Curran: Patriots must tie up these loose ends before Week 1 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The "training camp" portion of the offseason has ended. The final preseason game is Sunday. The cutdown to 53 is Tuesday.
After a descent into the darkness of a sub-.500 season for the first time in 20 years, the Patriots are poised to make that COVID-marred, post-Tom Brady campaign a blip on the radar.
They're in a really good spot. And a lot of the issues they have are what Bill Belichick used to call "high-class problems." The kind of crises that arise because something has gone well, not poorly.
Curran: Charlie Weis not at all surprised by Mac Jones' fast start
Here are some of the issues the Patriots need to address between the end of Sunday's preseason finale and September 5, when they start Dolphins week.
Who's under center?
Whether it's Cam Newton or Mac Jones taking the first snap against the Dolphins, let's be very, very clear about something. The Patriots are good enough to win plenty of football games with either quarterback.
Newton is, as predicted, better than he was in 2020. He's been more decisive, more accurate, his arm looks stronger, he looks more confident. And he will always be a problem for any defense because he's a rhino in the running game and lays the playbook wide open in the red zone and on short yardage.
But just because he's better as a thrower doesn't mean he's objectively "good" relative to the NFL average. Accuracy isn't just completion percentage. It's allowing your receivers to do something with the ball after it's completed. Newton's placement still isn't pinpoint. And the more arc or touch he has to put on a ball, the worse it gets. He's got a fastball. He's got no change-of-pace.
Jones is already a better passer than Newton. Obviously there's no comparison between the two as runners, but the Patriots didn't sign all those tight ends and wideouts in free agency to run block. The question for Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels may ultimately be, "Which quarterback is more likely to prevent us from having success with a mistake?"
Can they believe their eyes and conclude that Jones is the already the answer? Or do they go "safe" and let the 11-year veteran roll until his performance becomes a problem? I wonder if we'll know definitively before September 12.
The Patriots are outwardly just going blissfully along as Stephon Gilmore remains idle. When is enough enough? Gilmore said in early July he was hoping he and the team could find "common ground and get (his contract) situated." He also said he'd be ready for training camp if he needed to be.
Camp started July 28. We're closing in on September.
It's the contract, not the quad. Gilmore has a $16.265M cap hit for this year. Whether he plays or continues to sit, that hit is going to sit there on the Patriots cap, swallowing up space.
Gilmore is a very, very good player. Is he as good as the corner who won the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year? He wasn't last year. Is he still one of the league's best and deserving to be paid that way? His teammates say so.
But the Patriots are probably going to need a 2021 test drive to make sure. That means Gilmore needs to come off PUP and hit the practice field. That's a very loose end.
Who's the hot corner?
With Gilmore down, the Patriots have been getting down into their cornerback depth throughout camp and preseason. J.C. Jackson's been excellent. Eagle-eyed Phil Perry, my valued colleague, thinks Jackson and Matt Judon have been the best players on the team this summer.
But while Jackson's got one corner locked down, the other side's been less stable.
Perry: Shaun Wade could provide meaningful CB depth
Free agent addition Jalen Mills has been up-and-down and is better inside than on the boundary. Joejuan Williams is good in short spaces but gets lost on longer routes too often. Jonathan Jones excels as a slot corner so the Patriots probably wouldn't want to weaken themselves in two spots by moving Jones from his forte.
The Patriots traded for rookie Shaun Wade on Thursday, an indication that the spot is front of mind for them as well.
Old Folk's home?
I'm a card-carrying Nick Folk guy. Unblinking faith in Mr. Fairways and Greens. But he hasn't kicked in either preseason game after dealing with "some soreness."
While he was out, undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin was able to win the job with his performance over a five-day stretch then probably lose it during his scattershot performance in the second preseason game.
I'd like to see Folk make a live kick or two in this final preseason game. I bet the Patriots would too.
Is Chase Winovich a player the Patriots can flip to a pass-rush needy team? It's hard to project this talented but somewhat one-dimensional player getting a ton of reps this year.
Josh Uche has to be on the field. Same with Judon. Same with Dont'a Hightower. Same with Kyle Van Noy.
Now, guys do get hurt and miss time in the NFL so Winovich is valuable depth even if he isn't in the regular rotation. But he's a pretty good trade chip too. That's going to be interesting to watch as the cutdown approaches.