New England Patriots: The 7 Biggest Storylines Through 2 Weeks of Training Camp
With the first preseason game slated for Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints, now may be a good time to assess the biggest storylines and key developments that have come out of the Patriots camp through its first two weeks.
Of course these notes should not serve as an exact indication of how things will play out for the rest of the 2012 season—especially with the fickle and impossible to predict Bill Belichick at the helm—but training camp still allows for fans to catch at least a glimpse of what lies ahead for their favorite ballclub.
So for all my Pats fans out there, here's a brief overview of the seven biggest storylines from the team thus far in order to help get you geared up for the preseason opener.
Brandon Lloyd Is Living Up to Expectations, and Then Some
Brandon Lloyd is a guy that most casual Pats fans may not know about yet, but by season's end, he will undoubtedly be a household name.
Lloyd signed with the Patriots this offseason on an extremely modest three-year, $12 million contract, and after the very impressive showing that he has put on in camp this year, this deal could end up being an absolute steal for the team.
No really though, I mean straight up highway robbery.
The 31-year-old wide receiver has had a pretty solid career so far, totaling 311 receptions and 4,784 receiving yards in nine seasons—including a league-leading 1,448 receiving yards in 2009 with Denver. Yet, Lloyd has been unfairly criticized as inconsistent at times, and he only has two seasons in which he has been able to total over 70 catches.
I say "unfairly criticized" here because much of this inconsistency has to do with the fact that he has played with a variety of different quarterbacks throughout his career and was simply not used properly by some of the teams that he has played on.
Lloyd is one of the most lethal weapons in the vertical passing game that you can find throughout the league, and this was a big reason why the Patriots signed him this offseason after the team struggled mightily in that department last year.
So far in camp, Lloyd has been receiving rave reviews for his highlight-reel catches as well as his uncanny ability to always be in the right spot at the right time. The receiver has been so impressive that even Tom Brady couldn't help but gush over his new teammate when given the chance (via Boston Globe).
Now that he is reunited with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels—the man who served as his head coach during his stellar 2009 campaign—and will be receiving passes from one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever step onto the field, Lloyd could put up some scary numbers in 2012.
All indications point to some incredible things coming from Brandon Lloyd this year.
Top Two Rookies Continue to Impress
The team's top two draft choices from last April's draft, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, are off to a very impressive start.
After being taken with the No. 21 and No. 25 overall selections, respectively, Jones and Hightower are being called upon to play a big role in fixing a defense that ranked 31st in the league in 2011.
At first, many expected that these two players—particularly the raw but superbly talented Jones—would need a bit of seasoning before they were ready to contribute. But, from what has been reported out of camp thus far, these two seem primed to contribute right away.
Jones is an extremely gifted athlete with long arms and great athleticism that will help him get around blockers on the edge. At 6'5" and 265 pounds, he could be a matchup nightmare for opposing offenses. In fact, during joint practices with the New Orleans Saints this week, Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod was so impressed by Jones that he was quoted as saying:
"He looks like a [Jason] Pierre-Paul type, the way he comes off the ball. He has long arms, he's a tall guy and he has good speed. If you let him get into your chest, he has power enough to bull you.
I really can't comment on him too much because I'm not here grinding with him every day, but just today's battle and seeing him out here, I think he's going to have a promising future."
That is a pretty lofty comparison, and it's coming from a guy that knows a thing or two about opposing puss rushers.
Hightower—regarded as the more NFL-ready of the two—has also put on quite a show so far. At 6'4" and 270 pounds, he possesses similar size to Jones, but will be called upon to play a different role in the defense.
Although he has solid pass rush skills and is versatile enough to play any of the linebacker positions, he has seen most of his time in the middle, especially with the absence of Brandon Spikes throughout the last few sessions. His raw power and extremely high football IQ make him the ideal fit for this type of role.
While most teams consider themselves lucky to have just one first-round pick work out for them each season, the Patriots seem to have been fortunate enough to land two of them in 2011.
Still No Sign of Brian Waters
There has still been no sign of Brian Waters through the first two weeks of training camp.
This was to be expected after Waters was excused from camp by Belichick a few weeks ago, but as a Patriots fan, it is extremely frustrating to still have absolutely no new information regarding the perennial Pro Bowler's current situation.
Is he going to play this year, or have we seen the last of Brian Waters?
Truthfully, there has been no indication given as to when we will know the answer, and it honestly seems as though one would have an easier time getting information out of Guantanamo Bay than from the Patriots coaching staff or front office.
But, such has always been "the Patriot Way."
Many believe that the 35-year-old is simply biding his time until the regular season actually starts in order to preserve his body that has been beaten up quite a bit throughout the last 12 seasons. This is actually a not-so-uncommon tactic used by many NFL veterans, especially those—like Waters—who have earned this right after producing such stellar careers.
