The New England Patriots started their 2012 training camp on Thursday in front of a record-breaking crowd of more than 12,000 people. At their second practice of the season on Friday, they had an even larger crowd of 13,654 spectators in attendance—a single-session record for Patriots training camp, according to ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss.
For the second straight day, I was at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., for Friday’s practice, and with a new day came new observations of the Patriots’ preseason preparations. After focusing mostly on the offense on Thursday, I paid more attention to the defense on Friday, but came away with observations from the offense and special teams as well.
A Look at the First-Team Defense
The Patriots lined up primarily in a 4-3 defensive scheme during 11-on-11 drills in Friday’s practice, and used a combination of returning veterans and newcomers in their starting lineup.
The starting defensive line featured Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love as defensive tackles, with Rob Ninkovich and free-agent addition Trevor Scott as defensive ends. Wilfork, Love and Ninkovich all started games for the Patriots last season, while Scott is expected to play a significant role for the Patriots in 2012.
The three starting linebackers were Jerod Mayo, Dane Fletcher and another free-agent addition, Bobby Carpenter. Mayo will be one of the three starters during the regular-season, but Fletcher and Carpenter may not be. Veteran linebacker Brandon Spikes was limited in the first two practices while recovering from injury, while rookie Dont’a Hightower is still being brought up to speed.
Filling in as a starter, Carpenter may have had the play of Friday’s practice. Quarterback Tom Brady made a rare mistake, throwing into triple coverage, and Carpenter took advantage with a leaping interception.
The Patriots have three returning starters in the secondary, and all three of them worked with the first-team. Cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, along with strong safety Patrick Chung, were joined by free-agent acquisition Steve Gregory, who received the majority of first-team repetitions at free safety.
Where the Rookies Will Fit in on Defense
The Patriots drafted four defensive players in the first three rounds of the 2012 NFL draft. Judging from Friday’s practice, it appears that the Patriots have plans for all four to play a significant role in their rookie seasons.
The two first-round picks, defensive end Chandler Jones and Hightower, worked primarily with the second-team defense on Friday.
Both players’ roles should expand as training camp continues.
Jones has not received much work with the first-team, but he may be used primarily as a situational pass-rusher as a rookie. Hightower split repetitions with Carpenter, and chances are good that he will take a starting spot at outside linebacker away from Carpenter by the end of the preseason.
Free safety Tavon Wilson was considered a reach as a second-round draft pick, but the Patriots clearly see value in him. Wilson appears to be the team’s third safety on the depth chart, as he split repetitions with Chung and Gregory on the first-team defense on Friday.
Third-round pick and defensive end Jake Bequette also got his share of repetitions with the first-team defense on Friday. His role for the 2012 season is quite unclear as of now, but it certainly appears that the Patriots plan to factor him into a key role as quickly as possible.
Another rookie, seventh-round selection and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, had a strong start to practice. The highlight of his day came on a pass deflection about 25-30 yards downfield, a play on which he stayed right with wide receiver Jabar Gaffney in coverage down the sideline.
Unfortunately for Dennard, he left practice early due to an injury. According to ESPNBoston, Dennard appeared to injure his right hamstring. Dennard could factor in as the Patriots’ fourth or fifth cornerback this season, but his health is an important factor.
The Patriots’ sixth-round selection, Nate Ebner, who is listed as a defensive back but is likely to only play on special teams, did not participate in Friday’s practice.
Will the Secondary Be Better This Season?
The Patriots’ biggest weakness last season was their secondary, which was known for giving up big plays while being inconsistent with both pass coverage and tackling. As a result, only one team in the NFL gave up more passing yards per game than the Patriots’ defense last season.
At cornerback, the Patriots are relying on improvement from returning veterans.
Last year’s starters, McCourty and Arrington, lined up as the starters on Friday. Second-year player Ras-I Dowling, who only played in two games in an injury-shortened rookie season, worked as the team’s third cornerback. In three-cornerback defensive packages, Arrington kicked inside as the slot corner, while Dowling lined up outside.
Another cornerback, Sterling Moore, was the hero of last year’s AFC Championship Game, breaking up what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to wide receiver Lee Evans. However, it appears that his heroic status does not have in line to play an increased role on the Patriots this season, as he worked solely with the second-team defense on Friday, and appears slated to be the team’s fourth cornerback.
The fifth cornerback spot appears likely to come between Dennard and veteran free-agent signing Will Allen. Allen did have a nice pass breakup in 7-on-7 during Friday’s practice, but worked primarily with the second- and third-team defenses.
