FOXBORO — With the pads finally on, we got our first real taste of what the Patriots offense might look like in 2021 with Cam Newton running the show.
The lasting impression?
If the Newton on display Tuesday with live ammunition flying is the one who shows up consistently, he’ll keep his starting job, and the Patriots offense will be just fine.
On this particular day, anyway, it was Newton, not Mac Jones, who made the best throws throughout the session. The former NFL MVP was in total command of the offense, whether he was hitting receivers downfield, or running the read-option.
Of course, it remains to be seen if Newton can stack practices and games together where he’s this accurate, making throws all over the field. Consistency has been a bugaboo during his time in New England.
But this day wasn’t solely about how Newton threw the football. There was plenty more to be gleaned from watching the Newton-led offense as a whole. The other important takeaway was how all of his new, shiny toys looked against a defense that could finally engage.
Let’s just say based on the first padded practice, the new acquisitions at receiver and tight end not only gave Newton a boost, but will ultimately allow the Patriots to do more than just run the football down a defense’s throat every game.
The air show on display Tuesday looks like it will serve as a decent complement to the highly anticipated ground-and-pound attack behind an elite offensive line.
Nelson Agholor, who signed a huge free agent deal, consistently gained separation. Kendrick Bourne, another among the slew of free agents brought in, got open, while tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry delivered at different points in the practice.
“They have a lot of talent. A lot of guys that do a lot of different things,” cornerback Jonathan Jones said after practice. “They’re out here to compete. Today we got after each other. Down after down they wanted to compete and so did we.”
Added defensive captain Devin McCourty: “I think those guys have obviously added a lot of energy, a lot of juice. They’re all really good players.”
The highlight of the day was Newton hitting Agholor in stride with a 50-yard bomb in the right side of the end zone.
Thus far, Agholor’s speed has come as advertised. He stretches the field, and he’s gotten open fairly regularly throughout the first week.
Henry didn’t do much statistically in terms of catches or targets, but did haul in a Newton touch pass in the right corner of the end zone, with Kyle Dugger in pursuit.
Smith, meanwhile, continued to catch balls all over the field, serving as a go-to-guy for Newton.
As for the returning wideouts, Jakobi Meyers continues to shine, finding his spots to get open and make plays, while N’Keal Harry — yes, N’Keal Harry — had his best practice in a long time.
Harry’s skills and athleticism were especially on display during one-on-one attacks against the cornerbacks. While he still has trouble gaining separation, he made a handful of plays on contested balls, showcasing his strength.
We’re talking highlight-material catches.
If he plays like that, and continues to stay healthy — he’s participated in every practice thus far — his trade value will go up, if he still wants a fresh start someplace else. Or he’ll stick around and finally be a playmaker.
Add surprise standout Kristian Wilkerson, who figures to push Harry for one of the final receiver spots, and the weapons around Newton have clearly improved.
Given what’s expected out of the run game, the use of play action, which we saw plenty of on Tuesday, should be another effective tool for the quarterbacks.
McCourty sure sees a difference, especially having to defend an offense with two stellar tight ends.
“One of the tough things when you talk about two tight ends like Hunter and Jonnu is the ability to run the ball and have the hard play-action passes. I’ve seen that,” said McCourty. “Obviously being in the league, you play against teams, and we’ve had that in years past. So those are just things like today when you get the pads on you’ve got to be aware of.
“It’s one thing with no pads and you’re just like ‘all right I just have to cover these guys’ and that’s all you’re thinking about,” McCourty went on. “Now you’re adding a little bit more of the run game and you’ve got Josh (McDaniels) calling different plays that look the same. That’s the stress it puts on the defense. It’s definitely different having to cover those guys.”
While both Newton and Jones took turns shining the first five days of non-padded practices, it was Newton who scored a decisive victory Tuesday.
Jones, the first-round rookie out of Alabama, is going to have his share of growing pains. And that was evident on Day 1 with pads. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds Wednesday.
Newton, meanwhile, looked comfortable with the pads on and simply took charge. The distinction was obvious.
“The guy just wants to be a really good player. He puts it all out on the line for the team,” said McCourty. “No one worries about that anymore. We know what he brings. I’m sure he’s more comfortable. I know guys are more comfortable around him and having him here. I think that’s the great thing.”
For one day, at least, looking at the offense as a whole, the possibilities seemed endless.