian Phillips (against Hunter Henry), Kyle Dugger (against Henry) and Jalen Elliott (against Matt Sokol) had pass breakups in tight end-versus-safety 1-on-1s. Smith and Dugger each won both of his reps in that period, with the former beating Joshuah Bledsoe and Brenden Schooler.
Safeties coach Brian Belichick could be seen giving Bledsoe and Schooler pointers after later 1-on-1 losses.
— Nixon and Jonathan Jones both had multiple positive reps in receiver/cornerback 1-on-1s, with the young wideout beating Myles Bryant twice and the veteran slot corner gluing himself to Meyers and Tyquan Thornton to force incompletions.
On another Thornton rep, Mac Jones sailed a pass over the rookie’s head after he broke off his route. That caused the QB to throw up his hands in frustration. Thornton, whose stock has risen since camp began, later beat fellow draftee Jack Jones for a catch from Zappe in 11s.
— Nixon, a minicamp standout whose hype train stalled early in camp, has seen more looks with Jones and the top offense of late.
A slick route-runner, the 2021 seventh-round pick caught both of his targets from Jones on Thursday, including a sideline touchdown against Butler. He’ll have a tough time cracking the 53-man roster, especially if Montgomery continues to show value as a receiver/running back/special teams hybrid, but keep an eye on him in joint practices and preseason games.
— Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley has been absent from practice all week for undisclosed reasons. Offensive assistant Tyler Hughes coached Caley’s position group Thursday.
Bill Belichick did not offer any clarity on Caley’s situation when asked about it during his pre-practice news conference.
— The Patriots kicked off practice with the annual rookie slip-n-slide.
A member of the team’s support staff spent close to 20 minutes hosing down one small patch of grass, then first-year players — along with a few young coaches and staffers — dove onto the soaked turf to recover simulated fumbles, all while being hosed down by special teams captain Matthew Slater.
With temperatures approaching 90 degrees in Foxboro, we doubt they were complaining.
The Patriots will hold their annual in-stadium practice for season-ticket holders and Foxboro residents Friday evening at 7 p.m. ET. Traditionally, that’s one of the least intense days of camp, with players wearing helmets and shorts and moving at a walkthrough pace.
NESN.com’s coverage of New England Patriots preseason is presented by Cross Insurance, protecting your team since 1954.