19 takeaways after 19 open practices at Patriots training camp

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The New England Patriots’ training camp is over.

The Patriots are in regular-season mode when it comes to practicing. They will no longer hold open practices to the media, instead limiting access to the first few minutes of practice. So, effectively, 2021 training camp is in the books.

It’s time for us to take stock of what we learned during the 19 practices which were open to the media. We witnessed a handful of surprising twists during the course of camp, from the quarterback to the cornerback positions. So let’s dive into the takeaways. Here’s what we have learned — so far — about the 2021 Patriots.

Stephon Gilmore is still not with the Patriots, and that is a very big deal

Gilmore is on the physically unable to perform list with a quad injury, and it's easy to wonder whether his extended absence may not be wholly injury-related. He is leveraging for a new contract, whether it's a one-off raise or an extension that puts more money in his pocket. The Patriots will go without Gilmore for the final preseason game. That's no big deal. But their preparations for Week 1 will start soon after that. If Gilmore isn't present for those practices, the Patriots will have a problem. He is still the team's best player. Even with J.C. Jackson enjoying yet another strong training camp, the Patriots have depth issues at cornerback. New England will have a much better defense if Gilmore returns.

The QB competition isn't over. And it's unclear when we'll know the result.

Cam Newton is currently the starter. Mac Jones is doing just about everything he can to win the job -- and it's working. But with the exception of accidentally violating the NFL's COVID-19 protocols (which indicates he is not fully vaccinated), Newton has not faltered on the field. If Newton and Jones both continue to play well, Belichick's decision will be a difficult one. The Patriots coach announced his starter during Week 1 last year. It's easy to imagine he'll do the same this year. But you never know -- maybe Belichick will wait as long as possible to reveal who's QB1.

Mac Jones is the most advanced rookie the Patriots have seen -- maybe even more so than Tom Brady

It makes sense that Jones, a quarterback coming from Alabama, would be better prepared for the NFL than a rookie Tom Brady. Brady was splitting time as a starter at Michigan. He entered a quarterback competition where he was splitting reps with three other quarterbacks. And the coaches were simply not as invested in Brady's development like the Patriots staff has to be with Jones, who went 15th overall in this year's draft. Jones' progress, however, has been astounding. With his experience, work ethic and tremendous effort from the Patriots coaching staff, Jones has come a long way. Whether he starts or not, the Patriots have a young quarterback worthy of major optimism.

Jones' speedy development has put Newton in an uncomfortable position. But you'd never know it.

The only time where it seemed Newton was feeling external pressure -- or lack of support -- was when he posted "Loyalty -- I deserve it" on social media. Newton later said that post had nothing to do with the quarterback competition. He has been nothing but supportive of Jones, whether in press conferences, meetings or on the field. All the while, Newton has managed to put himself just ahead of Jones for the starting job. If the Patriots pick Newton as QB1, fans should have confidence he'll do a good job with the offense.

The OLB position is so deep that Chase Winovich may not play much

The Patriots have starters Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy. And then they have a sub-rusher Joch Uche, even though Judon and Van Noy can and should stay on the field for third down. That makes for a tough rotation for Winovich, who seemed as promising as any defensive player in 2020. Youngsters Anfernee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins may never see the field, barring injury.

Jakobi Meyers is WR1. He's also probably the top pass-catcher.

Meyers has been a stud in training camp. He gets volume. He's made acrobatic catches. Maybe he won't put up many touchdowns in 2021 – he had zero last season, after all – but Meyers will be the man who consistently moves the chains for the Patriots. He could legitimately catch 100 passes this year. The problem is that we haven't seen the same level of promise from other pass-catchers.

Nelson Agholor has been largely a non-factor. Kendrick Bourne looks like a niche player.

Agholor has been injured and therefore absent from practice. Even when he's there, however, it's easy to forget about him. Agholor may have a role in stretching the field and challenging the safeties. But he needs to be more than a decoy. New England has to get him involved. So far, the Patriots are not using him for all he's worth. (And they valued him at about $11 million per year.) Bourne, meanwhile, has gotten caught lining up out of place with unfortunate regularity during camp. His biggest contributions have come on catches that travel 10 yards or fewer. That's fine. It's just a limiting factor for the offense.

The tight end group has been somewhat underwhelming

Jonnu Smith has been good -- not great. Hunter Henry has been injured (and Smith has missed some time with injuries, too). We've seen both of them sparingly. The offense was supposed to be built around these two players. That's not currently how it's constructed. So they will have to 1) get healthy, 2) play better and 3) become the offensive centerpieces they're supposed to be. It feels like this offense isn't quite ready for the season, largely because the tight ends have stepped up in the ways they should. Henry, in particular, didn't flash when he was healthy earlier in camp.

