The New England Patriots held their first practice of their 2012 training camp on Thursday in front of a record-setting crowd of more than 12,000 spectators, according to Mike Reiss and Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston.
Quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Wes Welker drew the most cheers from Patriots fans in attendance, but seeing them perform well in a practice setting comes as no surprise. More importantly, however, is how the Patriots’ young players and newcomers are establishing their roles for the upcoming season.
I was among the many spectators in attendance at the Patriots’ home, Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., to watch the team take its first practice reps of the season. While it is difficult to evaluate players in a setting like Thursday’s, which featured no full-contact drills, I did come away with some interesting observations from the practice field.
A Glimpse into Offensive Line Depth
Two starting offensive linemen, left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, are currently sidelined while on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and another, right guard Brian Waters, did not report to training camp, an absence Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said was similar to his “excused personal absence” from minicamp, according to ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss.
With three starters out of the mix, the Patriots were forced to draw from their bench to build much of their first-team offensive line for Thursday’s practice. The resulting line had Nate Solder at left tackle, Ryan Wendell at left guard, Dan Koppen at center, Dan Connolly at right guard and Marcus Cannon at right tackle.
Solder is the starter at left tackle, while Wendell and Cannon are bench players who are simply working with the starters on a fill-in capacity until Mankins and Vollmer are healthy enough to return.
The more interesting dynamic, however, was the team’s use of Connolly and Koppen. Koppen has been the Patriots’ starting center since 2003 but suffered a broken ankle in last year’s season opener, which relinquished the starting job to Connolly last season.
When the Patriots re-signed Connolly to a three-year deal worth $9.5 million this offseason, it was believed that his signing would signal the end of Koppen’s time in New England. Koppen, however, was also re-signed to a two-year, $6 million deal, creating an interesting battle in Foxborough.
Does Koppen lining up as the first-team center indicate that he leads the battle for the starting job?
Not necessarily, but Thursday’s unit is a realistic glimpse into how the line will likely look should Mankins or Waters not be back to start in Week 1 of the regular season. Even if Connolly wins the starting center job, he will likely be the backup at both guard spots, for Koppen can start at center if Connolly needs to kick out to play guard.
Wide Receivers Should be Much More Explosive this Year
Last season, looking for an explosive downfield wide receiver to replace Randy Moss, the Patriots expected Chad Ochocinco (who has now changed his surname back to Johnson) to be the answer. But from the time training camp began, where Ochocinco was dropping passes at every practice I attended, his lone season with the Patriots was a disappointment, ending with only 15 receptions for 276 yards and one touchdown.
This season, in an effort to bring the explosiveness back to their receiving corps, the Patriots brought back veterans Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth, both of whom have had previous stints in New England, along with Brandon Lloyd, who played for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels is another man who returned to the team after a previous stint, with both the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams.
If the first day of training camp was any indication, the Patriots’ receiving corps is going to be much improved this season.
Welker is the undisputed leader among the receivers, but he is best suited to play inside as a slot receiver. The Patriots needed to find receivers who can bring more speed and downfield receiving ability to play on the outside, and Lloyd and Gaffney look like the answers.
Lloyd had a great first day of practice. He looked very smooth running routes and caught every pass that came his way. Lloyd showed his ability to beat opposing cornerbacks with both his route running and with his speed and looks like a natural fit to be the Patriots’ “X” receiver and No. 1 deep threat this season.
Gaffney, who last played for the Patriots in 2008, also had an impressive showing on Thursday. The Patriots’ passing highlight of the day came on a perfectly-thrown deep ball by Tom Brady, on which Gaffney made a great catch right at the goal line along the right sideline. Gaffney also made a challenging leaping sideline grab later in practice and consistently showed his athleticism, hands and ability to run routes throughout practice.
With Lloyd and Gaffney likely to make up the Patriots’ top trio of receivers along with Welker, Stallworth is definitely on the roster bubble, but he looked good on Thursday as well. At 31 years old, Stallworth showed he still has great speed, while he looked good running routes on Thursday as well. The highlight of Stallworth’s day came when he made a difficult catch in traffic in the middle of the field, approximately 25 yards downfield.
Heavy Competition for Kickoff Return Gig
The Patriots had the NFL’s fourth-worst kickoff return average last season at only 21.4 yards per return, so they are certainly looking to improve in that area. The team, however, has no clear-cut candidate to take on that role this season.
Seven different Patriots lined up as kickoff returners during Thursday’s practice: wide receivers Julian Edelman, Matt Slater and Stallworth, along with running backs Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen and cornerback Kyle Arrington.
