Early Observations from Patriots Training Camp
In poetry and literature, spring and summer are often stand-ins for grand themes like rebirth and renewal. Football inverts this paradigm—it fizzles out just before the buds bloom and the snow melts, slumbering through the long summer like a seasonally-challenged grizzly bear. Now, with the summer entering its last full month, our favorite sport finally stirs, and with it comes the hope of a new season.
As for the New England Patriots during the summer slumber of football? Let's just say their dreams were of the nightmarish variety.
Pats fans couldn't be happier for the start of training camp after all that transpired since their conference dethroning at the hands of the eventual champion Ravens. After all, it's finally time to focus on football and the players on the field.
Let's take a look at some early performances in training camp, from friends old and new.
Zach Sudfeld Looks Like a Keeper
Does this guy have a nickname yet? Anyone got anything better than "Suds"? It's easy, sure, but it rolls off the tongue nicely, and it saves us three precious characters on Twitter.
Speaking of "easy", Suds' road to the NFL has been anything but. The Nevada product has an injury history that would make any insurance company cringe (six surgeries in six years).
That goes a long way towards explaining why the Pats were able to pick up Sudfeld off the undrafted free agent heap. After all, the guy has the measurables to make scouts bleary-eyed.
He's 6'7", 260 pounds, with good acceleration of his breaks and smooth hands. He can work as an in-line blocker and a red zone threat, and feast on smaller defensive backs with his combination of size and strength.
Early returns on Sudfeld have been great, with the obvious caveat that it's early in camp. Here's training camp attendee and fellow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Oliver Thomas' take on Sudfeld's performance:
During my attendance over the first couple days of Patriots camp, it was hard to ignore 6'7", 260-pound 24-year-old lining up at in-line and in the seam. Sudfeld looked swift running downfield; he cut his routes precisely and exhibited sure hands when targeted.
Sudfeld aligned in some two-tight end sets and also set up as a blocker in fieldgoal protection also.
The Pats are depleted at the skill positions including tight end, so now is Sudfeld's chance to prove himself worthy of surviving cutdowns. So far, so good.
Chandler Jones Is a Bigger and Stronger Man Than When We Last Saw Him
Chandler Jones spent the offseason working out with his brother Jon "Bones" Jones in order to prepare for his sophomore year. It's perhaps worth mentioning that Bones is a Mixed Martial Arts fighter and the current UFC Light Heavyweight champion.
I'm not a beat reporter, but here's a little news for you anyway: the MMA is intense.
Younger brother Chandler has reportedly added 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, which addresses the major concern with him as a prospect coming out of college—his need to add weight.
Chandler Jones' performance at camp has been impressive so far. Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com noted him as a standout pass-rusher on the field:
Defensively, DE Chandler Jones looking explosive off edge at times in rush drills.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) July 30, 2013
In addition to making him a better pass-rusher, Jones' added muscle could make him a viable option as a 3-4 and sub-package defensive end for the Pats along the defensive line.
With Jones able to hold his edge and maintain gap responsibility as part of a three-man line, the Pats can free up their menacing linebacking corps to wreak havoc, or utilize Adrian Wilson in a big nickel package.
Jones may be the key to the Patriots' defensive performance this year, and it appears he took it upon himself this offseason to be sure he was up to the challenge.
The Pats Cornerbacks Took Turns Looking Good in Camp
The Patriots passing defense has been a punchline for years. If this year's training camp is any indication, it's the Patriots cornerbacks who will be making wide receivers look like a joke.
Every potential major contributor to the Patriots' CB corps received glowing reviewers for their performance at some point since training camp began.
Here's an article from ESPNBoston's Field Yates commenting on how Aqib Talib, New England's CB, hauled in two interceptions and a pick-six on Monday night. Yates also discusses how Talib has taken it upon himself to lead the group:
With Devin McCourty now firmly planted at safety, Talib is among the most seasoned cornerbacks on the Patriots roster. According to his position coach, Josh Boyer, he's become more of a leader of the group, something that can be witnessed during practice. Given the strides he appears to have made and his understanding of the defense entering his second year as a Patriot, it would be no surprise to see the team lean heavily on Talib again this season.
Here's The Boston Globe's Ben Volin remarking on rookie third-rounder Logan Ryan's performance on Monday (he listed Ryan among his three players with rising stock):
CB Logan Ryan: Rookie third-rounder started off camp slowly but made several nice plays on the ball in one-on-one drills Monday.
Lastly, here's NESN's Doug Kyed on the rest of the CBs, including Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard:
Ras-I Dowling has his best day of camp so far. He was shutting down Michael Jenkins in 1-on-1s. The cornerbacks have all had their time to shine. It was Aqib Talib on Monday, Kyle Arrington Sunday and Alfonzo Dennard Saturday. Dowling has tremendous upside, but he just has to stay healthy and put it all together.
A lot of fans are concerned about the Pats' lack of offensive weapons, but they're overlooking the defense: This may be the deepest and most talented DB corps the Pats have had in a long time.
Kenbrell Thompkins Has Had Himself a Nice Week
Undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins has been the hot story in camp, as underdogs often are.
While NESN's Doug Kyed notes that Danny Amendola has (unsurprisingly) been the best Pats receiver at camp, Kenbrell Thompkins might win the silver medal if the WR depth chart were an Olympic competition.
Thompkins has shown those all-elusive separation skills at the NFL level. He has the speed to burn DBs deep, the footwork to make his breaks on tough routes, and—perhaps most importantly—the ability to avoid press coverage. Here's Nick Underhill of MassLive's review of Thompkins:
Thompkins very well could end up being the best receiver on the roster not named Amendola. Second-round pick Aaron Dobson has had his moments, but Thompkins...has been just as good and maybe even more consistent. He’s received a considerable amount of first-team reps, lining up on the outside, where he’s flashed good hands and an ability to get deep. When discussing the rookie receiver, cornerback Aqib Talib commended Thompkins’ ability to get off jams at the line. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t if its speed, quickness, strength. Either you got it or you don’t.”
Thompkins dropped a number of catchable balls in training camp, so he still has work to do. Still, his separation skills are impressive, and his potential as a perimeter receiver and a playmaker off-screen makes him a candidate to make it through cutdowns.