With the first four training camp practices in the books, the collective eyes of the New England Patriots’ fan base continue to be set on the quarterback position. The ‘battle’ between incumbent Cam Newton and rookie Mac Jones has produced quite the collective fodder for speculative fire. Newton’s experience and mobility pitted against the Each throw, completion and misfire are tallied and quantified on a daily basis, similar to that of polling results heading into an important election.
Through the first week of camp, is the quarterback competition in New England ‘too close to call?’
Let’s take a moment to meet the candidates.
Yes, We Cam?
It is no secret that Newton struggled during his first year in New England. Statistically, he was one of the least efficient passers in the NFL; compiling a passer rating of 65.8 and throwing just eight touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Newton was far more productive as a runner, carrying the ball 127 times for 602 yards with 12 touchdowns. Still, Newton’s difficulties when throwing the football overshadowed his prowess as a mobile quarterback.
Heading into training camp, Newton was expected to show improvement in both his accuracy and with releasing the ball in a more timely fashion. From the outset, he has looked more comfortable under pressure. The former league MVP has been getting the ball out quicker, despite stout coverage from capable pass rushers such as Matt Judon, Henry Adrerson and Dont’a Hightower. He has also developed a seemingly greater synergy with receivers Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers. Overall, Newton has run the Pats offense with a greater sense of command than that of his competitors.
While his advancements are notable, Newton still has several areas in which he will need to show greater improvement. Despite demonstrating the ability to shed the ball more rapidly, he is still holding the ball a bit too long in some instances. He also continues to sail some passes beyond the reach of his intended targets. Should the 32-year-old hope to secure the starting job, he must make faster reads and improve his timing. With padded practices set to begin this week, the Patriots coaching staff should adequately test him in this area by showing him different formations. Though Newton will be tempted to counteract that by using his legs to extend the play, he will need to demonstrate that his arm (combined with solid decision-making) can be just as effective of a weapon. Through the first four days, Newton has looked to be up to the challenge.
Mac by Popular Demand?
For all of the discussion surrounding the Patriots desire to change their passing game, they are still operating under a timing-based system, predicated on vertical routes and completions from quick, accurate throws. During his time at Alabama, Mac Jones was quite proficient at running this type of offense. With a strong supporting cast of playmakers around him, Jones was able to create plays by leading his receivers under the defense, releasing the ball quickly and delivering it accurately. This gave his playmakers the space they needed to catch and run with the football. While Newton has given the Pats the chance to incorporate more zone reads into their repertoire, the quick-game still seems to be McDaniels’ preference.
While Jones has had his highs and lows in practice, he continues to impress with his ability to process the play quickly and make anticipatory throws. The 21-year-old has had some impressive touchdown strikes that were delivered accurately and on-time. However, it is important to remember that Jones is still a rookie. As such, he is continuing to learn pro-level object reads and multiple level progressions. This has caused him to struggle, particularly in red one drills. Entering his second week of camp practices, Jones should expect to see several complex looks and more aggressive defensive schemes. It has been said that padded practices automatically enhance the level of competition. For Mac Jones, the first week of August could be quite the rookie initiation.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this race or quarterback supremacy will not be determined by popular vote or electoral checks and balances. Ultimately, it will be the decision of head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff.
After indicating (on Saturday while speaking with reporters) that his choice would be a “hard decision”, Belichick qualified his position by saying: “We’ll take a look at the whole situation,” Belichick said. “I don’t think you want to evaluate players at any position off of one or two plays, or maybe days. From a consistency standpoint that’s always important, and obviously production. Hopefully, those things will be good and I’m sure it’ll be a hard decision, but we’ll see how it goes. Just let them play and try to do what we feel is best for the team based on their performance.”
When asked specifically about the impending task of naming New England’s starter, Belichick responded by saying “Cam’s our starting quarterback. I think I said that.”
Though Belichick prefaced the statement by indicating that his evaluation of the quarterbacks would result in a “hard decision”, his answer was consistent with the sentiments he shared shortly after the 2021 NFL Draft. While Jones’ play on the practice field could challenge Belichick’s assertion, it is clear that the Pats head coach will not anoint Jones as the starter based solely on his draft status. That job will go to the player who is most capable. For the time being, that player appears to be Cam Newton.
However, there is plenty of camp action still to come.
Expect the ‘competition’ to resume on Monday, August 2 at 9:30 am on the practice fields adjacent to Gillette Stadium.