While most of New England has been paying close attention to the quarterback battle that's unfolding between Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer, another competition may begin heating up in the backfield after Sony Michel, the Patriots' incumbent starting running back, returned off the PUP list this week and began practicing. His presence now adds a rather intriguing battle between Michel and second-year running back Damien Harris, who has been putting together an impressive camp after seeing an increased amount of reps.
Michel started camp on PUP due to offseason foot surgery, which is the latest in what is becoming a growing list of ailments the back has needed to recover from since coming into the league as a first-round draft choice in 2018. This season is a critical one for Michel on a couple of different fronts. First, he'll need to fend off Harris to maintain his starting status in New England's backfield. Second, he'll need to be a bit more consistent with his high-level play to give the Patriots zero doubt about triggering his fifth-year option for the 2022 season, a decision that will come after this year.
Last season, Michel's efficiency took a dip from what he was able to put together during his rookie season. His yards per carry dropped from 4.5 to 3.7 and Michel failed to reach 100 or more yards on the ground in any of his 16 games played in 2019. That said, the early reports out of Foxborough have credited Michel for looking faster, which may be thanks to his fresh legs after missing the bulk of camp.
Harris, meanwhile, was selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft out of Alabama and essentially went through a redshirt rookie campaign, only carrying the ball four times while suiting up in just two of New England's contests. Don't take that as an indication that the back isn't talented, however, as there have been a number of Patriots backs who have gone through a similar first year to later go on and become impact players on championship clubs (Shane Vereen and James White, for example).
"He goes out there and he just runs hard, and it's going to push me to run even harder," Michel said this week of Harris. "Him going out there and making plays would benefit the team, and (I want to do) whatever I can do to come in and do the same thing."
Harris has unquestionably earned some sort of role in the Patriots backfield, but the question now centers around how big that role will be now that Michel is back in the fold. The 214 pounder has shown promise in the passing game, which could give him an edge over Michel, who has yet to really grasp that skill at the NFL level. Of course, the jury is still out on whether or not Michel will be a full go for Week 1 after missing most of camp due to injury, which could give Harris even more of a window to steal the job.
"I believe in our staff that we have, from the training staff to the strength coaches to even the on-field coaches, that they're doing everything they can for me to get up to pace," Michel said when asked about being ready for the opener. "However I feel when that time comes, we're trying to make sure I'm in the best shape possible, make sure my head's in the right place as far as the playbook and stuff, and I'm just trying to learn as much as I can."
Here are some other Patriots-related news and nuggets from the past week:
A bounce-back week for N'Keal Harry
Harry's rookie season had some trouble getting off the ground after the 2019 first-round receiver played in just seven games in 2019. Things seemed to be trending in a negative direction on the health front once again when Harry missed a number of practices last week, but the pass-catcher was able to bounce back this week and put together a solid showing.
"I would use excitement more than pressure," Harry said Friday when asked about being "the guy" in New England's passing attack this season. "I'm really looking forward to getting out there and doing my part to help the team. I just want to do everything I can and I want to play to the standards I know I can play at. To me, it's more excitement than anything."
The Patriots will need Harry to live up to the first-round billing for the offensive to live up to its potential in 2020. He's looked at as the No. 2 pass-catching option opposite of Julian Edelman and, so far, head coach Bill Belichick seems to like where Harry is at heading into Year 2.
"He's much more comfortable, has a much better understanding this year than what he did last year," Belichick said Friday. "He's been productive for us on the field. He still has a lot of football in front of him and a lot of growth and he works hard every day. He's a physical, tough kid that likes to compete. You can see his competitiveness out there on the field and that allows him to get better."
Again, it cannot be overstated how critical Harry's development will be to New England's offense this season.
Gilmore returns after excused absence
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore missed the last few days of practice last week in what Bill Belichick described as an excused absence. The Patriots star corner returned to practice on Wednesday and while he kept the specifics private, Gilmore did characterize that it was "serious."
"Everything's good," said Gilmore. "Had something come up that, you know, is personal reasons so I told coach about it and we'll leave it at that."
He later added: "Everybody goes through things in life. You know when it's something serious, you don't want it on your mind. Sometimes you've got to handle things. I was able to do that. Now I'm back, back happy and ready to take on each and every day getting better."
Gilmore, who has two years remaining on his current deal, confirmed that his absence was not contract related as some speculated it may be.
