August is hot in a savage way, but the excitement of training camp and preseason provides a refreshing reminder that the seasons will soon change.
This is when the initial seeds are planted, with roster spots being won and lost under the burning sun. This is when the competition gets brutal. Players get physical, and emotions run high. Everything speeds up.
It's also the first chance for fans to sit back and "see what they've got," so to speak. In that sense, things slow down. That fast-slow dichotomy is what makes August such a beautiful month for lovers of the game.
Here's a "stock up, stock down" look at some notable New England Patriots through training camp.
Chandler Jones is carrying an extra 10 pounds of "good weight" at training camp, and he's looking more powerful and more dazzling than ever.
Andy Hart, analyst for Patriots Football Weekly (PFW) on Patriots.com, offered firsthand observations from July 26:
Jones may have had the athletic play of the day with an interception of a [Tim] Tebow screen pass in the final segment. The quarterback tried to loft the ball over the defensive end, but the 270-pound athlete faded back toward the line of scrimmage and dove to pick off the pass. Jones showed good bursts at other points in practice as he put pressure on the quarterback.
ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss offered this cumulative overview on Aug. 1:
Watching [Jones] in 1-on-1 drills over the last three practices, he's looked explosive at times when matched up against starting left tackle [Nate] Solder. Jones comes at an offensive tackle with a variety of pass-rush moves, and has a nice combination of speed and power.
This is great news for anyone expecting to see a second-year leap from this prodigy.
Last season, Stevan Ridley seized control as New England's franchise running back, accumulating 1,263 ground yards and a dozen touchdowns on 290 gritty carries.
Trouble is, he also had four fumbles (plus an additional one in the postseason).
Worse yet, those fumbles have resurfaced at camp. On July 28, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss touched on Ridley's woes with these observations:
Ridley fumbled once in a practice-ending goal-line running drill, with defensive lineman Vince Wilfork scooping it up and racing away to wild applause. It marked the second time in the practice that Ridley lost the football (the first time he never seemed to get the handoff clean).
On July 30, fellow ESPN Boston analyst Field Yates made these related observations:
The Patriots did a ball-security drill in which an offensive player carried two footballs across the width of the field with a pair of defenders attempting to dislodge them. Running back Stevan Ridley, who has had fumbling issues in the past, had one ball stripped.
Ridley's issues with ball security are a devastating demon that he needs to slay. If he doesn't, he's liable to lose the team's trust in crucial situations. Plus, self-doubt will creep in. He needs to overcome this.
ESPN Boston named Kenbrell Thompkins one of its top six momentum builders through spring workouts. That's a sweet honor for an undrafted kid facing tough odds against grabbing a roster spot.
But Thompkins doesn't appear to be slowing down one bit.
On July 28, ESPN Boston's Field Yates observed:
Good day of work from Thompkins. He continues to show an ability to get open on the perimeter and release off the line of scrimmage...he hasn't seemed overwhelmed by the opportunity to take first-team reps in the early going.
On July 30, Yates observed further progress:
Thompkins was arguably the best player on the field Tuesday, making several noteworthy grabs and showing precise route running. Thompkins both stretched the field vertically and impressed with his underneath route running. His ability to set up defenders in press coverage with nimble footwork at the line of scrimmage continues to stand out.
On Aug. 1, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss made this telling summation:
[Thompkins] has been a revelation to this point, mostly lining up on the outside. He had the play of the day Thursday, splitting three defenders to haul in a long Tom Brady pass over the middle. If the first six practices of camp are any indication, he should be there on the final 53-man roster, possibly even finding a way into the team's three-receiver set.
It's unbelievable to witness the surgical manner in which Thompkins is carving his role on this team. It's just a beautiful thing to watch.
There's a reason for the fascination around Tim Tebow. It's not only a question of figuring out where he fits with the Patriots, but also a question of where he fits in this league and in this sport.
Answers have been tough to come by, as early reviews out of camp have been mixed.
