NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The final mandatory minicamp session concluded five weeks ago. Six have been signed, five have been released, and one has retired since then. But the roster transactions, as well as the football activities, are about to accelerate once again.
Summer vacation is now over for the New England Patriots.
The rookies headed back to school at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, and the veterans joined them on Wednesday. And by 9:45 a.m. on Thursday, both the underclassmen and the upperclassmen will have their helmets in hand as they file onto the practice fields for the start of training camp.
Undrafted linebacker-turned-safety Kanorris Davis was the first one out there last year. With 36 new players and 90 altogether, though, it remains to be seen who it will be this year.
A lot remains to be seen.
Here are five things to keep an eye on once the Patriots open camp on July 24.
Who’s Practicing, Who’s Observing, Who’s Missing
After a season of laden with attrition, the Patriots are now dealing with the residual effects. It is hard to predict exactly who will be in attendance for the start of training camp, but also, if they are in shorts and shells or a hat and sweats.
The pectoral tear of linebacker Jerod Mayo, the Achilles tear of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, and the ACL tears of fellow D-linemen Tommy Kelly and Will Smith made waves last season. Yet all four were at minicamp in some capacity, and all four figure to be in the fold moving forward.
At least for the most part.
ESPN Boston’s Field Yates was the first to report that Kelly, third-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, second-year wideout Aaron Dobson, special teams captain Matthew Slater and seventh-round wideout Jeremy Gallon will begin camp on the physically unable to perform list. In addition, first-round defensive tackle Dominique Easley, undrafted running back Roy Finch, undrafted linebacker Deontae Skinner and undrafted offensive tackle Chris Martin have been placed on the non-football injury list.
For them, it’s wait and see.
After having arthroscopic meniscus surgery during New England’s bye week last season, Dennard hurt his shoulder Dec. 8 and underwent surgery this offseason. He was not spotted during minicamp.
The prognosis of Dobson, a 2013 second-round draft pick, has also been traced closely over the last eight months. After initially injuring his right foot in Week 12 before returning in Week 17 only to aggravate it, Dobson was forced to miss the divisional round of the playoffs. The wide receiver returned for the AFC Championship Game, but was hindered. And after waiting for the stress fracture to heal on its own to no avail, the No. 17 had surgery on March 10. The early timetable for his return was two to three months.
It’s taken longer.
Slater, a fellow receiver in title, has also been working through an injury that limited him last month. He is eligible to return as soon as he’s ready, as is Gallon, who was limited or absent for the last several days of OTAs and minicamp.
Someone who did make a return was Easley, yet the rookie will still begin training camp on the non-football injury list. The Florida defensive tackle’s first known practice work as a Patriot came on Thursday, June 19, after suffering his second ACL tear, along with a medial meniscus tear during a Sept. 24 practice.
Dr. James Andrews operated on Easley’s right knee Oct. 24. And Andrews later operated on tight end Rob Gronkowski. Following a tear to the ACL and MCL in his right knee on Dec. 8, the two-time NFL All-Pro had surgery Jan. 9 and was among a handful of players in the rehab group during minicamp.
No. 87 could be brought along slowly, which would mean an extended look for Michael Hoomanawanui, D.J. Williams, undrafted rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson, recent acquisition Nate Byham and even fullback James Develin. With that said, Gronkowski, like Wilfork, is not designated under either injury list.
He’s cleared to play.
Looking for Mike, Will and Sam
The loss of Mayo in Week 6 of turned the tides of the Patriots’ linebacker group last season. Yet in many ways, it turned the tides towards the future, towards what the unit could become.
It left 2012 first-round pick Dont’a Hightower sporting a green dot on his helmet, stepping into a role not entirely designed for his 6’4”, 270-pound downhill skillset. But in time, the natural strong-side linebacker met the expanded demands asked of him. He saw and reacted laterally to get ahead of run blocks. He sensed the pass routes with proper zone coverage depth. And while he may be more comfortable rushing the passer on third down, 2013 saw him do more than that.
He looked the part both outside and inside.
The same could be said of Jamie Collins. The second-rounder was forced to acclimate quickly, and that came along with struggles – he played four defensive snaps combined between Week 9 and Week 11 after hitting a low point against the Miami Dolphins. But through those struggles, he eventually revealed the flash the team saw in him as a “Bandit” on a 0-12 Southern Miss football team.
The athletic, 6’3”, 250-pounder revealed the ability to play on the weak side, the strong side and in the middle. Versus the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs, he was all over the field. He tracked down running backs in the flat, he launched over the A-gaps to sack the quarterback, and he backpedaled down the pipe to intercept a pass intended for a tight end.
Things are inevitably different now that middle linebacker Brandon Spikes – placed on injured reserve during the playoff run – is a Buffalo Bill. Yet continuity remains. And with that continuity comes options, both in the base and sub-package defense.
Which positions will Mayo, Hightower and Collins play as training camp commences? How will the presence of cover linebacker James Anderson impact the responsibilities of the other three? Can 2013 seventh-rounder Steve Beauharnais establish himself in the rotation?
