New England Patriots Rookie Training Camp Progress Reports
Injuries have dominated the progress or lack thereof of several members of the New England Patriots rookie class this offseason. In some instances that was expected, as in the case of top draft choice Dominique Easley.
The Pats were willing to gamble on the versatile defensive tackle despite his injury status. The fact that Easley can bring a new set of skills to the rotation at his position makes him worth the wait.
Elsewhere, players such as center Bryan Stork and cornerback Jemea Thomas have missed significant offseason work.
But it hasn't all been doom and gloom for New England's latest batch of rookies. Fourth-round running back James White has been a revelation. There has also been some impressive work from an undrafted tight end and a defensive back.
Here's a closer look at the progress of every member of this year's draft class as well as the free-agent rookies making an impression.
Dominique Easley, DT
Easley's first offseason as a pro has been all about recuperating from the torn ACL that still couldn't prevent him from slipping out of the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
It's been a slow process, and the Patriots have naturally opted for a cautious approach with the young lineman. The most recent indication that Easley still has a ways to go came when the team opted not to take him to Richmond, Virginia, for the planned scrimmages with the Washington Redskins.
Boston Herald writer Jeff Howe has reported Easley is still not cleared for practice. Howe outlined New England's steady plan for getting Easley fully healthy before worrying about getting him up to speed:
The defensive tackle, who is on the non-football injury list, continues to rehab his torn ACL, and the team wants his knee to be at full strength to prevent re-injury before putting him on the field. Easley tore the ACL in September and underwent surgery Oct. 25. The Patriots knew the recovery process would likely extend into training camp when they drafted him in May. He took part in the final practice of minicamp, but he has been restricted to conditioning work in training camp.
That schedule obviously means the Patriots have seen very little of the player they deemed worthy of their top pick. It's a testament to Easley's talents that he still commanded first-round value.
Part of the reason the Patriots used a first-round pick to secure him is the quickness and versatility a healthy Easley possesses. At 6'2" and 288 pounds, he's got the build of a natural 3-technique, somebody who can fire through single gaps between guards and offensive tackles.
That's not a quality shared by the bulky land masses the Patriots often favor along the interior. Players such as Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Sealver Siliga are generally more adept at filling gaps and controlling multiple blockers.
But Easley also has the length and takeoff speed to collapse the edge at defensive end. That sort of flexibility can be a major asset in head coach Bill Belichick's hybrid defensive schemes.
Of course, all of this only counts when Easley sees the field.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB
Belichick and the Patriots are usually good for one surprise pick every draft. This year that distinction belonged to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The Pats used a second-round choice on the ex-Eastern Illinois passer.
It's unclear whether that means Belichick views the rookie as an interesting development quarterback or a legitimate genuine successor for 37-year-old talisman-under-center Tom Brady.
Unfortunately, Garoppolo's performances this offseason haven't helped provide an answer. In short, the first-year signal-caller has struggled mightily.
Boston.com writer Erik Frenz didn't attempt to sugarcoat things in his recent assessment of Garoppolo's performances at training camp:
Patriots season ticket holders got to see a heavy dose of rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. They got just a small dose of what we've seen throughout training camp: struggles and inconsistency.
Someone needs to install a stopwatch in his head. He holds onto the ball far too long on a consistent basis, and ran into trouble again in 11-on-11 work where he was flushed from the pocket once, and "sacked" on the next play. It happened again during 11-on-11 red zone work at the end of practice, resulting in another sack.
It says it all when the Patriots are willing to offer Brady Quinn a workout, per NBC Sports reporter Andrew Perloff. Whether that's simply a public relations move to light a fire under Garoppolo or a genuine attempt to seek more answers behind Brady is unclear.
What is clear, though, is that Garoppolo has done little to impress anyone this offseason.
Bryan Stork, C
The Patriots selected three O-linemen in the 2014 NFL draft, and so far not one member of that trio has managed to distinguish himself. That includes fourth-round pick Bryan Stork.
