Patriots Training Camp: Observations from Tuesday's Joint Practice with Saints

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIIAugust 8, 2012

Aug 7, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New Orleans Saints offense lines up against the New England Patriots defense during a joint practice at the Patriots practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-US PRESSWIRE

Tuesday was a special day at New England Patriots training camp, as the team held a joint practice with the New Orleans Saints in advance of the teams’ preseason matchup on Thursday.

Unsurprisingly, NFL fans from the area flocked to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., to watch the practice, which set yet another single-session training camp record with an official attendance of 14,830 fans.

The joint practice made for a more competitive atmosphere than usual, as the team's offensive players scrimmaged against the defensive players. This made for great situational football to evaluate the Patriots’ continued progress in training camp, while also getting a great look at the Saints.

A Tough Day for Tom Brady

It is rare to see Patriots quarterback Tom Brady be anything less than sharp and consistent in a practice, but Tuesday was one of those rare days.

During seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills versus the Saints’ defense, Brady’s accuracy was inconsistent. He both overthrew and underthrew his receivers on multiple occasions. He also threw an interception directly at Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton during seven-on-seven, and was picked off by cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, on a pass well away from his intended receiver, during 11-on-11.

It would be ridiculous to harp on Brady’s poor day, as he has never had a problem bouncing back strong from poor performances, and it is probably no cause for concern. Hopefully, Brady and the rest of the Patriots’ offense will look much sharper on Thursday, when they take the big field inside Gillette Stadium to play the Saints in their preseason opener.

Getting A Closer Look at the Patriots Defense

Nearly two full weeks into training camp, it has started to become much more clear who the Patriots’ first-team defense will be.

Many defenders have consistently worked with the first-team and are locked in as starters barring injury: defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, outside linebacker Jerod Mayo, cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington and strong safety Patrick Chung.

Both rookie first-round picks, defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, have been getting consistent first-team reps as well. Hightower, notably, started at middle linebacker on Tuesday, with regular starter Brandon Spikes not practicing.

When Hightower initially cracked the first-team defense early in training camp, he was taking reps from Bobby Carpenter at outside linebacker, while Dane Fletcher filled in for an injured Spikes in the middle. On Tuesday, Carpenter worked with the first-team, while Fletcher was in the middle for the second-team defense.

When Spikes returns to being fully healthy, expect Hightower to take Carpenter’s starting spot. But, it appears that Hightower, not Fletcher, would be in line to fill in at middle linebacker if Spikes misses any time during the regular season.

As for Jones, he has quickly emerged as the Patriots’ most impactful defensive end. Jones had one of the best highlights of today’s practice when he used his long arms to swat down a Drew Brees pass at the line of scrimmage. Jones seems to be proving me and others wrong who thought he was more of a long-term project, as he has progressed very quickly in training camp.

Lining up across from Jones on the first-team today was Rob Ninkovich, who is competing with Trevor Scott for the second starting spot at defensive end. Also significant is that third safety Tavon Wilson seems to be taking an increasing number of first-team snaps away from free safety Steve Gregory as training camp continues, indicating that Wilson could earn the starting job if he performs well in the preseason.

One more impressive note with the defense: after all the other Patriots players had left the field, Chung was still working with a member of the coaching staff, doing simulated dropbacks into coverage and working on jumping to catch passes.

Chung’s high work ethic has been evident throughout the training camp practices I have attended, as he always seems to be giving his all on the field. Chung’s play over his first three seasons has been a disappointment in my eyes, but it is clear that he is continuously making the effort to improve, which is a very positive trait about him.

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The Patriots’ Offensive Line Contingency Plan

The abrupt retirement of guard Robert Gallery on Saturday hurt the Patriots’ offensive line depth, especially with left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer still sidelined with injuries, and the status of right guard Brian Waters being uncertain as he has not reported to training camp.

The Patriots, however, seem to have a contingency plan in place if any of those players do not return. The first-team offensive line has been constituted with regular starters Nate Solder at left tackle and Dan Koppen at center, joined by Donald Thomas at left guard, Dan Connolly at right guard and Marcus Cannon at right tackle.

If either Mankins or Waters is not back for the start of the season, Connolly would likely fill in at either guard spot, with Thomas being the next in line. Cannon seems firmly in position to be the backup right tackle.

Also, with a serious lack of depth currently at offensive tackle, both Cannon and Solder were working at left tackle with the second-team offense today. Working at right tackle with the second team was Dustin Waldron, a recent undrafted free-agent signing who appears to currently be the Patriots’ next in line at offensive tackle.

Solder, notably, did not have one of his better showings in Tuesday’s practice. He was beaten off the line of scrimmage on multiple occasions by pass rushes from Saints defensive ends Will Smith and Turk McBride. Hopefully Solder has a stronger night on Thursday.

Hoyer Ahead of Mallett?

At earlier practices I had attended, the Patriots were giving the majority of second-team quarterback reps to second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett. That was not the case on Tuesday, however, which saw Hoyer get those reps almost exclusively over Mallett.

On a day that Brady struggled, Hoyer was actually the sharpest of the Patriots’ three quarterbacks. He made good use of his reps, completing most of his passes with accuracy.

As the preseason approaches, it appears the Patriots have settled back to focusing on Hoyer as their backup quarterback, signifying that Mallett’s progression thus far has not been enough to satisfy them. The backup quarterback battle, however, will be an ongoing situation to watch throughout the preseason.

Intriguing Sleepers For Both Teams

If you’re not a Saints fan, chances are good you’re not familiar with the name Andy Tanner. No, Tanner was not a character from the ‘90s sitcom Full House. He is, however, a promising wide receiver on the Saints who is making his case for a place on the final 53-man roster.

Tanner had an impressive showing in Sunday’s Hall of Fame Game, and he continued to impress on Tuesday. He displays surprising speed, is a strong route-runner and is sure-handed.

Another young and impressive wide receiver for the Saints is Joe Morgan, who spent the 2011 season on the Saints’ injured reserve list. Morgan received a good amount of reps with the first-team offense and had a strong all-around practice, including a very impressive downfield sideline grab over Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington.

On a team that already has Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Courtney Roby and rookie Nick Toon at wide receiver, Tanner and Morgan may both be long shots to make the final roster, but both are making a good case for themselves.

On the Patriots, a sleeper who had a strong day was Marquice Cole. Cole made a very good read for a turnaround interception during one-on-one receiver/defensive back drills, and looked very good as a blocker on punt return teams. Cole may be on the outside looking in for the final 53-man roster, but his ability on special teams gives him a chance to make the roster as a fifth or sixth cornerback.

Thanks for reading!

Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.