New England Patriots: What to Watch for at OTAs

Mike Dussault@PatsPropagandaSenior Analyst IMay 20, 2013

New England Patriots: What to Watch for at OTAs

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    The Patriots will take to the field numerous times over the next few weeks, with organized team activities scheduled for May 20-21, May 23, May 28-30, June 3-4 and June 6-7, and the team’s lone mandatory minicamp will take place June 11-13.

    While reporters are only given limited access, and the practices are not in pads nor is any hitting allowed, there are still some things we can learn based on who is out there, where they're lining up and what they have to say.

    Here's what to keep an eye out for as we get an early sense of the 2013 Patriots in the coming days and weeks.

Injury Progress

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    The very first thing that must be taken into consideration is that many of the starters will likely not be healthy enough to participate. The Patriots' offseason has been a nonstop parade of injury updates.

    First, there's Rob Gronkowski, who's now dealing with his fourth arm surgery and potential back surgery. He will not be out there until training camp at the earliest, and even then, he could likely be on the PUP list.

    His fellow tight end, Aaron Hernandez, had shoulder surgery this offseason, and though it was considered minor, he's also likely to be unavailable for OTAs and minicamp.

    Devin McCourty had a shoulder surgery of his own, but his availability is uncertain. Rookie Josh Boyce is likely to be watching as he recovers from toe surgery.

    There's also a collection of players coming off injuries from last season such as Dane Fletcher (ACL), Jake Ballard (ACL), Ras-I Dowling (thigh) and Julian Edelman (foot).

    Edelman experienced a setback recently and will likely be a nonparticipant as well.

    Overall, the Patriots have a number of injuries that will likely give a lot of backup players an opportunity who should help shape the bottom of the depth chart.

Starting Wide Receivers

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    With the Patriots in full turnover at the wide receiver position, with the exception of the still-injured Julian Edelman, there's no doubt Tom Brady will be throwing to some new players this year, and OTAs will be the first glimpse of it.

    Prized free agent Danny Amendola is a lock as a starter, but who he'll be paired with remains in question. While many are penciling in rookie Aaron Dobson to start with Amendola, right now it's a good bet that we'll see Michael Jenkins out there first. 

    Dobson might well be the Week 1 starter, but at this point, he's still a rookie who has no idea what he's doing. The Patriots know they'll hang on to Dobson, but Jenkins' future is far less certain.

    Jenkins has to shine immediately—this might be his only shot.

    Expect rookie T.J. Moe and free agent Donald Jones to get plenty of reps too. The competition between them starts now as well, with both looking to get an early jump on Edelman.

    No training camp battle is more wide open than at wide receiver, and OTAs will be the first impression of how the mix of veterans and rookies might all shake out.

Starting Safeties

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    If the receiver position will be the most interesting battle to watch on the offensive side of the ball, on the defensive side, it's all about the safeties.

    It's possible Devin McCourty could miss OTAs while still recovering from shoulder surgery, and he's the only sure thing at safety. If McCourty is out, we'll see who's second and third on the depth chart.

    That leaves us with Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Steve Gregory and rookie Duron Harmon. The Patriots want Tavon Wilson to win a starting spot, but Adrian Wilson's experience and talent certainly give him an edge.

    Gregory was up and down in 2012, and with a $2.183 million cap hit this season, he'll need to play up that salary to stay with the team.

    Duron Harmon was the shocking third-round pick whom no one saw coming, and he will make the team. But what did head coach Bill Belichick see in him? We'll get a better sense once he's on the field.

    In total, the safety position features five pretty good players, and one of them will definitely get cut. 

Defensive Scheme Change?

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    In 2012, OTAs revealed Rob Ninkovich was moving back to defensive end after spending three seasons with the Pats as a linebacker. Ninkovich still played some linebacker, but the evolution in the Pats defensive scheme was clear in June.

    Will the Pats tweak their defense again? It would certainly make sense.

