What we learned about the Patriots during training camp

Two weeks, a dozen practices and a whole lot learned.

After observing every rep and drill of training camp, here’s what we can say about the Patriots heading into an unprecdented 2020 season.

Cam Newton will start

Let’s knock the obvious out first.

Barring injury, Cam Newton will start for the Patriots in Week 1. There was little question about his September destiny before training camp. There is zero debate now.

Newton was flat-out better than Jarrett Stidham in camp. He showed greater growth. He attempted twice as many passes in live team periods and threw half as many interceptions. The Pats will soon be his team.

Wideout position still problematic

As hoped, the Patriots witnessed a significant, second-year leap from a wide receiver this summer.

There was only one problem: it was the wrong receiver.

As Gunner Olszewski asserted himself as arguably the second-best wideout in camp — an insane feat considering he was a Division II corner just 18 months ago — N’Keal Harry retreaded his rookie year. He maddeningly alternated a down day with a so-so showing and then occasionally a terrific practice. The thing is, Harry’s highs were never that high but his lows, such as catching zero passes in a modified scrimmage that lasted more than an hour, were plenty low.

The job of a receiver is to get open and catch the ball, and Harry struggles with half that. His size and strength can only account for so much when average defensive backs find a way to live in his hip pocket. Unlocking his first-round talent has been a slow process, though Harry will surely develop during the year.

Elsewhere, Mohamed Sanu waited until the final day of training camp to flash with four catches in team periods. Julian Edelman looked like himself around a few off days. Damiere Byrd, Devin Ross and Jakobi Meyers took turns standing out, but never sustained consistently above-average play.

Unless Jeff Thomas, a troubled undrafted rookie who missed roughly half the team’s practices, can emerge, the Pats are back where they were last season: saddled with one of the NFL’s slowest and perhaps worst receiving corps.

Pass defense should shine again

Ever since January, the Patriots’ top-ranked defense has been fated to regress this season; even dismissing its losses in free agency and opt-outs.

This is the nature of what happens after earning a No. 1 ranking. Defensive performance is not predictive year to year. Personnel turnover and shifts in offensive strength of schedule see to that.

Lucky for the Pats, the most vital part of their defense — their secondary — remains intact. After a dominant camp, it’s evident they have a shot to repeat as a top-5 group against the pass.

The Pats’ depth at cornerback is still criminally great, starting with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. After another sharp camp, Stephon Gilmore can be expected to lock down one side of the field again, opposite the ever-solid Jason McCourty. However, McCourty may soon give way to young J.C. Jackson, now an elite man-to-man defender who needs only to win more often in short areas and zone coverage to develop into a No. 1 corner. Jackson was the second-best defender in camp.

Speedy Jonathan Jones still owns the slot, when he’s not moonlighting at safety. Joejuan Williams has all but converted there full-time, and could be a game-plan weapon

Back deep, assuming Devin McCourty can stay healthy for 16 games, the Patriots should capably fill the other two safety spots in their most common personnel grouping through Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips or Terrence Brooks. Phillips is the most proven and experienced among them, while Dugger and Brooks were two of the top playmakers in camp. This remains an elite group.

Rookie linebackers will play — a lot

Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, step right up.

From this view, the Pats’ answer for how to fill the Dont’a Hightower void will be to throw rookies at it. Both Uche and Jennings were predominantly edge players in college, though they earned enough experience at inside linebacker for the Patriots to try them off the ball in camp, especially Uche. Another plus for Uche has been the appreciable drop-off in athleticism when Jennings takes over for him.

Though, the Pats have never cared much for 40 times with their inside ‘backers, preferring them to be a step ahead mentally. That’s where Jennings’ edge applies, having played in a similar system at Alabama under Nick Saban. Jennings surged late in camp, pushing Uche for the right to man the middle next to or in place of Ja’Whaun Bentley.

How their snaps will be divvied up is unclear, but it’s a guarantee each will also take turns terrorizing quarterbacks off the edge sometime this season.

Breakout candidates abound

It’s unreasonable to expect the Patriots to sail smoothly into the playoffs again after all the talent they lost this offseason. Their only hope is that their roster stopgaps can grow into full-time replacements.

Second-year outside linebacker Chase Winovich should lead any list of breakout players, now ready to start after collecting 5.5 sacks as a rookie reserve. Defensive end Deatrich Wise shouldn’t be far behind, having added weight this offseason and dominated stretches of camp. One spot over, defensive tackle Byron Cowart maximized his reps in place of the injured Beau Allen and may step straight into the starting lineup.

Offensively, the pickings are slimmer. Damien Harris is an obvious selection, appearing more explosive and decisive in camp. But any Harris’ breakout is predicated on a high volume of carries, which may not be guaranteed with Sony Michel and Lamar Miller back to full health. Otherwise, it’s rookie tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene or Olszewski, accounting for his likely impact as a returner.

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