Having attended the first two days of New England Patriots training camp practice on Thursday and Friday, I returned to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on Tuesday afternoon to pick up more observations of the team as camp progresses.
Tuesday’s practice was the first full-contact practice I have attended this season, which created many new opportunities to evaluate players. Surprisingly, even though full-contact drills are much more important evaluation tools for running backs, offensive linemen and defensive front seven players, many of my observations still came with wide receivers and defensive backs, as there were some very good one-on-one passing drills to watch on Tuesday.
Aaron Hernandez: Standout of the Day
Rob Gronkowski emerged as the NFL’s best tight end last season, but the Patriots truly have two stars at the tight end position. On Tuesday, it was their second star tight end, Aaron Hernandez, who was the day’s greatest standout.
Hernandez is a dynamic, versatile offensive player, and he is very effective as a receiver because of his tremendous route-running skill. This skill shone through on Tuesday, as he did a tremendous job of getting consistently open in drills and making plays.
During an early drill where tight ends were going up against safeties, Hernandez drew a big reaction from the crowd with an ankle-breaking cut that gave Josh Barrett no chance of tackling Hernandez as he strolled into the end zone. For most of practice, however, Hernandez had no need to make moves on defenders, for he was already wide open when he caught a pass.
Whenever the Patriots use a two-tight end set this year, any double teams that go the way of Gronkowski will leave defenses very vulnerable to the impact Hernandez can make.
First-Round Rookies Making Big Strides
On Friday, I noted that this year’s first-round draft picks, defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, were both lining up primarily with the second-team defense. By Tuesday, their roles had increased significantly.
Jones and Hightower did not only both line up with the first-team defense, but also stood out with their play.
Jones started on the first-team defense in team drills across from Trevor Scott, replacing Rob Ninkovich, who had been on the first team Friday. In this practice, Jones’ explosive burst off the line of scrimmage really stood out.
Jones often lines up in a stand-up position rather than with his hand in the dirt, but he is a great athlete who moves around well for a defensive end. Jones effectively brought pressure as a pass-rusher on Tuesday.
After being dominated when he had gone up against starting left tackle Nate Solder on Thursday and Friday, he gave Solder a much tougher challenge in this practice. On one play during a one-on-one pass-rushing drill, Jones beat his opponent with a very fluid spin move.
Jones also appears to be improving quickly against the run. During a goal-line drill, Jones did a good job of getting in position to combine with outside linebacker Jerod Mayo to make a very good gang-tackle.
As for Hightower, the Patriots made sure to give him a great deal of reps, giving him some time with the first-, second- and even third-team defenses. As was the case on Friday, Hightower split repetitions at outside linebacker with veteran Bobby Carpenter, but on Tuesday, Hightower started first and played more than Carpenter.
Hightower has made it clear early on that he could be a huge difference-maker for the Patriots’ defensive front seven. He is a big, hard-hitting linebacker who looks very solid against the run, but also did a good job of running pass-rush blitzes into the backfield on Tuesday.
Jones and Hightower are both developing as young players, but considering how quickly they have come along in their first five training camp practices, the future looks very bright for both players. Both players look like future stars for the Patriots, and could start making a huge impact in their rookie season if they continue to progress quickly.
Another interesting note in the defensive front seven came with starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who made his return to full-speed drills on Tuesday. Still recovering from a knee injury, Spikes received limited repetitions in the 11-on-11 drills, with Fletcher continuing to start with the first team, but he looked like his usual self when he was on the field, especially as a hard-hitting run-stopper.
Undrafted Free Agent Running Back Emerging
In 2008, the New England Patriots signed Mississippi running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis as an undrafted free agent, and he became a crucial member of the Patriots’ backfield for the next four years. In 2012, with Green-Ellis now a member of the Bengals, the Patriots signed another Ole Miss running back, Brandon Bolden, as an undrafted free agent, and he appears primed to follow in Green-Ellis’ footsteps.
While Green-Ellis was a tough, powerful between-the-tackles back, Bolden is a quick, shifty back who prefers to run outside the tackles. Bolden, however, has very quick feet, and his ability to make defenders miss with his cuts make him a dangerous runner.
