The New England Patriots' offseason was regarded league-wide as one of the strongest, but it hasn't been perfect. Some of the storylines that make up this 2012 squad have played out quite differently than originally expected.
Injuries and contentious contract disagreements have soured the offseason for some Patriots while others have spent their time impressing teammates and coaches alike.
Here's a look at 10 early winners and losers (five each) as training camp draws ever closer.
The rave reviews just keep on coming for receiver Brandon Lloyd, who has made a near painless transition into the Patriots offense. Lloyd looks to be in great shape, and Tom Brady is in the advanced stages of building a rapport with his new vertical threat.
“It’s just a matter of sometimes it doesn’t look like he’s really open and then, boom he springs open on you,” Brady said. “So sometimes you think, ‘Oh, he’s covered,’ and then you get off of him and then you watch the film and you’re like, ‘How did he get open?’ (per Nick Underhill of Masslive.com)
It's a sentiment shared by the members of the secondary who have been forced to practice against him.
“It’s a challenge for us to go out there everyday and compete with him,” cornerback Devin McCourty added. “He’s shown out there in practice why he’s a top receiver in this league.”
Lloyd's most impressive asset is his ability to reel in catches that don't hit him in the chest. Location is the key when targeting the 6'0'', 188-pound wideout. He has taken advantage of his reach and ball skills throughout his career.
Lloyd may very well shatter previous career marks in 2012 as a possible highlight of the high-powered New England offense.
Sebastian Vollmer underwent an offseason back surgery of an unknown variety according to the Boston Globe. The projected right tackle is also reportedly still dealing with lingering effects of his ankle operation from late in the 2011 season.
The back complications have existed since his days at college and kept the 28-year-old out for all but one of the Patriots first six games last year.
New England brought in a couple insurance policies on the line this offseason likely due to Vollmer's shaky health history. If he can't rebound and play a full year, the 6'8'' behemoth will see his value in free agency plummet.
Word is that he'll be healthy for training camp, but the bigger question is whether he can maintain it.
Aaron Hernandez has excelled on the field in Rob Gronkowski's absence this offseason. As Field Yates of ESPNBoston.com notes, the third-year veteran looks like he has yet to hit his developmental ceiling.
It’s possible that Aaron Hernandez continues to flash because he’s had so many reps. It’s also possible that he’s already improved from what was a highly successful second season, which is the way it appears. His receiving ability is natural, and the Patriots could continue to find news ways to use him throughout the offense.
He nearly broke 1,000 yards while playing second fiddle to Gronkowski in targets, so we've clearly yet to see the height of this 22-year-old's production. It'll be worth noting how the addition of Brandon Lloyd affects Hernandez.
The vertical passing game should help open up things in the middle of the field for the Patriots, but it may also limit the targets Hernandez receives.
James Walker of ESPN.com sat in on a Patriots practice and had an overall critical assessment of Brian Hoyer.
Hoyer's size and arm strength looked average and his accuracy and decision-making weren't great this week. In team drills Wednesday, he threw a bad interception in coverage to Patriots rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower. According to the Boston Globe, Hoyer also threw two picks on Tuesday.
It's still very early in the going, and it's a tad bit unfair to expect perfection from a quarterback at this stage. In reality, Hoyer has just been outshined by his teammates. One's a future Hall of Famer and the other, as Walker points out, is a prospect who possesses the qualities Hoyer lacks.
This could be the year that Ryan Mallett pushes—and perhaps surpasses—Hoyer for the No. 2 job in the preseason. Mallett, a 2011 draft pick, still has a lot to learn but has the physical tools (size, arm strength) Hoyer lacks.
Hoyer will have to hold Mallett off this offseason and hasn't gotten off to a great start.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jermaine Cunningham who not only had a great offseason, he received public praise from Bill Belichick because of it.
"Jermaine's had a great offseason," Belichick said (per Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com). "He's really worked hard. He looks good."
It's nice to see the 2010 second-round pick experience an uptick in stock considering his drop off last season. Cunningham went from playing over half of the defensive snaps as a rookie to only 3.6 percent in 2011.
Belichick doesn't think it matters that Cunningham struggled to find the field last season.
