Updating Patriots' Key Position Battles Halfway Through Training Camp
The New England Patriots have one preseason game under their belt, and for the first time we've gotten a closer look at what's behind Bill Belichick's curtain and how the various competitions have been playing out in training camp.
The Patriots always try to fuel quality competition at as many roster spots as possible, and as a result, there are still a number of starting jobs on the line less than a month away from the start of the regular season.
Still, the 2013 Pats are coming into clearer focus, and here's a look at how things are playing out across the various positional battles.
Of course, we must start with the most famous third-string quarterback in the NFL, Tim Tebow. After Ryan Mallett sustained a head injury just before the first half ended, Tebow Time came early against the Eagles.
The Patriots' play-calling highlighted Tebow's strengths, and he showed he can move the ball. There's no question he's a player who'd give opposing defenses something to prepare for.
Unfortunately, his passing remains erratic at best, though his mechanics have improved.
While Ryan Mallett should be on full display in the second preseason game against the Buccaneers, Tebow will have to continue to demonstrate his value and move the ball. Mallett missed a wide-open touchdown to Josh Boyce and continues to show inconsistency.
The Patriots aren't afraid to keep just two quarterbacks, but the safe bet might be to keep Tebow around.
If one Patriot made a statement against the Eagles, it was LeGarrette Blount. Blount had two touchdowns, one a 51-yard highlight film scamper, one of the most electric plays of the game.
With the Patriots passing game in transition it might be a good idea to consider keeping five running backs.
Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen both looked great against the Eagles, each chipping in with a touchdown. They seem to have both picked up on what were promising 2012 campaigns, while Leon Washington seems perfectly capable of chipping in and will likely see time in the backfield after not doing so in Seattle last season.
Brandon Bolden has been stalled by injuries and had just 14 yards on four carries against the Eagles. Bolden will need to show something soon or Blount might bump him off the roster. Still, Bolden showed a lot of potential in early 2012 and has the kind of downhill power even Ridley lacks.
There's no question Blount appears to be ahead of Bolden at this point, but a lot can change quickly. Ultimately, the best decision might be to just keep them all of them.
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The Patriots were eaten alive in the middle of the field the last season, and drafting athletic linebacker Jamie Collins was supposed to help the problem. While Collins looked good playing in space against the Eagles, it's clear he'll have a learning curve trying to cover NFL receivers.
Against the Eagles, Brandon Spikes allowed one completion on one pass, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and it went for 19 yards. Based on his role in practices and against the Eagles, it's becoming apparent that Spikes might not see any time in sub-packages this season.
After one preseason game, it seems like it might be Dane Fletcher who could be a potential solution to the linebacker coverage problem. Fletcher had the best coverage grade (1.9) and was the second-best rated Patriots defender, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Fletcher was thrown at four times and only allowed one catch for four yards while chipping in a team-leading four stops.
After one preseason game it appears Fletcher could be an intriguing option to pair with Jerod Mayo, though Dont'a Hightower certainly seems improved and might prove to be a three-down linebacker, reducing Fletcher to a potential specialized role against pass-catching running backs like Ray Rice.
A little specialization in your linebacker corps is okay, and the combination of Collins and Fletcher should help the Pats improve their coverage in the middle of the field.
After one preseason game, it looks like Fletcher might be the first to do so.
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While Devin McCourty remained out of the first preseason game, the safeties were on display against the Eagles. Unfortunately, the pass defense looked a lot like it did before McCourty moved to safety last season.
While Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson both played just 11 snaps each, Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon both saw extensive action, each seeing 79 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Harmon earned the praise of Field Yates of ESPN Boston:
It won’t show up in the game book, but give rookie safety Duron Harmon credit for his pass defense. What was most important, at least from this view, was that Harmon consistently appeared to get to the “honey hole” in Cover 2 defense. That’s the area of the field located between 15-20 yards down the field and between the numbers and the sideline. Traditionally, that’s the area of vulnerability for a defense running Cover 2, and something the Patriots struggled with at times last season.
Tavon Wilson was PFF's lowest-graded Patriot pass defender with a minus-1.7 (subscription required).
With Adrian Wilson's coverage problems in camp and Gregory's inconsistencies last season, it appears surprise third-round pick Harmon might be seeing time next to McCourty sooner than anyone thought.
In their base defense, the Patriots appear to have upgraded the interior tackle spot next to Vince Wilfork with Tommy Kelly. Kelly forced a fumble against the Eagles and was far more disruptive than Kyle Love or Brandon Deaderick ever were next to Big Vince.
Kelly should help the interior pass rush this season in both base and sub-packages, while also allowing the Patriots to back off on Wilfork's snaps.
With so little depth at defensive tackle, undrafted rookie Joe Vellano showed up against the Eagles, leading the entire defense with a 3.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Vellano played 33 snaps and had positive grades in both run defense and pass rush.
Right behind Vellano was second-year player Marcus Forston, who looked stout and chipped in with two hurries. Forston has been in Vince Wilfork's hip pocket all summer and it looks like it might have paid off.
With Armond Armstead still on the PUP list, Forston looks like the favorite to be the third rotational tackle with Wilfork and Kelly, but there's also a need for a better pass-rusher.
Vellano could sneak on the roster if he keeps playing solid all around, but even more so if he can continue to bring pressure.
The Patriots should generate good pass rush in their base defense from Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, but they were just 22nd in the NFL on third down last season.
Like every NFL team, the Pats could always use more pass rush, and now it appears Marcus Benard could provide a boost.
Against the Eagles, Benard played the inside rusher role like Jermaine Cunningham had in 2012 and recorded a sack, a hurry, and four tackles, though he graded out with just a minus-1.7 pass rush grade (subscription required).
Cunningham could challenge Benard for that role if he returns from injury this week, but his chances could be fading after another injury that cost him the past week.
Jake Bequette showed some flash with five quarterback hurries, but he still looked raw at times. Bequette looks to be progressing and should likely earn a roster spot if he can continue to bring pressure.
Rookie Michael Buchanan saw a lot of action of his own and had four hurries (subscription required), so it appears that, while unrefined, the Pats have some potential pass rush depth.
Benard is the key; if he tapers off or gets hurt, things could get dicey for the Pats' pass rush hopes.
X Wide Receiver
Kenbrell Thompkins, an undrafted rookie, has been showing up since OTAs and continued to flash against the Eagles—Thompkins led the Patriots with four catches for 21 yards.
Danny Amendola is locked in as the starting Y receiver, but the spot at X has been vacant since 2008 with Randy Moss. Thompkins looks like the early favorite to start with Amendola.
Once again the Patriots' fairness in allowing open competition and lack of ego on personnel choices is on display. Thompkins is proving he might be better than both second-round pick Aaron Dobson and fourth-round pick Josh Boyce, even telling Boyce where to line up on one play.
Dobson and Boyce have flashed plenty of potential despite not popping like Thompkins did in the Eagles game. Dobson only had two receptions despite being targeted eight times. He'll be fine, as will Boyce, who has the frame and quickness to contribute immediately.
The Patriots will still rotate all the young receivers, but few players anywhere on the roster have been more consistent than Thompkins.
Don't sleep on Dobson eventually taking over the bulk of the snaps at the X-receiver spot, but for now, Thompkins is on top of this positional battle and could make a major name for himself this year catching passes from Tom Brady.