10 Things We Learned from Patriots Training Camp So Far
The New England Patriots are well into their preparations for Friday night's first preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles, but it's been an eventful first 10 days of training camp. Many of the questions that faced the team, after a brutal offseason of departures and bad news, are finally starting to be answered.
Some second-year players look ready to make "the leap," while a couple bubble players have ended up on the sidelines with injuries, and an undrafted rookie has emerged at wide receiver as the biggest surprise of camp.
Here's a closer look at 10 things we learned about the Patriots in the first 10 days of camp.
Zach Sudfeld Might Be the Pats' Best TE in Camp
With Rob Gronkowski on the sidelines and Jake Ballard still not fully recovered from surgery, the door for the starting tight end until Gronk gets back is wide-open. Daniel Fells might be the early favorite, based upon observations reported by Christopher Price of WEEI.com, with Michael Hoomanawanui playing more of an H-back role, but rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld has been coming on.
Unfortunately, Sudfeld has a long history of injuries himself, including six surgeries in college, but if he can make it through camp healthy, he could find himself playing early and often.
Injuries Starting to Mount
While the Patriots have been lucky to avoid the league-wide ACL injury epidemic, the less serious injuries have started to catch up with them.
First came surprise PUP'er Armond Armstead, who was later explained to be recovering from surgery he required for an infection. No one knows for sure what that means, but it puts a player universally expected to be the third rotational defensive tackle on the shelf indefinitely.
Ras-I Dowling and Jermaine Cunningham have missed recent practices. Both players are in make-or-break years, so they'll need to get back on the field as soon as possible. It's not much of a surprise for Dowling, as his injury problems of the last two years look like they're continuing.
Offensively, the Pats are thin at right guard with Dan Connolly still working back from offseason shoulder surgery, and Marcus Cannon and Tyronne Green both out on Saturday, Markus Zusevics, a college tackle, was filling in.
Connolly should be back soon, while Cannon got a serious look at right guard before suffering an injury of his own. Ultimately, both should return so there's no need to panic.
Other Patriots missing from the weekend's scrimmage included Jake Ballard, Tavon Wilson and Michael Jenkins.
Patriots Will Play to Tim Tebow's Strengths
Nowhere else in the NFL is a third quarterback more closely scrutinized, and Tim Tebow has been under the media microscope from his first snap of training camp. While it was generally considered a rough start for Tebow, he's consistently improved and made quicker decisions as camp has progressed.
It's quickly becoming apparent that the Patriots have an entirely new offense that they will run with Tebow, per Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, and this follows their tradition of playing to a player's strengths.
It should be fascinating to see what it looks like in a game, with Greg Bedard of TMMQB.com tipping that it could get interesting.
Jamie Collins Fills a Big Need
One of the great questions after the draft was how the Patriots would employ the freakish athleticism of Jamie Collins. It seems clear now that Collins biggest impact will be in pass coverage, a role he's primarily worked.
While the Patriots have kept their starting linebacker trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower, Collins is the first one on field to sub them, according to Boston.com, usually in place of Spikes. Hightower then slides to the middle, putting Collins on the line at the strong-side position, where he has the athleticism to cover tight ends, running back and slot receivers.
Also sticking out is Collins' ability to jar the football loose, according to Field Yates of ESPN Boston. Whether it's him or Hightower to come off the field in the nickel remains to be seen.
After two straight seasons of struggling to cover the middle of the field, it looks like Collins could be a huge factor in fixing the problem. And who knows what will happen once they unleash some of his explosiveness as a pass-rusher.
Safety Competition Next to McCourty Still Wide-Open
On the defensive side of the ball, the most interesting positional battle was that of who would start next to Devin McCourty.
Steve Gregory, Adrian Wilson and Tavon Wilson all have some potential, but, as Greg Bedard of TMMQB.com put it last week, "none inspire confidence."