Things have changed rather dramatically for second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham. At the start of the summer, he was looked at as having the inside track of becoming the Patriots starting quarterback in the wake of Tom Brady's departure. Then, New England brought in Cam Newton, and the former league MVP has seemingly taken the lead in this quarterback competition. It also hasn't helped that Stidham has recently been limited due to a reported hip injury.
"There's things that happen. Sometimes you can't control everything," Stidham said this week when asked about missing some reps. "Now I'm back on the field and excited to be back playing with the guys, and everything like that. So I just want to take the most of my opportunities that I do have and try to make the most of them, and, like I said, continue to get better every single day."
Similar to Newton's comments this week noting that he doesn't view himself as the starter in New England, Stidham looked inward when asked if he still feels like he's battling for QB1 in Foxborough.
"How I view things is that every day is a competition," he said. "Whether I'm first string, second string, third string, fourth string, fifth string, I just view it as a great opportunity to get better with my teammates every single day and to compete really hard. I look at it as competing against myself and try to learn and grow every single day to help myself get better each and every day I get out on the field."
No matter if Stidham wins the job or not, it will be to the Patriots' benefit to give him increased reps to see how the young quarterback develops. After all, Newton is only signed through the 2020 season, so Stidham could still have a shot at being the longterm option under center for New England.
"My goal, like I said earlier, has always stayed the same," he said. "Whether that be here at the end of training camp kind of leading into the season, or whether it be throughout the season, whatever it may be, is really just to learn and get better. I'm only in my second year. There's a ton of room for me to grow. A lot of room to improve and learn in a lot of different areas. That's kind of my big thing. I just want to continue to learn from the guys in the quarterback room, whether it be Cam, or Hoy, or Jedd [Fisch], or Josh [McDaniels], or whoever it may be – just continue to learn from those guys and really try to help myself get better and really excel on the field every day."
Belichick on NFL, NCAA rules
Bill Belichick gave an interesting answer when asked what rule changes he'd make in the NFL by NBC Sports' "Rich Eisen Show." The Patriots head coach explained that creating a more uniform rulebook between the NFL and NCAA could benefit everyone involved, something he explained further when asked about it during his Friday videoconference with reporters.
"The one thing about the colleges is that they have players at a younger age than we do, so they can train them in certain areas," Belichick said. "So, if they're being trained in those areas and then for us to change the training – things like defenseless players and personal fouls and rules like that, roughing the passer and all that – the more there's consistency, the more that flows for the training of the player. When you go from one thing in college to the same situation, but now it's officiated differently at our level, then that can be somewhat challenging and confusing for players until they get adjusted to it and adapt to it, which eventually they will. But, I just think the process could be – or I would like to see the process smoothed out a little bit."
During the Eisen interview, Belichick specifically brought up defensive pass-interference and two feet vs. one foot for a reception as some of the differences between the NFL and college games.
Derek Rivers entering make-or-break year
Derek Rivers hasn't had an easy road in the NFL. New England's top draft choice from the 2017 NFL Draft has only been able to play in six games over his still young career after suffering a myriad of injuries. The 6-foot-5, 250 pounder suffered a torn ACL that erased his rookie season and then was placed on injured reserve prior to the start of the 2019 season, missing the entire year.
Now, Rivers is heading into the final year of his rookie contract and does have an opportunity to carve out a role for himself somewhere along New England's front seven after the club lost a number of veterans via free agency and opt-outs. So far, Bill Belichick seems to like what Rivers is bringing to the table.
"Yeah, well it's great to have Riv out there," said the head coach. "He's had a very good camp and really is playing with a lot of confidence. He's gained a lot of strength and explosiveness, as well as rehabbing the injury, as you mentioned. His overall body composition, strength, power is good. It's a very competitive position. ... Derek has done a good job, and he's well ahead of where he's been in the past. Each day, it seems like he gets a little more consistent, a little more confident, and I think he should be able to help us."
While Rivers may be considered a veteran at this point, he's still a virtual unknown for the Patriots and still has potential to unlock if he stays healthy.
Folk in the road for Rohrwasser
The Patriots decided to spice things up this week in the kicking department by re-signing veteran Nick Folk with the regular-season opener really just days away. This comes after 2020 fifth-round draft choice Justin Rohrwasser hasn't put together the strongest training camp thus far, according to those on the scene in Foxborough, and has reportedly been dealing with an undisclosed injury.