PFW's Andy Hart pulled no punches with his firsthand observations on July 26:
Aside from his special teams work, Tebow had a terrible day throwing the football. He threw an interception that hit [safety] Nate Ebner between the ol' 4 and the 3. He had a number of other potential interceptions that were dropped. He had slow reads and had to pull the ball down to run on other occasions. He also had one ball toward the flat that wobbled so terribly it didn't make it halfway to the intended receiver.
Conversely, ESPN Boston's Field Yates made these observations on July 30:
Tebow had his best day of work in training camp, showing steady improvement from recent performances. He showed good arm strength and accuracy on throws down the field, and looks to be more decisive with each live rep. In addition, the team walked through some read option work early in practice, something Tebow's movement skills can be used in.
In another round of contrasting reviews, PFW's Paul Perillo offered these observations on August 1:
Tebow again was a bit erratic throwing the football but he did have more positive moments on Thursday that he’s had in most of the practices. Once again under the watchful eye of Brian Daboll, Tebow delivered some strong throws in traffic, hitting Brandon Ford down the seam for a big play and later finding Quentin Sims in the corner of the end zone on a deep ball. He also had his share of misfires and continues to scramble recklessly before throwing at times, especially at the end of practice during the "opportunity reps."
One minute, Tebow's stock is up, the next, it's down. This much is true: If Tebow wants a place on this team, he can't wait for someone to show him where the place is. He needs to find it himself and take it.
Ryan Mallett is one of the more mysterious players on the roster. He lives in the shadow of a legend and really hasn't had an opportunity to cut his teeth in any meaningful way during the regular season. What he is (and what he isn't) remains mostly hypothetical.
Within this mystery, his powerful arm has become his defining attribute. The problem is, lingering questions about his accuracy have also come to partially define him. With regard to his accuracy, PFW's Andy Hart made these observations on July 26:
Mallett didn't have the best of days. He seemed to throw a lot of balls either on the back shoulder of his targets or all together behind them. This accuracy and timing is the biggest factor that will decide whether he can develop into a competitive NFL passer. Entering his third season, it's still very much in question.
Mallett's arm strength is really something to watch. He connected on a deep ball in the drills with receiver Perez Ashford, and later had a nice hookup with receiver Michael Jenkins. Mallett also had a standout performance in early 7-on-7s, going 5-for-5 in a passing drill and capping it off with a deep ball for Josh Boyce that was bobbled by defensive back Tavon Wilson but picked up by Boyce.
Ryan's improved every year. This is his third season and we’ve seen a lot of progress from him in this spring and thus far in training camp as well. It looks like he’s very focused, ready to go, his throwing mechanics and techniques are good. His accuracy is good. He reads defenses and coverages.
True, none of this proves that Mallett is the future of this franchise, but it does prove that he belongs right where he is. For now, that's enough to keep his stock up.
Rookie Josh Boyce spent all spring rehabbing a foot injury, so it's perfectly understandable that he'd ease slowly into training camp. The trouble is, time's a factor and early reviews have been mixed.
On July 27, PFW's Andy Hart made these encouraging observations about Boyce:
Boyce hit his stride down the hash before breaking to the left pylon. Safety Tavon Wilson dropped perfectly to defend the deep ball, but actually failed to come up with the interception, instead deflecting it into Boyce's hands for the big play. While it wasn't exactly how it was drawn up, it did display the rookie's potential down the field.
While those observations painted a picture of Boyce headed in the right direction, some later observations have pointed to setbacks. On August 1, fellow PFW analyst Paul Perillo offered these firsthand observations:
Boyce is certainly fast, and at times he's shown some shake and ability to get himself open. What he hasn't done consistently is catch the football. He often seems to fight the ball even when he makes the catch, and too often he hasn't been able to hold onto it at all. Drops happen to everyone but so far in camp they've happened to Boyce too often, and on Thursday he had another during an early drill.
