Patriots training camp observations
The Patriots were given a rare day off on Monday after four straight days of training camp. The troops are back in Foxboro on Tuesday to begin a full week of camp before the Saints head up to New England for joint-practices.
Here’s what we’ve seen so far:
BRADY’S NEW BUNCH
It’s no surprise that Tom Brady has come into camp sharp as a tack. It is surprising, however, to see how well he’s gelled with his new (and old) wide receivers so quickly.
Brady’s disconnect with receiver Chad Ochocinco sparked a hiring frenzy this off season, as Bill Belichick sought to bring back any and all wide outs who have had chemistry with TB12. Brandon Lloyd has been brought in as a replacement for Ochocinco, and the new pairing of Lloyd and Brady has already shown stunning rewards. On Sunday, the pair left the Gillette crowd in awe after a 45-yard touch down. That one play, of course, does not drown out the early efforts from Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth and, of course, veteran Deion Branch to re-establish an on-field rapport with Brady.
GRONK SLOW TO GET UP
It appears Rob Gronkowski is still working to get back to full strength after off season ankle surgery. Not to worry, folks. If Gronk is limited during the first few weeks, whether it’s because of the ankle or the inevitable red zone double-team, Aaron Hernandez will almost certainly be waiting in the wings. That being said, I feel a monster season is coming for Hernandez. Towards the end of last season, Hernandez not only showed versatility in the backfield but also when he lined up as wide receiver. Hernandez said when he was younger, he modeled his game around Barry Sanders, who was a running back for the Lions. That makes sense since a lot of Hernandez’s game is run after the catch. He’s incredibly nimble, and is also like a wide receiver in a tight ends body.
OFFENSIVE LINE UNDER CONSTRUCTION
The facelift for the Patriots offensive line is still under construction. As Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer recover from injury, the fill-ins are on full display. Donald Thomas has shown he is more than capable on the line. Marcus Cannon has room for improvement. In a pinch, the Patriots can move either Dan Connolly or Dan Koppen inside to play guard. Robert Gallery is versatile so he can play either tackle or guard.
It is perhaps the most important race to look for. The Patriots will keep extra offensive lineman on the roster because it is the most important position battle in camp. New England will face its fair share of against fierce front fours’ of the Giants and Buffalo Bills.
The line is extremely important because if Brady gets disrupted in the pocket, then you start to have problems.
DONT’A HIGHTOWER’S NEW MENTOR
Many parallels are being drawn between Alabama rookie LB Dont’a Hightower, and fifth year linebacker Jerod Mayo. As a the 10th overall selection by the Patriots in 2008, Mayo made an immediate impact on defense in his rookie campaign, something Hightower hopes to establish himself this season. Hightower’s power and presence has raised a few eyebrows early on in camp. Hightower credits part of his NFL transition to Mayo, during his media session last Friday:
“I watched Mayo in college and I watched him when he got here. I feel like most linebackers have the mentality that they want to come in here and they want to make a big impact. Talking to him and asking him how he did things as a rookie, and how he prepared, that’s going to help me all the better.”
Put two and two together, you might like what you see.
Second-year man Stevan Ridley is an early favorite to grab the number one running back spot, but another running back is making bold statement over the first few days of camp. Undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden out of Mississippi State has shown he’s reliable target on offense, even edging out Shane Vereen.
WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO:
WATERS RETURN IMMINENT?
The media has pestered Patriots coaching personnel on the whereabouts of veteran offensive guard Brian Waters with no luck. Waters remains on the “Did Not Report” to camp list, without much explanation from anyone at Camp Belichick. The Pro Bowl guard could show up in the middle of training camp, pop back into the 53-man roster in September, or retire all together. At 36 years old, training camp is a grind for veterans like Waters, and usually guys with the experience Waters has can sit out camp and wait for a team to sign him at the beginning of the season. Last season, both Waters and veteran defensive end Andre Carter were signed at the start of the season, and both had Pro Bowl seasons. Until Mankins and Vollmer are pulled off the PUP list (physically unable to perform), Waters’ services will be needed.
WHO HAS SPECIAL TEAMS VALUE?
They say nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. I’ll add one more to that list: in the eyes of Bill Belichick, players with more versatility on special teams climb the ladder fast in this organization. Put in time in the kicking game, and you’re nearly guaranteed a roster spot come Week 1. That versatile special teams list includes: WR Matt Slater, WR Julian Edelman, RB Danny Woodhead and LB Niko Koutouvides to name a few.
RUNNING BACKS, OR FULL BACKS?
When asked why running back Joseph Addai was released just a day before training camp, Bill Belichick was brief: “Hey, it didn’t work out.” As we found out later by Comcast Sports Net’s Mary Paoletti, Addai gave up mid-way through his conditioning test. So for now, seven backs sit on the roster. In the off season, the Patriots made a hard pursuit for fullbacks, a position as ancient as the dinosaurs. It will be interesting to see if they keep one, both, or none on the eventual roster. And don’t count out Kevin Faulk just yet. He’s still reportedly training hard, patiently waiting for that phone call to come back for his 14th NFL season.
MORE BRADY-TO-LLOYD, PLEASE
It’s fascinating to see what Brandon Lloyd will be able do in this system, an offense now run by his old friend Josh McDaniels. There’s been a lot of chatter in and around town on how this offense will compare to the 2007 squad. A lot of people believe this year’s team has the potential to be better. If Brady wants to throw the ball deep and outside, there’s Lloyd. Inside the lines, there’s Welker at slot receiver, and the Gaffney/Stallworth/Branch. Throw to the tight ends over the middle, Gronkowski, or the multi-handle Aaron Hernandez, who has the potential to get a lot of yards after the catch. Still stuck in a bind? You have the running backs, and possible fullbacks to catch passes off of screens.
Options, options, options.
WHO WILL BE THE SURPRISE CUT?
Who will be the surprise cut or trade this year? DL Gerard Warren is notably out of shape. Will Jermaine Cunningham finally make an impact in his third campaign with the team?
On another note, the Patriots will hold their first in-stadium practice under the lights on Wednesday night. The evening practice is a season ticket holder event but is sure to draw big crowds under the lights.