The Patriots just wrapped up what may later be looked at as a defining week in the quarterback battle to start the 2020 regular season. This week brought the first set of padded practices for New England, which added a competitive layer to the competition between Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, and Brian Hoyer that was lacking over the early stages of training camp. With the initial wave of padded practices now in the books, this snapshot of the current competition seems to have Stidham trending in the wrong direction.
The second-year quarterback wasn't particularly sharp during team drills over the week and threw multiple interceptions. However, that may be due to a hip injury he's reportedly dealing with. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Stidham was taken to a local hospital on Thursday for precautionary tests on his upper leg, which came back negative. The 24-year-old was on the practice field on Friday, but was limited. While Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels noted Friday that Stidham should be "ready to roll' the next time New England hits the practice field, the NFL Network reported that it may be several weeks before he is back to full strength.
If that latter piece of information comes to fruition and Stidham won't be 100% for another few weeks, that could be further reason to give the edge in this battle to Cam Newton, who enjoyed a strong week of practice. Since the club brought Newton aboard in July, it's been my feeling that if Stidham were to win the starting job, he'd need to rip it away from everyone else. Not just go toe-to-toe with Newton and Hoyer, but leave no doubt. To this point, that hasn't happened, and an injury limiting his effectiveness couldn't be more ill timed for him as he tries to secure the job.
That's illuminated even more with Bill Belichick's comments on Wednesday, acknowledging that the club will eventually need to hand the lion's share of starting reps to an individual quarterback to better prepare him for Week 1, instead of the even split the team is currently rolling with.
"There's some point where that's going to happen," said the head coach. "But, right now, we want to try to, like I said, give everybody an opportunity to get the basics, and we're really doing that at all the positions. I mean, everybody's rotating through and we're trying to give everybody an opportunity to run the basic plays, get the basic fundamentals down. Yeah, of course at some point, we'll have to not equalize the reps – I mean, that's obvious – but we're not there now."
Sure, New England doesn't have to name the Week 1 starter right now, but the clock is ticking as it is just a few weeks away from hosting the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 13. If Stidham is spending most of his time before the opener recovering from an injury, that doesn't put him in the best position to beat out Newton to at least start the season as QB1. Time is now becoming Stidham's biggest enemy.
Here are some other Patriots-related news in notes from the past week:
Platoon QB situation
One of the quirkier headlines we saw out of Foxborough this week was Bill Belichick leaving open the possibility of the Patriots rolling with a quarterback platoon to start the year, saying he would "certainly consider" anything that he felt would help the club. What I think may give this some legs is how Belichick and the Patriots have historically looked at the first month of the season. Over the head coach's tenure in Foxborough, September has been famously coined as an extension of the preseason, with the team testing and tweaking certain aspects of the roster before fully stomping on the gas in October.
With the actual preseason being scrapped, that could be further emphasized this year, especially under center. Unlike in years past, when New England didn't have to wonder who'll be QB1, the preseason would have been a helpful tool to see if any quarterback could separate himself during live, in-game scenarios. While there are no exhibitions this year, Belichick could use the first month to do just that and create this sort of platoon operation to start. Once one quarterback is the clear guy, they move forward with him.
This would further make sense if Newton isn't fully up to speed with the offense by the time the opener comes around. Under this hypothetical, you could start either Hoyer or Stidham, two quarterbacks with a history in New England's system, and allow Newton to ease his way into the offense, possibly starting off with a red-zone package.
My gut says that the Patriots go the more traditional route and simply name a starter, but I also wouldn't rule this out entirely, considering the unconventional start to the regular season that 2020 has brought upon us.
The next Dion Lewis?
Dion Lewis was one of the more electric players to come around Foxborough over the last decade and lightening may be striking twice as the Patriots have found a player with a very similar skillset. Running backs coach Ivan Fears compared J.J. Taylor, an undrafted rookie out of Arizona, to Lewis on Friday and even called him "Little Dion."
"Same quickness, same suddenness," said Fears during a videoconference with reporters. "He's a hell of a pass-catcher. Great vision. There's a (expletive) of stuff that's good about him. He has to learn to play bigger than his size."
Taylor's best collegiate season came back in 2018, when he rushed for 1,434 yards and six touchdowns. His rushing totals dipped in 2019, but he was able to have his best year as a pass-catcher, hauling in 32 passes for 289 yards. If New England can bring him along like Lewis, who totaled 1,110 yards and nine touchdowns from scrimmage during his final year in Foxborough, that'd be quite the find for a backfield that is looking for playmakers.
For 2020, however, Taylor may be looked at as simply a developmental piece in the backfield who finds his time spent between the active roster and practice squad.
Julian Edelman raves about Newton
Julian Edelman has now gotten up close and personal with Cam Newton on the field and it seems safe to say that the veteran Patriots receiver likes what he sees. While appearing on The Greg Hill Show on WEEI on Friday, Edelman was asked about Newton and he has been particularly impressed with the quarterback's confidence.
"He's definitely a former MVP for a reason," Edelman said, as transcribed by WEEI.com. "The guy is a professional. He works his tail off. He's extremely dynamic and he's got a charming personality. It's been fun to be around. He has a confidence about him — all quarterbacks have a confidence, but it's just a little different with Cam. It's a vibe that can fuel you and get you in a mindset. It's been fun."
Edelman also pumped up Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer, and even developmental quarterback Brian Lewerke, saying that it's been fun to work with them as well, but his high praise for Newton should be noted here. It's yet another strong endorsement by the current face of New England's offense. It also highlights the aura that's been around Newton since he arrived. His energy and strong presence have certainly been felt, which is noteworthy for that position.
