Tom Brady smiles while signing autographs at camp this week. (Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Images)
1. Let me start by saying that stats are always good. When it comes to assessing overall play, they’re an important part of the process. But stats always have to be taken in some sort of context. That’s why it’s important to take these early quarterback numbers with a grain of salt. When people only hear the stats — Tom Brady went 4-for-6 in one set of drills, while Jimmy Garoppolo went 5-for-6 right after him, for example — there’s a natural inclination to say Garoppolo did a better job, but the numbers don’t tell you the whole story. Players are asked to work on different things in different drills. There are different schemes and packages and situations. And while it gets quarterbacks much-needed opportunities, the team can only replicate so much when it comes to game action. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that when you hear the quarterback numbers, especially over the first week-plus of camp, there’s always more to the story than just stats.
2. One more note on Brady, Garoppolo and the challenge of preparing quarterbacks: At a few points over the course of the last week’s it’s reminded me of the fall of 2001, and the press conference that took place shortly after Bill Belichick named Brady the starter for the rest of the year. There are different circumstances and different individuals, but it’s still interesting to juxtapose Belichick’s statements from earlier in the week with those more than 15 years ago. “My job is to make the decisions for the football team, and that is what I’m going to do,” he said that November when he announced Brady would be starting over Drew Bledsoe the rest of the way. “I am going to make the best decisions I can for the football. That is what Mr. Kraft is paying me to do and that’s what I am going to do. I am going to make the decisions that I feel are best for the football team. T-E-A-M, as in team.”
3. There’s always a certainly level of spiciness between the offense and the defense at this time of the year. The offense clearly takes great joy in beating the defense, and the defense will celebrate wildly when they come away with a turnover, big hit or big play. But it seems like there’s been plenty of attitude over the first three days, as players have been barking back and forth and having some fun at the expense of the guys on the other side of the ball. It was hard not to notice Martellus Bennett laying the ball at Patrick Chung’s feet after he beat him on a touchdown pass from Brady on Friday. That same day, Brady slammed his helmet to the ground in frustration after a misfire. Later, following a touchdown in 11-on-11 work, Rob Gronkowski flipped the ball in the air — a mini-celebration, really — at linebacker Dont’a Hightower, but Hightower chucked the ball right back at the tight end. (Chung got some revenge on Saturday when he broke up a Brady pass that caused the quarterback to curse at his defensive teammate.) On Friday, Bennett talked about the edge that exists over the course of training camp. (“Even in the cafeteria,” he said with a smile.) Over the first three days, we’ve seen plenty of edge on display. From this viewpoint, there’s little sign that will ease going forward.
4. Speaking of Brady, he crafted the most impressive offensive sequence of the first three days on Saturday morning. First, while working in the red zone, he artfully lofted a pass for Gronkowski, who was in single coverage in the corner of the end zone. The quarterback put it high, in a spot where only the tight end could reach it, and he hauled it in perfectly for the touchdown. On the very next play, Brady buzzed one in over the middle, with Chris Hogan making an impressive grab for another score. It was razor-sharp action on back-to-back plays, and a reminder that this is still Brady’s team.
5. We’ve written about it in the past, but wanted to find out more about what goes on in the side sessions with Brady and some of his elite-level offensive options. Bennett was part of that work in the spring, and has followed that up with more individualized side work with Brady over the first three practices. I asked Bennett about the focus in those sessions when it’s just him, Brady and Gronkowski.
“I think with Rob, it’s a little different from me,” he said. “He’s been with Brady for so long, so they know each other’s body language, and we move differently. A lot of people think the way [Rob Gronkowski and I] run routes is a lot different, so just understanding the body language, how I’m breaking my cuts and where I like the ball is different from where [Brady] throws the ball to Rob. We’re always talking about this — we’re just trying to build as much chemistry as possible.”
In those workouts, Bennett has also been able to pick things up from Gronkowski in the same fashion as he did from former teammate Brandon Marshall, who was with him in Chicago.
