New England Patriots: Quotes and Notes from Week 1 of Training Camp
The first week of training camp certainly doesn't set the depth chart in stone, but it does provide a hint at some of the questions we've been asking all offseason. And with Monday serving as an off day, the New England Patriots have provided plenty to digest over their first four training camp practices.
Position battles at guard and cornerback will remain in the spotlight through the end of August, while a couple of promising redemption stories are also taking shape. On the opposite end of the spectrum, New England typically provides a few surprise cuts each year, and some seemingly established players are facing ominous futures following their early performances (or lack thereof).
The Patriots are scheduled to have three straight practices this week, so as the second week of camp begins, here's a look at the biggest early storylines that have developed thus far.
Arguably no player on the roster disappointed as badly as Aaron Dobson last season. After posting the best numbers from a Patriots rookie receiver since Deion Branch, the former second-rounder slumped badly in his sophomore season, accruing just three catches over five games before landing on injured reserve.
Injuries certainly played a huge role in derailing Dobson's 2014 season, as he never fully recovered from offseason foot surgery and consequently started the year behind the eight ball. However, head coach Bill Belichick noted Dobson's improved health during spring practices, and the receiver has flashed some of the explosiveness that made him a high draft selection, per the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe:
On the first pass of team drills, Dobson outjumped cornerback Malcolm Butler to corral a deep pass from Tom Brady down the right sideline. The pass was destined to be intercepted, but Dobson validated Brady’s trust to win the play on the 50-50 ball.
It was, without question, the wide receiver’s most influential play of training camp.
“It’s always fun just to make plays like that,” Dobson said. “He threw the ball up for me, and I’ve got to make a play. He’s trusting me to be consistent.”
Given Dobson's lack of experience on special teams, he'll likely need to continue exhibiting a unique ability to win deep and on the perimeter. Though he's unlikely to move past the established top three of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell, Dobson's skill set offers a natural complement to that triumvirate.
If a healthy Dobson recaptures the chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady that had begun to bloom midway through the 2013 season, perhaps the "bust" label will have proved premature.
An All-Rookie Guard Tandem?
Guard is unquestionably the most unsettled starting spot on the Patriots offense. And while myriad combinations are still possible with preseason games yet to begin, Belichick has already tossed us a curveball by giving the rookie duo of Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason the first-team reps, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss:
The biggest surprise to me through the first three days of Patriots training camp is that rookie guards Shaq Mason (left) and Tre' Jackson (right) have worked exclusively alongside starting center Bryan Stork. Most often rookies work behind more experienced players early in camp, but the coaching staff has moved Mason and Jackson to the front of the line at an unsettled position...Would the Patriots seriously consider going into the season with an interior line of Mason-Stork-Jackson? There's still a long way to go, but that's a question I hadn't strongly considered entering camp, figuring only one of the two rookies would be in the mix.
Reiss does hedge against the possibility of both rookies starting, as incumbent right guard Ryan Wendell remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. It's intriguing to see Mason getting the reps at left guard, the spot that ostensibly remains open, while the more heralded Jackson sticks at the right guard spot he played in college.
I've talked about Wendell potentially moving to left guard if Jackson breaks into the starting lineup, and it appears New England doesn't intend to force the Florida State rookie to make that transition.
Both should be competent run-blockers right away, but the view here was that Jackson was a likelier Week 1 starting candidate due to Mason's lack of exposure to pro-style pass protection at Georgia Tech. At least for now, though, it seems that at least one rookie will be starting on the interior O-line for the Patriots on September 10—and it might not be the one everyone assumes.
Richards Adapting Quickly
The selection of safety Jordan Richards at 64th overall easily elicited the most disbelief of any Patriots draft pick this spring. And given how recent surprise secondary selections like Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon have yet to make a defensive impact, it's understandable if Patriots fans are feeling deja vu with Richards' arrival.
