The head coach first said he’s “sure it'll be a hard decision” to settle the battle. In the next breath, he said, “Cam's our starting quarterback.” Then Belichick went on to say everyone has to “re-establish their positions.” He delivered three wildly different statements all in one day to answer three consecutive questions.
Belichick isn’t going to spill trade secrets to the media in a midsummer press conference, but practices are open to reporters and fans, and actions speak louder than words. On Monday, the Patriots’ fourth padded practice this summer, Newton and Jones, the 15th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, earned equal opportunities with the first-team weapons and offensive line against the Patriots’ top defense.
Newton: 4-of-10 in 11-on-11 drills
Jones: 8-of-11 in 11-on-11 drills
Newton started off 11-on-11 drills going 2-of-5. His best throw was a dime down the right sideline to running back James White, and he connected with wide receiver Jakobi Meyers on a slant for a touchdown. But he also let linebacker Kyle Van Noy break up a pass over the middle of the field, and safety Adrian Phillips intercepted Newton on a throw intended for tight end Jonnu Smith in the red zone.
Newton connected with wide receiver Kendrick Bourne in the end zone, but safety Devin McCourty clearly let up to avoid contact, and one defender made a “go to sleep” motion. If that pass had been thrown in a game with tackling allowed, then Bourne would have been lit up by a defender. Newton also would have been sacked twice in the series by outside linebacker Josh Uche.
The first-team offense and defense then earned a break. Brian Hoyer came onto the field with the second- and third-stringers, went 1-of-2 and would have been sacked by rookie defensive end Ronnie Perkins if contact were allowed.
Jones was under center for the next first-team reps, and he went 4-of-7 (including a drop) with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson on an extended play. Surprisingly, Jones impressed with his athleticism and improvisational skills Monday afternoon. The Alabama product got out of the pocket and started to use non-verbal communication to move his receivers around the field to his desired locations.
Jones then got a turn in a two-minute drill and went 4-of-4. Running back Sony Michel made the catch of his life, leaping and securing a toe-tapping grab down the right sideline. Jones completed another pass to Michel and connected with wide receivers Gunner Olszewski and Marvin Hall.
Newton finished off 2-of-5 with a dropped pass in the two-minute drill. The veteran quarterback’s final throw of the day was broken up by Phillips — one of Monday’s standouts — again over Smith, who saw more opportunities with fellow tight end Hunter Henry out of practice following a shoulder injury.
So, what do we make of this? If Newton is the starter, then the Patriots at least want to see how Jones looks with the first-team offense and against its best defensive players, which is certainly notable. And ultimately, New England has to make a difficult decision to start the season. Belichick has in the past used the early weeks of the campaign as something of an extension of the summer to continue sorting out training camp battles. But that was when Tom Brady was locked in under center and 12 wins was as much of a guarantee as orange leaves each fall in New England.
The security blanket is gone, and every win matters more than ever after Brady won his seventh Super Bowl, and first without Belichick, last season.
If Newton gives the Patriots a better chance to win, then he’ll be starting quarterback even if the competition is close, and even if it makes more sense to start Jones to develop the 2021 first-round pick for the future. But Jones is making a push. And the job was much more clearly Newton’s on the first day of training camp than it was two weeks later during Monday’s practice. And perhaps it was also much more clearly Newton’s when Belichick delivered his intentionally confusing message to the media nine days ago.
Monday was just a snapshot of camp. But that picture showed two quarterbacks receiving identical opportunities with and against the same teammates.
New England plays the Washington Football Team in its first preseason game Thursday.
A few more notes from practice:
— Wilkerson is a player to watch. He was getting top-team reps in the offense and has been one of the Patriots’ top-targeted wide receivers this summer.
— Defensive tackle Christian Barmore, a second-round pick out of Alabama, earned some time in the middle of the Patriots’ top defense.
— Smith spent individual time with quarterbacks during special teams drills. He didn’t have the best practice Monday but has a chance to really break out depending on how long Henry is out.
— Cornerback J.C. Jackson’s ball-hawking skills were once again on display with a pretty pass breakup in one-on-ones.