Are you ready for some socially distanced football?
A year after NFL teams held fan-free training camps as it tried to navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, spectators will be welcomed back. It will not be quite the same as pre-pandemic days, as fans will have to stay at least 20 feet away from the players, and will not be allowed to seek autographs or pictures with them.
Here is everything you need to know as the Patriots open training camp at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough:
On the seventh day, we’ll have contact
The players reported to camp on Tuesday. They will practice Wednesday through Saturday, with each session beginning at approximately 9:15 a.m.
The first day will be a conditioning day. The next four days are no-contact, with players wearing helmets on the second and third days. Shells will be worn on the fourth and fifth days. The sixth day will be an off day, before full-pad practices, with contact, can begin on the seventh day.
Two practices will be held inside Gillette Stadium — Aug. 6 for season ticket-holders and Foxborough residents, and Aug. 10 for the general public.
How to watch training camp
A few years ago, we put together a guide on how to watch training camp like a pro. Here is the abbreviated version:
▪ Pick a low vantage point for individual drills, and a high one for team drills.
▪ Memorize the roster and jersey numbers cold.
▪ Take notes of the pairings and combinations.
▪ Grade the one-on-one battles, and be descriptive.
▪ Take note of the game situation.
▪ Listen to what the coaches are telling the players.
Top story lines heading into camp
Who’s behind center?
It’s clear the Patriots need better play at quarterback. Cam Newton struggled mightily in 2020. His supporters point out that he did not have much time to get acclimated to his new team after signing with the Patriots late last June, and he did not have the benefit of a normal preseason because the exhibition schedule was canceled.
He also did not appear to have much to work with, particularly once receiver Julian Edelman went down for the season. A pair of rookie tight ends also could not stay on the field. Newton managed eight touchdown passes in 15 games, and his lack of accuracy was a big concern.
With Newton having the benefit of a full offseason in the organization, as well as an upgrade at tight end and wide receiver, coach Bill Belichick appears inclined to give him another chance; he affirmed Newton as “our quarterback” on the night of the draft. But the selection of Alabama quarterback Mac Jones with the 15th pick could mean the veteran is on a short leash, particularly if Jones performs well in camp.
Will the big spending pay off?
Typically not ones to splurge in free agency, the Patriots signed the top two tight ends on the market in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor also were added. How quickly will those new weapons get acclimated to the offense?
The Patriots also spent on the defensive side, signing tackle Davon Godchaux, linebacker Matthew Judon, and defensive back Jalen Mills.
Happy returns at linebacker?
Defensive leader Dont’a Hightower is back after opting out for the 2020 season. While there had been speculation that Hightower might retire, as safety Patrick Ching did, Hightower made it clear at minicamp that he is happy to be back playing with the Patriots.
Kyle Van Noy also is back after one season in Miami. Other teams expressed interest when he was released by the Dolphins, but Van Noy was happy to get another chance to play for Belichick.
Stephon Gilmore is entering the final season of his $65 million deal, one that will pay him $7.9 million in 2021. After he did not attend the team’s voluntary spring practices or mandatory minicamp this offseason, there was speculation he would hold out. The cornerback has reported to camp, but has been placed on the physically unable to perform list. Stay tuned.
Key NFL dates
Aug. 5: Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. Dallas Cowboys vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 8 p.m. (Fox)
Aug. 17: Roster cut-down to 85 players
Aug. 24: Roster cut-down to 80 players
Aug. 31: Roster cut-down to 53 players
The Patriots have three preseason games, all against NFC East opponents. Only one will be at Gillette Stadium. All three games will be broadcast on WBZ-TV:
Aug. 12 vs. Washington, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 19 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 31 at NY Giants, 6 p.m.
Joint practices are back. The Patriots will have them with the Eagles at Philadelphia ahead of the second preseason game. On Aug. 25-26, the Giants will be in Foxborough for a pair of joint practices before the teams meet at MetLife Stadium.
On Sept. 12, for the second year in a row, the Patriots will open the regular season by hosting the Dolphins.
▪ Parking and admission are free. Practices are on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
▪ The training camp schedule is tentative and subject to change. Fans planning to attend practice should check Patriots.com for daily updates or call the training camp hotline at 508-549-0001.
▪ When the Patriots practice indoors because of inclement weather or poor field conditions, practices will be closed to the public.
▪ There are concessions positioned around the practice fields and the Patriots Fan Zone, as well as exhibits from the Patriots Hall of Fame.
▪ All fans entering the facility with a view of the practice fields will be screened by metal detectors, and have all bags screened by security personnel. While bags are permitted, fans are encouraged to use clear bags for speed of inspection and entry.
▪ Prohibited items: Animals (except service animals assisting those with disabilities), alcohol, beach balls, bullhorns and air horns, coolers, fireworks or pyrotechnics, helium balloons, illegal drugs or any other illegal substances, laser pens, noisemakers, video cameras, weapons of any kind (including knives), unmanned aircraft systems, remotely controlled model aircraft, selfie sticks, and GoPro cameras. Flags will be allowed, but flagpoles more than 2 feet in length will not be allowed.
▪ From Boston and farther north: Take I-95 South to Exit 9. Follow Route 1 south approximately 3 miles to Gillette Stadium (on the left).
▪ From Cape Cod: Take I-495 north to Exit 14A. Follow Route 1 north about 4 miles to Gillette Stadium (on the right).
▪ From southern Connecticut and Rhode Island: Take I-95 north to I-495 north to Exit 14A. Follow Route 1 north about 4 miles to Gillette Stadium (on the right).
▪ From northern Connecticut, Vermont, and upstate New York: Take I-90 east to I-495 south to Exit 14A. Follow Route 1 north about 4 miles to Gillette Stadium (on the right).
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.