But Richards' intelligence could make him a nice fit in a defense that figures to play more matchup zone after largely relying on man coverage from their talented cornerbacks last season. Though Richards missed spring practices due to Stanford's semester still being in session, Devin McCourty endorsed the rookie's mental makeup to the Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young:
I think the thing that sticks out the most about him is he’s a very smart guy. I think he’s a guy that’s hungry, and he came in Day 1 knowing as much as possible for a rookie and the thing is, we just stay on him to keep playing through mistakes. He’s so smart and understands so much that he hasn’t made very many mistakes, but he’s still a rookie and we just tell him to keep playing and he’s doing a great job so far.
Intelligence has been Richards' calling card, as most Patriots fans know by now, but it's his versatility that might be the most important offshoot of his football IQ. Belichick suggested that Richards could play either safety spot, which could make him valuable to a defense that will need to tinker around with different coverage schemes, per the Boston Globe's Ben Volin:
Belichick on S Jordan Richards: "He’s had a good camp. Smart kid, really controls the defense well. Can play strong or free (safety)."— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) August 3, 2015
Given the depth at safety compared to cornerback, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats lean on more "big nickel" three-safety packages, especially against 12 personnel (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB). Whether in base or sub-packages, though, Richards shouldn't be dismissed simply because of dissatisfaction over his draft slot.
Butler Seizing Control at Cornerback
Plenty of Super Bowl heroes past, from Timmy Smith to David Tyree, have gone down as one-game or one-play wonders. It's too early to know whether Malcolm Butler can avoid that distinction, but thus far, the second-year cornerback has been New England's top player at the position and carried himself with noticeably more swagger, per NESN's Doug Kyed:
Butler is even goading quarterback Tom Brady to throw his way during team drills. Brady and Edelman both stopped to talk trash to Butler after completing a pass in the end zone during individual drills.
“When we’re at practice, I tell Tom, ‘Throw the ball, throw at me, throw at me.’ When he gets me, he’s going to let me know he threw it,” Butler said. “So he let me know he threw it.”
Butler is in a much different place than he was last training camp, when he was a surprising standout after going undrafted out of West Alabama. Now he’s receiving starting reps, guarding Edelman and trading trash talk with Brady...
Butler has said all the right things this offseason, and has thus far backed up his promises to avoid complacency. Apart from Kyed, there's been a general consensus among Patriots beat reporters that Butler has seized the inside track to start at left corner on opening night:
Malcolm Butler was by far and away the best Patriots cornerback on the field today. Glued to receivers. So fluid. Confident— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) August 1, 2015
Malcolm Butler looked really good in coverage. Had a couple of impressive battles with Edelman.— Christopher Price (@cpriceNFL) August 1, 2015
Getting one-on-one reps against a slippery route-runner like Julian Edelman can only help Butler's development, even if the diminutive receiver doesn't exactly resemble some of the bigger split ends Butler might need to face this season (hello, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas). The cornerback spot remains a liability until further notice, but Butler has given Pats fans some positive glimmers thus far.
Pats Striking Balance at Quarterback
The four previous storylines hold direct on-field implications for the Patriots, but the national microscope remains squarely focused on Tom Brady and the quarterback position. The daily hullabaloo surrounding Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo might dissipate if the former succeeds in federal court, but for now, it appears the Pats are hedging their bets by dividing the first-team reps in a unique manner.
According to Howe, Brady took "100 percent" of the first-team reps on Day 1, seemingly indicative of the team's confidence in his appeal. The Pats have since taken a more prudent approach, though, as described by NFL Media's James Palmer (via NFL.com's Marc Sessler):
As the periods would move on, then you would see a mixture of first-team and second-team players on the field together, and there's where you saw Jimmy Garoppolo get an opportunity to work with a variety of first-team offensive linemen, get to work with (tight end) Rob Gronkowski, get to work with (receiver) Julian Edelman.
He actually had a time with all the top-tier receivers during another period where he was working on goal-line passing plays where receivers were going against defensive backs. And on the other field, Tom Brady was working with the running backs and the tight ends.
With Brady's appeal set to reach a resolution before the regular season, the Pats will still have time to prepare Garoppolo with the first team if he needs to start the season under center. For now, splicing together different first-team combinations serves as a middle path to provide both quarterbacks important reps until New England receives more definitive news.