"I think both players are good kickers," Belichick said when asked about bringing in Folk. "We'll see how it goes. That will be up to them to decide. But, we've talked to Nick throughout the course of the spring and even training camp. Things worked out here last week, and so it's great to have him. He certainly came in and did a good job for us last year, but things just didn't work out until recently with Nick, and so I'm glad they did, I'm glad he's here and we'll see how it turns out.
"I don't know. Those two guys will both get as much opportunity as we can give them, and we'll evaluate them and go from there. But, we've been talking to Nick since back in March, so I mean, this isn't something that just came up a couple days ago. It's been an ongoing conversation for several months, actually."
Folk appeared in seven games for the Patriots last season and netted 14 of his 17 field goal attempts and was perfect on all 12 of his extra-point tries. For Rohrwasser, he'll need to sharpen up to be new England's placekicker to start the season.
Superman and Batman in Foxborough
Bill Belichick made waves this week when he told Rich Eisen that the Patriots still have "a very competitive competition" at quarterback, despite Cam Newton really taking a sizable lead in that battle. While the head coach may be playing things a bit closer to the vest, Julian Edelman made it abundantly clear who he sees as New England's starter come Week 1. The Patriots receiver, who has really become the face of the offense in Tom Brady's departure, posted a photoshopped picture of himself and Newton as Batman and Superman, respectfully.
Edelman, who has given Newton high praise this training camp, clearly sees the former NFL MVP as the odds on favorite to be QB1.
Hometown kid trying to make Pats opening roster
Reaching the NFL is a high in itself, but signing with your childhood team, Patriots tight end and Lynnfield, Massachusetts native Jake Burt says, is a "dream come true." Burt, who signed with the club in May, is an undrafted free agent out of Boston College and is now fighting to make New England's opening roster.
"It's obviously been a dream come true," Burt said Thursday. "Every day I walk into this building, I'm extremely grateful to the Patriots and this entire organization. I couldn't be more happy every single day I'm here. There's no other place I'd rather be. Growing up a fan here and a fan of all Boston sports, it's really a dream come true, and I'm appreciating every moment I have."
Burt, who played his high school ball at St. John's Prep, will be battling with Ryan Izzo and Paul Butler for what may be just one spot on the final roster. Rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, meanwhile, are locks to make the team out of the gate.
Patriots comment on social injustice
In the wake of the recent shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the sports world reacting across the country with boycotts, some of the Patriots leaders displayed the feeling of hopelessness while speaking to reporters this week.
"I've been thinking a lot the last couple of days," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "I've had so many different emotions of being angry, being sad. A lot of it has really been what I try to talk to young kids about. I've felt very hopeless. I don't have a statement. I don't have anything powerful. It's just been very disheartening, just watching things transpire, watching lives still be lost. And it's not just police brutality; it's everything we deal with. Even today, I'm going to come on here and you're going to ask me questions and it's going to be about my opinions on different things. I just feel like overall until people turn on different things and we watch that and all have the same outlook like, 'Man, what is going on? This is heartbreaking. This is terrible,' it just doesn't matter. I've just felt very hopeless the last couple of days."
Added Jason McCourty: "I know there's a lot of people that look like me that are still in that same neighborhood, and there's a lot of people in neighborhoods right here in the New England area that are suffering, and we're all hurting when we see what took place in Wisconsin. It's not just black and brown people. As human beings, as Americans, we should all watch the video — whether somebody was a former criminal or had a violent past, whatever all that stuff that the discussion is, it doesn't matter when you turn on a video and you watch human life being shot in the back seven times. That stuff becomes secondary. I think we all need to hurt. We all need to feel devastated.
While the Patriots did not cancel practice this week, Bill Belichick did note that the club has had ongoing discussions in the locker room and he is "so proud of this team and the players that we have on it."
"I'll keep the things that happened within the team private within the team," he said. "That's kind of the forum that we had, so I'll maintain the integrity of that. But, I've certainly learned a lot, continue to learn a lot and we have an incredible group of players. I'm so proud of this team and the players that we have on it – the way that they're involved in each other's lives as teammates, the way that they raise their families and are involved in the community on a number of different levels. We've always prided ourselves in doing things right and not only being a good football team but being a pillar in the community. That continues to be our goal and our expectation, and I'm so proud of what our players do on all those levels."