NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
After a series of OTA sessions and two days of mandatory minicamp, head coach Bill Belichick called off the final day of practices on June 13. In turn, upwards of 90 players departed from 1 Patriot Place blaring Alice Cooper’s “Schools Out” from their stereo speakers.
Well, something to that effect.
It’s the calm before the storm for the Patriots. The downtime will be short-lived, however. Because in six weeks, there will be training camp, roster cut-down days, joint practices and preseason tilts.
Here are 10 thoughts to ponder until then.
1. Waiting for Separation at Wide Receiver — The Patriots have 11 wideouts on the expanded roster. Yet, according to reports, there’s a gap in polish between Danny Amendola and the rest of the pack. And the outside receivers who have stepped up are not the names you’d expect, either. Instead, they’re guys who were once seen as written-off men.
Don’t be surprised if the 30-year-old Michael Jenkins, undrafted Cincinnati product Kenbrell Thompkins or practice squad call-up Kamar Aiken find a way to stick around Foxboro this season. They’ve all been factors, particularly in three-receiver sets, according to ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss. It will be interesting to see how second-rounder Aaron Dobson and fourth-rounder Josh Boyce fit into the fold come late July. Their development is crucial in defining this year’s draft class.
2. Adrian Wilson’s Fit Lies Anywhere — As far as 12-year-pros are considered, former Arizona Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson looks like he’s got plenty of gasoline left in his tank. As many have divulged, Wilson’s been leading the charge at strong safety. But it’s also worth noting that, per NESN.com’s Luke Hughes, the 6’3”, 230-pound ex-Pro Bowler has even gotten looks as a sub package linebacker and middle linebacker with the first-team defense. The fact that Wilson has been setting the example isn’t surprising, yet it is interesting how he has been utilized in practice.
While he is versatile, he does appear to be the No. 1 candidate to play strong safety right now, even if that means 2012 second-round pick Tavon Wilson’s role remains the same as a “Money” defensive back in dime situations. In classic Belichick terminology, the Patriots will “do what’s best for the football team.” The younger Wilson has an opportunity to learn from the elder, and that tutelage is valuable.
3. Zach Sudfeld Standing Apart — The Patriots acquired an oft-injured tight end prospect in April, and thus far, the move is paying dividends. No, Zach Sudfeld is not Rob Gronkowski. In fact, he’s a couple months older than him. But like Gronkowski, the Nevada product is massive — 6’7”, 255 pounds — and was downplayed through the draft process due to medical concerns which left him as a sixth-year senior. Sudfeld is now healthy, and with several other Patriots tight ends stuck on the sidelines, the 24-year-old is making the most of his extended workload.
An exceptional blocker and a can’t-miss red zone target, Sudfeld has a lot to offer the Patriots, especially if Gronkowski starts the season the PUP list. Don’t be shocked if the rookie nicknamed “Sunshine” beats out some incumbents for a final roster spot. Then again, it’s June and every player is wearing shorts.
4. Contract Year for Brandon Spikes — Brandon Spikes’s absence from voluntary OTAs was speculated to no end. But the fact of the matter is that OTAs are voluntary, and New England’s starting middle linebacker made the decision to work out privately at Bommarito Performance in Florida instead. By the time he arrived at Gillette for mandatory minicamp last week, his off-the-radar offseason had blipped back into the radar. Many were curious about the timing of it all. Was Spikes doing things differently for a reason other than his own preparation? Not so fast.
The 2010 second-round draft choice is entering the final year of his rookie contract, but don’t think he’s trying to force his hand to get a new deal. Regarded as a run-stopper more than a coverage backer, many see Spikes as a two-down player. So understandably, the 25-year-old wants to prove he can be a three-down player. Look for him to battle capable backup Dane Fletcher for snaps on passing downs. It should be a fun competition to watch unfold.
5. Ryan Mallett and His Progression — Ryan Mallett has been put in a tough position, but also a great one. As a strong-armed former five-star high school prospect who posted prolific passing numbers during his time at Arkansas, Mallett was probably hoping to go to an NFL team where he could be an immediate starter. As we know, that wasn’t in the cards for him. And with Brady’s contract situation locked up until 2017, it will probably never be in the cards for him — in New England.
Mallett has played in four games and thrown four passes in two years with the Patriots. That lack of in-game action would discourage most signal-callers who dream of being the leader under center. Nevertheless, Mallett seems to have accepted his role with the Patriots. As The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin noted, Mallett calls himself a “work in progress.” That’s precisely what he is. The third-year pro gets to learn from one of the game’s very best and tailor his skills in the process. When it gets his opportunities this training camp and preseason, he’s not only playing to assert himself as New England’s No. 2 QB, he’s playing for the shot to be an NFL starter.