Through three preseason games, the New England Patriots have hit sporadic stretches of brilliance and precision. At certain times, though, especially in Detroit, they hit muddy patches in which they looked inaccurate and unsure of themselves.
This is what preseason's about and it's what the regular season will be about, too.
This is a connected process whereby players and situations evolve over the course of a season. What's good now might look bad in eight weeks. What's fishy now might be amazing down the road. These initial steps in summer are the first in a long journey towards winter.
Here are the best and worst aspects of the Patriots' preseason thus far.
The Patriots drafted wide receiver Julian Edelman out of Kent State in 2009. Over the years, he's established himself as New England's ace on special teams, returning touchdowns in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
He was effective during his Troy Brown-type stint at defensive back in 2011 and he has shown real potential as a legitimate receiver. His versatility and his work ethic have made him the modern face of the Patriot Way.
But if all that's true, then why is his role with the team still so murky?
The murkiness is primarily rooted in his injuries. Inconsistent field time has stalled his development. He hasn't made himself indispensable, except perhaps for his prowess on special teams. But his knack for returning really isn't why he's there. He's a receiver. He's there to catch his way to a championship ring.
Having not yet defined himself as a pass-catcher and playing with a one-year contract, Edelman's future in New England is at risk of slipping away. Like former Patriots receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker, Edelman appears to be a superb talent whom the Patriots can conceivably live without. Given the fact that he's one of my favorite players, I hope that isn't the case.
Still, if the Patriots could let Moss and Welker walk, surely they can let Edelman walk after this season. All three would go down in Patriots lore as important players who not only left New England prematurely, but also left with unfinished business, unfulfilled goals and, in a sense, unrealized potential. There's something very sad about that.
For Edelman to avoid such a glum fate, he needs to work himself into the fabric and into the blood of the team. But he still hasn't done it after all this time.
Coming off a slow offseason in which he was recovering from a foot injury, Edelman only notched three receptions for 31 yards against the Eagles. He didn't fare much better against the Buccaneers and Lions either, accumulating 26 yards and 18 yards, respectively. More is needed from Edelman, much more.
The bottom line is that Edelman has the potential to be a champion. He also has the potential to be a Patriot for life. But we can't keep charging into every season saying, "This is the year he makes the leap." Edelman just needs to make that leap.
Here's hoping he does.
Undrafted rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins dazzled during the Patriots' OTAs and spring workouts, leading ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss and Field Yates to name him as one of their top six momentum-builders back in June.
Thompkins kept sizzling deeper into the summer and into training camp. During the Patriots'practice on July 30, Yates referred to him as "arguably the best player on the field." On Aug. 1, Yates lauded him for making the play of the day. On Aug. 13, Reiss watched Thompkins make "one the most remarkable catches of training camp, reaching around Buccaneers cornerback Rashaan Melvin and snaring a one-handed pass from Tom Brady by pinning it against Melvin's back."
Thompkins stormed into the preseason by looking at ease against the Eagles, rhythmically displaying an early mastery of the offense with his nimble running and four catches on the same drive. At one point, he also redirected fellow rookie receiver Josh Boyce after Boyce had lined up incorrectly, further illustrating Thompkins' comprehension of a complex system.
Against the Lions, he racked up a stunning 116 yards on eight catches, including a beautiful 37-yard reception with cornerback Darius Slay all over him. He also nabbed a 27-yard catch against cornerback Chris Houston in coverage. Thompkins constantly looked smooth, relaxed, graceful and "in the moment."
This is what consistency looks like.
Wide receiver Danny Amendola flourished against the Buccaneers, racking up 71 yards on six catches, including a spellbinding touchdown grab from Tom Brady.
But after the game, Amendola's health status got a little fuzzy, as ESPNBoston reported:
Amendola was absent from practice for the second consecutive day on Tuesday. A source indicated to ESPNBoston.com that the absence isn't cause for major concern. More specifically, Amendola is dealing with a minor injury issue that is not head-related. The nature of the injury beyond that is unknown.
Ultimately, Amendola didn't play in Detroit. That wouldn't have been so concerning if his health history were better, but he missed five games in 2012 and 15 games in 2011.
This paranoia is the new reality. It is life with Amendola, but that's the price of having him.
