Top 5 Headlines for the New England Patriots as the Season Begins

It has definitely been an interesting offseason for the New England Patriots. Between a QB competition unlike anything we have seen in decades in Foxboro to the #1 defensive player in an odd holdout/injury situation, there has been plenty of storylines surrounding the New England Patriots. For those who aren’t following the daily comings and goings of the franchise like I do, let’s take a look at the major headlines and their potential impact in 2021 as the season kicks off this week.

1. Rookie QB Mac Jones Takes the Reins

Arguably the most talked about story this training camp and preseason was the QB competition. Incumbent Cam Newton appeared to have the edge right up until the 53-man roster was selected and he was released from the team. By all accounts, Mac Jones outperformed Cam both on and off the field this offseason, proving he was ready to lead the team despite being drafted just over 130 days ago in the 1st round of the 2021 draft. The University of Alabama QB has looked poised, calm, and confident in the limited preseason playing time we’ve seen from him and appears to have the support of the Patriots offense, which is incredibly important.

While Cam Newton provided the Pats with more offense on the ground, Mac Jones seems to have the stronger and more accurate arm. The largest difference between Mac and Cam based on my observation is decision-making. Mac has shown he can make a quick decision and get rid of the ball, unlike Cam who tends to hold on to it longer than maybe needed, leading to more scrambles and broken plays. Mac is just a rookie who will be starting his first game on Sunday, so expectations may be high, but should be tempered. He will make mistakes, but hopefully will continue to learn from them and should have a pretty high ceiling in this Pats system.

2. The Stephon Gilmore Saga

The Patriots top secondary talent, and maybe top overall defensive talent, Stephon Gilmore has had an eventful offseason off the field, but a silent one on the field. Here’s the high-level summary of the situation: Gilmore is unhappy with his $7 million per year contract because he is one of the best DBs in football, but isn’t being paid like it. He’s in the last year of his contract and started training camp in July by holding out, essentially just deciding not to show up until a deal was done. No deal was agreed to, so he appeared in Foxboro, but was immediately added to the PUP (physically unable to participate) list. A quad injury and surgery ended his 2020 season, but it’s unclear whether he is really still injured or just using it to continue to hold out.

Then, after not appearing with the team in any practices or games, Gilmore was placed on the PUP list to start the regular season, which means he will be out until at least week 7. Meanwhile, Gilmore is posting pictures on social media on vacation while the rest of the team is busting their butts in practice. The whole situation is a complete mess and was botched by the Patriots. Gilmore is an elite talent and I would guess the entire holdout situation could have been avoided with a small pay raise and perhaps a year or two extension, something that is definitely within the ability of the Patriots to complete.

The impact on the defense will be significant, because the absence of Gilmore pushes every other DB up on the depth chart and that chart gets thin rather quickly without him. This weird game of chicken could seriously hurt the Patriots this season. At this point, there is a real possibility that Gilmore will never wear the Patriots uniform in-game again, which would be a huge shame and massively disappointing.

3. The Four-Headed Running Back Depth

One of the few position groups that had a surprisingly huge spring and summer was the running back group. The 3rd year back out of, you guessed it, the University of Alabama Damien Harris came into camp as the clear #1 who should get the majority of the snaps. Entering training camp, there was a group of guys, Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor, James White, and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson all fighting for the other running back spots on the roster. After being the lead back in 2018 and 2019, Michel appeared to be on the outs with the coaching staff and in fact was traded to the Los Angeles Rams toward the end of the preseason to make room for the other guys.

While Harris maintained his grip on RB1, Taylor and Stevenson shined in the preseason and both showed the tremendous value they can bring to this team as both change-of-pace backs, but also as subs in case of injury. Taylor is tiny, by football standards, listed at 5’6″ and 185lbs. His small size makes him difficult to find behind the massive offensive linemen and his quickness is a huge asset as well as his special teams ability. He’ll probably see significant time in the return game throughout the season. Stevenson is in stark contrast to Taylor listed at 6′ and 227lbs, he has breakaway speed, but is also a tough, physical back. He did dislocate his thumb in practice this week, but could still play in week 1. They will likely not play Stevenson as much, giving him some opportunities, but barring injuries, I think they’ll take it easier with him to start the season.

