On Thursday, August 4th, I traveled to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts to watch a New England Patriots training camp practice for the first time this season. It was a beautiful afternoon to view a practice, for the weather was sunny and mild, simply perfect conditions for spending the day outside watching the players work hard in preparation for the upcoming NFL season. While the players did not engage in full-contact drills during this practice, the players were in full pads, and this practice was significant in that it was the first this year in which newly-signed veteran free agents could practice on the field.
The main attraction for fans at Patriots training camp is always starting quarterback Tom Brady, and he did not disappoint, looking as sharp as ever passing the ball. That is to be expected from the reigning NFL MVP, so that is not very noteworthy.
However, the performance of the Patriots’ two backup quarterbacks really caught my eye.
Brian Hoyer continues to develop very well with the Patriots, and he looked better yesterday than I had ever seen him before. In his collegiate days, Hoyer never caught my eye as a passer with particular arm strength or the ability to throw a deep ball. On this day, Hoyer put his deep-strike ability on display. On one instance, Hoyer delivered an absolutely perfect deep ball from midfield, placing it absolutely pinpoint in the left rear corner of the end zone where wide receiver Matthew Slater made the over-the-shoulder catch on a throw that did not give the covering cornerback a chance.
However, I am not basing my evaluation of Hoyer’s practice on simply one throw; consistently, Hoyer’s passes were on target, as he showed his ability to beat coverages with accurate throws, and his good arm and release. One area he did struggle in was throwing outside of the pocket, as his accuracy was clearly diminished throwing on the run. But as a pocket passer, Hoyer is impressive to watch and has to be one of the NFL’s better backup quarterbacks.
The third-string quarterback for the New England Patriots this year will be rookie Ryan Mallett. I saw what I was expecting to see out of Mallett on this day. He showed off his fantastic arm, but unfortunately, he showed it off a little too much.
What makes Tom Brady such a tremendous quarterback is his ability to put the perfect touch on the ball and make all of the intermediate throws look easy. Mallett’s play is very rough in those areas of his game, and it showed in practice. When throwing passes to receivers that were 15 to 20 yards ahead, Mallett often threw the ball with too much velocity, leaving it out of reach for his wide receiver. Developing touch on those intermediate throws is going to be a make-or-break factor in whether or not Mallett can succeed as an NFL quarterback. Another area in which Mallett struggled, as was illustrated throughout his collegiate career, was making decisions under pressure. I saw Mallett make a few throws in this practice that had me shaking my head, saying “Where was he going with that throw?” Mallett is going to have to cut those mistakes out of his game if he has a future as an actual playing quarterback in the National Football League, for those mistakes often lead to costly interceptions.
One rookie who caught my eye for all the right reasons was running back Stevan Ridley.
In terms of pure measurables, Ridley lacks speed, but it did not show in practice. While it is hard to judge a running back when running through a defense in a non-full contact practice, Ridley displayed that he plays as fast as he can run, and that he has the skills to be a very solid power back for the New England Patriots. Ridley was coming off the snap quickly, and really showed some “oomph” as he popped through defenders a few times in this practice. Ridley comes to the Patriots off of a prodcutive collegiate career, and if he can run the way he did in practice against actual NFL defenses, he is going to be a great addition to the Patriots’ backfield.
As for the Patriots’ other rookie running back, Shane Vereen, he did not practice due to injury, which is certainly a disappointing setback for the young player, who could use all of this limited amount of practice time that he can get in preparation for the season. Hopefully Vereen will be able to get back to practice very soon.
While Tom Brady is the main attraction for the fans, the other headliner who the patrons came to see was newly acquired wide receiver Chad Ochocinco.
Ochocinco made a big impression, clearly showing up as the most athletic wideout in practice, and often using his speed to take the top off the coverage and get open. However, Ochocinco looked scarily too much like Braylon Edwards in this practice. While Ochocinco made some beautiful grabs, especially on some tough out routes, he also dropped some very easy balls. The worst instance came when Chad completely got ahead of the entire defense with a five-yard cushion for what would have been an easy touchdown in an actual game; except that while Brady delivered an absolutely perfect ball right on his hands, Ochocinco completely dropped it. Ochocinco showed his ability to be a big playmaker for the Patriots this season, but he will need to get more consistent with his catching in time for the start of the season.
Tyree Barnes made the best catch of the day during the deep ball portion of the practice, making an absolutely brilliant diving snag in the end zone on a deep throw by Hoyer. Surprisingly, rookie wideout Jeremy Ross was very impressive. Ross, who has been noted for his kick return abilities, did not line up much at kick returner in this practice. He displayed great hands, and the ability to make tough grabs along the sideline, which he did multiple times in front of the bleachers where I was sitting.
As for the kick return game, Julian Edelman looked great in both capacities, as a kick returner and punt returner in this practice. He should be in line to play both roles this season. Assuming Edelman does so, the aforementioned Ross is in a tough position to make the team, although given how impressive he was in this practice, I would not rule him out. He will be heavily in competition with Brandon Tate and Taylor Price for what is likely to be only one roster spot between the three at the wide receiver position.
In the training camp setting, tight end Rob Gronkowski is always an impressive player to watch. His sheer size is impressive, and as always, he put his great hands on display in this practice. Gronkowski caught everything that came his way, including a couple of difficult catches while tightly covered by linebackers in various drills.
