Bill Belichick, Patriots in unfamiliar spot with limited prime-time exposure

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Not so prime time: The Patriots have lost some of their prime-time appeal. At least that's the way the NFL sees it based on last week's release of the 2021 regular-season schedule.

Consider the Patriots played in 47 prime-time regular-season games over the past 10 years, third most in the NFL behind the Green Bay Packers (51) and Dallas Cowboys (50), with the Pittsburgh Steelers (45) fourth highest. But this year, the Patriots have three prime-time games, while the Packers, Cowboys and Steelers have the maximum five-game prime-time slate.

Of course, that can always change with flexible scheduling, but as part of the NFL's process of ranking games 1-272 and attempting to put many of the most appealing in the prime-time window, the Patriots' reduced presence was notable.

Some might say that's the way it goes for a team coming off a 7-9 season, but the Cowboys are coming off a 6-10 campaign.

In many ways, it highlights the uncertainty surrounding how coach Bill Belichick's revamped team will come together in 2021. It also appeared to be a significant factor in the league landing on Week 4 for the highly anticipated Tom Brady return-to-Foxborough game.

"It's just kind of like the right time. You're not too far down the road where either of these teams' season stories is already told," vice president of NFL broadcast planning Mike North explained on NFL Network's "Good Morning Football" program, while also citing other factors, such as limited injury risk and ensuring the game wouldn't be played in a Nor'easter.

Those are telling remarks.

Few are worried about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season story being told before December; in fact, more of the current discussion is about the possibility of a 19-0 season. So that is more specific to the Patriots.

2. Cam in Carolina: For all the focus on Brady's return in Week 4, Cam Newton has his own potential homecoming storyline of note. If he holds onto the starting QB job, the Patriots visit the Panthers in Week 9, and his return to Charlotte would have the city buzzing perhaps like never before, according to Steve Israel.

"Guys like Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, Steve Smith and Jordan Gross first helped make this franchise what it is, and then as that group began to age, the Panthers did an awesome job bringing in two stars who were beloved -- Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly," said Israel, the former Patriots cornerback who ended his career in Carolina and settled in Charlotte, where he's lived since 2002 working in banking as a private client adviser.

"Cam did it on the field with one of the most remarkable seasons [in 2015] when he won NFL MVP, but also off the field with his [charitable] foundation and big personality. Man, they loved him here. There are going to be a lot of fans looking forward to seeing Cam Newton."

Can Newton play winning football and hold off rookie Mac Jones to set up his own homecoming? It's yet another storyline of many in the Patriots' 2021 season.

3. Rookie check-in: Patriots rookie minicamp is scheduled to conclude Sunday, but there weren't many headlines resulting from it, with Belichick closing it to all reporters. Just the way he likes it to block out potential distractions, with rookies moving on this week to their development program.

In lieu of an on-field report, here's one leftover from Patriots national scout Matt Groh's interview from an exclusive season-ticket member event, on second-round Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore: "You don't see a lot of 300-plus pounders be able to do the kind of things he can do athletically. He was given the opportunity to play in some big-time games. Not all the players in this draft were able to put their skills on the same kind of showcase as he did, playing in the College Football Playoff and as the season went on, continue to elevate his game against the top competition, which was great to see. Now the competition gets even steeper here."

4. Running game: The first phase of the Patriots' offseason program has ended, and as All-Pro punt returner Gunner Olszewski said, it's included a lot of running and "getting legs up to where they need to be; most of it is the base, just being in good shape." That's also been the biggest takeaway for some of the newest members of the team who haven't been as accustomed to the volume of running in the Patriots' offseason program.

5. Welcome coaches: Monday marks the start of phase two of the voluntary offseason program, with one of the most significant changes coming with all coaches being permitted on the field for football-specific work. It was a date offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had circled on his calendar when he said on the Patriots' draft preview webcast in late April: "We've gotten to know some of these new guys a little bit here. We're excited about the guys we're bringing back from last year's team that have an opportunity to improve, and we've added a new flavor with some of these guys -- tight ends, receivers, offensive line. We're excited to get on the field [May 17] and start working towards what we're going to build this year."

6. Joint practices: Lost in the announcement of the Patriots' regular-season schedule was the finalization of their preseason slate -- home vs. the Washington Football Team on Thursday, Aug. 12 (7:30 p.m.), then on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday, Aug. 19 (7:30 p.m.) and a road finale against the New York Giants on Sunday, Aug. 29 (7:30 p.m. ET). The Patriots have known their opponents for some time, and if everything comes together with COVID-19 considerations, joint practices with the Eagles and Giants could be finalized. One possibility discussed, but is not official at this point, is having the Patriots-Giants practices in Foxborough, even though the game will be played in East Rutherford, N.J.

7. Week 14 bye: A Dec. 12 off week for New England, which was the latest possible date, seemed to spark mixed reaction among fans. Some felt it was too late, with the ideal spot a little earlier in the season. My main thought was that it's a positive development for the Patriots, as the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers showed last year with a Week 13 bye. This year's Super Bowl is Feb. 13, and that's obviously the ultimate goal, so the Patriots would still have eight games after the bye in the best-case scenario (assuming a game on wild-card weekend).

8. Kirkpatrick, Redmond follow-up: The Patriots had veteran cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and fifth-year interior offensive lineman Alex Redmond in for workouts on Thursday, and both seemed to be a case of due diligence. No deals were imminent, with Redmond prepping for another possible workout with a different team this week. Just a reminder that the churning of the personnel wheels never truly stops.

9. White's soft market: Listening to James White in his Q&A with reporters last week, it seems fair to say free agency didn't unfold the way he might have envisioned. He called it a "different experience" and "really strange," noting COVID-19 and the salary-cap crunch across the NFL as factors that made it such. White ended up returning to the Patriots on a fully guaranteed, one-year, $2.5 million deal in the second week of free agency, and it sounded like that was the best offer he received. "Obviously, the Patriots were in the mix the whole time," he said.

10. Did You Know: The Patriots will close the regular season against a division foe for the 12th straight year (at Miami, Jan. 9). It also marks the sixth time in team history the Patriots will open and close the season against the same opponent. It also happened in 2003 and 2013 against Buffalo, 1987 against Miami, 1981 against the Baltimore Colts and 1974 against Miami.