25 Things We've Learned About the Patriots Through Preseason Week 2

James DiMaioCorrespondent IAugust 23, 2012

25 Things We've Learned About the Patriots Through Preseason Week 2

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    Between an emerging youthful defense led by the tenacious pass rush of Chandler Jones and a shaky offensive line lowlighted by a struggling Marcus Cannon, we've already learned a lot about the New England Patriots through Week 2 of the preseason.

    While making big-picture conclusions about teams based on their preseason performances is an ill-advised affair, we can certainly gain some insight through these games.

    How do the rookies look? How are certain players developing? Who is on the roster bubble? Are free agent signings living up to their hype?

    These are just a handful of questions that have already begun to be answered.

    Here's a look at 25 things we've learned about the Patriots so far this preseason.

1. Chandler Jones Is a Starter

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    Those who thought Chandler Jones needed a season or two to develop have been quickly silenced.

    Between completely manhandling Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod against the Saints and warranting the attention of both a left tackle and a tight end in limited action against the Eagles this Monday, Jones has without a doubt emerged as the starting right defensive end in New England's defense.

2. Steve Gregory Looks Good at Free Safety

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    Steve Gregory wasn't talked about much when the Pats signed him early in free agency. However, the six-year veteran looks like a solid addition to the secondary.

    Gregory has been having a strong camp and looks like a natural complement to the hard-hitting Patrick Chung.

    Playing primarily at free safety, Gregory's coverage abilities are light years ahead of those who played the position a season ago.

3. Kyle Arrington Is Holding off Ras-I Dowling

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    Despite leading the league in interceptions in 2011, many expected Kyle Arrington to be quickly surpassed by second-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling for the starting gig alongside Devin McCourty.

    However, evidenced by Arrington starting at right cornerback in New England's preseason opener against the Saints and the fact that he was on the field for 100 percent of the team's defensive snaps compared to Dowling's 25 percent (h/t Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston), Arrington looks like he has a firm grip on the starting spot for now.

4. Front Seven Looks Faster and More Versatile

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    First-round draft choices Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower join a front seven that already boasts names like Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes.

    With run-stuffers, pass-rushers, and guys who can cover, this group looks like a versatile bunch that can successfully defend both the run and the pass.

    The sky is the limit for this promising crew.

5. Brandon Lloyd Is as Good as Advertised

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    Despite only reeling in one catch (that was ultimately called back due to a holding penalty) in his preseason debut, Brandon Lloyd has had an impressive training camp, grabbing passes left and right.

    He looks the part of a true deep-threat receiver.

    While not a top-tier speedster, Lloyd showcased throughout camp his ability to run precise routes in the deeper half of the field and manipulate his body to make tough catches in traffic.

    Defenses will have no choice but to respect Lloyd's outside presence come the regular season.

6. Bill Belichick Doesn’t Like the Preseason Schedule

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    Bill Belichick doesn't say much about anything, but he wasn't shy to give his opinion about his team playing three preseason games in just nine days (per Paul Flannery, WEEI.com):

    It's not an ideal schedule and it's certainly not the way you want to do it. But it is what it is. We'll just deal with it the best we can. It's a lot of games. It's like playing double-headers...The big thing is go out and play and give the players a chance to recover so they can go and play again and give them a chance to recover so they can play again. Playing that many games in that short of time is obviously not the ideal way to do it.

    In a league that preaches player safety, three games in nine days doesn't sit well with me either.

7. Nate Solder Isn’t Matt Light…Yet

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    We've seen Matt Light's replacement at left tackle, Nate Solder, struggle so far this preseason. However, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia reminds us that all young tackles struggle, including Matt Light (per Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston):

    "I think all young tackles struggle on plays and protections in this league,” Scarnecchia said. "Did you think [Light] had any problems with it to start with? Well, hell ya. They all [have] problems. It was as painful as it could ever be [with Light]. Just like anything, he got better and became a really good player."

    It's still very early in the process, so while Solder hasn't looked like a four-time Pro Bowler just yet, there's no reason to hit the panic button.

8. Marcus Cannon Doesn’t Look Good

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    Marcus Cannon hasn't looked good at right tackle in preseason action. He seems to get over powered often and struggles mightily against edge rushers with any sort of speed.

