Rounding Up the Latest New England Patriots Offseason Buzz
As the offseason buzz surrounding the New England Patriots' OTA sessions wears off, their minicamp (June 17-19) and the requisite hype will start to build.
Former rookies are transitioning into veteran status, while this year's draft picks are trying to make names for themselves. Players who missed all or part of the 2013 season are catching up with their healthy teammates, while some Patriots can still only be found on the side of a milk carton.
Just days before the final three-day practice session before training camp, here are five of the more buzz-worthy happenings of this offseason.
Linebackers Progressing Quickly
It doesn't take an expert to watch the 2013 New England Patriots' season and see then-rookie linebacker Jamie Collins make progress each and every week. Fans could see an even bigger jump after this offseason.
Mike Reiss from ESPN.com quoted fellow linebacker Dont'a Hightower on Collins' progression:
I feel like he’s blossomed a lot sooner than anybody [thought]. I feel like he was a lot more mature in his first year than some people are in their third year.
Him coming in and learning the way he did his first year, you couldn’t tell he wasn’t a three- or four-year player. He’s helping out a lot, getting the younger guys in there and watching film and getting everything situated with them. Just like [Jerod] Mayo said, ‘we have old souls.’ We mature faster.'
Fellow 2013 NFL draft alum Steve Beauharnais has also had a good offseason. Exhibiting strong leadership traits and a good grasp of the playbook in OTAs should help him compete with newly signed veteran James Anderson for the first linebacker off the bench.
While Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher will be missed, Collins and Beauharnais will blunt the pain.
Armond Armstead Still a Mystery
New England Patriots fans are a couple of weeks away from calling in Mulder and Scully from the X-Files to determine the strange happenings surrounding Armond Armstead, the Foxboro equivalent of Bigfoot.
Mike Reiss from ESPN.com offers up some insight on his absence:
Defensive tackle Armond Armstead, the highly-touted prospect from the Canadian Football League who was viewed as a top-three player on the depth chart by the coaching staff entering 2013 training camp, was once again absent from practice. He had been spotted during the first week of OTAs, but not last week and today.
These practices are voluntary, so there is a danger of reading too much into an absence, but Armstead doesn’t seem to be building the same type of momentum as some other players who are coming from injuries/health ailments.
The Patriots aren't in dire need of a defensive tackle, as a healthy Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley and Chris Jones make up an adequate—at least—rotation. However, a versatile defender of Armstead's talent will always find a way onto the 53-man roster.
Bill Belichick invested $625,000 in guaranteed money in Armstead, but his patience has to be wearing thin. No matter what talent you have, a roster spot can't be won from the training room.
Josh Boyce Making a Name for Himself
At this nascent point in the offseason, Josh Boyce seems to have made the biggest jump from his rookie season. Mike Reiss from ESPN.com has some details from OTAs.
The speedy Boyce (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) flashed the ability to make plays in limited action last season, appearing in nine games (179 offensive snaps) and totaling nine catches for 121 yards. He also had nine kickoff returns for 214 yards (23.8 average) with a long of 41 yards. After being used sparingly through the first 11 games of the season, Boyce was thrust into a greater role in early December, but any momentum he had built was stunted by an ankle injury sustained Dec. 15 in a road loss to the Dolphins, which landed him on injured reserve.
Healthy again, he’s back on the right track and has been taking repetitions as a top kickoff returner in OTAs, while also showing up in the passing game. (We counted 3 TD catches on Thursday.)
While Boyce seems to have a significant roadblock to playing time at the slot or "Z" receiver positions in the form of Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, his speed could force his way onto the field. Contributing on kickoffs will place him on the active roster, where Josh McDaniels will be tempted to set his homerun ability loose.
Tight End Remains Biggest Area of Need
After a few seasons of greatness at the position, the tight end group for New England has provided little outside of drama the past 12 months. With Rob Gronkowski on the sideline as much as he is on the field and his former partner Aaron Hernandez wearing a completely different type of jersey, the Patriots are still searching for adequate depth at the position.
Mike Reiss from ESPN.com has this sobering account on the tight ends from OTAs:
With [D.J.] Williams held out of practice, and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski also not fully cleared for practice, the Patriots worked with the following tight ends in Thursday's OTA:
Kyle Auffray (1st year)
Michael Hoomanawanui (5th year)
Justin Jones (undrafted rookie)
Asa Watson (undrafted rookie)
Fullback James Develin took reps at the position in the individual position breakdown
Develin was a decent enough replacement last year after Zach Sudfeld disappointed, but he shouldn't be a primary option going into the year. Out of the five tight ends listed, only Michael Hoomanawanui can be considered reliable depth.
Look for free agents Jermichael Finley or Dustin Keller to get a call sooner rather than later.
Injured Players in 2013 Coming Back Strong
Jerod Mayo (pectoral) and Wilfork (Achilles tendon) both have come back from season-ending injuries to make an appearance at OTAs. Sebastian Vollmer (leg) also had to overcome a stint on injured reserve this offseason.
Mike Reiss from ESPN.com chronicled his departure and return:
When Vollmer was blocking on a running play to the right side, Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks rolled up on the back of Vollmer's legs, and CBS microphones close to the field clearly picked up audio of Vollmer immediately screaming in pain. An air cast was quickly placed on Vollmer's right leg and a cart was called out to help him to the locker room.
Seven-plus months later, Vollmer answered questions from reporters Thursday. The six-year veteran has made significant progress in his recovery was a full participant in Thursday's organized team activity, playing both right and left tackle.
Swing-tackle Will Svitek is no longer with the team, but a healthy Vollmer makes the Patriots' offensive line one of the deepest in the league. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon round out the tackle depth chart, while the interior line received a boost during the 2014 NFL draft with the addition of Bryan Stork, Cameron Fleming and Jon Halapio.
A team that made it to the AFC Championship Game last year without some of their best talent will certainly benefit from the addition of these Pro Bowl-caliber players. Both the Denver Broncos and the Patriots may have added to their ranks through free agency, but New England also will be adding from within.