Those questions will glean answers in the coming days and weeks. Maybe there doesn’t need to be a thumper in the middle. Maybe the distinctions between the “Will” and the “Sam” linebackers are not as clear-cut as previously thought.
How Rookie Halfbacks Fit Offensive, Special Teams Plans
With LeGarrette Blount now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, there is a role to be carved at running back alongside Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
That was made clear when the Patriots selected Wisconsin ball-carrier James White in the fourth round of May’s draft. Then it was reinforced when Indiana’s Stephen Houston and Oklahoma’s aforementioned Finch were signed as undrafted free agents.
The three rookies all bring a unique card to the table, and all three will have to in order to secure a place on the roster. The initial days of camp are the next step in their hopes of that coming to fruition.
Those days could show signs of their potential utilization.
The 5’10, 205-pound White is a patient runner with the vision to find gaps and churn out sizeable gains. Although his stature and speed are not outstanding, he makes amends with his low center of gravity, balance and suddenness when cutting back across the grain. He is sure-handed, fumbling only twice over four years and 754 career touches with the Badgers. And while was used in a rotation in college, White’s experience as a receiver and kick returner should help him find a way onto the field once again, whether it be on third downs or on special teams.
The 6’0”, 225-pound Houston is in a different mold than White. In a sense, he’s the closest thing to Blount if White’s the closest thing to Vereen. Rushing for over 700 yards in each of his three seasons at the FBS level, he’s built to head between the tackles if he can stay low and keep his legs churning. He’s got the size-speed combination to one-cut the corner, and he too has the hands to reel in passes out of the backfield. But as an undrafted rookie, Houston will also have to prove he can pass protect and serve on special teams.
The 5’7”, 180-pound Finch is neither White nor Houston. He isn’t the type of player who handles 15 carries a game – he totaled 262 carries over 47 career games with the Sooners. He isn’t the type of player barrels through tackles – he was listed as 167 pounds as a senior. He isn’t the type of straight-line burner Jeff Demps or Leon Washington were thought to be for the Patriots, either, but Finch’s start-stop ability and creative running style catapult him downfield. If he can stand up to the physicality once the pads come one in training camp and be consistent as a pass protector, he could pose a challenge as a change-of-pace back and returner. Nonetheless, he will begin on the non-football injury list.
That should spread the opportunity across the board for other, often less discussed, backs.
Known for his special teams, straight-ahead running style and value as a receiving understudy, Brandon Bolden is entering his third year with the team. Also in the mix is first-year back Jonas Gray, formerly of the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens.
Battles at Center, Right Guard
Per NFL rules, the first two days of training camp practice cannot be in full pads. While this does mean there won’t be full contact until July 26, it doesn’t mean there won’t be competition at the line of scrimmage until then.
As the interior of New England’s line assembles, there will be plenty of it. For starting center Ryan Wendell, fourth-round center Bryan Stork, starting right guard Dan Connolly, swing tackle Marcus Cannon, second-year guard Josh Kline and sixth-round guard Jon Halapio, the dominoes have yet to fall.
But by the time they do, it’s possible the Patriots start the regular season with two new starters along the offensive line.
The 28-year-old Wendell re-signed on a two-year deal this offseason after a season in which he allowed the most sacks of any center in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, the 31-year-old Connolly and 26-year-old Cannon are entering the final years of their contracts.
And with Dave DeGuglielmo entering the first year of his tenure as the team’s offensive line coach – replacing longtime assistant Dante Scarnecchia, who retired in January – there is a new set of eyes evaluating the group.
How size, athleticism, versatility and youth are gauged could determine the outcome. Each has its own merit.
Tracking Wide Receivers vs. Cornerbacks
With the prized free-agent signings of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, it is expected that New England’s cornerbacks will win their share of plays against their offensive counterparts this summer.
But the wide receivers aren’t expected to go quietly.
In seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills, the two sides of the spectrum will get their opportunity. And when they do, more than the interceptions, pass deflections and receptions will be worth noting.
Where they align and the ways in which they win will be most telling.
For New England’s cornerback collection of Revis, Browner, Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington, Justin Green, Daxton Swanson, Malcolm Butler, Travis Hawkins and Jemea Thomas, the matchups they inherit will be key.
Not all of whom have the length to press and stall route-runners off the snap and turn their head back towards the pass. Conversely, not all of whom have the quickness and hip fluidity to play off route-runners and keep the pass in front of them. So whether they face off with an outside target down the sideline or a slot target underneath, it will be the next step towards finding their purpose in the secondary.
For New England’s wideout collection of Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, Josh Boyce, Derrick Johnson, Wilson Van Hooser and Greg Orton, defeating jams at the line or bypassing zone coverage downfield will be part of the ongoing litmus test.
Yet within those situations are the releases from split end, flanker and the slot. And how each target is performs from those spots – showing the ability shed contact, the footwork in and out of breaks, the efficiency in tracking the ball, as well as the strength at the catch point – is what will separate them.
In some way, every player is looking to separate.
Tags: Patriots Training Camp