    The only starter on defense who isn't returning is Kyle Love. The player who surpassed him at the end of the season, Brandon Deaderick, isn't returning either. Both were bigger, run-stopping players.

    Could the Pats be moving toward a better pass-rushing defensive tackle?

    The likely starting replacement is veteran Tommy Kelly, who has the versatility to play anywhere on the defensive line. Kelly is built more like a player the Pats traditionally use as a defensive end, but he gives them a number of options to mix and match their defensive front.

    Kelly is another attempt to pair Wilfork with a complementary big body. Albert Haynesworth was 2011's attempt. If Kelly can be better against the pass on early downs than Love or Deaderick, the Patriots will have improved their defense significantly.

    Armond Armstead is an intriguing player—given his quickness—who could be utilized from a number of positions as well, but he will likely best fit as a situational rusher in nickel-and-dime packages—the role Jermaine Cunningham held for most of 2012.

    It's unlikely the Patriots are headed back to the 3-4 defense of the last decade, as the hybrid 4-3 is here to stay, but whatever tweaks they have made to their base defense—schematic or personnel-wise—will be apparent in June.

Rookies Fitting In?

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    For the rookies, the OTAs and minicamp are a time to learn, so it's unlikely Bill Belichick will throw any of them immediately in with the starters. If any of them do get time with the first teams, it's an excellent sign. Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower and Rob Gronkowski are a few players who were able to jump in and immediately contribute.

    Given the Pats return 19 of 22 starters, there's no need to throw any of the rookies to the wolves right away.

    But when they are on the field it will be interesting to see where they're playing. Nobody is quite sure how they're going to use Jamie Collins. 

    Is Logan Ryan restricted to the slot? Can Steve Beauharnais run and cover? How does Michael Buchanan get off on the snap?

    There are plenty of things to focus on with the rookies, but most of all, are they doing their job? Or, are they getting yanked off the field and yelled at?

Change in Linebacker Roles?

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    Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower make up one of the brightest young linebacker trios in the NFL, but with the way they were exploited in pass coverage last season, it's possible there will be some tweaks to this rotation.

    The first area to look at? Who will take on the nickel coverage linebacker duties next to Mayo? Spikes and Hightower rotated at it last year, but now with Dane Fletcher back and Jamie Collins and Steve Beauharnais added, the Pats could have some other options to consider.

    The key to it all is Spikes, an intimidating presence in the middle of the field and a devastating run-stopper. Spikes is entering a contract year, and there's a big difference in pay between a three-down linebacker and a run-stopper specialist.

    Tedy Bruschi proved veteran players can get by on their savvy, even without elite speed. Spikes must do the same, or the Patriots will have to consider using Hightower, Fletcher, Collins or Beauharnais at middle linebacker against pass-happy teams.

Does the 2-Tight End Blitzkrieg Return?

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    With the Patriots likely missing both starting tight ends and two new starting wide receivers, it's unlikely we'll see the same no-huddle tempo offense that was such a well-oiled machine in 2012.

    Perhaps the bigger question is—given the circumstances and complete lack of continuity with the offensive weapons outside of those in the backfield—will Belichick and Josh McDaniels simplify or pull back on the offense at all?

    Clearly they won't be able to do the same things they did with Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Hernandez and Gronkowski when the latter two are healthy. Now the OTA offense is likely to consist of Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins.

    Eventually the Pats might be able to get back to their no-huddling ways, but for now, in OTAs, they'll have to keep it simple and start building from scratch.

Brady to Amendola

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    If there's one thing every Patriots fan wants to see coming out of OTAs, it's a brewing football bromance between Danny Amendola and Tom Brady. 

    There's no question Amendola is dynamic and explosive, but being in the spots Brady wants him to be in is another matter. Do they have that unspoken chemistry Brady has had with only a handful of receivers?

    Amendola has the biggest shoes to fill of anyone on the roster, and making a positive first impression with the coaching staff and Brady would be a big step for him.

    The Patriots need Amendola to be the player they think he can be.

    If he's not, they could be in trouble.