Breaking Down New England Patriots' 5 Biggest Training Camp Projects
With training camp set to begin July 24, the New England Patriots have the luxury of a deep, talented roster.
However, that does not mean the depth chart is set in stone.
Belichick has never been afraid to deploy players regardless of age, seeking only to maximize the Pats' probability of winning—young, unheralded contributors have a chance to rise faster than expected based on merit.
Certain "projects" will not bear fruit in 2014.
For instance, rookies Jimmy Garoppolo and Zach Moore will effectively take a redshirt season. Their greater roles are down the line.
Conversely, certain players represent unknown commodities but could work their way into important roles with impressive summers. Though the Pats are not counting on them, they offer enough upside to warrant tracking during camp.
With the 2014 season in mind, here are five projects who could pay unexpected dividends in the fall.
5. D.J. Williams
Behind All-Pro Rob Gronkowski, New England's tight end corps remains largely anonymous—they chose not to address the position this offseason.
While no one in the league can supplant Gronk's multifaceted excellence, D.J. Williams has the tools to bolster the position with much-needed receiving skills.
The 25-year-old has bounced around three different teams since Green Bay selected him in the fifth round in 2011. The 6'2", 245-pound former Mackey Award winner out of Arkansas projects as an H-back type of moving tight end, a player the Pats have not had since Aaron Hernandez's ignominious departure.
Williams was active for just two games last season and has only nine career receptions, so he profiles more as a long-term project than anyone else on this list. However, unless undrafted rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson surprise at camp, Williams also could rank as high as third on the depth chart behind Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui.
The days of terrorizing defenses with two tight end sets are gone. If Gronkowski is healthy, the Pats will surely lean on their 11 personnel grouping the majority of the time, comprised of three wide receivers, a running back and one tight end.
Banking on Gronkowski has proven fallacious the past two years and remains a dicey proposition for 2014.
Williams may not be a familiar name to casual Patriots followers, but he could emerge as a valuable insurance policy if he capitalizes on his physical gifts.
4. Chris Jones
Disaster struck New England's defensive tackles in 2013, as season-ending injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly crippled New England's depth and experience at the position.
Amid the rubble, then-rookie Chris Jones emerged as a viable 3-technique prospect, accruing six sacks in 912 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
However, Wilfork and Kelly are healthy again, and the Pats drafted one of this year's best interior pass-rushing prospects in Dominique Easley.
With the likes of Sealver Siliga, Armond Armstead and Joe Vellano also competing for roster spots, Jones is not even guaranteed to be with the team come fall.
Nevertheless, the 24-year-old Bowling Green product could prove a worthy contributor in a more specialized role. Jones was forced into heavy snaps last year, exposing him as a severe liability against the run.
Among defensive tackles, Jones' ghastly minus-26.6 run grade was worst in the league. It would appear that he is purely a sub-package presence.
One factor in Jones' favor is the possibility that the Pats keep extra defensive tackles—at least early in the season.
Wilfork, Kelly and Easley are returning from surgery, and—as ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss suggested in this chat—Armstead's medical woes might preclude him from service: "I've pretty much crossed off Armstead at this point—something going on there that is keeping him off the field and no indication it is changing."
Besides, the Patriots have been starved for interior rushing since Richard Seymour's departure before the 2009 season.
Barring a repeat of 2013's injuries, Jones is unlikely to replicate last year's playing time. And yet, he may subsequently prove more valuable as a sub-package specialist.
3. Bryan Stork
I've repeatedly illustrated the struggles of New England's interior offensive line in 2013—particularly of center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly. Due to their experience in the system, neither should be written off, but it's clear training camp will serve as a referendum on their roster statuses.
Consequently, rookie center Bryan Stork could displace the underwhelming veterans if he proves capable in camp. According to Reiss, the coaches see the 6'4", 310-pound fourth-round pick as a legitimate possibility to start:
The Patriots are throwing a lot at Stork, who initially drew their interest because of his combination of smarts, toughness and size. ... Stork, who has also lined up at left guard at times to build some position flexibility, is a viable competitor for the starting center job in training camp.
It's tough to ask a rookie to organize blocking assignments and serve as the hub of the line.
Nevertheless, between Tom Brady and veteran linemen Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer, the Pats seemingly have enough experience to buttress Stork in acclimating to the league.
Still, the rookie will need to prove that his immediate upside usurps the risk inherent in entrusting him with such a vital role.
Fans often clamor for rookies—simply because they have not yet proven incapable—but Wendell and Connolly have track records of above-average performance. Moreover, despite their individual struggles, Football Outsiders notes that the Patriots averaged 4.88 adjusted line yards per carry up the middle—tops in the league.
While the veterans may enter camp with the upper hand, Stork appears to represent the future of the Pats' center position.
With an impressive summer, that future could arrive much sooner than some may expect.
2. Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce
I've put Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce together, because both second-year receivers face similar circumstances: Neither enters training camp with a defined role in the offense, though each could cement one during the regular season by earning the coaching staff's trust.
Thompkins and Boyce will compete for either split-end or flanker roles—"X" or "Z" roles, respectively, as explained by former NFL journeyman Hugh Millen (h/t Danny Kelly of FieldGulls.com).
Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are likely to split reps in the Z role, and their dubious injury histories could lead to Thompkins and Boyce playing significant snaps in 2014.
By the numbers, Thompkins had the most successful year of the Patriots' rookie trio with Boyce and Aaron Dobson.
Though Dobson exceeded Thompkins in yards and receptions, Brady posted a 88.2 quarterback rating when targeting the latter, highest among the rookies. Moreover, despite not being known as a burner, Thompkins' 35.7 percent deep-target catch rate ranked highest on the team.
League-wide, that mark ranked ahead of even Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
Foot and ankle injuries book-ended a disconnected rookie campaign for Boyce, who caught just nine passes on 19 targets. However, Boyce's game-changing speed should at least make him an impact special teams player, where he has the inside track on kick returning.
After the Patriots signed Brandon LaFell and drafted prolific Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon, it might appear that Boyce and Thompkins are battling for one roster spot, but the pendulum could easily swing the other way.
One or both could emerge as underrated contributors with another year in the offense.
1. Duron Harmon
I penned a detailed film breakdown of Duron Harmon's rookie season in March, and little has changed since: Not only does Harmon figure to start alongside fellow Rutgers alumnus Devin McCourty, but the Patriots did not add much to threaten the second-year safety's role.
Harmon's greatest strength is his intelligence, as his instincts in both coverage and run support allow him to overcome ho-hum physical tools. As he told The Boston Globe's Shalise Young, the offensive system is clearer for Harmon ahead of his second season:
But now, when you have a year in the playbook, you're now able to take a deep breath, see what your job is and then look around the whole formation, see maybe if this receiver's cut, you know what tends to come from there, or if this tight end is flexed or if this back is there...you're a little bit more prepared for everything and it allows everything to slow down.
He proved adept at limiting big plays in 256 coverage snaps last year.
Despite allowing 12 receptions on 16 targets, he conceded just 132 total yards, a 0.52 yards-per-coverage-snap ranking that was above-average among safeties.
One adjustment will likely see Harmon play closer to the line of scrimmage more often. He played just 14.5 percent of his snaps within eight yards of the line of scrimmage, ranking No. 74 out of 82 qualified safeties.
Incidentally, McCourty ranked last at just 9.1 percent.
Though Harmon may lose sub-package snaps to a coverage specialist like Logan Ryan, he at least figures to establish himself as an early-down fixture.
The Patriots are counting on immediate dividends from Harmon more than any other player on this list.
Superb player development has underpinned New England's contender status for over a decade, and Harmon embodies the type of project that must produce to continue that tradition.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
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