As music legend Andy Williams’ iconic holiday classic states, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Anticipation is high and excitement is everywhere. A sea of colors ranging from red to white to silver can be seen at each glance. Everyone seems to be preparing for a celebration. It’s that time of year; especially here in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Are we talking about the Holiday season?
Not exactly...but you’re close.
For fans of the New England Patriots, this wonderful time of the year takes place in the midst of summer. Some might call it ‘Christmas in July.’ However, the ‘Foxboro Faithful’ call it Opening Day of Patriots Training Camp.
On Wednesday, the Pats will take to the fields behind Gillette Stadium for their first practice of the season. Despite the session being devoid of contact or pads, seeing the team back in action is certainly enough to stir the enthusiasm. Following a 2020 season in which fans were largely disconnected from their favorite football team in Foxboro, the Patriots’ most ardent supporters will return to Gillette Stadium for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although comparing the commencement of training camp to the Christmas holiday may be more than a bit melodramatic, the thousands of Pats fans in attendance would agree that their hometown team provided them with the ultimate gift on this particular 25th of the month.
Without further ado, ‘o’er the fields we go’ for some items to watch for in the coming days:
Back By Popular Demand?
With rookie Rhamondre Stevenson temporarily sidelined on the non-football injury (NFI) list, the majority of camp snaps should be given to feature back Damien Harris and veteran Sony Michel. Harris continues to be the consensus feature back, and with good reason. Though minor injuries limited him to just 10 games in 2021, the Alabama product still finished as the team’s leader in yards from scrimmage (743). Combined with the prowess of a stout offensive line, Harris improved his abilities to find seams and maximize his yardage. Therefore, Harris is surely to be a lock to once again assume the role of New England’s top option on early downs.
In the case of Michel, things get a bit more clouded. When he has seen the field, Michel has been a productive player for the Patriots. In his three seasons in New England, he has rushed for 2,689 yards on 620 carries and 20 touchdowns. Still, the two sides appear to be headed for a split following the 2021 season. In addition to the team drafting another potential early-down back in Rhamondre Stevenson, the Pats then declined Michel’s fifth-year contract option. Therefore, 2021 projects as the 26-year-old’s final season in New England. If Michel sees a substantial amount of action, it may be an indication of the Pats; intentions for him on the field in 2021.
Special Teams ‘Cannon?’
Patriots kicker Nick Folk was one of the bright spots of the Patriots 2020 season. The journeyman specialist was one of the team’s most reliable scorers, converting 26 of 28 field goals, with his longest coming from 51 yards. Overall, he was steady, accurate and even added some distance to his repertoire. One would conjecture that the Pats were well set at kicker. However, the Pats have added an additional player into the mix at the position; Quinn Nordin from the University of Michigan. Nordin joined the Patriots as an undrafted rookie free agent in May. During his four years with the Wolverines, he made 42 out of 58 field goals. Still, Nordin’s greatest asset is power. Nordin converted a 57-yard field goal at the end of the first half of the 2020 Citrus Bowl against Alabama, setting a record for the longest field goal in Citrus Bowl history. In the process, he also procured the record for the longest field goal made in Michigan's program history. Nordin is inexperienced. but he has a strong leg. When speaking to the media on Tuesday, Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater compared Nordin’s leg to a “cannon” and expressed excitement on watching him develop in camp. Despite Nick Folk being the likely starter, Nordin’s exciting skill set could make things interesting.
Yes, we Cam…or Mac to Basics?
No camp primer would be complete without a mention of the quarterbacks. The most high-profile position in the game will garner much attention from fans and media alike in Foxboro this summer. Incumbent Cam Newton is vying to once again be the starter in New England for 2021. He is also looking to improve upon a largely sub-par performance in the previous season. At times, Newton looked quite adept at utilizing zone reads, making runs and finding receivers for completions. There were also times where he was not only sailing passes beyond the reach of his receivers, but also skipping some on the turf. In the tumultuous season that was 2020, some of that can be explained by inadequate preparation time and a lack of familiarity with the Patriots’ system. When dialed in, however, Newton can still be a very effective quarterback in this league. However, he will no longer have the benefit of the doubt when it comes to extenuating circumstances. He has been here. He has done that. It is now time to put it all together on the field.
Enter rookie Mac Jones.
Jones joined the Patriots as the 15th overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. While it is unlikely that the Alabama product will earn the Pats’ starting job in the advent of his rookie season, he is clearly the future plan at the position in Foxboro. While Cam is the consensus favorite to remain the starter, there is still every reason to believe that Mac will get the chance to provide his worth as the potential ‘main main’ this season. Still, it is important to note he should be given the time and space necessary for him to grow into his prowess. Expectations beyond that do a disservice to Jones, his coaches and his teammates. The best way to fit into the Patriots offense is to win pre-snap reads, make anticipatory throws and demonstrate the ability to get the ball out on time. Mac Jones will eventually be the quarterback to do just that in New England.
The question remains: Will it happen sooner rather than later?