When you're building your football team, there are three types of players you want on your roster: stars, fixers and heroes (Sterling Moore).
To be successful in the NFL, you need all three. You need your stars to dominate from week to week, you need your fixers to do the dirty work that often gets lost on the stat sheet and most importantly, you need your heroes to rise to the occasion when the stars don't shine and all hope seems lost.
For my money, it's all about the heroes. Out of nowhere, a faceless player on the team becomes the man with all the answers. He strikes like a cobra, with his ascension defying logic over the course of a season or in the span of a single second. It's evolution at the speed of thought.
When you ask a Ravens fan how they feel about Tom Brady, you'll probably get the standard response that you'd expect. When you ask them how they feel about Sterling Moore, well, you'll probably get a more introverted and wounded response. Stars can make you mad, but only heroes can break your heart.
Who will be the Patriots' newest star in 2012? Who will be their newest fixer? More importantly, who will be their newest hero?
For a glimpse into the crystal ball, look to the OTAs. You won't find everything you're looking for, but you'll find bits and pieces to satisfy your curiosity.
Here are the biggest winners and losers of New England's OTAs.
The Patriots made their biggest splash of the offseason by picking up Brandon Lloyd. He's the long-ball threat we've been asking for. And with Tom Brady at the helm, Lloyd has the potential to top the league in receiving yards next season. He did it in 2010, and he can do it again in 2012.
From the looks of it, you can rejoice in the early indications that he appears to be everything we wanted and more.
According to the PFW blog, a fantastic source for Patriots information which is regularly updated on the team's website, here are some early observations on Lloyd from the OTAs:
"First look at Brandon Lloyd was impressive. He seemed to show good quickness and footwork as well as soft hands. He made a couple real nice receptions and didn't seem to be uncomfortable or lost in anything he did on the field."
A few days later, the PFW blog had more thoughts on Lloyd:
"He's been rather impressive in his first two practices witnessed by the media. He seems pretty comfortable in his reps and doesn't appear hesitant as to where to line up or what to do. He shows quick feet and very good hands. He hauled in a nice deep ball down the middle from Tom Brady in group work."
I definitely suggest you check out the radio episode of PFW In Progress from May 31st. Fred Kirsch, an excellent Patriots analyst, has some magical awe in his voice as he delivers these observations from the OTAs:
"Brady looked sharp...his passes were accurate laser beams, and I think the other standout on offense was Brandon Lloyd. Brandon Lloyd is as smooth as silk."
There's more great news.
WEEI Sports Radio has a fantastic blog called "It Is What It Is," and they've been doing a great job tracking New England's OTAs. According to their blog, here are some more encouraging observations:
"Newcomer Brandon Lloyd had an impressive session, looking smooth and comfortable in the New England offense. (He made a nice over the shoulder grab of a Brian Hoyer pass along the sideline.)"
Here's another great OTA observation from their blog:
"Brandon Lloyd made a nice pair of catches at the back of the end zone. Lloyd also had a nice catch on a Brady pass over Devin McCourty. With the understanding that it’s still insanely early, it’s hard not to be impressed with Lloyd, even at this stage of the spring. He looks polished and poised and not at all overwhelmed with the prospect of working in the New England offense with Brady."
How much good news do you want? Here's a little more from Field Yates at ESPN:
"Red zone was a focus for the team today, and veteran addition Brandon Lloyd snared a couple of impressive catches in the end zone. His strong offseason play continued."
Seems like everything's falling into place here.
For more on Lloyd's progress, I highly recommend you free up a few minutes in your schedule to watch this great interview with Lloyd from the OTAs. In less than three minutes, the video tells you everything you need to know about this guy; his body is in great shape, his skills are sharp, his mind is focused, his wisdom is refined and he speaks with confidence. He's the total package.