The Patriots made an effort to improve at the safety position, letting go of disappointing starting free-safety Brandon Meriweather, and replacing him with Gregory and Wilson.
Through two days of training camp, however, the secondary looks like its old, shaky self. While it is a good sign that new wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Gaffney have been making big plays, the Patriots’ offense has also been exposing the secondary early.
The good news for the Patriots’ secondary is that training camp has just begun, and with young, developing talents like Dowling and Wilson anxious to play an increased role, there is significant room and opportunity for improvement to occur in just the next couple of weeks alone.
Focus Shifts From Kickoffs to Punts
The Patriots allocated their special teams portion of Thursday’s practice to focus on kickoffs, but on Friday, the Patriots made punting the focus of this part of practice.
Punter Zoltan Mesko handled all of the punting on Friday, but more notable was seeing which players worked as punt returners, and as gunners on the punt coverage team.
Three wide receivers—Julian Edelman, Wes Welker and Deion Branchù—split punt-returning duties over the course of the practice. Additionally, tight end Aaron Hernandez received two opportunities to field punts.
Edelman, who was the team’s main punt returner last season, should be the clear favorite to retain that duty in 2012. Welker also returned eight punts last season, and is an effective punt returner, but is less likely to be used in that role given his importance to the offense as a receiver.
Branch and Hernandez did a good job fielding punts on Friday, but it is unlikely that either will do so during the regular season. Branch lacks the speed and quickness to be an effective punt returner, while Hernandez did not line up as a punt returner regularly during the practice.
Five different Patriots took turns as gunners on the punt coverage team on Friday. Those players were wide receiver Matthew Slater, cornerbacks Malcolm Williams and Marquice Cole and safeties Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown.
Slater clearly stood out as the best of the five punt gunners, but that is the main reason why he was named as an All-Pro special teams player last season. Slater is not only the best punt coverage player on the Patriots, but quite possibly the best in the entire NFL.
Mallett, Hoyer In Battle To Be Backup Quarterback
A second day of practice did not provide much clarity as to who will be the second-string quarterback behind Tom Brady next season.
Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer are both receiving repetitions as the quarterback of the second-team offense. Although Hoyer started out with the second-team, Mallett ended up taking the majority of repetitions with that offense. It is clear, however, that the two are currently in a battle to be the next man up should Brady be unable to play at any point.
The Patriots seem to be slightly leaning toward Mallett, who is entering his second season and is a young player with big potential and an even bigger arm. Hoyer could also end up on the trade block. However, this appears to be shaping up to an interesting battle to watch throughout training camp.
Different Offensive Line Grouping on Day 2
The Patriots changed things up on the offensive line Friday, using a different starting five than they did on Thursday. Nate Solder remained at left tackle, Dan Koppen started again at center, and Marcus Cannon continued to fill in for injured starter Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle.
The Patriots made changes, however, at guard. Dan Connolly, who worked as the first-team right guard on Thursday, shifted to left guard on Friday. Ryan Wendell, who was Thursday’s left guard, was moved back to the second-team offense, while free-agent addition Robert Gallery started at right guard.
The Patriots are certainly hoping that starting guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters will be back for the start of the season. If either is not, it appears likely that Koppen will start at center, while Connolly will be the next man up at guard.
Drops for Donte
Donte Stallworth’s return to the Patriots got off to a solid start on Thursday, but Friday was a disappointing day for him. Drops plagued Stallworth during his second practice, and if those continue to be a part of his game during training camp and the preseason, he may not survive final cuts.
In one quick-passing drill, Stallworth dropped two consecutive passes on a quick in route, which was a very disturbing sign for him. Later, Stallworth dropped another pass from Brady in a passing drill without defenders on the field.
Friday’s practice may not be significant cause for alarm with Stallworth, but he should certainly be monitored as training camp continues, for he will be of little value to the Patriots if drops continue to be a problem for him.
As for a more positive outlook on receivers, two players who did shine in that capacity on Friday were Edelman and running back Shane Vereen.
Edelman had the best catch of the day, a play on which he had to turn toward a pass thrown by Ryan Mallett about 35 yards downfield, then reached over safety Ross Ventrone to make the catch. Vereen also showed his ability as a receiver out of the backfield, looking very natural making a catch away from his body after running a fluid wheel route well about 25 yards down the right side of the field.
Thanks for reading!
This article is a follow-up to Dan’s observations from Thursday’s practice. Click the link to read the first report.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.