White is an interesting back who has been around for awhile. He’s essentially more of a WR coming out of the back field, so will probably get some 3rd down touches and see more action in the passing game. Some weeks he’ll play like an RB2 and other weeks more like RB4 depending on the game plan for the week. They also have a Bill Belichick favorite in Brandon Bolden on the roster. He’s another guy who will likely have an impact on special teams, which is a huge plus in Belichick’s book. I imagine he will see the rare running back reps, but frankly hope they are limited given the other 4 talented players in that position.

4. The Pass-Rush Improvement

For anyone who has been an ardent supporter of the Patriots, there was a clear lack of pass-rush on last year’s team. There are several reasons, one of the biggest being the opt-out of Dont’a Hightower last season due to COVID, but also because the team lacked the overall personnel on the front 7 to get pressure on the QB. The Patriots addressed this issue in a big way this offseason, drafting DT Christian Barmore in the 2nd round this year out of, your guessed it, the University of Alabama. He has come in and looked really strong stuffing the run and getting pressure on the opposing QB. Alongside Barmore, Belichick signed 6’3″, 311lbs DT Davon Godchaux to stuff the middle and get pressure. As good as Barmore is, he’s likely 3rd best DT behind Lawrence Guy and Godchaux, which is a great place to be as a Pats fan.

On the outside, maybe the most important free agent signing this offseason was LB Matt Judon. The former Raven is a pass-rushing LB who can single-handedly disrupt the opponents offense. He’s big, athletic, and has already shown his ability get to the QB with regularity this preseason. Add back in Dont’a Hightower and the return of former Pats LB Kyle Van Noy, and that’s a pretty impressive rotation. On the end, the team returns LE Deatrich Wise Jr. and new addition RE Henry Anderson to complete the powerful front line. Opponents should have some trouble running against this front line and the opposing QB should taste some dirt, which is important given the secondary question marks.

5. Improved Receiving Options

One of the most glaring issues in 2020 was the lack of receiving options. WR N’Keal Harry didn’t step up the way the team had hoped and they were left with basically WR Jakobi Meyers as the main option for Cam Newton. The TE group was even more suspect, with no one being able to stay on the field or produce when healthy. This offseason, the Patriots clearly made that a priority and signed the 2 best TEs on the market, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Both are legit #1 options if healthy, but both have has some injury issues in the past and in training camp/preseason. Smith has been on the field more regularly, but if they both can be healthy and play at the same time, it’s trouble for opposing defenses.

In the WR core, the Pats added Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, who are nice depth pieces. They are looking at Agholor to play a bigger role that perhaps I would, but if the TEs are healthy, there are solid options across the field. Add in the pass-catching ability of James White and hopefully Damien Harris and it leads to a ton of 5-10 yard passes for Mac Jones in his rookie season. N’Keal Harry went down with an injury late in the preseason that landed him on IR, which means he won’t be able to return until at least week 4, but he could be a contributor once he returns. Overall, this group has definitely improved, although many fans will argue Belichick didn’t do enough in this area this offseason.

The Mac Jones Era Begins in New England

There are usually some surprises on cut-down day when every NFL team needs to trim their rosters significantly down to a 53-man roster. Rarely are the significant surprises coming out of the New England Patriots camp, but today was a clear exception. After an entire preseason with QB Cam Newton being positioned as the starter and starting all 3 preseason games, Bill threw us all a curveball. Around 10am this morning the news came down that Cam Newton had been released by the New England Patriots, clearly paving the way for the Mac Jones era to begin. There is no better way for Bill Belichick to make a statement about his confidence in Mac Jones as QB1 than to cut his competition.