Boyce's "stock down" status isn't a reflection on his talent. This kid's potential is astronomical (check out his college highlight reel for proof). The trouble here is a collective concern at the receiver position. With Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson and Mark Harrison in varying stages of rehab, this receiving unit is only putting off its growing pains to the regular season. That's bad news.
Someone needs to step forward and claim ownership of this unit. Not later, but now. Boyce can be that guy. The opportunity is there. He needs to take charge.
Marcus Benard is an interesting player to watch. Back in 2010, he notched 7.5 sacks for the Browns. Since then, he's been juggling some injuries, but he's only 28 years old and seems poised for something of a rebirth.
On July 29, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss offered this quick observation during pass-rush drills: "[Benard] uses his quickness to the inside and OT Will Svitek doesn't get his hands on him as Benard races by."
On July 30, Reiss offered additional observations: "[Benard] could have the quickest first step among the backup DEs, which was seen as he used his speed to race around G Markus Zusevics in a flash."
On August 1, Reiss selected Benard as a "standout performer" in one-on-one drills with these observations:
One rush stands out; [Benard] lines up over the outside shoulder of guard Chris McDonald (3 technique), which is different for a 6-foot-2, 260-pound end, and proves too quick at the snap as he surges through using a swim move.
In addition, Benard's first rep while aligned on a wide split at defensive end features high-impact contact with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, as Vollmer gets his hands on Benard but Benard attempts to spin free to the inside. A real good matchup, with Benard's explosion and Vollmer's power meeting head on.
Benard continues to get after it, later beating Kevin Haslam, and also looping around fellow end Jason Vega in 2-on-2 combination work to apply some pressure.
Glad to see Benard making some noise at training camp. Love the raw energy here.
Jermaine Cunningham had a rocky season in 2012. There were some good parts, including a tremendous fumble recovery to ice a dramatic victory over Peyton Manning's Broncos. He also co-authored a nifty strip sack on Mark Sanchez to ice another dramatic victory over the Jets last October.
However, his season was marred by a four-game suspension in December for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. It really derailed any momentum he had.
Fans will certainly be looking for Cunningham to bounce back and claim a roster spot with newfound vim and vigor. But, that hasn't really happened yet. On July 29, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss made these observations at practice:
[G Tyronne Green] holds his ground against DEs Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis on interior rushes. [Later,] DE Jermaine Cunningham [is] penalized for encroachment.
On July 30, Reiss scrutinized pass-rushing drills and revealed another incidental observation regarding Cunningham at practice:
One time, [Chandler] Jones knocked [Nate] Solder out of his stance. But Solder held his ground on another rep, and also limited Jermaine Cunningham.
Fellow ESPN Boston analyst Field Yates delivered this observation on August 1:
Cunningham did not finish practice, and observers say that he was getting his knee looked at by team medical personnel. We'll continue to monitor his status in the coming days.
Not the best way for Cunningham to squirm off the bubble.
Aqib Talib made his debut for the Patriots in Week 11 of the 2012 season. In that game, he announced his arrival in epic fashion by intercepting Andrew Luck and returning the pick for a touchdown.
Now, in Talib's first full offseason with the Patriots, fans are hoping he can storm into 2013 with another grand entrance.
On July 29, ESPN Boston's Field Yates noted Talib's impact:
Talib was probably the best defensive back on the field tonight, as he recorded two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown (thrown by Tom Brady, intended for Kenbrell Thompkins along the right sideline). Talib's ability to muscle up in competitive catch situations has led to a handful of breakups thus far in camp.
On August 1, PFW's Paul Perillo made this observation:
Talib continues to impress with his ability to lock up different kinds of receivers. We knew he could be competitive against bigger, outside wideouts like Andre Johnson but watching him stick with the likes of Danny Amendola has been surprising.
On two occasions during one-on-one drills on Thursday Talib blanketed the shifty slot man and got the better of things, forcing incompletions each time. Following the second rep Amendola expressed some frustration – loudly.
Talib is really helping to shape this secondary. This guy is a leader. Look for him to spearhead a true renaissance in New England's defensive backfield this season.