Bolden looked very smooth in his cuts on Tuesday and could be the most elusive runner that the Patriots have in camp. He received significant reps in Tuesday’s practice, and actually started on the second-team offense ahead of second-year back Shane Vereen in the 11-on-11 drills late in practice.
The Patriots’ two second-year running backs, Stevan Ridley and Vereen, have stepped up well in the three practices I have seen. Ridley is an explosive back with a tough combination of size, speed and power, and he looks primed to become the team’s feature back, while Vereen looks ready to have a breakout year as a speed back and receiver out of the backfield.
Bolden, however, could also end up being an important part of the Patriots’ mix at running back. It would not be a surprise to see Bolden move ahead of Danny Woodhead on the team’s depth chart, and challenge Vereen to be the No. 2 back behind Ridley. He was not highly regarded as a draft prospect, but he appears to be finding his niche with the Patriots.
Another undrafted free agent who started to make his mark on Tuesday was tight end Tyler Urban. Recently-signed Visanthe Shiancoe did not practice on Tuesday, which enabled Urban to fill in as the team’s third tight end.
Urban has very good size for a tight end, and he showed his ability as both a blocker and receiver.
In a one-on-one blocking drill, Urban had one of the day’s highlights when he completely stuffed Trevor Scott, making the potential starter at defensive end look very bad in the process. Urban also looked good catching passes, including one tough catch in double coverage during the 11-on-11 portion of practice.
In the first two days of practice, converted defensive end Alex Silvestro showed promise at tight end, but he really struggled on Tuesday, as he appears to lack the speed and route-running ability to get open. Silvestro is looking like even more of a long shot to make the Patriots’ roster, but although still unlikely to make final cuts, Urban is beginning to make a case for himself.
Three Cornerbacks Shine, One Struggles
One of the best drills of the entire day to watch was an end zone passing drill, which featured quarterbacks Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer throwing passes while the Patriots’ wide receivers and cornerbacks matched up in one-on-one coverage. After a tough start on the first two days of practice, the cornerbacks looked much better on Tuesday.
Kyle Arrington was the Patriots’ most steady and consistent cornerback last season, and also tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions. Arrington remains solidly in line to start again this season, but it appears that he will kick inside as the slot cornerback in nickel packages, with Ras-I Dowling and Sterling Moore coming into the game to play outside opposite Devin McCourty.
Arrington had a very good day playing slot corner, as he did very well matching up with the team’s star slot receiver, Wes Welker. Welker usually has little trouble getting open against any cornerback, but Arrington did a very good job of playing with physicality and mirroring Welker to make it frustrating for him in his efforts to get open.
As for McCourty, he is trying to bounce back from an entirely bad sophomore season last year. Tuesday was a strong day for McCourty. McCourty knocked away a number of passes and did not get beat badly on any plays. Last season, his signature fault was allowing opposing receivers to blow by him, as he got beat as often as any starting cornerback in the NFL.
McCourty also received a repetition as kickoff returner, something he did not do during the first practice on Thursday.
Moore, who was the hero of the AFC Championship Game by knocking what likely would have been the game-winning touchdown reception out of Lee Evans’ hands, also had a strong practice on Tuesday.
Moore did a very good job of locking onto opposing receivers and using his body to get in good position while not being afraid to make contact to keep receivers away from the ball. During a downfield passing drill late in practice, Moore did a great job of establishing inside position against Jabar Gaffney in coverage, then intercepted the pass thrown by quarterback Ryan Mallett.
Dowling could be the Patriots’ most talented cover corner, but a tackling problem was exposed on Tuesday. He consistently struggled with making tackles, as he seemed reluctant to throw his body into his opponents and was faked out too easily. Dowling does a good job in man-to-man coverage, but a lack of physicality and poor tackling are issues he must overcome.
On the receiving end, one player who made significant strides from Friday was Donte Stallworth. Stallworth dropped a number of passes on Friday, but on Tuesday, he caught the ball very cleanly, and looked very smooth running routes and making plays downfield.
