What is it with important Patriots practices happening in the rain?
The first day of mandatory minicamp. The first day of training camp. The second day of padded practice after a small break on Wednesday.
Here it was again, leading to another day of practicing ball security and the running game on the Patriots’ practice field in full pads.
But don’t worry: there are some throws to get to as well. As with Tuesday, one quarterback was clearly better than the other. But the pecking order was different this time. Mac Jones seized the day while Cam Newton couldn’t make the most of a lighter workload.
Here’s what happened at Thursday’s practice — the second “real” Patriots session of the year.
Mac Jones makes the most of opportunity.
In the middle of the penultimate competitive team segment, the rookie quarterback hit the last step of his drop and fired a perfect strike to N’Keal Harry on a slant route.
On the next play, he slid and stepped up against pressure from linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and drilled a seam route to tight end Hunter Henry over the middle — moving far more like a veteran of several seasons than a 22-year-old kid with less than 10 NFL training camp practices under his belt.
Those two plays — arguably his two best of the day — came in the middle of a stretch where the rookie saw 14 straight reps. Perhaps even more notably, those were his only two reps of the segment with the starting offensive line.
Way to make an impression.
But whether it was with the 1s or 2s (whom he mainly worked with), Jones was the best quarterback on the field Thursday. As with past soggy practices, his accuracy didn’t suffer due to the rain. He arguably had only two “poor” throws all day — a check down he threw behind James White and a slightly high throw for Kendrick Bourne that the receiver couldn’t corral.
Other than that, he repeatedly hit receivers in stride and dropped a few excellent throws into coverage, including a deep fade to James White in 11-on-11s with Myles Bryant all over him and a corner route he fitted to Henry just over Kyle Dugger’s outstretched arm in 7-on-7s.
But though he didn’t throw any interceptions, he still had some issues with ball security. He fumbled a snap during half-field drills in the red zone, forcing him to run a lap, and fumbled a ball during security drills in the pocket, which lead to some push-ups. No matter how good his days are, there’s always a little detail Jones shows he needs some improvement in, which is natural for a rookie.
On the whole, though, Thursday was a win for Jones, who improved dramatically from his performance on Day 1 of padded practice.
Cam Newton takes a back seat.
For the second straight day, Newton got far fewer reps than Jones.
He told reporters after practice he doesn’t have any control over that, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wouldn’t elaborate on the shifting between the two passers except to say that “there’s a method to the madness.”
What he does have control over is what he does with those reps. Thursday, he didn’t do much.
More troubling than the charted completions (5-of-11) was the indecision. Though he didn’t throw any interceptions, Newton routinely held onto the ball far longer than necessary, turning down early reads to make late throws to covered receivers. He also did have another throw that was late and behind Hunter Henry on an out route.
At one point, McDaniels yelled in frustration during one such late throw to Kendrick Bourne, though it’s unclear if it was because of Newton’s lack of timing or perhaps the route combination on Bourne’s side of the field.
Newton continues to dominate reps with the starting offensive line, which likely won’t change unless he struggles in the first preseason game or in joint practices. He also got to work in some plays well-designed for him, like RPOs and a quarterback draw that would’ve gone for a solid gain in a real game.
But it’s worth noting how much Newton appears to struggle to throw the football in sloppy conditions, especially compared with his rookie counterpart.
Also, whether it was due to the weather or the lack of fans in the stands, the effusive veteran had a markedly lower-energy day than usual, which carried over to his post-practice presser. He’ll need to pick things back up on Friday to recapture some of the momentum he had gained Tuesday.
The ground game owns the day.
It was “Pound The Rock” Day at Patriots camp with the wet conditions making throwing the ball less than a sure bet.
The offense especially seemed to be working on outside zones and stretch runs that gave running backs chances to use their vision to find cutback lanes.
The big highlight run came from Damien Harris, who broke through off a cutback on a zone read to the left side and actually raced to the end zone with pursuers on his tail before finally being touched down by Myles Bryant.
Runs were even a big part of 7-on-7 drills, which are typically times to air it out. At one point, Newton appeared to check out of the original play into a handoff, simulating an unfavorable front despite there being no defensive linemen.
Though the throws from the quarterbacks remain the big draw at these “inclement weather” practices, the key to that Patriots offense in these conditions will be the ground game. They showed Thursday that they’re ready and able to rely on it when needed.
-Myles Bryant took the worst of a big hit Tuesday from rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson in a live tackling drill.
The smaller defensive back got his revenge on Thursday, bringing down Stevenson on consecutive plays during a live tackling portion of team drills. The second was a loud tackle for loss that drew some buzz from the defense.
-The pads especially got popping during a half-field red zone drill that was largely about the run game.
Deatrich Wise Jr., who had made a few big plays against the run after mainly being seen as a pass-rusher, hit backup offensive tackle Alex Redmond so hard that the blocker’s helmet came off and hit the turf.
-N’Keal Harry had a tougher 1-on-1 segment Thursday than he did Tuesday, when he was arguably a star of practice.
He got flagged for an offensive pass interference penalty, dropped an excellent deep ball from Jones, and then slipped on a deep comeback route that fell incomplete.
He did make up for it, though, with a few big catches on in-breaking routes from Jones in team drills.
-Jones talked repeatedly after practice about the need to be “loud and confident” on the field, even if he makes mistakes.
Thursday, there was a definite uptick in his decibel level when he called his cadence at the line of scrimmage. He still hasn’t reached Newton’s level of vocal authority, but it’s a welcome improvement from his more timid, uncertain volume level in OTAs and minicamp.
Little things like that, along with his improving on-field play, bear-watching as he tries to prove he can lead the offense in NFL games.
-Nick Folk’s absence from practice meant undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin got the kicking reps all to himself on Thursday.
The young kicker has a cannon of a leg, routinely blasting the ball well up the hill where the media sit behind the goalposts on one practice field.
The question for him is accuracy. He appeared to shank a kick or two at the end of practice and at one point clanged one high off the right upright, though the kick took a lucky bounce and went in.
Unless Folk is hurt long-term or Nordin starts splitting the uprights like a machine, assume the job stays with the veteran.
-Everyone says Bill Belichick doesn’t control the weather, but Thursday’s practice at times made you question that notion.
While Jones was playing through one of his extended stretches, the rain went from a light pour to a heavier drench as if trying to make things as if to test the rookie even more than normal.
Then, after things calmed down a bit during Newton’s final “drive” of the day, the rain came pelting down once again as Nordin lined up for his end-of-practice field goals.
It’s almost as if the coach was standing somewhere on the field with his hand on the dial, twisting it up and down during times he wanted to make things particularly difficult.
Can we prove it? No. But it’s a fun thought.
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