N'Keal Harry misses time
It must feel a little like Groundhog Day for former first-round receiver N'Keal Harry. Last summer, he dealt with injuries leading into his rookie year and ultimately found himself on injured reserve to start the regular season. Harry was activated in early November and finished his first year in the league with just 12 catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns over seven games played. Fast forward to the here and now and Harry is once again missing time, as the 6-foot-4, 225 pounder missed three consecutive practices to end the week. The reason for Harry's absence has not been disclosed.
Of course, any time missed over this stretch is less than ideal, especially as New England tries to find its identity on the offensive side of the ball, specifically under center. For Harry, he's looked at as a critical piece to New England's passing game and poised to start alongside Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu. After what can be considered a lost season in 2019, having him healthy out of the gate is key to his development, and bucking the trend of highly drafted Patriots receivers failing to make an impact. This is worth monitoring as camp progresses.
Gunner Olszewski taking step forward
Second-year receiver Gunner Olszewski is putting together an impressive camp, starting his 2020 season off on an extremely positive note. The former Bemidji State cornerback even received rave reviews from Belichick as he sees a pretty significant jump from his rookie season to Year 2.
"Gunner's improved tremendously," Belichick said. "Again, both physically and from a football standpoint. He's a smart kid, he works extremely hard. He's tough, he's very, very competitive. He needs to learn how to do a lot of different things for us and he continues to work on things that will expand his opportunities. So it'll be interesting to watch him take advantage, or try to take advantage of those opportunities, and watch him play and see how all of that's coming together.
"His overall background, knowledge, understanding, being a professional athlete, training, some of his fundamental athletic skills – he's refined those quite a bit and he's much, much, much further ahead from where he was last year."
Olszewski, who noted how much more comfortable this year is compared to coming in as an undrafted free agent in 2019, played in eight games for New England before landing on IR with ankle and hamstring injuries. Over that stretch, Olszewski hauled in just two receptions for 34 yards while also factoring in on special teams and in the return game. This year, he'll factor in somewhere behind Edelman, Sanu, and Harry at receiver and could claim punt return duties out of the gate.
Damien Harris breakout coming?
With Sony Michel and Lamar Miller still sidelined, that's opened the door for second-year running back Damien Harris to see an increased workload to start camp. So far, it seems like Harris, a third-round pick in 2019 out of Alabama, has made the most of his opportunity and received some praise from Bill Belichick on Wednesday.
"He had a lot of opportunity to work as the scout team running back and do the things that those players did, whether it be in the running game or the passing game," Belichick said of Harris' limited rookie season, when he logged just four carries. "He's a smart player and he has a lot of skills that I think we'll be able to utilize. He's had an opportunity to get quite a few reps here in the work that we've done to this point, so I think that's helped him, but he seems like he's in good shape and ready to go. Looking forward to seeing him."
Harris noted on Tuesday that this increased workload is an opportunity to show the team that "I can be dependable," which is something the position has lacked a bit in recent years. Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead have both dealt with injuries since their initial arrival to Foxborough and that has limited the ceiling to New England's rushing attack. If Harris, who rushed for 876 yards and nine touchdowns during his final season with Nick Saban at Alabama, can continue to make positive strides and continue to impress as a pass-catcher, he'll get an opportunity secure a sizable role in the Patriots backfield even if Michel is ready for Week 1.
Belichick's sons have unique perspective
Heading into 2020, Bill Belichick now has both of his sons -- Stephen and Brian -- as positional coaches on staff with New England. Stephen Belichick has been working in the organization since 2012, but began working as a positional coach starting in 2016 and has now risen through the ranks and is potentially knocking on the door of becoming the defensive coordinator one of these days. Brian Belichick is entering his first season as a positional coach, working with the safeties.
When asked about things coming full-circle with his kids now on staff, Bill Belichick gave a rather interesting answer about how Stephen and Brian have a unique perspective of the organization.
"Both Stephen [Belichick] and Brian have grown up a lot and they've come a long way, especially when I've had a chance to see them their whole lives," he said. "But they've been around a lot of football, they've seen a lot of football. They've seen things done from a different perspective than other people. But in the end, I don't know anybody that knows our football program better than Stephen, who's been in it a little bit longer, but Brian as well. They've just lived their whole life with this program. So all the things that we do, for all the different reasons and how it all ties together and so forth, they have a very good understanding of all the things that are involved and how it all is interwoven. And that's valuable to me because they have a perspective of that.
"We have a lot of good coaches on our staff, I'm not saying that. Those guys are very, very good coaches and very proficient and they do a great job. But it's a little different to see it from the perspective that Brian has seen it from, or Steve. They all help, they're all valuable and I'm glad we have them."
No fans at Gillette Stadium
Gillette Stadium officials announced this week that after consulting with the Massachusetts Reopening Advisory Board the stadium will have no fans attending games through September due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. That means at the very least the Patriots home opener on Sept. 13 and the game on Sept. 27 will be played without fans.
"Pats Nation, with the news yesterday, I can see why some of you are disappointed and frustrated," Julian Edelman said in an Instagram message reacting to this news. "Without a doubt it's going to be different this September without every single one of you cheering us on. But don't you worry ... we'll be right here when you get back."
Gillette Stadium officials added that the stadium will "will continue its preparations to safely host fans later this fall and will rely on guidance from the Massachusetts Reopening Advisory Board and our team of independent experts. The health and safety of our players, coaches, staff, fans and surrounding community has and will continue to lead our efforts."