Stallworth is making a good case for a roster spot, but with Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Gaffney and Julian Edelman all looking to have safe roster spots, the final wide receiver spot will likely come between Stallworth and Deion Branch.
Jermaine Cunningham, Ross Ventrone Make Cases For Roster Spots
Since being a second-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, defensive end Jermaine Cunningham’s career has been very much a disappointment. Last season, Cunningham was rarely active at all, which put his chances of making the final 53-man roster this season in serious jeopardy.
Cunningham, however, appears to be making strides in this year’s training camp and had an impressive day Tuesday.
Working on the second- and third-team defenses, Cunningham displayed explosiveness as an edge pass-rusher, and was consistently able to beat the backup offensive tackles to bring pressure. Additionally, Cunningham looked the best of any of the defensive ends at dropping back to make plays against the run and in coverage.
If Cunningham continues to perform as well as he did on Tuesday, he should earn a spot in the Patriots’ defensive end rotation along with Jones, Scott and Ninkovich. This level of performance, however, must show through in the team’s preseason games, where he is likely to receive a considerable number of repetitions.
While Cunningham had a hard time earning a role among the 46 active players each week last year, safety Ross Ventrone was lucky just to stay on the 53-man roster each week, as he was consistently released, added back to the practice squad and re-signed throughout the season.
Ventrone is an undersized safety who will likely never been used in much more than a special teams role, but he made his case for why the Patriots continue to bring him back on Tuesday.
While he is small, Ventrone showed no reluctance in using his body in physical pass coverage, while he also displayed effective hips and instincts. Ventrone came up with an interception of a tipped pass during 7-on-7 drills, and later in practice, he hit Edelman hard enough to knock a pass out of his hands.
Ventrone remains on the outside looking in when it comes to the final 53-man roster, but with a lack of depth at safety behind Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson, he definitely has a shot.
Another New Offensive Line Group
Two of the Patriots’ starting offensive linemen, left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, have yet to practice while remaining on the Physically Unable to Perform list with injuries, while right guard Brian Waters has not reported to training camp. That has left the Patriots experimenting with a variety of lineups on the offense’s front five, and they did so again on Tuesday.
In all three practices I have been to, there have been three constants on the offensive line: left tackle Nate Solder and center Dan Koppen, both who are expected to start, and right tackle Marcus Cannon, who is filling in for Vollmer. At guard, however, the Patriots have made changes in each practice.
On Tuesday, Donald Thomas worked with the first team at left guard, while Dan Connolly, who has worked at both left and right guard in training camp, started on the right side. Ryan Wendell, who started at left guard on Thursday, worked as the second-team center, while Robert Gallery, who started at right guard on Friday, stayed in that position on the backup line.
The Patriots are certainly juggling with uncertainty at the guard position, as there is a significant chance that Mankins will not be fully recovered from a torn ACL in time for the season and that Waters may not return at all.
Two things have become clear, however. If either Mankins or Waters is not in the starting lineup on Week 1, expect Connolly to start in either’s place, with Koppen starting at center. Meanwhile, Cannon is being the groomed as the backup right tackle, ready to fill in if either offensive tackle is injured, as Vollmer could move to left tackle in the event of a Solder injury.
Inaccuracy Continues to Plague Ryan Mallett
Little clarity has been shed yet in the battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot, as Mallett and Hoyer have continued to split repetitions working with the second team. Mallett has received the majority of work with the second team, but if he is going to win the job, he must improve upon his accuracy, which has continued to be a problem for him in training camp.
Mallett was very shaky passing the ball Tuesday, which was especially noticeable during a one-on-one downfield passing drill late in practice. He lacks downfield touch and has a tendency to overthrow or underthrow his receivers. A lack of precision on his throws gave defensive backs the opportunity to make plays on his throws, and as a result, many throws during the drill were intercepted or batted down.
The Patriots seem to be leaning toward Mallett, a younger quarterback with a cannon arm and three remaining seasons on his contract, ahead of Hoyer, who is entering the final year of his contract and could be put on the trade block. Mallett, however, has not shown steady development in his passing accuracy from last preseason, which is a cause for concern if Mallett were to be called upon to play should an injury occur to Brady at any time.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.