FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Gilmore’s mindset: Linebacker Dont’a Hightower‘s return to the practice field Thursday after opting out of the 2020 season represented a key piece falling into place for the Patriots, and this week could provide clarity on another big one — cornerback Stephon Gilmore‘s mindset on playing for the team at his current salary.
Gilmore is required to report for the start of the three-day mandatory minicamp Monday or will be subject to fines that could total $93,085 — which breaks down to $15,515 for the first missed day, $31,030 for the second missed day and $46,540 for the third missed day.
For players seeking a sweetened contract, or who might be displeased with the pace of negotiations or with their situation with a team, staying away from mandatory minicamp is often a first leverage point of sorts — a way to let the team know there is an intention to dig in with negotiations.
Gilmore is entering the final year of his five-year, $65 million pact and is scheduled to earn a base salary of $7 million — well below market value for a player of his caliber.
But part of the reason for the low figure is the club previously moved $4.5 million of his 2021 base salary into 2020. That was an acknowledgment from the Patriots that Gilmore’s original 2020 salary ($10.5 million) was worthy of an adjustment after he was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Gilmore hasn’t been attending voluntary organized team activities this year (he has in the past), although it’s unclear how much of that is tied to the contract.
Now, will Gilmore show up to mandatory minicamp? And if he doesn’t, could an excused absence be a consideration from the team?
Answers should help fill in the all-important context of how both sides view the situation.
2. Cam’s return: When the Patriots return to the field Monday, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Cam Newton is back under center, which reflects that his right hand injury isn’t serious. Teammates welcomed Newton at Friday’s voluntary OTA, and word is the QB1 threw the ball around a bit.
3. No ‘Love’ for ‘Mac’: In the Green Bay Packers‘ final practice of their mandatory minicamp last week, quarterback Jordan Love took 26 of the 31 total repetitions in 11-on-11 drills, according to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky. Contrast that to the Patriots’ practice Thursday and Mac Jones getting 8 of 34 repetitions in what might be viewed as “competitive” 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills.
It highlights differing philosophies of the coaching staffs, with Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur saying he wants to get Love as many reps as possible in case he is needed in place of Aaron Rodgers. In New England, coach Bill Belichick has stressed the spring is a time for teaching all players, which sets them up best to compete for jobs in July’s training camp.
4. Uche in the nickel: Linebacker Josh Uche seemed to be practicing at an elevated tempo from the linemen across from him in practice the past two weeks, which might be a reflection of his excitement to be on the field after a rookie season in which he usually wasn’t.
The 2020 second-round draft pick from Michigan doesn’t necessarily fit in the traditional box for a Patriots inside linebacker in the base 3-4 defense, nor does he carry the weight (255 to 260 pounds) that former Patriots outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich says is critical to setting the edge at that position. But after watching three spring practices, the best way to view the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Uche might be more through the lens of the nickel defense, which the Patriots play 85% (or more) of the time anyway.
Uche’s knack for bending the edge as a rusher, and his athleticism to play more in space are assets to tap in a six-man box. Seems as if it has been a solid spring for Uche.
5. Where’s Wino? While Uche rises, 2019 third-round pick Chase Winovich seems to be falling into a different category. Not seeing as much of him. The free-agent signings of linebackers Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy, paired with Uche coming on and Hightower returning Thursday, have Winovich looking at a different picture than this time last year.
6. Mills’ versatility: The past two practices provided a nice snapshot of why assistant coach Brian Belichick said of free-agent signee Jalen Mills: “If anyone is a pure DB, it’s him, because he’s played everywhere.” Mills had been working at safety alongside 2020 top pick Kyle Dugger early in spring practices, but with veteran safeties Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips returning last week, he moved to cornerback. Mills did get twisted around on one long sideline catch by wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson on Thursday.
7. Asiasi’s growth: Second-year tight end Devin Asiasi looks like a different player, and he is one of several Patriots who stand out when considering the benefits of spring practices for younger players. Wide receiver Isaiah Zuber and Uche are among the others who fall into that category.
Asiasi (6-foot-3, 257 pounds) had one of the best plays of practice Thursday, hauling in a deep pass from Brian Hoyer, with Dugger in coverage. The play sparked a thought: For all the possibilities a two-tight-end set of Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry presents, there’s also intriguing potential with a three-tight-end package that includes Asiasi, the 2020 third-round pick.
8. Adams a sleeper? At one point in Thursday’s practice, fifth-year defensive tackle Montravius Adams was on the field with Judon, Hightower, Van Noy and Uche, which could be an early sign he is a player to watch in the competition for a roster spot. The 6-foot-4, 304-pound player was a 2017 third-round draft pick by the Packers out of Auburn, and he has made an early impression on D-line coach DeMarcus Covington with his work ethic and by buying into the team’s culture. Adams dealt with a painful toe injury last season and recently said: “Since I’ve been here, they’ve helped me with the injury. My toe is starting to get a lot better.”
9. Weather helps: Bill Belichick pointed out how some “good Boston weather” helped the team in spring practices from a conditioning standpoint. He might have had practices on Monday and Tuesday of last week in mind, as they were held in uncharacteristically humid 90-degree conditions for this time of year. Over 10 sessions, the average temperature was right around 80 degrees, and practices would sometimes end with players running the hill.
10. Did You Know? In overall circumference, footballs used in college can be up to 1 1/4 inches smaller than in the NFL, which was a point highlighted by undrafted rookie Patriots kicker Quinn Nordin of Michigan when he said: “You’re hitting a different ball now. I’m still learning, trying to figure out the new balls. The college balls are skinnier.”