“I was fortunate enough to play with Brandon Marshall for a long time and learn a lot of my game from him,” he said. “And now to be with another great player like Rob, he does so many different things well. When you watch tape, you know he’s really good, but when you’re right there next to him, you’re like, ‘Man, this guy is really good. Hey Rob, how did you do that? How did you do this? Man, show me that! Come to the side real quick and show me how you did that move.’ It’s just give and take.”
6. Even before Saturday’s padded practice, it’s clear that the Patriots are going to take a look at a lot of different options at center. Bryan Stork (before he was unable to finish practice on Saturday), David Andrews and newcomer Kyler Kerbyson all got reps over the first three days. It’s always tough to gauge with all of the mixing and matching that goes on up front, but it appeared that Andrews was able to get reps with what looked to be a reasonable facsimile of the No. 1 offense. However, Kerbyson also moved in and spent some time alongside other starting offensive linemen. That was one area that was pegged as a pretty good positional battle heading into camp, and it certainly hasn’t disappointed to this point in the summer. (For what it’s worth, Kerbyson has the been first guy on the field at the start of practice the last two days.)
7. Another good positional battle is at the back end of the wide receiver depth chart. Let’s start with basic understanding that there are three basic roster locks in Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Hogan. (Hogan has caught everything that’s been thrown his way over the course of the first three days, picking up right where he left off in the spring.) From this viewpoint, the contract, versatility and dependability of Keshawn Martin have also won him a spot, at least to this point in the summer. Keeping in mind that the Patriots usually keep five or six wide receivers out of camp (occasionally, that total includes Matthew Slater, a receiver in name only), that would leave several different receivers all competing for two spots, at the most. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell, veteran Nate Washington and youngsters Aaron Dobson and Chris Harper are likely at the head of that group right now, but DeAndre Carter and Devin Lucien are also part of the picture. With the Patriots gaining some roster flexibility in the short term with Ebner headed to Rio and Brady having to sit for the first four games, it could allow the Patriots to add an extra receiver, at least in the short term. But again, it’s a pretty good battle for survival, one worth keeping an eye on.
8. One astute Tweeter called him “Mr. July,” but it’s worth passing along that Dobson has had a good start to camp. Like Hogan, he has been able to build on what was an impressive spring, taking advantage of the fact that some other more high-profile offensive options have been on the sidelines. There were a couple of highlights from Friday, including a one-handed catch in traffic, and he had another solid day on Saturday, where he was part of Brady’s regular side session with Gronkowski and Bennett.
9. At running back, James White could end up being the odd man out, especially if either Dion Lewis is able to come back without a hiccup or Donald Brown or Tyler Gaffney can show an ability to consistently catch passes out of the backfield. One of the biggest “tells” last year when it came to the New England offense was that if White was in the game, it was almost always a passing play. If White could find a way to be able to consistently tote the rock between the tackles, then, it might be a different story. But through the first three days, that looks like it might not happen. The biggest takeaway from Saturday’s practice in that department came during a running drill, where veteran defensive tackle Terrance Knighton occupied a pair of blockers, broke up the play and grabbed White, tossing him a yard or two backwards. It’s early, and there’s still time to turn things around, but right now, he appears ticketed for a spot on the roster bubble.
10. Brock Vereen is really fast. I had the chance to watch him work as a gunner on a handful of plays on punt coverage over the first three days of camp, and he appears to be the sort of guy who can definitely make life tough for a blocker. He’s not quite as disruptive as someone like Slater, but his speed and his NFL pedigree could be enough for him to land a spot at the back end of the roster. The brother of ex-Pats running back Shane, he spent time with the Bears and Vikings before joining the Patriots’ practice squad last year. He enters a crowded picture, as he’s one of several guys this summer who fit that safety/special teamer role. But regardless, the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has become part of the conversation (one that already includes a handful of players like Vinnie Sunseri) when you discuss how the Patriots might go about replacing Ebner, at least in the short term. In that same vein, Jordan Richards also had some really nice moments over the first three days of camp, including one play earlier in the week where he went up and knocked a ball away from Gronkowski. He’s also going to be one of those safety/special team-types who will fight for reps on both defense and the kicking game. But if he puts together more plays like that one, he’ll force his way onto the field in short order.