Projected Status for 2012: Star
Almost as soon as the OTAs began, there were hints that Chad Ochocinco was still having a tough time absorbing the playbook and finding a rhythm in New England's offense. According to the PFW Blog, Ochocinco's progression is still moving at a snail's pace (or rather, not moving at all):
"Chad Ochocinco seemed to pick up right where he left off a year ago. Not only did No. 85 have to be told where to line up by teammates after breaking the huddle on at least one play, but the former Pro Bowler earned a penalty lap by jumping offsides on another snap."
Well, Ocho, it was (slightly) fun while it lasted.
Status for 2012: Released
There was a fleeting moment last season when our fingertips oh-so-closely grazed the Lombardi trophy, and that was with a struggling defense. With a better defense, we might get a firm grasp on that sterling silver prize in 2012.
Well, here's some excellent news from the OTAs. According to It Is What It Is, here are some nice observations on the defensive progress being made by your New England Patriots:
"Overall, the defense looked like the sharper of the two units, appearing active and engaged throughout the duration of the workout. Dont’a Hightower jumped and almost picked off a Brian Hoyer pass at one point, while a Brady pass for Welker was tipped in the air and picked off by Ross Ventrone."
Some more intriguing observations from the same source:
"In 7-on-7's, there were several different combinations utilized in the secondary, but it is worth noting that for the second consecutive week, McCourty appeared to take the bulk of the reps at cornerback. (It looked like McCourty and Ras-I Dowling were paired as the starting corners.) There were several different pairings at safety, including Nate Ebner and Pat Chung, Ebner and Ross Ventrone and Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown. Steve Gregory rotated into the mix as well. Ebner made a nice pass breakup on a pass from Brian Hoyer that was intended for Brandon Lloyd."
Here's another little nugget from the PFW blog:
"Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory comprised the secondary during much of this time. This group was able to get their hands on a lot of passes and consistently forced incompletions."
More good news from Field Yates at ESPN, this time discussing the progress of one of the most important members of the team:
"Sterling Moore came out of nowhere to play a pivotal role for the Patriots during the 2011 postseason. He remains an under-the-radar player now, and I continue to be impressed with technique and ability to leverage opponents. He plays with good bend and flexibility, and seems to have solid fundamentals to his game."
This is music to my ears.
Projected Status for 2012: Fixers (With Some Heroes Sprinkled In)
31-year-old Bo Scaife joins Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Daniel Fells in New England's arsenal of tight ends.
For the record, it's way too early to gauge Scaife's progress in the OTAs. This is a recent acquisition, and there's a margin of error here. However, according to the PFW blog, there are some early observations worth mentioning:
"Newly signed veteran tight end Bo Scaife, wearing the No. 49 formerly worn by recently cut defender Markell Carter, worked with the training staff early in practice. Scaife was then on the field and seemed to really be struggling with his conditioning, even when simply jogging the penalty laps with the rest of the offense."
There's another player who seems to be struggling with his physical conditioning during the OTAs: Donte' Stallworth. Here are some early observations from the PFW blog:
"First observation says that Donte Stallworth may have lost a step. After bobbling one deep ball the receiver didn’t seem to have the extra gear to run under another after getting behind the defender."
It's still too soon to pronounce final verdicts on Scaife and Stallworth, but it isn't too soon to be slightly unnerved.
Projected Status for 2012: Both Will Struggle to Make the Final Roster
For all of you Shane Vereen fans out there, here's some good news from the OTAs that you might like to hear. This comes from the PFW blog:
"One interesting sign during the two-minute work was the presence of second-year running back Shane Vereen. He opened the drill as the lone setback and caught passes from Brady on each of the first two plays. He occupied the role normally filled by Danny Woodhead throughout the drill and did not look out of place."
Looks like Vereen might play a nice role for New England in 2012. I love this guy, so I'm pulling for him.
Projected Status in 2012: Hero
We have absolutely no proof as to how Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett would fare in Tom Brady's potential absence. It's not that they can't succeed, it's simply that we don't know. Neither quarterback has played enough to get a solid read on them.
