New England Patriots: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of Preseason

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IAugust 21, 2015

New England Patriots: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of Preseason

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    The New England Patriots still have a long way to go before the start of the regular season.

    Yes, we're more than halfway through training camp, but the Patriots haven't even made the first move when it comes to their cutdown from 90 to 53 players. Those moves will take place in rapid succession over the next three weeks.

    But even with so much left to discover and so many moves to make, a lot of things have already come to light about the Patriots in the first half of training camp. 

    Here's what we've learned up to this point.

Dont'a Hightower Is Making Progress After Surgery

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Patriots have a talented group of linebackers at the top of their depth chart, but two of them are coming back from offseason surgery. Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower have both been participating in practices this summer, albeit in limited fashion.

    Mike Reiss of reports that Hightower's red non-contact jersey has come off and the linebacker has resumed participation in team drills while practicing with the New Orleans Saints:

    Linebacker Dont'a Hightower continues to make progress in his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, as he no longer is wearing a red non-contact jersey and participated in full-team drills. That's a big step and a reflection of how he is on target for the regular-season opener.

    Hightower's importance in the defense has grown over the past two years as Mayo has been unavailable for 20 out of the team's 32 games in that span. Hightower's on-field role has grown in coverage and in blitz packages, and his leadership role has grown as well. He is in charge of the defense and wears the green-dot helmet to communicate with the coaches on the sideline.

    Needless to say, Hightower's full return to practice is a huge positive for the Patriots defense.

Court Case Continues to Tilt in Tom Brady's Favor

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    The more days go by in court, the more it appears that Judge Richard Berman is leaning in favor of Tom Brady. 

    Berman continues to grill the NFL and its lawyers, asking questions and making statements that put more notches in the win column than the loss column for the Patriots quarterback. Stephen Brown of the New York Daily News once again did yeoman's work in providing all the important sound bites from the courtroom proceedings on Wednesday, with a few notable quotes in Brady's favor.

    Where the Wells Report found Brady guilty of "general awareness" of the deflation of footballs, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in his appeal ruling said Brady "support[ed] a scheme" to deflate the footballs. Berman seemed to stick to the use of the word "scheme" and said, "There is a bit of a quantum leap from the finding of Mr. Wells to the finding of Mr. Goodell," per Brown

    Brown also noted that Berman pointed out Brady's "general awareness" was never proved to be in connection with the AFC Championship Game—which was the basis for the four-game suspension.

    But here is perhaps the most important thing Judge Berman said"I believe some arbitration awards have been vacated" because a witness was not allowed to be called without explanation. That was in connection to the fact that the NFLPA was not allowed to call NFL attorney Jeff Pash as a witness in the appeal hearing, despite Pash's involvement as an editor of the Wells Report.

Aaron Dobson May Have a Better-Than-Expected Shot at Making the Roster

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Third-year wide receiver Aaron Dobson is in a make-or-break year, but the bigger question right now is whether or not he'll even make the roster. He's been held out of practice lately with an injury, and in his absence, other receivers have earned opportunities to play. 

    According to a pair of tweets from Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, the Patriots haven't given up on Dobson just yet despite the injury; in fact, their reaction to the injury might indicate that they have hopes for him to make the final roster.

    "Here's what I know on Dobson's hamstring: He feels ready to practice, but the Pats have opted to be overly cautious and kept him out," Howe wrote. "I'm led to believe that's a good sign for Dobson to make the team. If Pats were leaning toward cutting him, they'd have him on field."

    Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are undoubtedly the Patriots' top three wide receivers. Dobson is battling with Brian Tyms, Josh Boyce and Brandon Gibson for the rights to the No. 4 and 5 spots on the roster, but Dobson's inability to take part in that battle is not necessarily an indication that he will end up on the losing end of the competition.

Duron Harmon May Be One of the Patriots' 5 Best Defensive Backs

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    If there's one position on the roster where there is significant worry, it's the defensive secondary. The Patriots lost both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this offseason, and they are still trying to sort out exactly who will replace them. But the losses of those key players have a ripple effect that spans the entire secondary, particularly the strong safety position.

    Last year, the starter was Patrick Chung. His role as an in-the-box run-support safety was a good fit for the scheme last year, which did not call for a lot of two-deep safety looks. That was all well and good when the Patriots had two dominant man-to-man cornerbacks, but this year, they could be running more zone defense and Cover 2, which would require a more speedy coverage safety to pair with Devin McCourty.

    That's where third-year safety Duron Harmon comes into play, and he has been the team's primary strong safety over the past week of practice. He could be in line for a bigger role in 2015 after playing 283 regular-season snaps in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus

    It could be more important than ever for the Patriots to have a pair of safeties who excel in coverage in 2015. Harmon's combination of route recognition, ball skills and sideline-to-sideline range means he is the best man for that job. 

The Patriots Aren't Done Making Changes to the Roster

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    Tight end Asante Cleveland (45, left) is the newest member of the Patriots roster.
    Tight end Asante Cleveland (45, left) is the newest member of the Patriots roster.Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Most teams are focused on making their cutdowns from 90 players to 53 players in advance of the regular season. The Patriots, however, are not quite done making changes to their roster. On Tuesday, they announced a trade with the San Francisco 49ers, shipping out guard Jordan Devey for tight end Asante Cleveland.

    The 6'5", 260-pound Cleveland is not a particularly savvy pass-catcher, having hauled in only 14 passes for 151 yards and one touchdown in four seasons at Miami. He had three catches for 10 yards in the 49ers' preseason opener against the Houston Texans. His athletic skill set (7.33-second three-cone drill, 4.88-second 40-yard dash, 4.45-second short shuttle at his pro day last April) does not lend itself to a particularly rewarding career as a receiving tight end. 

    That being said, the Patriots' depth chart at tight end has dwindled in recent weeks. Scott Chandler has been missing from practice, as has converted defensive end Jake Bequette. With Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui and A.J. Derby the only healthy tight ends available, the Patriots may just need a warm body to play in the preseason.

    Perhaps they only see Cleveland as fodder for the practice squad. Or perhaps they see something in him that gives them a glimmer of hope for his ability to make an impact. 

    Whether or not he ends up making the roster, the move only further proves that the Patriots are not content to sit on their hands heading into the regular season. 

    Unless otherwise noted, all practice observations and quotes obtained firsthand.