It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
No disrespect intended toward the late, great Andy Williams, but for football fans far and wide, this is the holiday season.
Training camps are opening across the country and the sound of cleats clicking and clacking and the smell of fresh cut grass trigger memories of past glories and spark thoughts of future successes.
There’s an abundance of hope in every NFL outpost.
With that hope, however, comes questions. Lots and lots of questions. Many will be answered over the next seven weeks as staffs shape rosters and get their clubs ready for opening day.
There’s a heap of queries and intrigue coming out of Foxborough, so here’s a look at some of the top story lines to follow as the Patriots look to rebound from last season’s 7-9 record:
“Who’s the quarterback?”
Aside from, “Can you get me tickets to the Brady game?” (Sorry, no can do), this is the most popular inquiry pitched since the schedule was released.
If minicamp was a harbinger, then the competition to be the leader of this offense should be exciting. The first dozen or so training camp practices will be key to setting the tone for the team and establishing a pecking order among the field generals.
Cam Newton sits atop the depth chart until somebody can knock the former MVP off that most coveted perch. He’ll face challenges from Mac Jones, Jarrett Stidham, and Brian Hoyer.
Newton had a very strong spring and even bounced back from a bit of adversity when he tweaked his right thumb during an OTA session but recovered to be a full participant in minicamp.
As always, Newton brought the enthusiasm during the sessions, but he also brought a renewed sense of energy with his play. He acknowledged his 2020 struggles — both physical and mental — but appeared more comfortable running the show and throwing the ball during the workouts media were allowed to attend.
Newton’s showed consistent velocity on his throws — better than at any point last season — and his arm strength was better as well as he attempted several deep balls over the three days. In his final minicamp practice, he displayed excellent accuracy, completing 17 of 21 passes.
With no pads and no contact, which severely limits how defenders can guard and shadow, the passing numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt. At the same time, these restrictions severely limit the breadth of Newton’s skills, as his ability to be a physical force, whether it’s shedding would-be sackers or in the open field as a runner.
By signing early in free agency, Newton was able to continue to expand his knowledge of this offense with a full — if not yet fully back to normal — offseason program. Things should come more naturally this summer, leading to less “overthinking” (Newton’s word) when he’s on the field.
If he’s fully healthy — his throwing motion last season suggested his shoulder may not have been 100 percent — and can bond with new tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, Newton will be a much different quarterback this time around. It’s his job to lose and he will not give it up without a fight.
“How’s Mac Jones looking?”
Jones also had a very impressive spring. He’s a smart cookie rookie who threw the ball decisively and accurately and didn’t seem at all fazed by the often intense coaching thrown his way during individual and team drills. Not a big surprise considering where he played, and who he played for, in college.
Coming from Alabama, the transition to a similarly structured environment (and football hotbed) in New England will not be a hard one for Jones. He’s had a lot put on his plate since being picked No. 15 overall and has responded well, drawing rave early reviews from staffers and teammates — including Newton, who sidestepped any quarterback controversy talk when he said the Patriots did the right thing by grabbing Jones when they did.
Jones is clearly the quarterback of the future, but he has the physical skills and mental makeup to make a push to be the quarterback of the present. He will be tested daily in camp and the joint practices against the Eagles and Giants will be particularly telling about where he is in his development. They will be beneficial in any case.
It’s a win-win summer for Jones. Either he seizes the starter’s job or he gets a de facto redshirt season to develop his game and learn how to be a professional.
He’s been in this position before, sitting behind a pair of high-profile quarterbacks in Tuscaloosa who are now NFL starters in Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa before getting his shot. Jones can be patient. Will Patriots fans be able to?
There will be secondary QB competition, with Stidham and Hoyer battling for a backup spot, which could be No. 2 or 3 depending on how things shake out between Newton and Jones.
Stidham showed some flashes in the spring, and it feels like a make-or-break summer for the third-year player. He started last season as the third-stringer before being elevated, though he never posed a serious threat to unseat Newton.
Hoyer was solid in limited snaps during minicamp. Heading into his 13th season — and seventh in New England — Hoyer is among the most respected teammates in this franchise. Whether he’s leading a team drill, running the scout team, or offering advice to younger quarterbacks, Hoyer is always about what’s doing best for his team. That’s invaluable.
“What happens with Stephon Gilmore?”
The perennial Pro Bowl cornerback skipped mandatory minicamp, which cost him $93,085. However, he reported when other veterans did so this past week, which is an encouraging development. He would have been subjected to $50,000 daily fines that can no longer be forgiven under the collective bargaining agreement. If you sit, you pay.
He suffered a partially torn quadriceps in Miami in Week 15 last year and is on the physically unable to perform list. He can come off at any time.
Gilmore is due $7 million in salary this season (it’s closer to $8 million if all incentives are hit) and is looking for a salary bump. He has not expressed a desire to be traded.
It feels as though something is going to give sooner rather than later. It’s unlikely the Patriots would invest so heavily in revamping and bolstering their defense and then trade their best defender. Certainly, the offseason reconstruction plan called for Gilmore to be locking down No. 1 receivers.
A long-term extension may not be in the cards — Gilmore turns 31 in September — but reworking his current deal (which expires at the end of the season) to add money and incentives may be the way to go.
New England, which has approximately $12 million in salary-cap space, could bring Gilmore’s total compensation to around $12 million and still have the financial flexibility to make other moves.
“Where does N’Keal Harry stand?”
Currently at the back of the line. The former first-round receiver is at a crossroads as his third season begins. He is ready to report to Foxborough, but also is seeking a fresh start somewhere else after requesting a trade through his agent.
It’s an awkward position. For everybody.
