New England Patriots' Training Camp To-Do List
Bill Belichick will be sure to use every available second to maximize the amount of work that his team is able to do before the curtain goes up on the Patriots' 2014 season. He needs to get the players in their correct roles, make sure they know their lines and guarantee they mesh well on the brightest of stages.
Here are the top five things that Belichick needs to check off before the audience take their seats.
Build Depth at Tight End
Even if Gronkowski is able to play Week 1—far from a certainty following such a devastating knee injury—the rest of the positional group leaves a lot to be desired. Michael Hoomanawanui is a valuable backup, but no Patriots fan is excited to see him hit the field. It only gets worse from there.
D.J. Williams only saw the field for a handful of snaps in 2013 and has shown no signs that he deserves more of a chance. Undrafted rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson are tantalizing, but they are completely unproven at this point. Jones' 6'8" frame makes him look the part, but he doesn't always pass the eye test as a football player. Watson has some skills but might not be dominant enough in any one area to win at this level.
If Williams, Watson and Jones don't impress Belichick early on, look for him to pull the trigger and sign a veteran such as Dustin Keller or Jermichael Finley to help fill the void.
Develop Chemistry Between Wide Receivers and Tom Brady
In the complicated offense developed by Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels, receivers have to be singing from the same hymnal as their quarterback if they want to see the field. Earn Brady's trust in knowing your adjustments, and you'll be rewarded with targets. Fail him, and you can't be open enough for him to throw you the ball.
Therefore, it is incredibly important to get—and keep—the young receivers on the practice field with Brady during training camp. Josh Boyce didn't have much time with him last year during camp and never could get in the flow as a rookie.
The Patriots need to play it safe with the lingering effects of Aaron Dobson's and Boyce's injuries. There is no sense in aggravating an injury this early in the year. That said, if they baby the injuries too much, the second-year players won't have the necessary repetitions to earn an important role in the offense.
Look for Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to pick up the slack during the early part of the season if Dobson or Boyce miss time during camp.
Integrate Rookies on the Offensive Line
After a disappointing season that left Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly as two of the worst interior linemen in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Patriots retooled by adding three offensive linemen—Bryan Stork, Cameron Fleming and Jon Halapio—in the 2014 NFL draft.
Whether the Patriots will be able to utilize those players during their rookie seasons remains to be seen.
As hard as the receivers have it in the Patriots offense, rookie offensive linemen don't have a walk in the park, either. Making split-second adjustments before and after the snap while keeping up with Brady's audibles and ever-changing tempos isn't an easy task.
While keeping either or both of Wendell and Connolly might be a necessary evil to start the season, look for Stork and Halapio to get some meaningful playing time as the season progresses. Fleming will have a much tougher job breaking into the lineup behind Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon.
Stack the Defensive Secondary
While Devin McCourty and Darrelle Revis have likely locked in their respective spots atop the safety and cornerback depth charts, the remaining spots will be earned during training camp and preseason games.
At cornerback, Brandon Browner's four-game suspension will figure greatly into the early season equation. Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard will likely compete for the starting spot across from Revis in his absence, while Browner will give the winner a run for his money when he returns.
Kyle Arrington—and/or perhaps Daxton Swanson—will likely round out the cornerback position, although his experience in the slot might bump him up the pecking order.
Duron Harmon's solid play as a rookie should give him a leg up going into his sophomore season, but Tavon Wilson, Pat Chung and Nate Ebner will be fighting for playing time and, ultimately, a roster spot. With more physical cornerbacks—Revis and Browner especially—giving them fewer responsibilities in the back end, it might give Wilson and Chung a second chance at the strong safety position.
Determine Backup Quarterback
Brady is still the man in Foxborough, but that doesn't mean the man holding the clipboard behind him is any less important. Far too many talented teams are derailed by the poor play of the second or third quarterback on the roster.
Ryan Mallett should have a large head start over rookie Jimmy Garoppolo due to his three years of experience in the system. However, almost all of that experience is on the practice field. If Garoppolo lights it up when the lights are on, he could theoretically muddy the waters.
No Patriots fans will ever want to see the winner of the battle in action this season, but it will be an interesting show to watch.