Another week of OTAs for the New England Patriots has passed, with news and notes from on and off the field.
In a recurring theme of this offseason, Patriots fans got more bad injury news on Rob Gronkowski.
But on the field, it wasn't all bad. A number of players are elevating their games, looking bigger and improved.
Let's take a look at eight new things we've learned about the Pats.
With Devin McCourty still sidelined by shoulder surgery, there was question as to who would be starting in his place. Veterans Adrian Wilson and Steve Gregory opened OTAs, while Tavon Wilson and Marquice Cole comprised the second grouping.
Cole is a cornerback, but with McCourty and rookie Duron Harmon out, he's been moved to safety.
Cole was thrust into action in the AFC Championship and was the victim of multiple Anquan Bolden receptions.
It makes sense to have the veterans out there, but either could be surpassed by Tavon Wilson once training camp opens. The real battle will be between the Wilsons, as Gregory is likely to step back once McCourty returns.
This should be one of the best positional battles in training camp, with Devin McCourty and Adrian Wilson likely winning the starting jobs.
Multiple reports from OTAs note that Ras-I Dowling has been a standout with the second team, paired with Alfonzo Dennard.
All of the Patriots secondary has drawn some praise so far, with multiple pass breakups for all of them, but Dowling has caught the eyes of those watching.
Dowling had major hip surgery in 2011 and looked stiff in 2012, but according to Mike Reiss, a lot of that stiffness appears gone.
The Patriots took Dowling with the 33rd pick in the 2011 draft because they saw a long corner in the similar mold of Richard Sherman. If Dowling can stay healthy, he make for a daunting bookend with Aqib Talib.
Both are big, physical corners who can play press. In today's NFL, they're the kind of corners you need most.
Let's see him make it out of training camp healthy before we get too excited.
For the first time since 2007, the Patriots return their entire secondary from the previous season and outside of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, every player who played significant snaps.
For a defense that relies on communication as much as Bill Belichick's does, you can't put a price on familiarity. Calls are relayed faster, everyone knows his assignment, and there is far less chance of miscommunication.
Jerod Mayo sees the value in it as well: "“Any time you look at a good defense throughout the year, you always had a core group of guys that had been together for a long time. Hopefully we can get that here.”
The Patriots core on defense is just starting to come together. The rebuild began in 2008 with the selection of Jerod Mayo and went into full effect in 2009 when the last vestiges from the dynasty defense, such as Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour, were jettisoned.
The 2012 defense was the fourth youngest in the NFL.
Entering 2013 the Patriots have a collection of in-house players entering their primes at all levels of their defense. The stats have been undeniable the last few seasons. The Patriots defense hasn't been one to be feared since 2009, and even that one gave up an opening play 83-yard touchdown to Ray Rice in the playoffs.
This is the season the defense might have to start winning games and not just not losing them.
The Patriots have a logjam at defensive end, and one player who was under-the-radar last season was Jake Bequette. Bequette, a third-round pick out of Arkansas, has been working hard with Rob Ninkovich.
Bequette's strength coming out of college was as a pass-rusher. He played primarily from the "wide 9" defensive end position, where he used his explosiveness to get after the quarterback off the edge. Bequette has great size and quickness at 6'4" and 260 pounds, but you can't beat an NFL offensive lineman with speed every time.
It requires an arsenal of moves and a creative approach to set the offensive linemen up for the unexpected when pressure is needed most at critical points in the game. Understanding concepts like that is just what could help Bequette blossom in his sophomore campaign.
If he does, he just might make Ninkovich expendable next offseason.
Brandon Spikes has been MIA at OTAs, but he was tracked down this week working out at Bommarito Performance in Florida. Owner Pete Bommarito marveled at Spikes' unique ability to the Boston Herald:
He moves well. He has all the instincts you're looking for. It's just very rare that a guy who has that type of size and can have that type of combination of speed and power. I'm not talking about 40-yard dash speed. I'm just talking about his movement in space of what his position as a linebacker requires. It's very, very unique. Sometimes, our staff just looks at each other and shakes our head in terms of his ability to produce that much speed. It's very, very unique.
There's no question, Spikes is a force in the middle of the Patriots defense. To prove he's a three-down linebacker in this contract year, Spikes doesn't need to suddenly become the fleetest linebacker on the field.
He just needs to recognize play action more quickly and improve on the decisiveness and area of his pass drops.
Spikes had seven passes defensed in 2012—he's not the total liability in coverage that some would make him out to be. But the writing is on the wall for him, and when he arrives for minicamp, all eyes will be on him.
Will he immediately slide into his starting spot? Or will Dane Fletcher be there a little longer?
There's no question the Patriots need to be better against the pass, and that's why Spikes can expect some competition.
The Patriots are in near total turnover at the wide receiver position, with Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins currently running with the starters.
Aaron Dobson has flashed at times but has also had his share of drops. He might have more athleticism than Jenkins, but he isn't being handed the starting job and will have to win it.
Overall, it's a work in progress for the offense, which has been nowhere near as crisp as it has been in previous seasons.
Greg A. Bedard of SI.com noted that Brady is understanding of the process:
You can tell Brady knows the score and is being extremely patient. In past years, all the incompletions would have really ticked him off— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) May 29, 2013
Things are off to a slow start, as to be expected.
Nothing stood out from the WRs except a couple nice downfield catches. Everyone, including Amendola, is feeling their way. That will change.— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) May 29, 2013
Bill Belichick has returned to his favored teaching defense, the 3-4, in OTAs.
In 2011, with the lockout shortened offseason, Belichick shifted to a 4-3 base defense because it was easier to install than the 3-4. He stayed with the 4-3 in 2012, though he kept elements of the 3-4—namely with Rob Ninkovich shifting a sometimes-standing defensive end.
Now that Belichick has gone back to his bread and butter, does that mean the Patriots will return to the 3-4 as their primary early-down, run-stopping defense?
There's a chance, but it's doubtful that Chandler Jones is going to spend as much time two-gaping as Richard Seymour did last decade.
Ultimately it comes back to the versatility of the defense. There are a number of athletes who can play in space, of different shapes, sizes and strengths. It gives Belichick the ability to shift each around the field, to take away whatever the offense does best.
Whether three or four players have their hands in the dirt doesn't make much difference.
Rob Gronkowski will need another surgery this offseason, his fifth since November and second overall on his back.
“It’s not a serious back surgery,” Rosenhaus told WQAM 560-AM in South Florida. “This is a new injury, and it’s minor, it’s not as significant. … I don’t think it’s a big deal, I think it’s more preventative maintenance than anything else. It’s something that, although he needs it, he’s had it for awhile and he’s been able to function.”
It's hard to ever call back surgery "minor", especially when it's a second time, but they are trying to take advantage of the time while Gronkowski's forearm heals from its fourth surgery to get the back cleaned up.
In a perfect world, Gronk will be back and free of lingering problems by early November. The Pats will need him most for the stretch run, and if they can finally have him healthy for their last playoff game, they just might win it.