The former Florida State center has battled injuries and struggled to adapt to the strength of trench warriors at the pro level. Stork has endured his share of calamitous moments, as Ben Volin of The Boston Globe pointed out: "Fumbled a snap with Garoppolo for the second straight day, and had to jog a lap around the field as punishment."
Stork's case hasn't been helped by the fact he's been sidelined since the team's fifth practice with a leg injury, according to ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss. Stork needs to get on the field and show improvement at a position that is still wide open at this stage of the offseason.
James White, RB
There isn't a rookie on this team who has had a better offseason than James White. The fourth-round running back has impressed coaches and teammates in every phase of the game.
It's almost impossible to track any Patriots news without coming across a report that offers a glowing endorsement of White's skills. ESPN Boston writer Mike Reiss is the latest to offer a positive review: "Starting to wonder if White might cut into some of Ridley's early-down workload, as it's been notable how many repetitions he's seeing in practice, especially on the goal line."
Reiss' comment is telling. It hints at a possible featured-back role for White. A lead ball-carrier isn't something this team has featured in recent seasons.
Belichick has instead preferred to rely on the proverbial committee approach. While the results have largely been positive, the team has struggled to lean on the run in its biggest games.
Nowhere was that more clear than in last season's AFC Championship loss to the Denver Broncos. The Patriots managed just 64 yards rushing on 16 attempts.
It's also true that Belichick's committee approach is a product of ongoing question marks over his respective backs. Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden have trouble holding on to the ball. Meanwhile, Shane Vereen is more sub-package weapon than feature runner.
But in White, Belichick may have his first lead back since Corey Dillon. White is a shifty and instinctive runner, solid in every area, who can also offer a lot as a receiver.
Belichick has noted his three-down potential during an interview with Sirius XM (h/t Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe):
It’s been good working with James White. He’s a very interesting and versatile player, he does a good job in the passing game and in the running game, both inside and outside, blitz pickup. We have a pretty extensive offense for him to learn and he’s working hard at it. We’ll just let him go and see how it goes. But I think he has the ability to compete on all three downs, in both the running game and the passing game.
Backs who have a role to play on all three downs are usually the feature of their team's running game. The more White progresses, the closer he can get to that kind of role.
Cameron Fleming, OT
It isn't injury that has slowed down offensive tackle Cameron Fleming this offseason. Instead, it's been academic commitments.
The former Stanford man has missed valuable practice time, and it shows, according to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe:
Rookie fourth-round pick got toasted by DE Jake Bequette a couple of times in pass-rush drills. Fleming missed most of the offseason workouts because of Stanford’s late graduation and has some work to make up.
It would be useful for the Patriots to get Fleming up to speed as quickly as possible. He is coming from a scheme that contains many of the power-based blocking principles the Patriots have relied on in recent seasons.
Fleming can pull out into space the way the Pats love their linemen to do in the running game. He's also versatile enough to shift inside to guard.
Jon Halapio, G
Training camp has been a difficult slog for sixth-round pick Jon Halapio. The scrappy guard has sometimes struggled to hold up in individual duels. Base strength and footwork have been his main problems.
ESPN Boston reporter Mike Reiss noted Halapio's failings but also highlighted his resilience and ongoing effort: "Doesn’t seem ready to compete for a starting job at this point, taking some early lumps in one-on-one rush drills, but just keeps grinding away."
Unfortunately, Halapio didn't take his chance to shine in the scrimmage against the Washington D-line. Reiss was in attendance and in a separate report noted some familiar problems: "Rookies Jon Halapio and Cameron Fleming took some lumps, getting knocked out of their pass-blocking sets at times."
Halapio's indifferent form is simply in keeping with the mediocre showings from the team's trio of rookie linemen. On the surface, all three are good scheme fits.
However, without more work, none of them will succeed in improving the quality of depth along the offensive front.
Zach Moore, DE
Zach Moore's struggle for respect begins with the fact that he was drafted from Division II school Concordia. That immediately makes many doubt the level of competition he faced at the collegiate level.
However, the Patriots gambled on Moore for a reason. He's a scheme-flexible and athletic rush end suited to Belichick's multiple-front system.
