As the New England Patriots walked off of the practice fields on Wednesday morning, the words of Commander Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf from 1986’s action classic Top Gun (well-articulated by actor Tom Skerrit) might seem quite relevant.
“Gentlemen…you had a helluva first day.”
At long last, the Patriots returned to practice, officially kicking off 2021 training camp. With fans in attendance, expectations high and excitement at a lofty level, New England began its journey towards a return to league prominence. While Wednesday's session was more of an extension of minicamp than simulation of game action, there were still some seedlings of potential camp battles to come.
Here are some of the highlights of an eventful first day:
The Pats enjoyed solid attendance on opening day of training camp 2021. Despite having been
Those absent from Wednesday’s on-field action included QB Jarrett Stidham, CB Stephon Gilmore, LB Brandon King, TE Dalton Keene, LB Chase Winovich, DT Byron Cowart, LB Terez Hall. Each of these players is currently ineligible to practice, after having been placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
Despite having been placed on PUP just one day earlier, LB Kyle Van Noy and OL Trent Brown were present at practice, indicating that they had been removed from the list. Van Noy was spotted wearing a red non-contact jersey.
Linebacker Anfernee Jennings was also not spotted during camp practices
Also rookies, S Joshuah Bledsoe, RB Rhamondre Stevenson and LB Cameron McGrone are not able to practice, due to their being placed on the non-football injury (NFI) list.
TE Devin Asiasi remains absent due to his positive test for COVID-19.
Despite being ineligible to practice, Winovich, Gilmore, Cowart and Stevenson were at the team’s facility on Wednesday.
Observing the Offense:
Fans had long waited to get a glimpse of both Cam Newton and Mac Jones on the practice fields for the Pats in 2021. By consensus of those in attendance, Jones appeared to have the stronger day. Following a crowd-pleasing penalty lap (resulting from a botched handoff in the red zone) Jones impressed fans, media and his peers, demonstrating a quick release and impressive field awareness. Jones also appears to be developing a chemistry with newly-acquired wide receiver Nelson Aghlor, with whom Jones connected for two touchdowns.
Still, Newton’s performance was not to be maligned. He demonstrated greater arm strength and proved that he was still able to find the endzone with his legs. His scramble for a score in the early goings of camp brought a rumbling of cheers through the fans in Foxboro. Although Newton would finish the day with two interceptions, these were more of a credit to the defenders and an indictment on the Pats veteran quarterback.
Here were the quarterback stats during competitive drills, which included 11-on-11 end zone work and 7-on-7 drills on Wednesday (stats courtesy of Henry McKenna, Patriots Wire, USA Today)
Newton: 8/15 2 INTs
Dishing on the Defense:
While many eyes will be fixated on the offense, the defense proved that they are the superior unit in terms of development, thus far in 2021.
The first interception of Patriots camp came courtesy of linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who snagged a tip of an errant Cam Newton pass. McMillan is expected to compete for a roster spot at linebacker. His veteran savvy was on full display on Wednesday and could be a solid depth addition to a very deep positional depth chart.
With Stephon Gilmore temporarily sidelined, J.C. Jackson began making his case as a top-flight corner, both on the team and in the division. Jackson provided tight coverage on his targets, including oft-maligned receiver N’Keal Harry. Still, Harry (by in large) had a pretty good day of work.
If the Pats were to award a defensive star on Day One, it would likely go to safety Adrian Phillips. Phillips provided tight coverage on tights ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. He forced one incompletion to Smith, and one to Henry. Phillips was also able to position himself well enough to intercept a pass intended for his former Charger teammate; a pass thrown behind Henry by Cam Newton. While primarily known for his special teams acumen, Phillips continues to show his prowess on defense. He is someone who plays his assignment, and has an impressive knowledge of the field. Even in his days with the Chargers, Phillips always had great awareness of the field and his opponent. Locking down players such as Henry and Smith is not easy. Phillips will continue to pay dividends in the Pats defense in 2021.
New England is scheduled to practice again on Thursday, July 29 at 9:45 am ET in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Once again, practice will be open to the public.