Its incredibly uncommon for Bill to trust a rookie at a major position, especially QB. On top of the fact that QB is one of the most pivotal positions on the field, it was also a shortened preseason this year with one less game to evaluate players. All the reports out of Patriots camp were that teammates liked Mac and were impressed by him on and off the field, but there is always a lot of fluff talk before the season starts and it’s hard to know what to really believe. As it turns out, Bill really did feel that way and was clearly impressed by the young QB in order to hand the reigns to him before his first NFL game.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, and as recently as yesterday, Mac Jones should be QB1. What no one expected was Bill making that decision. The most common word used this morning amongst those in the know in Foxboro was “shocked”. While some felt Bill would bench Cam and start Mac to start the season, most still believed, me included, that Bill would begin the season with Cam and depending on results move on to Mac later in the season. I don’t think there was a single person who could have predicted Cam Newton would be released this morning and not even make the 53-man roster.

Now that the shock is beginning to wear off, it’s time to focus our attention on the rookie QB and his debut September 12th. This is his team now and he should feel empowered to be smart and play his game. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder and wonder if one mistake will see him on the bench. The coaching staff is not going to ask him to throw for 400 yards every week and score 6 TDs, but they need him to be a smart game manager, limit the mistakes, take advantage of opportunities for a big play, and play with confidence. The defense is weaker without CB Stephon Gilmore for the first 6 weeks, so they will likely need at least 3 scores each week to have a chance to win.

If he can complete short passes and move the chains through the air, it will open up the potent running game for the Pats and in turn, reduce the pressure on Mac. The offense is poised to be really solid as currently constituted without Mac throwing deep bombs and trying to force too many throws. If he continues his calm, cool confidence from the preseason, this could be a fun team to watch this season.

Mac Jones Should Be QB1

All of New England had curious eyes on this preseason. We were glued to practices and preseason games that don’t count more intently than any in recent memory. Everyone wanted to get a look at the potential QB of the future, Mac Jones. The hype was (is) significant with daily reports on practice reps and completion percentage and even detailed analysis on each incompletion and why it was, or was not, a good throw. For a fan base desperate for a QB who can return the franchise to championship caliber, this preseason was everything and Mac Jones delivered. He did everything he could, and should, to earn the QB1 roster spot.

I’m not shy with my criticism of QB Cam Newton and his clear flaws and issues. To me, he’s done nothing to earn the QB1 spot other than have some unexplainable loyalty from Bill Belichick. The talk all preseason was that it was Cam’s job to lose, and in my opinion, he lost the job. Mac Jones was clearly the better and more effective QB all preseason, and looked confident and effective with his decision making. On multiple occasions Mac drove the team down the field behind a backup offensive line and throwing to 4th, 5th, and 6th options at receiver and did so as if it were the first teamers. He made clear, quick, smart decisions, which was in dramatic contrast to Cam.

The thing that frustrates me the most about Cam and impressed me the most about Mac was the quick decision making. Last year, Cam ran the ball a lot. It was partially because his receiving core was weak and mostly because he took an eternity to make a decision on when and where to throw the ball. When you take a long time to make a decision, offensive lineman can’t hold their blocks and windows to hit receivers close. With Mac under center, the team looked quicker and more confident. Will that result in some mistakes and some quick throws in the ground? Absolutely, but it will also result in more 5-10 yard hits down the field and moving the chains more regularly.

My biggest argument for Mac as the starter week 1 is simple. Why not? If as an organization you believe he is the future and he’s shown you that he is more than capable to win games now, why hand the ball to Cam Newton who is on the back end of his career and has no long-term future in New England? What does it prove to have him sit on the bench behind Cam? To me it’s a no-brainer decision to hand him the reigns of the team and see what he is really capable of doing. It won’t be perfect and there will be mistakes, but do you really think he’ll make more mistakes than an aging Cam Newton?

Now is the time. Week 1 vs the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium should be Mac’s first career NFL start for the New England Patriots. Unfortunately, I think Bill Belichick has other ideas.

“Misunderstanding” Opens Door for Mac Jones

In one of the more bizarre stories of the preseason for the New England Patriots, QB Cam Newton is missing an entire week of practice due to a COVID protocol “misunderstanding”. Not just any week, but the final week of practice before the final preseason game. After a great performance on Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, it appeared Cam was solidifying his role as the starter for the Pats, but Monday’s news puts all of that in jeopardy and opens the door for QB Mac Jones to take the spot from him.

