Continuing to gather impressions from New England Patriots Training Camp, I traveled to Gillette Stadium again on each of the past two days, Monday, August 8th and Tuesday, August 9th, to watch the team’s practice. On Monday, the players wore full pads, with the weather being mostly sunny but with a couple of quick heavy rain showers mixed in. On Tuesday, the players were in shorts and shells, with the weather being mostly cloudy with off-and-on light rain showers.
Over the course of two days, I tried to pay special attention to the defensive linemen, considering many of their newly signed players in Mark Anderson, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and Gerard Warren. Ellis has been temporarily placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list, from which he can be removed at any time during the preseason, but as he recovers from a hip injury, he has not been on the practice field. The other three have been practicing, all actively battling for limited roster spots at a positional group with an overabundance of players on the roster.
Anderson, who practiced for the first time on Friday, has really been a disappointment to me thus far. I had high hopes when the Patriots signed him that they could rejuvenate his level of play back to where it was during his impressive rookie season, and hopefully they still can. On Monday and Tuesday, he looked like the player who has struggled ever since his rookie season. He did not show any ability to get to the quarterback and was consistently dominated by the offensive tackles he went up against, notably Steve Maneri.
Carter, whose first practice was on Monday, received very few repetitions on both days. The Patriots are probably trying to work him into the equation slowly. If Carter can prove himself throughout the preseason as a viable pass rusher, he will be on the team’s 53-man roster, but he will have to prove that he is worth keeping over many younger options that the Patriots have in camp.
Warren, who arrived in the midst of Monday’s practice having been signed that afternoon, has also received limited repetitions on both days of camp. But when he has been in the mix, he has looked impressive. Warren had a very good year with the Patriots last season, and if his performance remains at a high level, he should make the cut in this highly-competitive defensive-line battle.
One of the most interesting parts of watching training camp practices is seeing the different defensive formations that Bill Belichick uses, and the personnel that lines up in those formations. It seems that the Patriots will be primarily using a 4-3 base defense, along with a 2-4-5 nickel scheme.
On the four-man front, Jermaine Cunningham and Eric Moore have been getting the majority of repetitions on the first team, which certainly speaks good things about their places within the roster. Neither Albert Haynesworth nor Mike Wright practiced on Monday or Tuesday, but one defensive tackle whose strong performance has stood out is Kyle Love. Love has received significant repetitions, and has really looked impressive as a big, strong space eater. Love’s chances of making the roster are looking really good thus far. Another impressive defensive lineman has been Myron Pryor, who has lined up both inside and outside on the defensive front, and has looked good as both a tough run stopper and as a pass rusher.
On the other side of the trenches, the offensive tackle who has really impressed me is the aforementioned Steve Maneri. Like the Patriots’ other young offensive tackles, Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, Maneri has a big frame and great feet, and he has been consistently lining up as the second-team left tackle, with Matt Light not yet on the practice field for the Patriots. Maneri has looked good both at holding off pass rushers, and driving defenders back to open up running holes. Maneri appears to have the inside track on earning the fourth tackle spot on the roster.
Speaking of Solder, he has also been impressive. With every practice I have attended, Solder has looked better each day. Solder remains raw as a left tackle, and really needs to develop on his technique, but his footwork is fantastic. He is using that along with his frame to fare quite well in pass-blocking drills. Mark LeVoir looks to be the odd man out in the offensive tackle equation. He has been lining up mostly at guard, and has not looked impressive in that position change.
As for the interior linemen, the player who has caught my eye at training camp has been Rich Ohrnberger. Dan Connolly was on the practice field Monday, but he wasn't on Tuesday, and it has been Ohrnberger who has been filling in to get many first-team repetitions with Ryan Wendell also out on both days. The Patriots clearly are looking to see what they can get out of Ohrnberger, which leads me to believe his chances of making their 53-man roster are good to this point.
Another interesting position battle on the New England Patriots’ roster is at wide receiver. One player who really needs to step up and prove he is worthy of a roster spot is Taylor Price. Price is only entering his second season, was a third-round pick of the Patriots last year and displayed good talent as a collegiate player, so I would like to believe he will will earn a spot on the Patriots’ final roster. However, the problem with Price is that his special teams value appears to be low, and it is unlikely that Bill Belichick will want to keep a player to be his fifth receiver if he cannot contribute on special teams.
Price has had a horrible time with learning to catch kickoffs and punts. On both Monday and Tuesday, Price dropped kicks on multiple occasions, and at wide receiver, he certainly did nothing to blow anyone away. Brandon Tate has been injured, and I believe he will likely be cut given his proneness to injury and inconsistent play, but Price has competition from Jeremy Ross, who continued to look good on Monday and Tuesday at both wide receiver and on special teams.
Unfortunately for tight end Rob Gronkowski, Monday was a very tough day. It was clear that something was not right throughout the practice, as the consistently sure-handed Gronkowski dropped multiple passes, and later left practice early. He was not on the field on Tuesday.
