New England Patriots training camp questions: Cam Newton or Mac Jones?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots open 2021 NFL training camp Wednesday at Gillette Stadium. Here's a closer look at a few storylines:

Does Mac Jones show enough to make it a real competition with Cam Newton for the starting quarterback job?

Coach Bill Belichick highlighted arguably the biggest question facing the Patriots when he said in April: "Cam's our quarterback. Whatever time Jarrett [Stidham] or Mac are ready to challenge and compete, then we'll see how that goes."

Jones impressed players and coaches in spring practices, when the focus was more on teaching than evaluation, by keeping pace mentally and seldom making the same mistake twice. So he's established a solid foundation to compete for the top job in training camp, when it's more about evaluation and the pace in which the team moves increases significantly.

Once Jones takes the reins, it's hard to imagine the Patriots turning back to Newton. They're all-in at that point. So one would think if it's close between Newton and Jones, it will tilt the needle more toward Newton.

Thus, Jones will have to decisively prove he has made the progress necessary -- which includes three preseason games and the possibility of multiple joint practices -- to win the job.

Does cornerback Stephon Gilmore play with a $7 million base salary, and if so, how unhappy is he?

If Gilmore didn't show up, he faced fines of up to $50,000 per day, which would add up fast and make holdouts across the NFL unlikely. That was a priority for league owners in the collective bargaining agreement narrowly struck with players in March 2020. So Gilmore reported to the club, and now the bigger question is will he play this season under his current contract?

Sometimes deadlines spur action, and with Gilmore having skipped the team's mandatory minicamp in June, time is of the essence for the sides to work out a resolution. Gilmore seems to want to stick around, which is added context.

"Gilly is still under contract. He's still part of this team; a lot of guys have talked to him and keep in contact with him," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said at mandatory minicamp. "When he comes back in, he does what he does and I don't think we have to change much. It doesn't take much to see where he fits in."

Does linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a key to the defense, pick up where he left off after opting out of the 2020 season?

He did in spring practices.

"High's worked right in very quickly. He's obviously a smart player with a lot of experience and has a lot of leadership on the team," Belichick said at mandatory minicamp.

That was the mental side of things, and now training camp will provide a barometer for Hightower from a physical standpoint. To prepare himself for a return, Hightower said he used a lot of elliptical weights and was a regular on his Peloton bike, which he prefers to running.

But there's nothing that can assimilate a player to hitting in football like ... hitting in football. So it remains a bit of a wild card with Hightower, who when paired with free-agent signee Matt Judon, the versatile Kyle Van Noy, hard-hitting Ja'Whaun Bentley and ascending 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche, gives the Patriots a much-improved linebacker corps.

Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry -- how quickly do the Patriots' new tight ends gel?

The Patriots had two or more tight ends on the field 3% of the time in 2020, which was easily a league low. Considering how much the Patriots have utilized two or more tight ends prior to that, and the success they had, the Smith-Henry combo figures to be a central part of their attack in 2021.

Health will be critical, as Smith didn't attend voluntary spring practices and then appeared to tweak his hamstring on the first day of mandatory minicamp, which shut him down the rest of the camp. So the first question is whether Smith will be ready to go on the first day of training camp, as the best way to gel is to be on the field.

Henry seemed to have a solid spring, catching nearly everything thrown his way.