FOXBOROUGH, MA. — Wrapping up some final observations from Saturday's practice, the team's first in full pads.
Jermaine Cunningham Jumps Off the Page
Cunningham enters the 2012 season under a watchful eye, but on Saturday, he was playing with a purpose. He consistently put pressure on the quarterback in 11-on-11 drills, displaying a good mix of speed and power in his pass rush. He did show some inconsistent effort against the run but seemed to flip a switch whenever the offense was in a passing formation.
He hasn't lived up to the billing as a second-round pick in his first two years in the NFL. He logged just one sack while playing in 15 games with 11 starts in 2010, and he missed a total of seven games in 2011 with a groin injury and a hamstring injury which eventually resulted in the defensive end being put on injured reserve.
Head coach Bill Belichick spoke glowingly of the effort Cunningham has shown in the offseason. According to CSNNE.com, Belichick said Cunningham has had a "great offseason" and added that Cunningham "really worked hard. He looks good."
Given that the offseason has so far consisted of voluntary weightlifting and OTAs, I asked Belichick where improvement can be seen.
"A player's physical improvement, overall mental grasp of what we're doing and what we can see on the field which is non-contact but reactions and technique," Belichick explained.
The Patriots are trying to find a way to replace the 10 sacks left behind by defensive end Mark Anderson and a potential 10 more sacks being left behind by Andre Carter who has still yet to sign a contract or show up to training camp. Cunningham could figure into those plans if his improvement continues.
Chandler Jones Makes His Mark
The inconsistency that Cunningham showed against the run wasn't to be found with Jones. He had some battles with left tackle Nate Solder, a treat to watch with two athletically gifted youngsters. As such, there was some give and take between the two, with each winning their share of battles. But when Jones won, boy did he dominate.
He displayed a good combination of strength and athleticism by driving the blocker backwards into the quarterback's lap and by getting around the edge. By my count, he was in the backfield on three consecutive plays in 11-on-11 drills.
Jones was also spotted dropping into coverage at least twice and looked fluid in his movements in space. That will be an aspect in his game that bears watching as he eventually learns to play the Elephant position in the 3-4 front.
Shane Vereen Yet to Impress
The Patriots have an open competition at running back, with a lot of players acquired in various ways. With the Patriots having used a second-round selection in the 2011 NFL draft on running back Shane Vereen, his price tag is the highest. As of yet, though, his stock seems to be among the lowest of the backs at camp.
When asked by Bryan Fontaine of Pro Football Focus to observe Vereen on Saturday, it seemed like a good enough idea at the time. In my Vereen notes, however, I found my attention turned to Brandon Bolden. An undrafted rookie standing out above a second-round pick from just over a year ago isn't a promising sign.
It hasn't been all bad for Vereen, though; the second-year back had a nice catch on a wheel route on Friday afternoon. Today's performance, however, wasn't one for the ages. He did a variety of things on Saturday, taking handoffs and catching a few passes in 7-on-7 drills, but he fumbled on a goal-line drill toward the end of practice and had a hard time spotting holes all afternoon.
Of course, the latter of those two issues could have been due to...
Defensive Line a Strong Unit, Coming Together
Most of the running backs had a hard time finding holes. Tom Brady had pressure in his face more than a few times on Saturday afternoon.
Cunningham and Jones have already been the object of praise, but the front seven as a whole was impressive on Saturday.
This makes you wonder about the struggles of the offensive line. As I pointed out yesterday, the Patriots are working with what is largely a turned-over unit from last year at this time.
The return of Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer and (possibly) Brian Waters should help the line a bit, but the struggles of the backup offensive linemen against the first-team defense is cause for concern should injury befall any of the starting OL.
After the way the Super Bowl played out, it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that tight end Rob Gronkowski is the second-most important player on the Patriots offense.
So when he left the field on Saturday afternoon, there was understandable concern from the 12,000-plus fans on hand at Gillette Stadium.
But suddenly, with no activity on the field, the fans began cheering. Loudly. My view was obstructed from the tent, but just from the fan's cheers, I knew what was up. Gronkowski was making his return, jogging back onto the field.
On Friday, Belichick repeatedly intimated that Gronkowski isn't receiving any special treatment following his ankle injury, but he'll have to excuse the fans if they show him some extra love.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand.