Sunday 7: Observations from 9 days of Patriots training camp practice

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1 – With the media getting a weekend break from training camp practice sessions in Foxborough following Friday night’s low-tempo game simulation inside Gillette Stadium, it seems like a good time to look back at the nine New England summer practices that are in the books.

Obviously the most notable observation by anyone in attendance for even just one workout is that New England’s new-look offense under the direction of Matt Patricia, Joe Judge and Bill Belichick doesn’t look quite right. Or good. Or even high school-caliber at this still early point in the process.

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A unit that, according to Belichick, has been streamlined after longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ departure looks anything but simpler or faster, as some players had proposed during the spring.

Mac Jones is having to hold onto the ball too long more often than not on pass plays. He’s having to move in the pocket under duress or even scramble far too often. Receivers aren’t getting open, at least not in a timely, efficient fashion. And the running game has struggled to find room to run.

And that’s the biggest takeaway from nearly two weeks of training camp struggles for the Patriots offense: it’s not any one person or even one position group that seems to be the problem. All areas – and members – of the New England offense appear to be wrapped up in the summertime offensive issues.

2 – While the offense has been the focal point of pessimism and criticism, New England’s defense has probably been a more positive practice field storyline that many may have expected heading into camp. Sure, the defensive success is tied into the struggles of their counterparts on offense. But the defense has to get at least some credit for creating those struggles. The defensive front, led by Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy has been pretty darn impressive against the run. The back end, including a suspect cornerback position, has more than held its own against the Jones-led passing attack. Even if the New England offense it is practicing against is not very good these days, it’s a good early sign that the Patriots defense has consistently gotten the job done on the practice field.
That’s a good place to build from moving forward because the unit will certainly face significant challenges against some pretty elite competition this season.

3 – One notable aspect of the New England defense early on is that Bill Belichick, Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo don’t have a lot of elite players but they may have a lot of competitive players in the mix. That may be the key to the unit. Can the croup be pieced together on a down-by-down basis or game-by-game basis to put forth performances that might produce at a level greater than a sum of the parts? The elder Belichick has often utilized a deep rotation and bench on defense over the years, and may need to do that as much as ever. It looks like he’ll have decent depth and talent at safety and the defensive line, while linebacker and cornerback may need to remain a bit more fluid based on matchups, health and other factors. It feels safe to say the Patriots will not be rolling out the same 11 or so players on defense each week, but rather there is a chance the team needs to put 16, 18 or even 20 guys to use with some regularity on that side of the ball. It will be up to the veteran coaching staff to pull it all together.

4 – A strange aspect of the passing game struggles is that individually it feels like many of the receivers have shined or shown flashes of hopeful play in training camp practice. Newcomer DeVante Parker got off to a hot start in shorts and has continued to show the ability to make contested catches. (Yes, that means he’s not getting a lot of separation from coverage on his catches, but it is what it is.) Rookie second-round pick Tyquan Thornton has had a very good summer on the whole. Sure, he has elite speed. But he’s also shown the quickness to get open, decent route running, consistent hands and that he’s more than just a down-the-field threat. Thornton has already shown more hopeful progress in a short stint of training camp than N’Keal Harry (and many others before him) ever did. Meanwhile Nelson Agholor might be the best receiver on the field this summer, although he did have a really ugly drop in Gillette on Friday night on a back-shoulder deep ball from Jones. Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne look ready to pick up where they left off a year ago at the very least. Yet the passing game has looked pretty putrid as a whole. It will be interesting to see if at some point the individual spurts of positive play come together to give the overall unit more consistent production.

5 – Coming out of spring OTA practices it seemed that it was safe to pencil in the starting offensive line of left tackle Trent Brown, rookie first-round left guard Cole Strange, center David Andrews, right guard Mike Onwenu and right tackle Isaiah Wynn. Indeed that’s been the first group for the most part during training camp action. Of late, though, a couple new faces have been rotating into the mix at right guard. Over the last week both Arlington Hambright and James Ferentz have taken Onwenu’s spot in rotational reps. It could be simply building depth on the line. Or it could be a sign that Onwenu isn’t locked into the starting lineup. The former sixth-round pick is an interesting figure, a PFF darling as a starter at right tackle as a rookie who fell into a reserve role last season even though there were opportunities to be had. Whether the springtime starting five end up as the September starting five or not, the New England line is an area to watch as the Patriots try to find consistency in all aspects of the offense heading toward the regular season.

6 – James White’s absence while on PUP working back from hip surgery is less than ideal for New England. White has been one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL in his career. When or if he will join the offense remains unknown. With the veteran out of the mix, the remaining running backs have seemingly caught the ball pretty well this summer. Heck, Jones finding one of his running backs has been one of the few constants with the scuffling passing attack. Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, rookie Kevin Harris and veteran newcomer Ty Montgomery have all shown a solid ability to catch the ball in practice action. Stevenson flashed early in camp in the passing game but has missed some reps to an unknown issue of late. Montgomery is a proven hybrid running back/receiver who also appears poised to be a key contributor on special teams. The rookie Harris showing decent hands might be most notable, given his resume as a bigger lead back with limited work in the passing game at South Carolina. Sure the Patriots would prefer to have a healthy White doing his thing in the passing game, but if he can’t go it appears Jones will have a few options to turn to when looking to throw the ball to his running backs.

7 – Looking ahead, the Patriots will hold a pair of practices this week on Monday and Tuesday that will be open to the media and fans. Those will lead into Thursday night’s preseason opener against Brian Daboll’s Giants at Gillette Stadium. Seeing both the struggling offense and the competitive defense match up against a new foe even for just a few live reps could shed new light on the team-building process in New England. Thursday will also bring new jersey numbers for the Patriots’ rookies, ditching what have become the traditional offseason numbers in the 50s and 60s for permanent, game-ready digits. Guys like Thornton (51) and rookie cornerbacks Marcus Jones (52) and Jack Jones (53) may look more athletic just by getting rid of their non-traditional linemen numbers, although Thornton actually expressed some attachment to No. 51. “It’s going to be real sad,” he said last week with a smile. “I feel like 51 is a part of me now -- that big, old jersey and I'm running around. I was having fun with it."

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