But his natural skills don't always override the effect of playing in the Northern Sun Conference. ESPN Boston scribe Mike Reiss has noted that during training camp:
His raw talent flashes at times, such as Thursday when he forcefully pushed the pocket to sack Ryan Mallett, but there’s a long way to go as he comes from a lower level of competition in college and it shows at times.
There are plenty of openings for skilled situational pass-rushers on this season's roster. However, the competition for those places already looks intense.
Veteran Will Smith and second-year pro Michael Buchanan will compete, as will Jake Bequette. So Moore needs to make a solid impression every time he's on the field.
Jemea Thomas, CB
Jemea Thomas is another rookie who has had his offseason blighted by injury. The sixth-round cornerback out of Georgia Tech has missed eight practices in a row, according to Boston Herald reporter Jeff Howe.
Versatility first drew the Patriots to Thomas. He played inside and outside for the Yellow Jackets. As a tough tackler and rangy cover man, Thomas also has some safety crossover potential similar to the switch made by Devin McCourty.
Sadly, the Patriots haven't had the opportunity to really test Thomas and move him around the secondary. He has appeared in just one practice.
On that day, Thomas played "more of a slot CB role," per ESPN reporter Mike Reiss. The Pats have relied on different players in that position with Kyle Arrington usually the favorite.
However, the secondary has been revamped this offseason. It would help if a player as versatile as Thomas could be a part of it.
Jeremy Gallon, WR
Yet another injury situation has hurt the chances of a rookie making his mark this offseason. Seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon has been denied the chance to prove his worth at a wide receiver position that needs fresh talent.
ESPN Boston reporter Mike Reiss now believes hope could be lost for Gallon securing a place on the final roster:
Remains on the active/physically unable to perform list, which means he has an uphill climb for a roster spot. His best chance to stick at this point would likely be to remain on PUP.
Gallon's inactivity is a shame because of the potential he offers as a returner. The ex-Michigan ace was a standout specialist fielding punts and kickoffs at the collegiate level.
That's something the New England special teams currently lack. Had he stayed healthy, Gallon could have established a niche as a go-to returner on this season's unit.
Justin Jones, TE, and Malcolm Butler, DB, the Best of the Undrafted Crop
Two undrafted rookies have particularly stood out at training camp. The first is towering tight end Justin Jones.
He has displayed more chops as a receiver than many would have credited him with. Jones has also worked hard on using his frame to be more of a force along the line of scrimmage.
Boston.com writer Zuri Berry recently detailed some of Jones' best efforts:
But as training camp has worn on, Jones has shown himself to be quicker than his 4.9 40-yard dash speed would suggest, and his hands have been a fantastic presence throughout the offseason, building himself up a reputation as someone to watch in each practice.
In camp, he has struggled at times blocking by standing upright too often. But he has improved dramatically. And as he has continued to improve in the trenches, the miraculous catches he has had have come more often. These are the expectations he has set for himself, improving every day and making catches no one else can.
The Patriots need depth behind awesome but brittle starter Rob Gronkowski. It would help if that player has the same ability to be a mismatch at every level of coverage as well as someone who can supplement the O-line.
At 6'8" and 275 pounds, Jones should have everything he needs to be that kind of player. The early reviews are good; now it's time to keep the progress going.
Defensive back Malcolm Butler is proving to be another undrafted star. He's shown a true opportunistic streak, as Boston Herald reporter Jeff Howe described: "Nearly every practice, cornerback Malcolm Butler makes a big play to get his hands on the ball."
Ball-hawking used to be the trademark of a Belichick secondary. Amid the high-profile additions of veterans Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis, it's encouraging to see an eager and opportunistic rookie still making his mark.
This year's rookie class will ultimately be defined by the health of its members. The Patriots have asked their fans to take a leap of faith and believe the risk for a player like Easley is worth taking.
There is also a need for patience when considering how many of the first-year batch have been reduced to walking wounded during training camp.
As things stand, the team will once again rely on a veteran core to drive a Super Bowl push. That is unless White can emerge as a feature of the ground game.