Still, the team better hope Waters—who was such a force at right guard for the team last season—returns this year to help an offensive line that has already been decimated by injuries.
Offensive Line Still in Flux
Regardless of the whole Brian Waters situation, the offensive line is still in a state of disarray.
The team's best offensive lineman, All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins, is still out as he recovers from offseason ACL surgery, and there has been no timetable set for his return. He has been seen at camp, but only on the sidelines either observing or working out on the stationary bike.
Furthermore, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has also been out with an injury, except this one may be a bit more severe than Mankins'. That is because Vollmer received offseason back surgery—the second back procedure that he's received within the last six years—and this once "minor" concern may actually be a bit more serious than initially thought. There is also no timetable set for his return.
So, as it stands right now, the Patriots are unsure if three of their starting offensive linemen from last year will be able to start the regular season—or perhaps even play at all in 2012, in the case of Waters and Vollmer.
Fortunately, there have been a few guys who have stepped up so far in camp that have provided the team with a little bit of security if the aforementioned starters are unable to go. For example, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNboston.com, fourth-year player Ryan Wendell has really impressed so far and has even taken a significant amount of reps with the first team in recent sessions. Others, like Marcus Cannon and Nick McDonald, have had their ups and downs, but have shown nice flashes at times.
Still, there are too many questions surrounding this unit at this point for anyone to feel comfortable about who gets to protect No. 12 this season.
Gronk and Hernandez Continue to Dominate
The greatest pair of tight ends in the history of the NFL have continued to wow fans and coaches alike with their dominant performances this July.
This should obviously come as no surprise to anyone after the monstrous numbers both players posted last season, but it's worth noting that they have looked truly exceptional throughout the first two weeks of camp.
Yet what makes this so newsworthy are the ways in which both guys have continued to be so successful playing the same position on a team already loaded with so many other receiving options.
According to reports, both players have been simply unstoppable in joint practices with the Saints so far this week, and Saints safety Roman Harper could barely contain himself when lauding the two—along with his own teammate and another superstar tight end, Jimmy Graham—in an interview on Tuesday.
It will be interesting to see how both Gronkowski and Hernandez continue to develop alongside each other as they both progress in their young careers, and time will only tell if the Patriots will be able to keep two studs at the same position for the long term.
But, the main thing to take away here is that both players have looked amazing so far this summer, and the Patriots offense looks ready to produce another incredible year.
The Reemergence of Bobby Carpenter
It's always nice to hear about feel-good stories coming out of NFL training camps, and Bobby Carpenter seems to be the protagonist in this year's version for the Patriots.
After being selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft, Carpenter has simply not been able to live up to expectations and has never really been able to cement his status in the NFL.
His best season came in 2009 with the Cowboys, when he tallied 46 tackles and two sacks while playing in all 16 games, but only starting in two. He spent the next three seasons playing for the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions, respectively, but things were not looking so good for the 29-year-old heading into this offseason.
Fortunately for Carpenter, Belichick was willing to take a flier on the former Ohio State standout, and things look to be working out well for both sides so far in camp. In fact, he has been so impressive this offseason that he was one of 10 players selected for the team's annual offseason awards.
Originally thought of as a long-shot to make the opening day roster, Carpenter has been used in a variety of roles in recent weeks, and could eventually become the top reserve for the team's already extremely strong linebacking corps. With his versatility and willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team, Carpenter could become a key player whenever one of the team's starters needs a rest or suffers an injury.
Nobody should be ready to peg this guy as the next Defensive Player of the Year, but his presence adds depth to a unit that so sorely lacked reserve help last season. It's always nice to see a guy resurrect himself when given the chance to do so.
Hats off to Bobby Carpenter, and let's hope he keeps up his strong play.
Ridley Looks Ready to Take over
After being selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Stevan Ridley played extremely well during his limited playing time last season. Although he saw his playing time cut at the end of the year due to fumbling issues, the LSU product was still able to muster up 441 rushing yards on 87 attempts—good for a very solid 5.1 yards per carry average.
With the team choosing not to resign BenJarvus Green-Ellis this offseason, the role of starting running back came down to a battle between Ridley and fellow second-year running back Shane Vereen.
According to most reports, Ridley has outplayed Vereen throughout camp so far and shows no signs of relenting. Unless something unforeseen happens, it seems as though Ridley is right on track to lock up the starting job.
Not only is he running with immense power and showing great field vision, but he's also determined to ensure that his fumbling issues from last season are a thing of the past.
"This year I'm going to go and do the best that I can to keep the ball high and tight," said Ridley. "I know that if I can keep the ball in my hands, I'm going to be on the field. So my work is cut out for me."
Of course Vereen is still expected to be featured quite a lot this season, but right now, the starting job is Ridley's to lose.
The next few weeks will tell if Ridley is truly ready to become the main workhorse for the Pats this upcoming season.