Edelman and Arrington looked the best on their kickoff returns, but it is very hard to evaluate kickoff returners when a returner does not have to worry about avoiding tackles.
Woodhead, Edelman, Ridley and Slater all returned kickoffs for the Patriots last season, but the dark-horse candidates to win the job could be Stallworth and Vereen. Stallworth has the best speed of any of the seven players, while Vereen, who had very little impact in his rookie season, could find his most meaningful role yet in his second season if he is assigned the duty of returning kickoffs.
Rob Gronkowski is Fully Healthy
Six Patriots players started training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but Gronkowski, who played in last year’s Super Bowl with a high ankle sprain suffered in the AFC Championship game, was not one of them.
Gronkowski was a full participant in Thursday’s practice, taking the majority of reps with the first-team offense at tight end. He was running as naturally as ever and looked as good as usual as a receiving threat.
While much ado has made about the “Summer of Gronk,” it is clear that Gronkowski made it a priority to get healthy for the start of training camp, and he looks ready to be the NFL’s best tight end once again in 2012.
Is Ryan Mallett Ahead of Brian Hoyer on Quarterback Depth Chart?
The Patriots made a surprising move during the 11-on-11 drills near the end of practice, when they sent out second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett to lead the second-team offense, while fourth-year backup Brian Hoyer lined up with the third team.
Does this mean that Mallett has moved ahead of Hoyer on the Patriots’ quarterback depth chart? Not yet. Instead, the Patriots likely put Mallett with the second team in order to see how he would perform with that unit, as the Patriots could put Hoyer, who will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason, on the trade block if any team loses one of its top two quarterbacks to injury.
Mallett has a big arm, which he displayed at one point with an absolutely perfect deep ball for what would have been a touchdown to Edelman, but he continued to struggle with accuracy on Thursday.
If both quarterbacks remain on the roster, Hoyer will likely end up remaining the second-string quarterback for the 2012 season. However, if Mallett shows steady development over the next few weeks, the Patriots would be smart to trade Hoyer this summer rather than lose him for nothing next spring.
Some Other Observations from Thursday’s Practice
- Rookie special teamer Nate Ebner, who was selected in the sixth round of this year’s NFL draft, did not participate in any drills on Thursday. Ebner, a special teams standout at Ohio State, was drafted to play a crucial role on the Patriots’ kickoff and punt teams, but he must become healthy enough to practice in order to earn a spot on a team with many talented special teams players including Matt Slater, Julian Edelman and Tracy White.
- Slater and strong safety James Ihedigbo wore red jerseys in Thursday’s practice, indicating that opposing players are not to make contact with them. This indicates that both players are recovering from injuries, as the red jerseys are usually reserved for quarterbacks only.
- Ihedigbo seemed to have a momentary lapse at one point during practice, forgetting not only that he was wearing the non-contact jersey, but also that it was not a full-contact practice. Ihedigbo leveled Ridley with a hard hit during a drill. Ihedigbo helped Ridley to his feet, and both players were no worse for the wear, but Ihedigbo will not be helping his chances of making the team’s final roster by forgetting to abide by contact restrictions in training camp.
- Wearing the red jersey did not stop Slater from having an impressive first day of camp. Slater, who only has one reception in his NFL career but is typically impressive as a receiver in preseason action, looked very good on the receiving end in practice, including a leaping downfield grab in the middle of the field with two defensive backs closely at his back.
- Safety Sergio Brown, who started three games with the Patriots last season, worked with the third-team defense on Thursday. While many injuries to Patriots safeties last season forced Brown into starting duty, he was not very impressive when he was in the lineup. Chances are good that Brown will no longer be in the Patriots’ plans when the preseason comes to a close.
- The Patriots have brought kicker Chris Koepplin back to the training camp for the second consecutive year. Koepplin handled all kickoffs on Thursday. Koepplin is no competition for Stephen Gostkowski’s job as the Patriots’ placekicker, but he continues to get an opportunity to chase his NFL dream for a second consecutive preseason by landing in Foxborough once again.
- Alex Silvestro, a second-year player who was a defensive end at Rutgers, has made the transition to playing tight end this offseason and worked entirely on offense on Thursday, wearing the white jersey along with the rest of the offensive players.
- Silvestro does not fit the athletic prototype for an NFL tight end, and his hands are a work in progress, but he has good size for the position and showed potential on Thursday. Silvestro looked solid running routes, and for the most part, he was consistent catching the football, although he needs to work on catching the ball away from his body rather than letting it into his chest.
Dan will likely be heading back to Patriots training camp practices on multiple occasions over the next two weeks. When he does, come back to Bleacher Report for more observations!
Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.