    With the recent report that Sebastian Vollmer is back on the practice field (h/t Mike Reiss of  ESPNBoston), Patriot Nation can feel a lot better about the situation at right tackle.

    Cannon looks like he needs a season or two to develop before taking on a starting role.

9. Ryan Mallet Is Still Developing

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    After a lackluster performance against the Saints (8/19, 89 yards, 1 INT), second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett showed some signs of improvement against the Eagles on Monday Night Football, completing 10-of-20 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown (stats courtesy ESPN.com).

    However, Mallett still obviously struggles with his accuracy and tends to hold on to the ball for too long.

    For those hoping Mallett would explode onto the scene this preseason, looks like you'll have to wait for next year.

10. Ras-I Dowling Is Staying Healthy

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    After missing most of his senior year at Virginia and then being sidelined with an injury for most of his rookie campaign with the Patriots, many labeled Ras-I Dowling as injury prone.

    However, after having surgery this offseason to correct his nagging hip injury (as reported by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston), the former No. 33 overall draft choice has been a full participant throughout training camp.

    So far, so good.

11. Brian Waters’ Future Murkier Than Ever

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    With the regular-season opener less than three weeks away, Brian Waters has yet to practice with the Patriots despite being under contract for the 2012 season.

    Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston points out that Dan Connolly may be taking over at right guard, writing:

    Dan Connolly, who stepped in at center last year with Koppen sustained an injured foot in the season-opener, has been working exclusively at right guard. Some might view that as a sign that veteran Brian Waters isn't coming back.

    Waters would be a big boost to an offensive line that has struggled early, but as it stands today, Waters' future with the club is as murky as ever.

12. Dan Koppen Not Having a Good Camp

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    Dan Koppen may find himself on the outside looking in come the regular season, as he's had a pretty poor camp.

    Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston sees Koppen as a player on roster bubble, writing:

    At this point in camp, it appears that the team is more comfortable starting Ryan Wendell or Dan Connolly at center than it is giving Koppen his old job back....The seats in the offensive line's meetings are filling up, meaning that Koppen needs to make a move to keep his locker in Gillette Stadium past Aug. 31.

    The coaching staff may lean in favor of Wendell, who unlike Koppen, also has experience playing guard.

13. Running Back Corps Has More Big-Play Potential

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    Though the sure-handed BenJarvus Green-Ellis decided to bring his ball-carrying talents to Cincinnati this offseason, the replacements have looked like an upgrade so far.

    While we all appreciated Green-Ellis' ridiculously reliable ball security (no fumbles in his NFL or college career!) and hard running, he rarely ever broke a tackle for a lengthy run.

    Between Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden's power and burst, and Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead's shiftiness and speed, the running back group looks a lot more explosive than it did in 2011.

    Throw in the recent addition of Olympic medal-winning sprinter Jeff Demps and his world-class speed, and New England could have the best running back corps it's ever had.

14. Rob Gronkowski’s Ankle Doesn't Look Like a Problem

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    After suffering an ankle injury in the AFC Championship game against the Ravens that would ultimately make the Patriots offense less than lethal in Super Bowl XLVI, many wondered if Rob Gronkowski could return to his Pro Bowl form.

    Goods news: Gronk's ankle is fine and he's still running over safeties and linebackers with ease.

15. Aaron Hernandez Is Primed to Have a Stellar Season

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    Aaron Hernandez may be the most gifted athlete in New England's offense and is having a monster camp.

    Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe has high expectations for the third-year tight end in 2012, writing:

    Aaron Hernandez is primed for a breakout season. When he does interviews, it seems like Hernandez gets more questions about fellow 2010 draftee Rob Gronkowski and his zany adventures than he does about himself, but that may change after this year. Provided he can stay healthy, Hernandez will likely show the league his full spectrum of talents. We’ve seen him lined up in several different spots, including the backfield, and Brady has looked to him often in camp. Tight end, receiver, running back, punt returner . . . with the ball in his hands, Hernandez is dangerous.

    Maybe Hernandez can steal the title of "second-best tight end in the NFL" from Jimmy Graham in 2012.