The Patriots’ other top tight end, Aaron Hernandez (who had a very bad day when I went to practice last Thursday), looked fantastic on both Monday and Tuesday. Hernandez caught every ball that came his way. He made many impressive catches, including a diving catch in the end zone on Tuesday and showed his impressive ability to get open.
However, the play of the day on Tuesday was made by rookie tight end Lee Smith when he leaped up to make a very tough catch in the end zone between two defenders. Smith was drafted for his ability as a blocker, but he has put his good hands on display during training camp and appears to be solidifying himself as the team’s third tight end.
However, another intriguing prospect has been undrafted rookie tight end Will Yeatman. While Yeatman is slow, he has impressive size, and looked very good on special teams on both Monday and Tuesday, something Coach Belichick is sure to love. There is always that one surprising undrafted rookie who beats the odds to make the roster each year, and I would not be surprised if Yeatman ends up being that guy this year (although the aforementioned Ross could be as well).
The tale remained the same on Monday and Tuesday for the Patriots’ two rookie running backs. Stevan Ridley continues to run hard and with impressive force, and is really showing why he was worth the surprising third-round selection the Patriots used on him. Ridley has also looked impressive in blitz-pickup drills, which could make Ridley valuable as a pass blocker in the backfield, as well as allow him the ability to play the fullback role that Sammy Morris held last year.
Second-round pick Shane Vereen remains sidelined with a hamstring injury. The Patriots’ other rookie running back, Richard Medlin, continues to show why he is nothing more than a camp body. He has struggled immensely in the blitz-pickup drills; at one point on Monday, Patrick Chung ran absolutely through him on a blitz.
Monday was a surprisingly awful day for Tom Brady. For whatever reason, Brady’s game was clearly off throughout practice. He had many inaccurate throws, including an interception he threw directly to safety Sergio Brown, and another pass that hit inside linebacker Brandon Spikes in the back. Finally, as Brady continued to struggle with his accuracy, he showed a surprising outburst of frustration, as he slapped his helmet with both hands, and loudly yelled an expletive for anyone in the audience who was paying attention to hear.
Ryan Mallett has continued to look like a struggling rookie quarterback. While he sometimes throws very impressive spirals, he lacks touch to put the football where his receivers want it. He often stands way too long in the pocket, makes poor decisions under pressure and worst of all, he has consistently been throwing passes that have not been in the vicinity of any wide receivers. Mallett’s upside make him worth keeping around as the third-string quarterback and a developmental project as a signal-caller, but he clearly has much progress left to make.
Unsurprisingly, Jerod Mayo has stood out among linebackers. Mayo has lined up at outside linebacker in the 4-3 defense, while he has reprised his role from last year as an inside linebacker in the nickel. But regardless of where Mayo lines up, he is a consistent tackling force, and practices harder than any other player on the field.
Even when the practice is far from being full contact, Mayo still goes at full speed after offensive players and manages to get in some hits. While this may not necessarily be viewed as a good thing, the positive is that he is giving full effort and has not let his status as one of the Patriots’ top players keep him from taking training camp as seriously as a rookie fighting to make the roster.
Speaking of a rookie fighting to make the roster, Markell Carter is nowhere to be seen on the practice field, and given all of the potential pass rushers the Patriots have been signing, I do not like his chances of making the 53-man roster.
Another rookie linebacker who has been unimpressive is Jeff Tarpinian. I decided I should pay close attention to him after seeing the guys from NEPatriotsDraft.com (a fantastic source for Patriots, draft and especially rookie free agent information) rave about his ability as a special teams player.
I have not been impressed. Tarpinian has really struggled at linebacker, especially in pass coverage, and has not shown enough on special teams for me to believe he would beat out veteran Tracy White for a special teams role.
Not a whole lot different happened in the secondary this week. Cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington continued to be the Patriots’ most impressive defensive backs, while rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling remains sidelined.
During Monday’s practice, Leigh Bodden looked sluggish, but he bounced back for a solid practice on Tuesday. Patrick Chung had a solid couple of days in practice, but with the safety play still unspectacular, I have to wonder whether the Patriots are still in the market to bring in another safety to compete with Chung and Brandon Meriweather for their starting spots. The Patriots’ third safety, James Sanders, was another player who was not on the field Monday or Tuesday.
Notably, Stephen Gostkowski was back in action on Monday, kicking field goals, while Chris Koepplin continued to handle kickoff duties. However, Gostkowski did not practice on Tuesday, leaving Koepplin to handle kickoffs and field goals. My assumption is that the Patriots are simply bringing Gostkowski back slowly from his thigh injury, but his limited use is still somewhat peculiar.
I doubt I will be going back to Gillette Stadium for another training camp practice, but of course, the best impressions that can be seen heading into the Patriots’ season will be in the four preseason games they play, starting with their game versus the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday. I will plan on posting more updates on how the Patriots are shaping up for the 2011 season as the preseason progresses!
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