In about a month, the Patriots will take the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium for training camp. And it's unclear how Bill Belichick will treat the most important position on his roster.
We're in uncharted territory here to some degree.
Belichick had two unquestioned starting quarterbacks in camp in his first 20 years with the Patriots. Then in 2020 he ran into a pandemic-shortened offseason with nothing but uncertainty at the position.
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Now, yes, there remains plenty of quarterback uncertainty. But Belichick has a first-round pick on the roster in Mac Jones. He has a big-name veteran with a year of experience in the Patriots offense in Cam Newton. And he has time.
When will Belichick eventually show his cards as to which quarterback will be his starter for 2021?
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He has to do it in relatively short order. This can't drag on until late August. He admitted as much last summer.
When asked back on August 19 whether he could continue splitting work between Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer, Belichick acknowledged that at some point you have to get one player ready to play Week 1 of the regular season.
"Well, obviously, there’s some point where that’s going to happen," Belichick said. "But, right now, we want to try to... 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."
To that point in camp, through the first three practices, the snaps had been split relatively evenly between Newton, Stidham and Hoyer.
A day later, thanks in part to a lower-body injury Stidham sustained, the Patriots had apparently settled on their guy. Newton made nearly three times the number of competitive throws (17) Stidham did (6) in 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 periods. Newton took the lion's share of the reps the rest of the way, and that was it. The quarterback competition never heated back up.
Could this year be similar? Might Belichick script the quarterback workload to be relatively equal through a few days in order to make it clear that the competition was truly open?
He has long been consistent in his description of spring practices as a learning camp whereas training camp is a "competition camp." If jobs really aren't on the line until the team reports in late July, one would think Belichick would have to start his quarterbacks on somewhat equal footing.
That'd be a reasonable expectation early on.
But it would behoove the Patriots to make a call one way or the other as soon as possible. While practice reps may not be quite the rare gems they were a season ago, they remain valuable. There are only so many. And both quarterbacks in the running need as much experience behind center in the Patriots offense as they can get.
It was noteworthy that Jones saw as many reps as he did in minicamp. He and Newton saw essentially the same workload, while Jones received the bulk of the work on Day 2 of the three-day session. And though Newton was consistently the first quarterback out for drills, Jones saw some time with players who'd be considered starters.
That laid the groundwork for what should be a legitimate competition from the beginning of camp. The reps might not be 50/50 between Newton and Jones thanks to Stidham getting a piece of the pie, but the competition will be on.
How long will it last?
Prediction: By the end of the second preseason game, Aug. 19 against the Eagles, it'll be over. Not only will the Patriots have two exhibition games to assess, they may also have had a set of joint practices by then. And even if it's not announced, the Patriots will make their quarterback choice pretty clear by how they divvy up practice reps. By then they'll be left with an opportunity for a "dress-rehearsal" preseason game against the Giants and a full three weeks of practices to plan around one starting quarterback.
Have to do it eventually. And unless it's a blowout one way or the other, with either Jones or Newton making themselves the slam-dunk choice even earlier in camp, that point in the summer makes as much sense as any.