The Patriots’ other second-year tight end, Aaron Hernandez, did not have nearly as strong of a practice. Like Ochocinco, Hernandez really struggled with catching the ball consistently in this practice; in a blitz pickup drill which dealt exclusively with short passes, Aaron dropped at least three passes. Hernandez very rarely drops the ball in gameplay, so this was likely a sign of post-lockout rust that he will have to work out in time for the start of the season. But either way, it was a disturbingly tough day for the second-year tight end.
As for the Patriots’ rookie tight ends, rookie Lee Smith looked good in blocking drills and also showed good hands when he was thrown to. Smith should make for a very good replacement in Alge Crumpler’s role as blocking tight end from last season. Will Yeatman looked much too slow going out for passes in this practice, and with that hampering lack of speed, it is hard to believe he would make the roster.
As a fan, it is admittedly very difficult to keep a close eye on the linemen at a training camp practice. Since the skill players are obviously the main attraction for fans, they typically conduct their portions of practice on the near field to the fan bleachers, while the linemen practice on the far field, making it difficult to watch their drills. During the scrimmage I did not pay real close attention to the linemen (I will try to do better with this next practice I attend), but I did get a few observations.
Significant to this practice is that rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder signed shortly beforehand, allowing him to step on the practice field with his team for the first time.
Recently re-signed left tackle Matt Light did not practice, so Solder got a significant number of reps at left tackle, with regular right tackle Sebastian Vollmer getting the rest of reps as first-team left tackle. In this practice, Solder looked like a newbie who had not practiced yet with the team; although he showed potential, his technique was sloppy, and it definitely looks like it is for the best that Light has been brought back to start at left tackle this year. Solder can then spend the season as a backup, developing with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
On the defensive line, the main attraction was another big-name player the Patriots recently acquired in a trade, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.
The battle of the day to watch in the trenches was when Haynesworth lined up across from the NFL’s best guard, Logan Mankins. Haynesworth really held his own against Mankins, and was often able to have his way by driving Mankins back. Against Mankins, who may be the strongest lineman in the National Football League, Haynesworth showed he still has the strength and skill to be a dominant force at defensive tackle, if he wants to be.
One factor that interested me was how the Patriots mixed up the rotations between defensive formations and personnel. The Patriots ran the majority of their defense in the four-man front, with nose tackle Vince Wilfork a staple on first-team reps, and with Haynesworth and Mike Wright splitting reps in the interior line spot next to Wilfork, with both doing a good job of generating interior pressure inside.
Interestingly, although they are typically inside linebackers when the New England Patriots use a 3-4 defensive front, both Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton received heavy repetitions at outside linebacker, with Brandon Spikes lining up in the middle as the Patriots used the four-man front heavily.
Even in a new position, Mayo stood out.
He showed an ability to bring heat on the blitz from the outside and made it clear that no matter where he lines up, he will be an all-around force, both as a run stopper and on passing downs. Clearly, the weakness of the Patriots’ defense comes in their ability to generate a pass rush, especially at defensive end. One factor that hurt them in that capacity in this practice was the absence of the team’s top pass rusher, Rob Ninkovich. (Additionally, the Patriots signed another pass-rushing defensive end, Mark Anderson, who will hopefully help the team bring heat on opposing quarterbacks.)
Among the players who lined up at defensive end over the course of the practice, none stood out to me.
Second-year cornerback Devin McCourty, coming off of a tremendous rookie season, looked terrific in this practice. Regardless of whether he went up against Ochocinco, Deion Branch or any other receiver, McCourty consistently shut them down, not allowing them to get open.
Also very impressive in this practice was Kyle Arrington, who spent most of last year as the team’s second cornerback. Arrington continues to prove that he is a talented and underrated cornerback. While Arrington may not be the shutdown cornerback McCourty is, he is a very steady defensive back who can capitalize on mistakes to create turnovers, and very rarely makes mistakes of his own in coverage. He looked very good in this practice and I think he at least deserves to be the team’s third cornerback.
Leigh Bodden looked ready to take back the second cornerback spot, as he appeared to be fully recovered from injury and looked very impressive in coverage in this practice.
However, while the Patriots’ three top cornerbacks looked very impressive, one disappointment came in the form of second-round pick Ras-I Dowling, who appears to be off on the wrong foot to the start of his NFL career. After an injury-prone collegiate career, Dowling is already injured, and he was not on the field in this practice.
Also disappointing in this practice was the performance of the Patriots’ starting safeties, Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung. Both safeties struggled last season in pass coverage, and this trend seemed to continue in this practice. On this day it was especially noticeable with Chung, who seemed to struggle to cover wide receivers and tight ends going at him up the middle. For the Patriots’ pass defense to improve, it is really important for these two safeties to improve upon their pass coverage abilities.
As a final note, placekicker Stephen Gostkowski did not participate in this practice. Rookie kicker Chris Koepplin, who is in for training camp purposes only, handled placekicking duties in this practice; he did not look bad at all, but he certainly is not quite Gostkowski.
Hope you all enjoyed these impressions from Patriots training camp practice, and I certainly intend on attending another practice or two before training camp is over, and writing about my impressions once again!