FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Evolving QB picture: When Cam Newton injured his right throwing hand and didn't finish Friday's voluntary organized team activity, and rookie Mac Jones had a few notable missed throws that might have made one wonder if he's ready for prime time, it sparked a question that hasn't been a big part of the Patriots' quarterback discussion.
What would happen if that type of situation unfolded in the regular season?
Jarrett Stidham stepped up Friday as the top option in 11-on-11 drills and delivered a few impressive throws, almost as if he was saying, "Hey, don't forget about me! Remember, I was the guy everyone was talking about at this time last year."
As a pure passer in a shorts-and-T-shirt practice, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Stidham has always looked the part. There might as well be smoke coming off the football on some of his high-velocity deliveries.
But the bigger question has been if that could translate to games in high-pressure situations, and it seemed telling coach Bill Belichick didn't want to see more of him in the final two games last season after the Patriots had been eliminated from the playoffs.
On Friday, teammates didn't sense Newton's right hand injury was particularly serious, as Newton was joking with them in the locker room after practice. A source later described Newton as "all good."
But as is often said in the NFL, a backup is one snap away from being thrust into the top spot. And with the possibility of taking a cautious approach by holding Newton out of the next two weeks of spring practices to recover, the focus would turn to Jones, Stidham and veteran Brian Hoyer in highlighting how the Patriots might handle that type of situation in the regular season.
2. Hightower's return: Take a year off from football and there's no guarantee you will pick up where you left off physically. That was the cautious message from Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo on the return of veteran Dont'a Hightower, who opted out of the 2020 season.
"The one thing you've got to be concerned about with a guy like that, you're coming off a year of not playing football. Training camp and this period right now, these are times right now where you really want to see them get back into football shape," Mayo said. "Hopefully we get the same Hightower we got in 2019, but we'll see."
Hightower hasn't been on the field for voluntary OTAs this spring but has taken part in virtual meetings, which adds context to Mayo's remarks.
Sometimes a year off can do wonders for a player physically, with tight end Rob Gronkowski one example from last season. Other times, it can be the catalyst to a career turn, with retiring safety Patrick Chung coming to mind.
3. Mac the perfectionist: Jones' accuracy is one of his greatest assets, which was highlighted by how he completed a record 77.4% of his passes last season at Alabama. One thing that stood out at Friday's practice is how he holds himself accountable on each throw, and lets his pass-catchers know it when he is uncharacteristically off the mark. An example came on one throw to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne in a simple drill with no defense, with Jones delivering the pass behind him and then seeking Bourne out to let him know it was the quarterback's error.
4. All-in: Veteran wide receiver Nelson Agholor has been a full participant in the voluntary offseason program, saying he believes it gives him the best chance to grow as a player. Agholor's first impression of Belichick's program after two months? "Exactly what I expected. I just love how honest he is, and I love that he has an expectation for every player that's in this building."
5. Under-the-radar Patriots: Media members have had a chance to watch two practices over the past two weeks, and here are a few lower-profile players who have caught the eye for different reasons:
Rashod Berry, ST -- It wasn't necessarily something Berry did as much as how he follows core special-teamers Cody Davis, Justin Bethel, Matthew Slater and Co. to their drills in practice as a possible new addition to the group of players who are on the roster because of their contributions in the kicking game.
Michael Jackson Sr., CB -- With starters Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson not at Friday's practice, he was playing with some of the top defenders and had tight coverage on one sideline throw.
Quinn Nordin, K -- The only rookie free agent on the roster, Nordin's booming kicks sometimes seem like they might land in the neighboring town of Walpole.
Isaiah Zuber, WR -- If Agholor, Bourne and Jakobi Meyers are the top three receivers, the speedy Zuber could give N'Keal Harry a run for his money for a role behind them. He had one of the best plays Friday on a laser from Stidham over the middle.
6. Chief concern: The Patriots were without their top three offensive tackles in Friday's practice -- Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown and Justin Herron -- and in a workout when the defense seemed to bring added pressure and dropped different players in coverage to create confusion, the O-line seemed to be on its heels at times. It reminded me, in part, of the Kansas City Chiefs' struggles in Super Bowl LV and how a shaky O-line can sink an offense.
7. Hall sidelined: Linebacker Terez Hall, who added a hard-hitting presence to the defense after being promoted from the practice squad last season, hasn't been on the field in spring practices as he recovers from ankle surgery, according to a source. In Hall's absence, and with Hightower not taking part in voluntary workouts, it has opened up extended opportunity for free-agent signing Raekwon McMillan to get quality reps at the heart of the defense.
8. They said it: "I definitely haven't seen any letup. He's as committed to this team as anyone in the organization, and that's why he's such a great leader to follow at the head of it. He has a high, high standard for himself and for everyone on the team -- players and coaches. But the standard he has for himself is what sets everyone else to try to follow it. That's been the same ever since I've known him. It's the same this year." -- safeties coach Brian Belichick, on his father, Bill.
9. Grooming Troy: Longtime Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, whose passion for the job oozes during media interviews, hinted 2021 could be his last season. Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown was moved to assistant running backs coach last year, with Bill Belichick perhaps forecasting that Brown would rise up to Fears' role whenever Fears steps aside. Brown, who turns 50 on July 2, has a new look with black-rimmed glasses.
10. Did You Know: Fears, 65, originally joined the Patriots as a receivers coach under Dick MacPherson in 1991. That was the year Irving Fryar turned in the first 1,000-yard season of his career, finishing with 1,014 yards on 68 receptions (14.9 avg.).