16. Wes Welker Is Still Wes Welker

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    While most of the attention has been on wide receiver Brandon Lloyd's offensive prowess, Wes Welker has quietly been having a fantastic camp.

    Welker has looked like the same old Welker on the practice fields, seemingly impossible to cover at times.

17. Logan Mankins Is Ahead of Schedule

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    Those who were worried that Logan Mankins would miss regular-season time while recovering from ACL surgery can rest easy knowing that the four-time Pro Bowler came off the Physically Unable to Perform List early last week (as reported by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston).

    Though we've yet to see Mankins in preseason action, it's nice to know that we'll likely see the meanest left guard in the NFL playing in Week 1 of the regular season.

18. Andre Carter Is Unlikely to Re-Sign

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    With the recent report that Andre Carter worked out for the Raiders this Tuesday and also has a scheduled visit with the Rams (per Christopher Price of WEEI.com), the chances of him reuniting with the Patriots look slim.

    With both Chandler Jones and Jermaine Cunningham having strong camps, it seems the Patriots will opt to stay young at the defensive end position in 2012.

19. A Fullback Is Unlikely to Make the Roster

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    With five running backs (Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead, Jeff Demps) likely to make the the 53-man roster, the thought that New England's offense would feature a pure fullback is quickly dwindling.

    With Tony Fiammetta out for the 2012 season (as reported by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston) and Spencer Larsen missing substantial time throughout training camp, it's hard to envision a scenario in which the Patriots use a roster spot for a fullback.

20. The Screen Pass Is Back

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    A constant we saw from Week 1 of the preseason to Week 2 was the deployment of the screen pass.

    With Josh McDaniels back in the fold, we all expected to see this resurgence, and so far it looks like we were right.

21. Jabar Gaffney Isn’t a Lock

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    Jabar Gaffney was considered a lock by most (including myself), but he's had a quiet camp and hasn't been able to practice since suffering a leg injury last week (h/t Greg Bedard of CBSSports.com).

    With Deion Branch having a strong showing against the Eagles and Donte Stallworth still possessing first-rate speed, Gaffney is far from a roster lock at this point.

22. Tavon Wilson Is Worthy of Second-Round Pick

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    No one had heard of the guy.

    When the Patriots selected Tavon Wilson in the second round of the draft, fans and draft analysts alike were puzzled to say the least, but the young defensive back seems to becoming along nicely.

    Back in the beginning of August, Andy Hart of Patriots Football Weekly shared his thoughts on the rookie safety, writing:

    Wilson continues to have a solid rookie training camp as a surprise second-round pick. He’s getting more reps by the day and doesn’t seem to be having any trouble keeping up with the defensive schemes and coverages that have been thrown his way. I haven’t seen him make a lot of plays, but I haven’t seen him give up too many either.

    The Illinois Illini put together a solid training camp and looked good in limited action in the preseason opener (he was held out of the game against the Eagles). So far, there is no reason to think he isn't worthy of the No. 48 overall draft pick.

23. Rob Ninkovich Is Making Full-Time Switch to Defense End

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    With the strong-side linebacker position now being manned by rookie first-rounder Dont'a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich—who assumed the position in 2011—looks like he's permanently moved to defensive end, as he's been lining up exclusively at left defensive end at practices and started there in the preseason showdown with the Saints.

    This shouldn't be a difficult move for the veteran, as he played with his hand in the dirt throughout his entire collegiate career at Purdue.

24. Brian Hoyer Is Still Tom Brady’s Backup

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    Though he hasn't done much this preseason, Brian Hoyer still looks like he has a firm hold as Tom Brady's top backup.

    While Ryan Mallett looks like he's improving, Hoyer is still a much more accurate passer and overall seems to have a better command of the offense.

    This is Hoyer's fourth preseason with the Patriots, so it's no surprise that he's holding off Mallett, who is still assimilating into the offense in just his second season with the team.

25. The Patriots Have a Long Way to Go

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    Between the defense showing early signs of improvement and the offense boasting the potential to rival the explosiveness of the 2007 squad, the 2012 Patriots are a promising group to say the least.

    While the pieces of the a puzzle are certainly present, the puzzle has yet to be put together.

    There's still a long way to go until the Patriots can finally hoist the Lombardi Trophy again.