There's legitimate reason for concern in the back end of the cornerback group

We discussed Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson. But let's talk about Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Michael Jackson and newcomer Shaun Wade. Mills doesn't meet the Patriots' high standards for cornerback play. He may be a jack-of-all-trades, who can play both safety and cornerback. He also just doesn't do either of those things all that well. Jones appeared to suffer an injury during Thursday's practice. Williams and Jackson have been the most commonly exploited defenders in practice. Perhaps that's why the Patriots acquired Wade, an oversized slot defender likely to supplant Williams. Either way, the Patriots can't be happy with what they have past Jackson. With Gilmore out, it gets ugly and fast.

The outside linebackers may have been impressive, but I'm not sure the defensive linemen have stood out

Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux got a big deal but hasn't exactly been a big contributor. Defensive end Henry Anderson has been similarly underwhelming. The two signings seemed like they were in line to help galvanize a defensive front that needed help defending the run. We'll see if they can help New England's defense take a step back toward being elite.

Nick Folk will win the kicker competition

Sorry, Quinn Nordin. You simply cannot miss that many extra points and win the starting job. Folk has been injured but efficient in camp.

There's reason to get excited about safety Adrian Phillips

He was the best defensive back in training camp for the first few weeks. Jackson and Devin McCourty came on strong with interceptions and breakups. But Phillips was more of a shutdown presence, eliminating tight ends from the play. It will be interesting to see how Phillips fares in Week 1, likely against Dolphins tight end Mike Geisicki.

Safety Kyle Dugger was ... only fine in training camp

There's always buzz -- and perhaps too much -- about players taking their second-year leap. Dugger was surprisingly competent in his rookie season, particularly after rising out of the DII ranks in college. This training camp, however, Dugger has been fine, but not exceptional. Those looking for a second-year leap probably won't see it. He seems to be on par with where he was as a rookie.

Josh McDaniels is doing an impressive job of preparing two quarterbacks

The Patriots are running slightly different offenses for Newton and Jones, and I've been impressed at how McDaniels can flip between quarterbacks, whether it's coaching or play-calling. The offensive coordinator is clearly favoring Jones when it comes to on-field coaching. That much was clear at practice. It's also notable that McDaniels stopped shadowing Jones as training camp went on. Jones clearly didn't need as much coaching.

The Patriots continue to go without a defensive coordinator. It still seems like a committee.

Neither Steve Belichick nor Jerod Mayo received the title of defensive coordinator. Bill Belichick appears to be helping out on defense. Former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is back. So it remains defensive coordinator by committee, with Steve Belichick likely to continue calling plays.

The Patriots had a chance of heart on trading Sony Michel because of a stacked RB room

The Patriots didn't want to trade Michel. He appeared more explosive than he has ever looked and seemed to be more valuable to the team than what he'd net in a trade (which we now know is a fourth- and sixth-rounder). Alas, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson looked even more well-rounded than the Patriots could have anticipated and J.J. Taylor continued his emergence. With Damien Harris, James White and Brandon Bolden (special teams) fixed into their roles, the Patriots must have felt OK moving on from Michel.

Don't draft any Patriots in fantasy football, except Jakobi Meyers and MAYBE Jonnu Smith

Draft Meyers. In every single league. Not kidding. To me, he's the best bet to be the most productive pass-catcher in this offense. And he's going deep in drafts. The running backs, quarterbacks and other receivers scare me. Smith, however, strikes me as a player who will likely get a good target share, especially after Henry's underwhelming training camp.

The Patriots might not have enough talent at inside linebacker

The Patriots have a weird setup at inside linebacker, where their starters are Dont'a Hightower and Ja'Whaun Bentley. Then the backups are just the outside linebackers, like Van Noy and Jennings. That could work. But the Patriots may want to acquire a workable inside linebacker at the 53-man roster cut, if that's possible. Even if they stash someone on the practice squad, they'd probably be happy.

The 2021 Patriots can -- and probably should -- make the playoffs

There's enough talent on this roster for the Patriots to make the playoffs. After Belichick spent money at a clip which New England has never seen -- and perhaps even made owner Robert Kraft a little nervous -- the Patriots should make the playoffs. Of course, free agency spending can't buy a playoff bid. History has made that clear. But with a strong coaching staff and a hugely improved roster, the Patriots should be much better than their 7-9 roster from 2020.

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