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Jul 30, 2021; Foxborough, MA, United States; New England Patriots running back James White (28) during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday marked the final open practice of the summer for the New England Patriots, and for observational purposes the end of 2021 training camp. The team will practice again on Friday for the official final camp practice, but that session will be closed to fans and media.

This was certainly one of – if not the most fascinating training camp of the Bill Belichick era in New England. Even putting the quarterback battle aside (and we’ll get to that momentarily) there were fascinating storylines throughout the summer.

One saga that ended before it should have was that of wide receiver N’Keal Harry. After two relatively unproductive years, the 2019 first-round pick requested a trade leading up to camp. He then had some of his best performances in a Patriots uniform, seemingly playing his way off the trade block and onto the roster. However, a shoulder injury in the team’s second preseason game leaves his status in doubt.

There’s also the evolution of the running back position, one of the most talented from top to bottom on the Patriots’ roster. Six players in the group for most of camp felt crowded, but with the emergence of rookie Rhamondre Stevenson and second-year UDFA J.J. Taylor, the team was able to trade Sony Michel to trim the numbers. Both players likely earned bigger roles in 2021 with their respective performances over the last month.

On the defensive side of the ball, the team succeeded from start to finish. J.C. Jackson may have been the best overall player of camp, stepping up in the ongoing absence of Stephon Gilmore.

Depth-wise though, there are still questions to be answered at the cornerback position. One of the bigger positional battles entering camp was for the third outside cornerback spot, which becomes a starting role if Gilmore misses time. Joejuan Williams was the favorite to win that job heading into camp. He had a slow start, but appears to be picking up momentum as open practices come to a close. It’s still a spot where the Patriots’ could look to add externally as well.

Then of course, there was the kickers. Nick Folk missed a few weeks early in camp, opening the door for rookie UDFA Quinn Nordin. Nordin started to walk through that door with impressive performances in an in-stadium practice and first preseason game, but then that door was slammed shut on his foot with a rough performance in Philadelphia. With Folk back, he’s the presumed start, but Nordin remains an attractive practice squad candidate.

O.K., that’s enough reminiscing. Here’s the highlights (and lowlights) from Thursday’s practice…

  • The quarterbacks

    Making his return after a league-mandated quarantineCam Newton led the offense for the first competitive 11-on-11 series of the day. It was an eight-play touchdown drive that saw Newton go 4-for-6 throwing the ball. His most notable throw was to Jakobi Meyers about 15 yards down field over the middle, displaying impressive ball placement. There was also a dropped interception.

    Mac Jones, coming off his best day since arriving in New England, saw the remainder of the reps. That included three drives – two with the presumed starters and one with reserves. He finished 10-of-21, with a bad interception to former Patriot Logan Ryan to end the first drive. Jones somewhat bounced back, although his receivers weren’t of much help (more on that below). It wasn’t a bad day for Jones, but certainly a step back from where he was yesterday.

    Overall, Thursday felt like a perfect summation of where the Patriots’ quarterback competition sits as public practices wind down. If a game had to be played today, Newton would likely be the starter. But Jones is right behind him, having quickly closed the default gap provided to Newton due to his athleticism and NFL experience. The Patriots seem focused on getting him ready, and his eventual ascension into the starting job feels like it could come sooner rather than later.

  • Drops, drops, drops

    Although Jones had is issues on Thursday, they weren’t helped by the Patriots’ pass catchers inability to hold onto the football. There were four total drops, all coming on Jones’ second drive when he was trying to bounce back from the interception. Damien HarrisJonnu SmithGunner Olszewski, and Nelson Agholor were the culprits.

    Olszewski’s drop hurt particularly. It came on a perfectly placed rainbow pass 35 yards up the sideline. Had he made the catch, it would have set the Patriots up on the one yard line. Instead, the Patriots had to run another 10 plays to eventually score.

    For Olszewski himself, he has a chance to earn some real playing time as a receiver to start the season with Harry presumably out due to the shoulder issue. It’s hard to gauge where he is after an up-and-down week, looking the part of an NFL receiver on Monday and Wednesday but having issues on Tuesday and Thursday.

  • Uche Day

    The best player on the field on Thursday was Josh Uche, hands down. Uche had three sacks during practice, and could have had another but drew a holding call. Overall, Uche came on very strong over the last week, and seems to be in the same place he was at the end of spring practices after a dominant minicamp.

  • Play of the day

    Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne gets the nod for ‘Play Of the Day’ on Thursday. It came on his touchdown catch, capping the end of Mac Jones’ 20-play touchdown drive.

    In reality, Jones may have been looking to throw the ball away, facing third and goal from about the 10 yard line. Yet Bourne – who was running across the end line under the goal post – jumped up against his momentum to reach back and make the catch. He then was able to tap both feet in bounds, finishing the play.

  • Injury watch

    Nelson Agholor and Isaiah Wynn both returned to practice on Thursday after leaving Wednesday. Both were full participants, so it feels safe to say whatever knocked them off the field yesterday was either a minor injury, or the oppressive heat.

    The Patriots did lose a player during practice, with Jonathan Jones walking slowly to the medical tent late in practice. He didn’t return to action.

  • Trade!

    The Patriots made a trade following Thursday’s practice, acquiring rookie cornerback Shaun Wade from the Baltimore Ravens. It’s unknown if his acquisition is tied to the status of Jones or Stephon Gilmore.

    For more on Wade, click here.

  • Notable quotables

    Mac Jones on Cam Newton’s return: “It was good. He came in this morning, and everyone was happy to see him. Everyone was glad to have him back. Even today, there was something that popped up. He did something with the Mike (linebacker), and then I could kind of learn from what he did, and we talked it through. I got a lot of good coaching from Josh, Beau, and then Hoyer yesterday. Having Cam back too, is just good, ‘cuz he’s always trying to help.”

    Kyle Van Noy on the Patriots’ front seven: “We are talented, but we got a lot of work to do. We all know that. I think that’s what makes this group talented and special just because we push each other. A lot of competition. Can’t have everybody on the field, so it’s good to compete with each other and make each other better. And we keep building the foundation right now during training camp and each day we keep working and working. So it’s going pretty good.”

    Brian Hoyer on Mac Jones: “I’ve been very impressed with his mental capacity. I’ve always said this every year I’ve talked to you guys, there’s a lot being thrown at the quarterback position in this offense. And my biggest advice is always take it one day at a time, digest it, retain it, and then go back out. So, he’s done a great job. Obviously, you see that works very hard at it. He’s always asking a lot of good questions. Sometimes I’ll say something, and he looks at me like, ‘Yeah, I got it, I got it.’ So, it’s like ‘OK man, you got it.’ And sure enough, he does. I go out there and he makes a call and I’m like, ‘Man there’s no way I would have made that call as a rookie quarterback’ just to have the confidence and the knowledge to go out there and execute it. So, he’s done a great job. I think say, there’s always a long way to go because everything is constantly changing. Like, you go last week against the Eagles, it’s a totally different defense. Now you have to go up against the Giants and now it’s a different front that we haven’t studied, so there’s a lot of rules that you have to follow and he’s definitely getting those down. You just see that desire from him to retain all that information.”

    Kristian Wilkerson on his growth this summer: “Yeah, everybody has ups and downs, so just fighting through and being mentally tough is the only thing you can do. So I’m trying to do that and show that I can be mentally tough on the field.”

  • Podcast recap

    For more on Day 19 of Patriots training camp, check out the recap podcast featuring Bob Socci.