Patriots players balance uncertainty in planning return to town

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N'Keal Harry runs routes with Cam Newton (0:43)

Cam Newton and N'Keal Harry meet for the first time as fellow Patriots to get some practice in. (0:43)

Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. First checkpoint for players: To quarantine or not to quarantine, that is the question for Patriots players this week.

The simple math highlights how Tuesday represents the first checkpoint for the team in an unprecedented year.

The current expectation is that players will report for the start of training camp on July 28. With Massachusetts instructing all non-essential travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days -- unless they are coming from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York or New Jersey -- that means almost everyone on the roster would need to arrive by Tuesday to ensure an on-time, healthy start to training camp.

Unless, of course, they are allowed to skip that step, as is the case for the New York Jets, New York Giants and Buffalo Bills. That could make sense given that consistent testing is expected for members of all teams.

Regardless, that it is even a point of conversation reinforces how the 2020 NFL season is a true wild card.

Coach Bill Belichick sometimes says that when a player has the football in his grasp, he holds the fate of the entire team with it. That can now be expanded, with the coronavirus, to include the idea that every lifestyle decision by a player, coach or support staffer can impact the fate of the entire team.

Players have noted the uncertainty of the situation, with defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty saying on their most recent "Double Coverage" podcast that they are awaiting more clarity on protocols.

There's always the possibility that players could opt out of the season, but Jason McCourty hinted that wasn't a likely scenario for him.

"I'm going to be 33 this season, so a year off from football would probably mean I'm watching from now on, to be honest with you," he said.

Asked about the season ahead, and what it would mean to win a Super Bowl, Devin said: "I think it will be different, because we don't know if it will be a full season or not. So I think this is going to be one of those years when all sports is just going to be an asterisk. But I think overall a championship is a championship, and if you can win a championship through all of this going on, it will be an unbelievable accomplishment. This is going to be one of those years that people talk about for a long time ... so I think it will be legendary whoever wins a championship this year."

2. Cap space provides in-season insurance. With Saturday’s news that the Patriots settled compensation grievances with Antonio Brown ($4 million cap credit to team) and Aaron Hernandez ($2.25 million cap credit to team), it increased the team’s cap space to $7.79 million. So an obvious follow-up question is: What might the Patriots do with it? More than anything, I think it provides valuable in-season insurance to react to an emergency-type situation or a possible trade opportunity down the line. The Patriots have been tight to the cap all offseason, so this is obviously a much-welcomed cushion for them.

3. Michel has been back in town: Some Patriots players have already returned to the area, getting a head start on their quarantine, with running back Sony Michel falling into that category. He is recovering from offseason surgery on his foot, and as a rehabbing player is allowed to use the team's facilities, which he's been taking advantage of for several weeks now. Michel posted a picture on his Instagram that shows him without a walking boot.

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4. More on Cam/N'Keal connection: What led quarterback Cam Newton and second-year receiver N'Keal Harry to work out together last week on the West Coast? I'm told Newton initiated the contact with Harry. Now, after a couple of days together, it would be interesting to hear if Newton saw any similarities between Harry (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and former Carolina Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 245), as both are bigger than the prototype at the position, relying less on speed and more on technique and physicality. Benjamin had developed a nice early rapport with Newton in Carolina, totaling 136 catches for 1,949 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first two seasons (2014, 2016).

5. No Cam news conference scheduled: When the Patriots officially announced the signing of Newton on Wednesday, one of the natural follow-ups was when New England might get its initial firsthand look at Newton in a (virtual) news conference. Nothing is scheduled at this time, which possibly could extend to the scheduled start of training camp this month. When it does happen, the contrast between Newton and Belichick could be fun.

6. Mahomes' deal sparks Bledsoe recollections: The Chiefs' 10-year contract extension with quarterback Patrick Mahomes was unusual because of its length, but not unprecedented. Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, of course, had signed a 10-year contract in March 2001. At the time, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, "I saw this as an opportunity to sign one of the greatest Patriots for the rest of his career." Of course, no one could have predicted what would unfold -- Bledsoe's serious injury, Tom Brady's emergence, and Bledsoe ultimately traded to Buffalo the following season.

7. Explaining 13% incentive in Cam's deal: When ESPN's Field Yates was first to break down the specifics of the one-year contract Newton signed with the Patriots, the presence of $250,000 for playing 13% of the offensive snaps stood out to some as unusual. But it is easily explained. Because Newton played in 12.6% of the offensive snaps last year, the Patriots don't have to initially count that $250,000 against the salary cap, as it is considered a not-likely-to-be-earned incentive. So in essence, they are borrowing $250,000 until Newton hits that threshold. This is similar to what they did last year with linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. In that deal, Collins could earn a $500,000 incentive for playing 91% of the snaps, which wasn't a coincidence because he had played 90.65% of the snaps the year before.

8. Cam's contract in context: How modest of a contract did Newton sign with the Patriots given his credentials? According to ESPN's Stats & Information, the following are the contracts with the lowest totals of guaranteed money for MVP-winning quarterbacks since 2000:

  • Newton: $550,000 (2020)

  • Steve McNair: $6.1 million (2004)

  • Rich Gannon: $11 million (2002)

  • Kurt Warner: $11.5 million (2000)

9. Patriots were ready with Cam's jersey: The Patriots waited about three months before finalizing the jersey numbers for veteran free agents they reached contract agreements with back in March. With Newton, the delay was about a week, and here's one notable benefit for the franchise by moving quickly: Locking Newton to No. 1 allowed for immediate jersey sales, with his jersey one of the first items that pops up on the team's online Pro Shop.

10. Thuney deadline approaches: Wednesday marks the deadline for the Patriots and franchise-tagged guard Joe Thuney to reach an extension, or Thuney will be locked in to the $14.78 million tag for the 2020 season. None of the 14 players across the NFL who were assigned the tag have had their contracts extended. Will the deadline spur action? Or is the lack of extensions a preview of what to expect? While acknowledging anything is possible with Thuney, I lean toward the latter.

11. Did You Know: Julian Edelman enters the 2020 season in second place on the Patriots' career receptions list with 599. Wes Welker is the all-time leader with 672 receptions.