Whatever happened last year, with any of our players—good, bad, indifferent, whatever it was—it really is not that important at this point. We're really trying to move forward and evaluate the team on a current basis, and give everyone an opportunity out there to show where they're at, and show what they can do.
If one could win or lose an offseason contract negotiation, Wes Welker certainly lost his with the Patriots. Perhaps negatively influenced by the outwardly expressive nature of Chad Ochocinco, Welker took to Twitter to vent his frustrations.
He appears to have halted any hopes of a contract extension, at least at this stage. It's an odd situation all around as Welker deserves some security going forward and New England would undoubtedly like to secure the NFL's most productive receiver of the last half decade.
At some point I expect those two facts to result in a contract, but when that will happen remains quite unknown.
A candidate for most under-the-radar acquisition of the offseason is safety Steve Gregory. Like his offensive counterpart Brandon Lloyd, Gregory has impressed both teammates and coaches on defense.
"He's smart. He's a smart dude. He can make plays, he can see things. He's a veteran out there. I'm learning things from him too," said Patrick Chung. "He might see things I don't see. He's picking up on the stuff. He's picking it up fast, so it's good." (per ESPN.com)
New safeties coach Brian Flores echoed what Chung had to say about his new teammate, praising the free-agent signing's versatility.
He's done a good job during these OTAs and minicamp. He's bright. He's a team guy. Wherever we put him, he's done a good job, learning the defense. He's great. What I like about him is that he's a team-first guy. He's willing to learn all positions. He's very versatile, and he's smart.
For all of the attention garnered by second-rounder Tavon Wilson, it's likely to be Gregory in the starting lineup come the start of the 2012 season.
Deion Branch's roster spot becomes safer by the day. He has outlasted and out performed Anthony Gonzalez and Chad Ochocinco, both of whom threatened his ability to make the team.
Still, he has been noted to lack burst throughout OTAs and "continues to be unimpressive," according to Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe.
James Walker believes Branch is still "on solid footing" with regards to his roster spot due to his experience within the offense. The longer he lasts, the more I'm tempted to adopt that logic as well.
He possesses an unmatched rapport with Brady, and while he can't do all of the things he was once known for, he's far from valueless.
A mini-defensive shuffle has been implemented thus far in Patriots OTAs as Rob Ninkovich has transitioned largely to defensive end. The vacancy at linebacker has allowed Bobby Carpenter to shine.
“Bobby’s been here all spring, he’s worked hard. Good athlete, runs well, smart guy, has some experience. [He] has done some different things in his career, played inside, played outside, played in the sub, played in the kicking game. He’s been a pretty versatile player in a couple of different organizations,” Belichick said (per ESPN.com).
So far it's been Carpenter, a first-round pick of the 2006 draft, who has gotten the nod over Patriots 2012 first-rounder Dont'a Hightower, as noted by Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston.com.
When the team had three linebackers on the field, it was Carpenter, not Hightower, getting the nod. Hightower, the first-round pick, has been lined up with veteran special teamer Niko Koutouvides in second-unit sub packages, while also leading the second wave base defense as the ‘Mike’ linebacker.
It certainly may not stay that way, especially considering how versatile Carpenter is. He can contribute on special teams and has experience in just about every formation and on the inside or outside of an alignment. Carpenter is shaping up to be a fine veteran addition to a young defense, and his role is his to earn moving forward.
Ras-I Dowling receives the "loser" tag in a fashion similar to Sebastian Vollmer. He has essentially missed the last two seasons of football and looks to enter 2012 healthy for the first time since his junior year of collegiate ball.
Dowling wasn’t able to fully participate at the start of workouts in April, and his conditioning level is still lagging, though that wasn’t exactly unexpected. He and the medical staff are still formulating a game plan for the next month and a half, as the rehab process isn’t yet complete. The expectation is he’ll be ready to roll for training camp. (Per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald)
ProFootballWeekly.com is hearing that the ideal role for Dowling is starting opposite of Devin McCourty on the outside. The idea is to feature Kyle Arrington more in the slot so his lack of size isn't taken advantage of.
That's no issue for the 6'1'' Dowling, who impressed the Patriots enough as a rookie to start the only two games he played in prior to landing on the IR.