Making snap judgments based on a few spring workouts isn’t good football business. But after watching 10 spring practices involving the Patriots over the last six weeks -- four at rookie minicamp, four at the organized team activities (OTAs) and two at full-squad minicamp -- we know a lot more about the team than we did in the days following the draft. Specifically, there are five guys who were a bit of a mystery when those spring workouts began, but after their performance through some or all of the sessions, we feel pretty secure making some definitive statements as to how they’ll fit in with the Pats’ system in 2009.
Julian Edelman: Edelman, a Wildcat-style quarterback at Kent State, worked out almost exclusively at wide receiver throughout the duration of OTAs, as well as rookie minicamp and the full-squad sessions, and had some good moments. There were some dropped balls, but all in all, it was a consistent performance, not bad for a player who will be asked to learn a new position at the professional level. Edelman’s real strength might ultimately lie in his versatility: Working as part of the scout team at the second and final full-squad minicamp, he played many different roles while giving New England’s No. 1 defense plenty of different looks -- he even took some reps at running back after one of the rookie minicamp practices.
At six-feet even and 195 pounds, the seventh-round pick out of Kent State may not be physically ready to absorb the pounding of a full NFL season, but his performance thus far might make it difficult for the Patriots to squeeze him through to the practice squad. As a result, New England might be forced to do some creative roster shuffling between now and cutdown day if they want to keep him around.
Vinny Ciurciu: Unless there were some serious injuries, it’s likely the 5-foot-11, 240-pounder wouldn’t see much time at the middle linebacker position -- the acquisition of Paris Lenon probably put an end to that. But after the OTAs and minicamps, Ciurciu looks more and more like the logical heir to former Patriots special teams captain Larry Izzo.
The former Boston College standout made his bones as a special teamer in Carolina and Minnesota. Breaking into the NFL with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2004, he was second on the team in special-teams tackles in 2005 (14) and tops on the Panthers in the same category the following year (19). Last season with Minnesota, he was tied for second on the team with 15 special teams tackles despite missing three games during the season with injuries.
Acquired by the Patriots a little more than a month ago, the 29-year-old Ciurciu has emerged as the front-runner to replace Izzo, who left in free agency for the Jets after spending eight years in New England. They’re comparable -- they are roughly the same size (Ciurciu has about 20 to 30 pounds on Izzo), and they have both been around the league for a while. While neither is really talented enough to be an every down linebacker in the NFL, their smarts mixed with their willingness to do whatever it takes make them valuable special teams assets.
Over the last month at the OTAs and minicamp, there were several occasions where linebackers were going through their own drills, but Ciurciu stuck with the special teamers. Based on what I’ve seen, there’s no reason to think he won’t take over Izzo’s old job in New England.
Tom Brady: When it came to passing, there was no hesitation in his delivery. There was no favoring of one leg over another. He engaged in three-, five- and seven-step drops, and threw on the run when asked. He kept up with the rest of the team, and jogged from drill to drill without a problem. And there didn’t appear to be any limitations on what he was able to do -- he went through every drill that every other quarterback participated in.
As for the knee, it was covered throughout the duration of the OTAs and full-squad minicamp -- Brady wore long blue sweatpants in every session the media had access to. But it certainly didn’t look like he was hindered in his movement.
By his own admission, Brady wasn’t as sharp as he would like to be. He missed some mid-range throws on several occasions in both the OTAs and minicamp. But then again, he’s got almost 13 weeks before the start of the regular season to take care of that. Always keep this in mind, but there’s every reason for the Patriots to feel optimistic about where he is in the rehab process.
Vince Wilfork: Engaged in what could be the most mild-mannered contract dispute of all-time, the Pro Bowler missed out on the OTAs but was present for both minicamp sessions. He certainly didn’t look any worse for wear, jumping into action along the defensive line and running through all the same drills as the rest of the linemen. And after his first session in front of the cameras, he said all the right things, reiterating his stance that he wasn’t looking for Albert ($100 million) Haynesworth kind of money.
After hearing Wilfork and Robert Kraft speak on multiple occasions last week, I’m not suggesting that keeping Wilfork in New England won’t necessitate a long, difficult negotiation. But I think this situation is still a long way from Deion Branch/Asante Samuel territory for two big reasons:
1) Wilfork’s agent, Kennard McGuire, has an excellent working relationship with the Patriots -- he recently negotiated a three-year deal for veteran cornerback Shawn Springs in New England, and has previously represented Rosevelt Colvin, Antowain Smith, Santonio Thomas and Andre Davis (among others) in contract negotiations with the Patriots. (He also negotiated Ty Warren’s first contract with New England … before Warren decided to fire him.) The bottom line is he knows how the Patriots do business. In fact, Colvin took less money to come to the Pats before the start of the 2003 season. And McGuire’s certainly not known for his holdouts, with the lone exception coming in 2006 when his client receiver Javon Walker forced his way out of Green Bay.
2) For whatever reason, the Patriots place a higher monetary value on guys who play closer to the ball. That’s why players like Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Tom Brady and Matt Light have been able to walk away from the bargaining table satisfied with their contracts. For the most part, New England has considered receivers and defensive backs to be fungible commodities, interchangeable parts that can be added and subtracted. It hasn’t always worked (they are still working to replace Samuel), but it’s their business model, and there’s been no indication they’re not sticking to it going forward.
Patrick Chung: Based on what I saw through rookie minicamp, OTAs and the two-day full team minicamp last week, I have no reason to think Chung will not be able to contribute on some level this season. As a rookie, he’s probably not going to take much time away from presumed starters James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather, but through the first 1½ months of his professional career, he’s made a solid first impression.
Chung certainly benefited from the fact that Meriweather was not in attendance for any of the sessions the media was allowed to view. As a result, the 21-year-old spent plenty of time with the first-team defense. There were times where he was a step slow, likely a result of thinking about what was going on instead of acting and reacting. But he did not do anything to call attention to himself in a negative fashion -- there were no big plays allowed, no missed tackles and no other gaffes that might get him called out by the coaching staff.
The 5-foor-11, 212-pound Chung is clearly all-business. In sprints and other running drills, he was consistently ahead of the pack in all three sessions. There’s an air of energy around him -- he’s clearly amped up and ready to get into pads.