Adrian Wilson was taken off the field on passing downs by the Arizona Cardinals last season, and it looks like they might've been right to do so, based upon Bedard's observations. That leaves Gregory, who was inconsistent last year, and Tavon Wilson, who hasn't stood out enough yet for anyone ready to proclaim him a "riser".
The uncertainty even led to rookie Duron Harmon seeing some time next to McCourty with the first defense last week, according to Jeff Howe of BostonHerald.com.
Going forward, this should continue to be one of the most interesting areas to watch, and given that the Patriots had major problems giving up 20-plus passing plays last year, it's a critical one.
Chandler Jones Could Make "The Leap"
Chandler Jones showed great promise early in the 2012 season, only to be derailed by injuries. After starting off with six sacks in his first eight games, he didn't have another the rest of the way and suffered multiple injuries.
But in the first 10 days of camp, it looks like Jones is picking up this season where he started offseason. He looks explosive, while also having added strength to his upper body, per Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald.
There's no question Jones will play a large part in the Patriots' defense this season, and if he ascends, he might just take the other 10 guys with him.
Aqib Talib Is Aiming for a Big Pay Day
When Aqib Talb came to the Pats, there were concerns about him off the field, but so far, he's not only been a model citizen, but a leader.
Talib won one of the Patriots offseason awards and will now get a coveted parking spot at the team facility. Not only did Talib work incredibly hard this offseason, but according to Nick Underhill of MassLive.com, he's also been a stud so far on the field as well, winning the praise of defensive leader Devin McCourty, who told Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald:
He came in every day and worked his butt off, and he deserved that parking spot. I think it speaks volumes for our younger guys to watch him out there practicing hard every play, work out hard, and you see the results. He’s out there making plays because of that.
Talib is on a one-year "prove-it" deal, as outlined by Spotrac, and, so far, it certainly looks like he's proving it.
Marcus Benard Could Have 10 Sacks
The 2012 Patriots lacked the kind of designated pass-rusher whom they had with Mark Anderson in 2011. The Pats always take shots on veteran defensive ends who might've been derailed by injuries and looking for a fresh start.
While last year's project of Trevor Scott never amounted to much, this year's Marcus Benard is showing up. Benard has even taken snaps as an interior rusher. Regardless of where he's playing, he told Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald he's hungry for quarterbacks:
"I start sniffing, I start smelling quarterbacks, my eyes turn red and I’m ready to go."
Danny Amendola Will Have 1,000 Yards If He Stays Healthy
If there was one thing the Patriots needed this preseason, it was for Tom Brady and Danny Amendola to develop some kind of chemistry to help overcome the loss of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and the absence of Rob Gronkowski.
So far, things look good, per Howe.
Not only does Amendola have Welker-like quickness in the slot, he also has a deep-speed Welker never possessed. Whether Amendola can reproduce all of Welker's catches and yards remains to be seen, but through 10 days, he's Brady's best and most reliable target, according to Doug Kyed of NESN.
Three Rookie Receivers Could Make an Impact
On the offensive side of the ball, there's no question where everyone is watching—the wide receiver position. With the departures of Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd, Tom Brady had to find a collection of new targets to throw the ball to.
Given the Patriots' struggles developing receivers for their system, it was no sure thing that any of the 11 pass catchers they brought to camp would click with Brady.
Amazingly, three rookie receivers have all flashed.
It was somewhat expected of Aaron Dobson, as discussed by Eric Frentz of Boston.com and to a lesser extent Josh Boyce, but no one expected undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins to be one lighting it up with Brady, including a 70-yard bomb in one practice, per Matt Pepin of Boston.com.
Thompkins has an amazing story, per Joshua A. Miller of The News Record, and has quickly become this year's undrafted rookie to watch.
Perhaps, the best part is that three rookies have missed just one practice between all of them, with Dobson sitting out once after getting cleated, per Nick Underhill of MassLive.com.
Brady will need plenty of time in the preseason games with these rookies, and there are sure to be growing pains, but things certainly look a lot brighter than they did with all the uncertainty of spring.