New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JULY 28, 2021: Mac Jones #50 watches teammate Cam Newton #1 of the New England Patriots during training camp at Gillette Stadium on July 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

Cam Newton remains in the lead to begin the season as the Patriots’ starting quarterback. The first indication of that came very early on Thursday.

Newton took the first reps in the first drills with the starting offensive line during Thursday’s joint practice with the New York Giants, the final open practice of 2021 training camp. It was literally just a snap of the ball from the center to the quarterback, but Newton got the ball before rookie Mac Jones.

This set the tone for Newton to resume leading off team drills, which he did at the start of 11-on-11’s against the Giants’ starting defense. Despite that, Newton got significantly fewer total reps than Jones. Newton finished 4-of-6 in 11’s, and 6-of-10 in combined 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills.

Jones, meanwhile, was 10-of-21 in 11’s and 11-of-23 overall, but wasn’t necessarily as bad as the overall numbers suggest. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the day for both quarterbacks…

  • 7-on-7

    Newton led off this period with RB James White, TE Hunter Henry, and WRs Kristian Wilkerson, Isaiah Zuber, and Gunner Olszewski as his targets. The receivers rotated the snaps. Newton was 2-of-3, including a completion to Jakobi Meyers in the back-left corner of the end zone.

    Newton’s incompletion in this period was a pass intended for Nelson Agholor, broken up by former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan.

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JULY 30: Cam Newton #1 throws during Training Camp at Gillette Stadium on July 30, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – JULY 30: Cam Newton #1 throws during Training Camp at Gillette Stadium on July 30, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    Jones was 1-of-2 in 7-on-7, completing a pass to running back J.J. Taylor toward the right side of the end zone. His incompletion was intended for Agholor, who bobbled the ball and was ruled out of bounds when he gained control. Jones held the ball on the third snap, but the on-site referee ruled illegal contact against the Giants.

  • Newton in 11-on-11

    The Patriots and Giants treated the first 11-on-11 period like a “simulated game,” giving the Giants the ball first. The Patriots defense forced a punt, before Newton took over with a chance for a drive of his own, running the starting offense against the Giants’ starting defense.

    Newton was 4-of-6 in this session, his only 11-on-11 work. One potential incompletion was wiped out by a Giants penalty. He completed two passes each to Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers, the highlight being a bullet over the middle that Bourne leaped and snagged at the second level.

    Giants linebacker Lorenzo Carter batted a Newton pass down at the line. On the following pass play, Giants cornerback James Bradberry nearly intercepted a late throw intended for Wilkerson. But Newton rebounded to hit Bourne to the right on a play that could have been a touchdown. The Patriots kept the offense on the field to put them in a goal line situation, and running back Damien Harris punched it in after right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Trent Brown opened a gaping hole for him.

  • Jones takes over

    After Daniel Jones and the Giants offense burned the Patriots defense for a touchdown on the following drive, the teams took a breather before resuming with a fresh 11-on-11 session, this time with Mac Jones leading the Patriots offense.

    The Patriots cranked System of a Down, Van Halen, Pearl Jam, and Bon Jovi to disrupt communication throughout what turned out to be a long but sloppy drive for the Pats with Jones under center. Jones started with three straight incompletions, including an interception by Logan Ryan that appeared to be negated by an offside flag. Jones didn’t see Ryan coming across the field to pick off a pass over the middle intended for tight end Jonnu Smith.

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JULY 30: Mac Jones #50 smiles as he throws during Training Camp at Gillette Stadium on July 30, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – JULY 30: Mac Jones #50 smiles as he throws during Training Camp at Gillette Stadium on July 30, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    Jones responded with completions to Smith and Agholor, but Giants CB Rodarius Williams then broke up a pass intended for Agholor. Some reporters ruled this a drop. As a helicopter landed and sat idly on the lower practice field, adding to the noise, Jones’ pass intended for Wilkerson sailed high and out of bounds.

    The rookie then tried to get back into a rhythm with two quick completions to James White, and then suffered from the worst receiver drop of the day. Jones dropped a deep ball perfectly into the hands of Olszewski, who appeared to have the catch at first but ultimately couldn’t finish the play. This throw was even more accurate than the deep ball dropped by Wilkerson in the first preseason game.

  • Red Zone

    Completions to White, Bourne, White again, and Meyers got the Patriots into the red zone, with a drop by Harris mixed in.

    The red zone series started inauspiciously for Jones and the Patriots. Smith dropped a would-be touchdown, despite being wide open. A floater for White sailed a little too far. The offense committed a false start to back them up.

    But suddenly, the offense popped with a nifty leaping, toe-tapping grab by Bourne in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. Jones also completed a two-point try to Meyers on the following play. Jones was 10-of-20 overall in this period, including the two-pointer. Jones played one more series in 11’s later in practice, but was 0-of-1 throwing as the Patriots went three-and-out in a two-minute simulation.

  • What Does It All Mean?

    Newton went right back to taking the first reps with the starting offense, indicating that he remains the starting quarterback, despite missing five days of in-person work with the team and Jones playing well in the first joint practice on Wednesday. But Jones’ extended situational work on Thursday could indicate that he will get the bulk of the offensive snaps in Sunday’s preseason finale in New York.

    Considering the NFL did away with the fourth preseason game for 2021, the question is whether they now apply the same treatment to the third preseason game. But the overall workloads on Thursday could be a reflection of what’s to come: a series for Newton, then several for Jones.

    Jul 28, 2021; Foxborough, MA, United States; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (50) watches New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (1) during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Jul 28, 2021; Foxborough, MA, United States; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (50) watches New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (1) during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Jones took a step back in terms of his overall command of the offense on Thursday. His decision-making and accuracy have seen better days. But the receivers also hurt him, most notably Olszewski on what was, frankly, a perfect deep ball.

    “Everyone wants to take first team reps and stuff, but it just goes with the role, and yeah, it’s exciting, but it’s still football,” Jones said. “I have to do my job, and fix the things I did bad. But yeah, I think we’ve made progress, but today, we definitely have to finish better and that starts with me, really.

    “I think Cam did a good job today, and we’ll definitely have some time here to regroup, and play this final preseason game.”

  • Final Thoughts

    Thursday marked the final open camp practice for the Patriots, who will hold an in-season-style practice on Friday with Week 1 of the regular season coming after Labor Day weekend. So it’s time to take stock of the overall QB situation.

    Ultimately, even a five-day absence due to the COVID-19 protocol didn’t preclude Newton from losing the starting quarterback job. But the big-picture takeaway for Jones is that he looks like he’ll be able to play at the NFL level – eventually. Many first-round quarterbacks flame out without ever making an on-field impact, let alone become franchise players. Jones has a long way to go to prove how good he can be, but he’s certainly shown enough arm talent, accuracy, intelligence, and leadership to indicate that he’ll start games and produce once the Patriots give him the nod.

    It’s not a matter of if, but when, Jones takes over. But Newton’s continued leadoff reps with the starters is the clearest indication we have that he will begin the season under center, and Bill Belichick will ride him as long as he can until Jones is ready. But it seems like Jones will be ready sooner rather than later.

    “That’s beyond my control,” Jones said, when asked if he’d be disappointed not to be named the starter. “I can just control my effort every day and I’m trying. I’m putting in a lot of work, and everyone else is, too. At the end of the day, there should be no dropoff here in the quarterback room.

    “It was fun, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”