9 burning questions for the Patriots during OTAs

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The New England Patriots’ offseason workouts are underway with their organized team activities starting on Monday. Rookies have completed their minicamp, but none of these sessions have been open to the media. New England will open its first practice to reporters on Thursday.

That’s when we’ll get a first look at the 2021 team — even if it will be in a low-tempo and almost relaxed environment. The positional battles aren’t underway — yet. Bill Belichick will emphasize teaching and learning, with the players and coaches getting to know each other and the playbook. Surely, New England will begin to build its foundation for the season. That means slow practices that emphasize the fundamentals.

Even so, there’s plenty we can glean from the sessions. Here’s what we’ll be watching.

How much command does Cam Newton have of the offense?

We'd be burying the lede if we didn't address the quarterback competition. And that starts with Newton, considering Belichick told reporters "Cam is our quarterback" just last month. Newton was bad in 2020. His passing statistics were messy (2,657 passing yards, eight touchdowns, 10 interceptions), and the game film doesn't redeem him. There were moments where Newton was great. But there were far too many moments where he wasn't. It seemed, at times, to be cyclical. The offense couldn't elevate Newton, who wasn't capable of elevating the offense. And so the Patriots couldn't move the ball, largely due to their ineffective passing game. That needs to change in 2021. Belichick has assembled a group of skill players, with tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith and receivers Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and N'Keal Harry. The receivers are still underwhelming. The tight ends are not. Is it enough to help Newton return to form?

How much command does Mac Jones have of the offense?

If the Newton cannot play better with an improved supporting cast, then the Patriots may have no choice but to turn things over to Jones, the 15th overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Belichick has said many times that OTAs are a teaching camp -- and that the real position battles don't start until training camp. Whether that's entirely true or not is debatable. But if Jones wants to be immediately relevant in the competition when camp starts in July, he can begin by learning the playbook in short time to impress his coaches. If Jones can grasp the offense quickly -- which, frankly, would be an enormous surprise considering the sheer magnitude of the playbook -- then he'll put himself on more even footing for his competition with Newton.

Will Stephon Gilmore attend?

I've written a lot about Gilmore's contract. The Patriots haven't given him a raise, and he may not want to play until he gets one. Gilmore may not show up to OTAs, a voluntary set of workouts. If he does not, it would beg the question as to whether 1) he is unhappy in New England and 2) the Patriots might trade him -- perhaps even for receiver Julio Jones. (Yes, I know how crazy that sounds.)

And what about J.C. Jackson?

Admittedly, I have not spent much time writing about J.C. Jackson's contract. He was a restricted free agent this offseason on a second-round tender. He was forced to settle with the contract that comes with that (one-year, $3.384 million). He has expressed his discontent with the deal. If he wanted, he could also choose not to show up for the voluntary session, which would bear watching for the mandator offseason sessions (minicamp and training camp).

How much will the free agency additions change the complexion of the offense?

The Patriots basically had zero relevant tight ends in 2020. Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene might have actually made the offense worse when they were on the field. So it should be a massive shift for New England to have not one but two of the best tight ends in the NFL, with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. They're tied for the third-highest average annual salary in the NFL. That will bring huge expectations for the tight ends, who are -- to this point -- not at that level. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels clearly want to make a point of emphasizing Smith and Henry. So it will be interesting how quickly New England begins to install two tight end sets -- and how quickly they begin to look effective.

How different will the defensive front seven look?

New England added a handful of free agents who could quickly be atop the depth chart at their positions. Edge Matthew Judon and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux figure to be major contributors, just considering how much the Patriots paid them. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower is returning from his year as a COVID-19 opt-out. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy should return to a starting role after spending the year with Miami in 2020. Even linebacker Raekwon McMillan and defensive linemen Henry Anderson, Montravius Adams and rookie Christian Barmore should all have a shot at earning starting roles when training camp rolls around. They'll get a leg up on the competition by building their knowledge of the system during these months. The Patriots clearly favor some of the players they think they'll need the most to start the season. New England will likely want to get many of the players that I just named into the mix -- immediately. Belichick was not happy about how his front seven looked in 2021. That's why it should look very different in 2022.

Who has new numbers?

So far, here are the players who have changed their numbers. 2: DB Jalen Mills 9: OLB Matt Judon 13: WR Nelson Agholor 23: S Kyle Dugger 25: RB Brandon Bolden 46: LB Raekwon McMillan 81: TE Jonnu Smith 84: WR Kendrick Bourne 85: TE Hunter Henry 90: DT Montravius Adams 92: DT Davon Godchaux 94: DT Henry Anderson For now, the rookies are wearing numbers based on their draft position, starting at 50. That will change when the regular season rolls around, but in the meantime, Belichick is sending a message that the players have bigger things to worry about than their jersey numbers, namely making the team.

Is Davon Godchaux physically ready to play?

He is one of the least-talked-about free agency signings, and yet his contract is absolutely comparable to that of Agholor. Godchaux is getting paid like one of the top 30 defensive tackles in the NFL -- which is more than any one of the Patriots' defensive linemen. That's a big bill, even if it looks smaller than other positions around the roster. Godchaux was dealing with a biceps injury, which ended his season last year. Can he participate in OTAs?

What's up with S Kyle Dugger, CB Joejuan Williams, WR N'Keal Harry and RB Sony Michel?

These players are supposed to be cornerstones for the franchise, with every player getting picked 45th or higher in their respective drafts. Michel's star seems to be fading in the organization, with the team electing not to pick up his fifth-year option. Harry is truly in a make-or-break year, where he could genuinely miss the cut when the Patriots trim to 53-men. Williams is in the same danger. Dugger, meanwhile, looks like a really good rookie -- but he'll need to look like a really good veteran in the coming year. And while we're here, I'll shout out linebacker Josh Uche (the 60th overall pick in 2020). Like Dugger, Uche showed promise. That's enough for a rookie season. But it's time to start showing polish.

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