The Most Intriguing Rookie Storylines at Patriots' OTAs
Forget the rookie minicamps that just went down over this past weekend. Those are basically teaching sessions designed to walk these first-year players through basic alignments and the structure/schedule of a pro practice.
That will change when the vets take the field.
The rookies will make (multiple) mistakes and struggle with their technique, and their conditioning level can be exposed after months of training to run the 40-yard dash, short shuttle, three-cone drill, etc.
But it’s still an opportunity for rookies to start transitioning to the NFL as they spend extra time with their position coaches on the field and in the meeting room before they head to camp to compete for a starting job or a roster spot when final cuts are made.
Leadership, work ethic, ability to learn and adjust...all will be under a microscope over the next couple of weeks. While training camp trumps all, performances now help shape the coaching staff's view of your future in New England.
Here are five rookie situations to watch closely during OTAs.
Dominique Easley's Health
Talent was never an issue for Dominique Easley. Two ACL tears, however, helped his stock plummet to the end of the first round in the 2014 NFL draft.
All eyes will be on the two reconstructed knees as the former Florida Gator takes the field in New England. Bill Belichick didn't seem worried when talking with Jim Miller and Pat Kirwan on Sirius XM Radio (h/t Mike Reiss of ESPN.com):
We're confident that he'll be able to return from the injury like almost everybody who's had an ACL has, so I don't think it's the type of injury that isn't pretty common in our league. He's working hard to rehab and hopefully he'll be OK. I think when he is, we feel like we got good value for that pick.
When you're picking 29th, you kind of don't know who's going to be there until you get into the low to mid-20s. We tried to stick to the value on our board. Dominique, when we've seen him play, he's been a productive player for Florida since his freshman year. He can be a very disruptive player. An impact player. His grade on our board reflected that.
According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, Ivan Candelaria, Easley's rehab specialist, would even go as far to say that, "He’s functional to the point where if he had to play a football game today, he can. He’s definitely ready to go."
I doubt we'll see Easley at game speed until training camp at earliest, but Patriots fans, staff and players have to like the progress he is making.
Does Jimmy Garoppolo Look the Part?
Leadership in a rookie camp is one thing. Earning the respect of veterans like Logan Mankins is another story.
Garoppolo has been walking up to rookies at Gillette, shouting a play call and asking them if they know their assignments. Leading already.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) May 15, 2014
Garoppolo needs to bring a work ethic that rivals Tom Brady's—not an easy task—while showing that he can listen as well as lead. He also needs to play a bit of a football. Leadership can take you a long way, but strong, accurate throws and decisive reads earn respect just as quickly.
Garoppolo likely won't see the field this year in a regular-season capacity, but his preparation for that circumstance begins now, both in and out of the huddle.
Can James White Unseat Stevan Ridley as Starter?
According to Shalise Manza-Young of the Boston Globe, James White knows how to earn his way onto the playing field.
"'Ball security is job security.' That’s the quote that I know,” White told Manza-Young. “All my coaches stressed that. If the ball’s in your hands, you better protect it. That’s the most important part.”
Stevan Ridley may have heard the same quote, but eight fumbles over the past two years shows he hasn't been fully convinced. White, on the other hand, only had two fumbles in his four-year career at Wisconsin.
Ridley might have a talent edge on White, but if the latter gives Bill Belichick peace of mind, he could find himself in the starting lineup.
Will a Rookie Lineman Break into the Starting Lineup?
Veteran linemen Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly underwhelmed in 2013, failing to protect Tom Brady or open up holes for the running backs. Both should be fighting for their jobs in 2014.
Versatile veteran Marcus Cannon—he can play both guard or tackle—has an opportunity to take a run at Connolly's spot at right guard. In addition to Cannon, a pair of rookies have their sights set on getting on the field.
Bryan Stork and Jon Halapio—both Day 3 draft picks—will be challenging for Wendell and Connolly's spots. If Stork can remain healthy, the added size and strength he brings to the center position could make a difference in the AFC East. Halapio is a bit raw, but he can excel in the right offensive system. Give him a man to move and let him open up a hole.
Which Undrafted Free Agent(s) Make a Good First Impression?
The fate of undrafted free agents is a fickle one. Former Iowa linebacker James Morris looked like he had an excellent chance of making the roster, but a failed physical prematurely ended his pursuit.
While Stephen Houston (RB, Indiana) and Cameron Gordon (LB, Michigan) both have shots at making the roster, tight ends Justin Jones (East Carolina) and Asa Watson (North Carolina State) will get plenty of opportunities due to the lack of depth at the position.
Jones certainly looks like a "Y" tight end, measuring in at 6'8" and 277 pounds, but he doesn't block well. He doesn't run great routes, either, but his size and catch radius will give him every opportunity to show he is a threat in the red zone.
Watson has all of the traits you want to see out of a "Move" tight end. He has some speed, versatility, agility and can even throw a block or two.
OTAs will show if Jones or Watson are contenders for a spot on the roster, or if veteran help is needed.