FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Near miss: Right about the time Patriots players went to the locker room at halftime of their preseason opener Thursday, outside linebacker Matt Judon took a short detour through a different door — for a medical check and X-rays on his left leg.
Thankfully for the team, it was precautionary as Judon rejoined his teammates on the sideline for the game’s final 30 minutes.
Judon’s preseason debut was one of the team’s most promising developments — he was physical, fast and disruptive in 12 snaps while registering a tackle and quarterback hit — but it would have been overshadowed had Washington Football Team tight end Logan Thomas‘ lunge at his extended leg resulted in a significant injury.
The near miss was a reminder of the risk players take every time they step on the field, and how the Patriots’ four-year, $56 million free-agent investment in Judon doesn’t come with a fail-safe insurance plan.
It has only been a couple months, but a picture is developing on how Judon (6-foot-3, 261 pounds) is fitting in now that he has crossed “enemy lines” from the Baltimore Ravens to the Patriots.
Just as linebacker Bryan Cox brought a notable element of toughness and edge to the defense in 2001 — something that was cited as critical in the team’s unexpected Super Bowl run that season — Judon seems to be bringing the same.
“He shows up to work every day and competes hard, and I think that’s a good thing for all of us to try to emulate the attitude and toughness and effort he comes in with on a consistent basis,” coach Bill Belichick said.
Judon’s leadership role has shown up on the conditioning hill at the end of practice, when he voluntarily joins skill-position players to challenge himself, something that was first noted by longtime captain Devin McCourty. And also in his willingness to be part of the punt coverage team in practice, a responsibility that usually isn’t associated with the highest-paid player on the team (in terms of average salary per year).
Belichick noted Judon has “fit in well with the group” and fellow outside linebacker Tashawn Bower relayed that Judon “has so much knowledge to give me, and a lot of guys are just under his wing, trying to take everything in, learn as much as we can from him.”
Judon’s continued health seems to be one of the most important developments from the opener.
2. QB update: On the night the Patriots drafted Mac Jones in late April, Belichick said: “Cam’s our quarterback. Whatever time Mac is ready to challenge and compete, then we’ll see how it goes.” Three-plus months later, the gap between Newton and Jones is narrowing. The most prevalent question is: Has it closed to the point Jones could be a legitimate consideration as a Week 1 starter? Not saying it will happen, but nothing would surprise me.
3. If Mac, then what? If Belichick made the decision to go with Jones from the start of the season, Newton’s status would be an intriguing storyline. Would he accept a backup role? In the offseason, Newton said he believes he’s one of the NFL’s best 32 quarterbacks. At the same time, he has shared his admiration for the Patriots’ culture, and spoke glowingly of Jones after Thursday’s game. Given the respect Belichick has expressed for Newton, who has been a champion for the organization when it took some hits following Tom Brady‘s departure, it wouldn’t be surprising if he gave Newton his choice on how best to proceed should it head in that direction.
4. Agholor’s speed: Former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis made an insightful point on Sirius XM NFL Radio after the preseason opener, wondering if the team had enough explosiveness at wide receiver. Who do defenses have to respect down the field? On Thursday, it was mostly a combination of N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers at receiver, with Kendrick Bourne coming on as the third option. Kristian Wilkerson was the No. 4 and none would be considered burners. It highlights why Nelson Agholor (DNP, minor injury), who is the Patriots’ fastest option and best deep threat, is a vital part of the plans.
5. Missing Gilmore: The defense minus cornerback Stephon Gilmore (who is on the physically unable to perform list, quad) showed some cracks depth-wise Thursday. Jalen Mills took Gilmore’s spot on the outside, but he might be a better fit on the inside in a role with some safety-type concepts, which is where he settled with the Philadelphia Eagles last season to account for, in part, a lack of top-end speed. With the Patriots also thin at safety (Myles Bryant was among those injured), perhaps that sparks some urgency to resolve Gilmore’s lingering issue with his contract status.
6. Nordin’s tape measure: Undrafted kicker Quinn Nordin (Michigan) is making a charge to unseat incumbent Nick Folk, following up a couple of strong in-stadium practices by hitting all three field goals in the preseason opener (35, 50 and 40 yards, respectively). He did miss an extra point attempt. Belichick said consistency is critical, and he’s in “no rush” when it comes to deciding on Nordin’s status.
Nordin (Nor-DEEN) was deliberately measuring out his steps before field goals on Thursday (the goal is to hit the same mark every time), which he said is something he had never done prior to arriving in New England. “Every time we were in a meeting, I was in there with a tape measure, taking my steps, taking the tape measure, putting it down,” he said. “I did that for hours and hours.”
7. Pass-rush boost: One difference offensive tackle Trent Brown has noticed upon his return to the Patriots after having played for them in 2018 is the quality and depth of pass-rushers he has faced in practice. “There’s a lot of rushers here this time that can actually get after the quarterback,” he said, a reference to a group that includes Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Josh Uche, Deatrich Wise Jr., Henry Anderson and Ronnie Perkins, among others. That’s a promising observation for the defense, especially considering last season’s sack leader, Chase Winovich (5.5) has yet to practice in camp.
8. Van Noy’s versatility: It was a small thing, but potentially something important to the Patriots’ defense — Van Noy opened Thursday’s game at outside linebacker opposite of Judon, where his top assets of setting the edge on the line of scrimmage and rushing the passer can be tapped, then moved to an off-the-line inside linebacker role a bit later in the game. Those are two different worlds and few players have the versatility to play both at a high level (e.g. Mike Vrabel).
The Patriots project to start Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley at inside linebacker, and Raekwon McMillan was likely the top backup before he tore his ACL. Now that role could fall to Van Noy in the event of injury to Hightower and/or Bentley, with Uche, Perkins or Winovich stepping in at outside linebacker.
9. Dion and futures contracts: News that running back Dion Lewis is retiring sparks a thought that Lewis will forever be the Patriots’ example of never overlooking a transaction when the team signs a player to a “reserve futures” contract. Players who aren’t on a roster when the prior season ends can be signed to a reserve futures contract for the following year, meaning they will be added to the roster when it expands to 90 players in mid-March. That’s how Lewis first arrived in New England in January 2015 — as an afterthought to most because he had been off the NFL radar due to injuries. That helped revive his career, and he went on to play a notable role in the 2016 Super Bowl championship season.
10. Did You Know: Had rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson‘s 91-yard touchdown run late Thursday happened in the regular season, it would have been the longest scoring run in franchise history, topping the current mark of 85 yards — by Larry Garron on Oct. 22, 1961.