Asking for a trade publicly hurts a team’s leverage when it comes to negotiations with possible trade partners. Teams naturally will low ball their offers, figuring they are dealing from a position of strength.
Harry, who has 45 career catches, is behind Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and Jakobi Meyers on the depth chart. He can continue to work hard to try and climb, but if he wants to be somewhere else, practice reps might be better served going to developing younger receivers, including Gunner Olszewski, Isaiah Zuber, Tre Nixon, and Kristian Wilkerson.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound Harry was a physical force in college. He used his superior size and strength to gain separation and win contested balls. So far, he’s been unable to consistently do that at the next level.
A possible trade partner emerged late in the week when it was learned that Saints star Michael Thomas could miss a chunk of time because of ankle surgery. The Patriots and Saints have a long history of making mutually beneficial trades, so this could make sense.
It’s also possible Harry is moved toward the end of camp — perhaps he catches the eye of Nick Sirianni or Joe Judge — when teams could be looking to replace injured players.
It always hurts to move on from first-rounders before their rookie contracts are up, but it’s better than using up a valuable roster spot on a player who isn’t producing.
“How good can this defense be?”
The pocket pressure created by the revamped front seven was exceptional during in minicamp. It came from every direction and from every player. Every quarterback felt the heat and suffered claustrophobia as the defenders continually took away their time and space.
Again, without pads or contact offensive linemen and running backs (who would normally pick off blitzers) were at a severe disadvantage, but this was still an impressive performance by the defense, and it often let the offense know it.
Returning leaders Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy made their presence felt, jumping from spot to spot and creating havoc. Josh Uche and Matt Judon likewise were extremely active.
Uche was the breakout star of the spring and could be the latest in a long line of second-level Patriots defenders who can excel in multiple roles from multiple spots. He’s enjoying being a sponge, learning from the veterans.
“It’s been great,” he said. “When I go back and watch practice, I can watch each of those guys and see how they do certain things and certain movements. If I like a move, I’ll ask them, ‘How do you do this?’ and kind of implement it into my game, kind of copycat, if you will. It’s been great. They have a lot of experience under their belts.’'
On the inside, newcomers Davon Godchaux and Montravius Adams, as well as rookie second-rounder Christian Barmore, looked like natural fits, forcing quick decisions and quick passes.
The pass rush was anemic at times in 2020, with the Patriots registering just 24 sacks, tied for 27th in the NFL, which prompted the overhaul.
On the back end, New England’s secondary is still superb with Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones on the corners, and Devin McCourty at safety. The addition of Jalen Mills and the continued emergence of Kyle Dugger should offset the retirement of Patrick Chung.
“When you put all those pieces together, there ain’t no telling what we can do,” said Adrian Phillips, a safety by name but linebacker at heart. “Because Judon, Dont’a, Kyle — all those guys can go out there and make plays. Jalen Mills can make plays. And [the coaches] are teaching guys like Uche and Chase [Winovich] and guys like that — it’s just crazy. You see a jump across the whole field and overall it’s making our defense better.”
Smart decision on roster rules
The NFL did the smart and prudent thing by carrying over a number of roster rules put in place last year to guard against teams not having enough players in case of a COVID-19 breakout.
The rules include:
▪ Expanding practice squads to 16 players, including up to six slots for players with more than two accrued seasons.
▪ Teams can protect four practice squad players from being poached by other clubs.
▪ The ability to promote two practice squad players to the active game-day roster, without removing any current players.
▪ The ability to elevate an additional practice squad player within 90 minutes before kickoff in the event of a last-minute positive COVID-19 test result.
▪ Players placed on injured reserve can come back after three weeks instead of the normal six-week wait.
▪ An unlimited number of players can be activated from IR. Previously only two players could be designated to return.
Both the league and the players’ union were in favor keeping the rules, and Dawn Aponte, the league’s chief football administrative officer, made it official Friday.
“Games will not be postponed to avoid roster issues,” she said.
Though the rules will likely go away in future seasons, I’d be in favor of keeping them in modified form — particularly the ones related to IR. It never made sense to me to limit the number of players that can be brought back. Players shouldn’t miss an entire year of development just because they suffered an injury that could be healed in a month. By the same token, teams shouldn’t have to occupy a roster spot while waiting for the player to heal.
No problem with Cowart’s comments
I’m looking forward to Tom Brady’s return to Foxborough in Week 4 as much as the next person, but I also have no problem with Byron Cowart’s recent comments on the “Patriots Way of Life” podcast.
“We ain’t welcoming him, we just got to play him,’' the third-year defensive lineman said. “There ain’t going be no damn ceremony for him or nothing like that.”
Cowart was slammed in some circles — his words were called “scathing” by ESPN’s Mike Greenberg — but what was he supposed to say? That he’s going to gush and fawn over his former teammate for 60 minutes?
Most of the Byron bashers conveniently forgot to mention the fact that he also praised Brady: “Love the guy — he did a lot for the community and for the city, but he’s still an opponent.”
Classy move by Robert Kraft to send the Boston Renegades off to Ohio for the Women’s Football Alliance championship weekend on the Patriots team plane . . . It’ll be great to see fannies in the seats at Patriots practices this coming week. It’s a great atmosphere and players enjoy performing in front of crowds — something that was sorely missed in 2020. Just a reminder, no post-practice autograph sessions this season . . . Rough stretch in NFL circles with the passing of Jets passing game coordinator Greg Knapp and former Broncos offensive coordinator Alex Gibbs. Knapp, 58, died from complications of injuries suffered when his bicycle was struck by a motorist in California. Gibbs, 80, had suffered a recent stroke . . . Thoughts also are with the friends and family of WBZ-TV editor extraordinaire Jim Murphy, who died suddenly this past week.