At this point in the preseason, players should be clear on COVID protocols and be extra careful about following them to the T. Bill Belichick expects nothing less than perfection when it comes to the rules and now his loyalty to Cam will be tested. The Pats will be without the services of Cam in practice (other than virtual appearances) until Thursday, which is essentially the entire final week in an already shortened preseason. In the past, if a player doesn’t practice much in a week, especially with a rules violation, they don’t tend to play in the game. Will Bill actually sit Cam on Sunday against the New York Giants? If he does and Mac Jones puts on a show, would he actually make the decision to bench Cam for week 1?

If I had to put money on it today, I still think Cam is the week 1 starter, but what was a seemingly sure thing at the end of last week now feels like more of a toss-up. For the good things Cam can occasionally do, his self-destructive behavior is hard to look past and in New England, this stuff usually doesn’t fly. Players have been benched or cut for seemingly less despite great performances and talent (i.e. RB Jonas Gray).

This situation also makes it clear that Cam is one of the players on the roster who has not been vaccinated, because if he were, he would not have to follow the 5-day rule before returning to practice. Given the current COVID situation and the push for 100% vaccinations amongst players and coaches, it doesn’t reflect well on him or the Pats. Is this the QB you want leading your team?

It’s never boring off-the-field with Cam Newton, but on-the-field is often a different story…

Big Vince Wilfork Getting Naked

Photo from HBO

When ESPN announces the athletes that will be posing nude, or nearly nude, for the Body Issue, it is always an interesting group. When I saw the headlines today exclaiming Vince Wilfork will strip down to his birthday suit, I spit out my drink. This has the potential to be one of the greatest Body Issues of all time thanks to the hefty former Patriots and current Houston Texans DT.

Wilfork is officially listed at 6′2″ and 325 lbs, but there is just no way he isn’t closer to 350. That’s a lot of man meat to show off in the Body Issue and he will most certainly be the most anticipated picture(s) in the magazine. Some other notable names participating are Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs, Christen Press of the USWNT, and Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat.

Fool Me Twice Aaron Dobson, Shame on Me

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

The New England Patriots are already hard at work in training camp and a familiar refrain is once again beginning: “Aaron Dobson looks great”. We’ve been down this road before, one headline during last year’s training camp read “Aaron Dobson Standing Out Among Receivers In Patriots Training Camp” (NESN.com) and the Providence Journal wrote “Aaron Dobson has continued to stand out”. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

Every year I look at the depth on the Patriots roster and think, “Which one of these guys in the middle of the pack will step up and have a big year?” For the last few years, the name Aaron Dobson has jumped out at me. He’s 6’3”, 205 lbs and is in his early-mid 20’s with tons of potential. I think, “If he stays healthy, this is his year to break out.”

Dobson has all the makings of a very good NFL caliber WR. His aforementioned size is an asset and he comes from a very solid Marshall football program – where he excelled. He was ranked in the top 20 at his position coming out of college and was considered a great choice for the Patriots at the end of the 2nd round. Mike Mayock wrote on NFL.com, “I like his size at 210 pounds. His production was good but not elite. I’ll tell you what he is: He’s raw, but he’s got upside. He put on a show at his pro day.” He sounds like a great Belichick pick. He has the skill, just need to get him some instruction and mold him into an NFL WR.

Considering the lack of WR depth for the Pats over the past several years, you would think Dobson would have more than enough chances to shine. In 2013, he played in 12 games and caught 37 passes for 519 yards. It seemed as though he was on his way to establishing himself as an important player for this team. Then in 2014 he was a healthy scratch for most of the early season before finally tearing his hamstring during week 13. He played in 4 games and caught 3 balls for 38 yards. Last season wasn’t much better: 13 receptions for 141 yards.

I’m done thinking Aaron Dobson will be a contributor to this team. Potential means nothing if you can’t live up to it.