Watching the Buccaneers game, it really became apparent that he's a phenomenal player. His chemistry with Brady was astounding. If the Patriots intend to win at a high level this season, they need Amendola, who has already made himself an integral part of the offense.
Let the nail-biting begin.
During this year's NFL draft, the Patriots selected cornerback Logan Ryan in the third round (83rd overall).
Coming out of Rutgers, Ryan was primarily known as a cerebral defender and a glass-eating tackler with a nose for breakups and picks. He was also known for having a fearless streak.
However, he had a relatively quiet offseason, getting a bit lost in the shuffle and it seemed like his development might be a long-term project.
Ryan blew that notion away against the Buccaneers, reading quarterback Mike Glennon flawlessly to intercept a pass and return it for a 53-yard score. He showed excellent restraint during the celebration after the score, illustrating his maturity and his instinctual inclination towards the Patriot Way.
Ryan stayed hungry and competitive in Detroit, flashing more speed and savvy on the field by making a nice breakup on tight end Tony Scheffler. He seemed to be everywhere all the time, showing nice technique and high levels of energy.
This is a special kid. Keep your eyes on him.
The Patriots' trip to Detroit was a nightmare, as running backs Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen both fumbled, the secondary looked flat and slow, the defense gave up 40 points while the offense only managed nine points and Tim Tebow didn't get a chance to bounce back from his awful showing against the Buccaneers.
The list went on and on.
Still though, amidst all the pitfalls, tight end Zach Sudfeld's fumble was the worst part. For Sudfeld's fans, it was a case of crashing back down to earth.
Up to that point, the perception was that Sudfeld was perfect. Early in the offseason, he replaced injured receiver T.J. Moe as the most electric underdog of New England's summer and he seemed positively freakish, matched only by fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins in terms of consistency.
Sudfeld played wonderfully in Philadelphia, notching a 22-yard reception from quarterback Ryan Mallett. He also laid down a tremendous block that allowed running back LeGarrette Blount to scoop the last 10 yards on a 51-yard scoring run.
Sudfield got even hotter against the Buccaneers, connecting with Tom Brady on a two-point conversion and connecting with Mallett on a remarkable 22-yard touchdown.
But when Sudfeld fumbled in Detroit, it was like getting hit with a reality dart. As it turns out, Sudfeld isn't perfect, he's a rookie who makes rookie mistakes.
Sudfield is still one of the most exciting Patriots prospects in years, but now, we unfortunately know that he's indeed human.
Against the Eagles, Tom Brady threw an amazing touchdown to running back Shane Vereen. The pass could've hit a dime, as it was just perfect.
The following week, against the Buccaneers, Brady nailed 11 of his 12 pass attempts and hit Danny Amendola for a touchdown and then Zach Sudfeld for a two-point conversion.
The amazing thing about Brady is that he's spinning this magic with a brand new set of pass-catchers. He's maintained his excellence with a revolving door of receivers and tight ends for over a decade.
We're so accustomed to his brilliance that it's easy to take it all for granted. But really, we should take a minute to step back and appreciate this guy. It's only the preseason and he already looks like the league MVP. He's a national treasure, a gem for the league, a treat for the fans and a true master of the game.
Above all else, it's Brady's urge to win which defines him. While visiting the Lions in Detroit, he stopped by his alma mater, the University of Michigan, to talk to the young players of tomorrow, telling them:
Every player that's ever worn this helmet is counting on you, because you guys are the ones that are lucky enough to play for Michigan. And not a lot of other kids around the country can do that. Not every kid is playing for Michigan. And this place is special to me, it's special to the guys I played with, it's special to the guys that played before me.
I didn't have an easy experience. I didn't come in as a top-rated recruit. I didn't come in with the opportunity to play right away, I had to earn it. And do you know what the greatest honor I've ever received as a player is? In my fourth year and my fifth year I was named team captain. That to this day is the single greatest achievement I've ever had as a football player. Because the men in this room chose me to lead their team.
And all the lessons that I learned here on State Street and in the Big House, that's still what I bring to practice today. And after 14 years, I love the game more than I've ever loved it. But where did I learn the love for the game? Where did I learn to practice? Where did I learn to compete? It was sitting in the same chairs that you guys are sitting in today.
It's impossible not to love this guy. After all these years, Brady's still the top reason to be excited about the new football season. Let the games begin.