The Patriots wrapped up their ninth practice of the spring with an OTA session in Foxborough Thursday morning. The absence of Cam Newton, who is dealing with a right hand injury, was notable as it allowed for more reps among the trio of Jarrett Stidham, Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer.
Bill Belichick told the media prior to the practice that Newton wouldn't be on the field but seemed to indicate the injury is not serious.
"He's doing all right. He won't participate today but he's getting better," Belichick said. "He's not out there but I think he'll be all right."
With four quarterbacks on the roster it can be challenging to ensure that all receive the necessary work in order to best prepare themselves for training camp moving forward. Newton's absence made that job a little easier on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Thursday.
"It just gives everybody more opportunities," Belichick explained. "Josh does a good job of working that out depending on what we're doing and each individual's needs. He's got a lot of experience doing that and he does a great job of getting everybody prepared. That can come in a variety of ways from meetings and walkthroughs, and he's done it very well. He's the one who really has to make those decisions and he does a great job with it."
Stidham in particular seems to be benefitting from the extra work. Last week he took some of Newton's reps, then cycled through for additional work between Jones and Hoyer. Of the three, he received the most time again on Thursday, although Hoyer also saw an uptick in his workload and took advantage by making several impressive throws downfield.
It will be interesting to see how Stidham responds to the challenge after losing his chance to start last year when Newton arrived, and then watching the Patriots draft Jones with the 15th overall pick in the April draft. In addition, watching Hoyer command the offense efficiently, which should be the case given his extensive experience, could make him an option as well.
"The three quarterbacks who were here last year are still here and we drafted Mac," Belichick explained when asked how Stidham is handling the added competition. "There's competition at every position. It's the same mindset for every player ... go out and improve his induvial performance. You can't control what anybody else does. You can control what you do - your attitude and performance - and Jarrett's done that and so has everybody else on the team."
Belichick continues to stress the importance of installing the system and getting the players up to speed mentally, particularly the ones who are new to the Patriots. On several occasions during his press briefing he mentioned the non-competitive nature of the workouts - perhaps as an attempt to downplay the constant scrutiny of the team and specifically the quarterback play.
"We're just continuing to grind through day by day this spring," Belichick said. "We've gotten a lot of teaching in and will continue to do that. We're starting to get into more football instead of just drills and fundamentals. Just trying to move forward a little each day with situations and things like that. We've had some good warm weather out there and I think that's helped us with our overall conditioning and quality of time on the field. That's been good. Just trying to keep stringing these days together as we head toward the finish line so we can get off to a great start to training camp."
With that, here are one man's observations from the Patriots ninth practice of the spring:
*Many teams around the league have curtailed or in some cases greatly altered their on-field offseason programs. Miami has conducted walkthroughs in flip-flops to ensure a non-competitive pace while San Francisco has canceled its minicamp altogether. There are several other examples as well, and Belichick was asked if he'd had any conversations with his players to make changes.
"We have a good line of communication with our players and our players' representatives and we'll continue to do whatever we feel is best for our team," Belichick said. "It's all voluntary. Some players are here and some aren't. That's the way it's set up for everyone so it's a level playing field. We'll do what we feel is best for our team."
Thus far there have been several veterans who haven't been around Foxborough, which is a change from past years when the team had close to 100 percent attendance. Some of those missing folks were back on Thursday, and with mandatory minicamp set for next week it will be interesting to see if Belichick makes any changes to that schedule.
*While Newton missed the practice, several other veterans were on hand for their first on-field work of the spring in front of the media. Dont'a Hightower was the most notable of the group since he made his return after more than a year off. Devin McCourty, Trent Brown, Adrian Phillips and Matt Judon were also among those who made their spring debuts.
*Robert Kraft made an early appearance at practice, walking around and chatting with various coaches and players before leaving about midway through.
*Running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson have been on the field this spring but did more work on Thursday. Stevenson is simply huge and looks like a linebacker running through drills. The image of him standing next to J.J. Taylor resembled a family picture of siblings born about five years apart. Harris took some reps for the first time and still looked a bit gimpy at times. He spent a few minutes loosening up on the stationary bike and then saw his workload decrease from there. He did get a few more carries but overall he appears to be working his way back slowly.
*Dalton Keene also spent some time on the stationary bike and wore a sleeve on his left leg. He took reps periodically throughout the practice but clearly is dealing with some issue.
*The linebackers and defensive backs worked together early in practice with an emphasis on some pass rushing combinations. Once the offense and defense opposed each other those packages got some reps with third down being the focus. The rush had some success at times (again, tough for the offense to keep the pocket clean without contact) but the offense also enjoyed more production than last week. Given the situation, the passing game involved more downfield throws and Hoyer and Stidham connected on a few.
*Isaiah Zuber was the recipient of one of those long throws, hauling in a perfect dart from Hoyer in 7-on-7s. Zuber has shown up in all three practices the media has witnessed and appears to be making a run at finding a role on the offense. Devin Asiasi also had an impressive fingertip catch on a ball from Hoyer while Stidham hit Kendrick Bourne on a beautiful deep out near the sideline. The offense's success led that group to be more vocal, perhaps in response to last week's defensive outburst.
*There were a couple of special teams segments and the emphasis appeared to be on kick and punt returns. Taylor, Marvin Hall and Kyle Dugger handled kicks while Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers took care of punts. While that work was going on Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Judon were seen chatting off to the side. One can only imagine the blitz schemes being conjured up by that trio.
*Unfortunately, tight end Hunter Henry appeared to injured his left foot/ankle and spent some time with trainers while the special teams work was going on. Henry removed his cleat and got re-taped before testing the injury with some light jogs and at one point hopping on one foot to test it. He appeared to be OK but didn't do much after that.
*The Patriots are set to take on Washington, Philadelphia and the Giants in the preseason and Belichick was asked about the possibility of conducting any joint practices. After COVID eliminated that chance last summer, the coach sounded like a return to joint practices may be in the works. "I think that's a possibility," he said. "We'll see how it goes." The New York Daily News reported the Patriots and Giants will conduct joint workouts in Foxborough before heading to New Jersey for the preseason finale on August 29.
*After hearing from mostly veteran players throughout the spring, the Patriots made some rookies and other young players available following Thursday's practice. Those chatting with the media virtually included Mac Jones, Tre Nixon, Myles Bryant, Isaiah Zuber, Rhamondre Stevenson and Quinn Nordin.
*The Patriots will conduct their three-day mandatory minicamp next week from June 14-16. The practices are similar in nature to the OTAs with players in shorts and helmets with no contact permitted. The workouts are closed to the public.