As of now, the biggest thing going for Hoyer and Mallett is that Bill Belichick has kept them on the roster. That, alone, gives me some form of confidence. But still, I like having Brady right where he is.
In the event that the unthinkable happens to No. 12, the load will fall on the shoulders of Hoyer and/or Mallett. Based on the OTAs thus far, Hoyer and Mallett have showed signs of weakness. According to the PFW blog, these are a few observations of their performance in the OTAs:
"The quarterbacks have performed to the expectations of their spot on the depth chart to this point in the spring, especially on Thursday. Brady had a very good practice, throwing the ball accurately and with a nice zip. Brian Hoyer was OK, although he still seems to have issues with arm strength at times. Ryan Mallett has struggled over the last two Thursdays. He takes way too long to get rid of the ball on nearly every one of his reps. When he does decide to unload it, dumping it off to a guy in the flat, the ball is often off-target or behind the receiver. It’s too early in the process to make any long term evaluations but Mallett right now looks like another former strong-armed, decision-slow, off-target Patriots backups from the SEC named Rohan Davey. In an observation from afar on the grassy hill next to the practice fields, it looks Mallett needs to work mightily on decision making, getting rid of the ball and accuracy."
Here are some further observations from PFW analyst Andy Hart, as he answers a fan's question about what he's seen on the practice field from Ryan Mallett:
"Basing it solely on two OTA practices that we’ve seen, I have been disappointed in Mallett. He’s struggled with his accuracy and reading the plays. He’s held on to the ball too long and just hasn’t had the passing game running smoothly like Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer seem to. The good news is that Mallett still has a very impressive arm. But other than that, he still looks like he has a lot of work to do."
More not-so-good news from the the PFW blog:
"Ryan Mallett seemed to struggle a bit with his accuracy during the practice. He threw a couple bad balls toward the likes of Wes Welker and Hernandez, and then had another throw picked off by Marquice Cole."
It may sound bleak, but there is some good news for Brian Hoyer. According to a very interesting article on ESPN, Hoyer's market value is pretty solid. Here's a snippet:
"In 2013, Hoyer should have no such restrictions to seek starting employment, as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the '12 season. It’s possible that he’ll rank near the top of the quarterback market, and he could be in line for a fancy payday.
While much remains to be seen, ESPN’s Chris Sprow put together his list of “most marketable” backup quarterbacks for 2012, which Hoyer tops.
The list is not simply a calculation of the most talented backups, but also takes into account which backups are likely to be available either via free agency or trade in the near future.
Former NFL executive and current NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi has said on numerous occasions that if he had been hired by the 49ers during their most recent general manager search, he would have pursued Hoyer."
So, as you see, it's not all doom-and-gloom. Maybe Hoyer is fantastic. Maybe Mallett is, too. But as of now, these are only thoughts and theories. As to whether or not these guys are really ready to step in for Brady in a pinch, well, I suppose fate will let us know in its own peculiar way.
Projected Status for 2012: Let's Just Hope That Brady Stays Healthy
There's just nothing bad you can say about Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko. They're great football players, disciplined professionals and all-around great guys.
Gostkowski's accuracy rate has made him a historic staple of the Patriots franchise and Mesko is one of the best punters you could ask for. Together, these two are just fantastic.
So rest assured, Patriot Nation, this is a tandem you can count on in 2012. Straight from the PFW blog, here's a cool little snippet about the OTA adventures of Zoltan Mesko and Stephen Gostkowski:
"Both specialists seemed to be in regular season form. Zoltan Mesko got off a number of long, booming spiral punts throughout the day. Stephen Gostkowski not only hit his field goals, but also put on a show by lining up on the end line in the back of the end zone and kicking the ball from the side and hitting the upright on two of four attempts to show his accuracy. Pretty impressive!"
Projected Status for 2012: In the Right Circumstance, They Could Be Heroes