Sparked by the reaction to this story from Sunday -- as well as the urging of some e-mailers and other posters over at the patsfans.com messageboard -- we’ve decided to expand our post-minicamp/OTA look at the team to include more of the current Patriots roster. The list includes several suggestions I received via e-mail, as well as other players who might have been question marks when the spring began, but who we have a better sense of where they stand now after six weeks of spring practices.
As we stated in the first edition of “Where They Stand,” these notes are formulated on just 10 practices in helmets and sweatpants from rookie minicamp, organized team activities (OTAs) and full-squad minicamp this past spring -- it’s difficult to get a real handle on players before the pads go on. In the end, this story should be considered a final emptying out of the spring football notebook, a last look at the current status of some key players and how they might fit in on the 2009 Patriots:
Joey Galloway: Through the minicamps and OTAs, the veteran wide receiver looked like he’s spent most of the time just getting his feet underneath him and getting a handle on the offense. One reader asked if Galloway was building a “rapport” with quarterback Tom Brady as of yet -- from what I saw during OTAs and minicamp, when Brady was in one-on-one situations with a wide receiver, it was almost always with Randy Moss, so I really can’t speak to the question of developing a rapport.
But right now, Galloway and Greg Lewis are neck-and-neck for the job of No. 3 receiver. (If the season started tomorrow, based on what I’ve seen, I’d probably give an edge to Galloway.) However, Galloway did get some work as part of the punt return game as a returner (along with Kevin Faulk and Wes Welker), and that potential versatility will almost certainly come into play down the road. And even though he’s 37, he can still flat-out fly.
Sebastian Vollmer: My thought was that with Nick Kaczur’s hold on the right tackle job still tenuous at best, Vollmer would figure into the mix at that position -- and he still could. But throughout much of the rookie minicamp, OTAs and full-squad workouts, he was at left tackle a lot. Not with the starters, but still enough for some in the media to take notice. Not saying he’s going to unseat Matt Light, but positional versatility is always a good thing along the Patriots’ offensive line.
As for how he’s doing, the best way to gauge how a rookie offensive lineman is doing in these settings is to measure two things: how many laps they have to do for false starts, and how many times they get verbally undressed by offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. And I didn’t see Vollmer run a single lap or get called out by Scarnecchia once. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.
Terrence Wheatley: As a result of last year’s wrist injury, he’s likely behind the rest of the corners, a group that includes fellow second-year player Jonathan Wilhite (who stepped in after Wheatley’s injury and had some good moments down the stretch last year) and new veterans Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden. The practice sessions I saw did nothing to dismiss that notion. However, he appeared to have a mostly solid spring. Two plays from the first day of full-squad minicamp come to mind -- on one, he picked off a ball Kevin O’Connell was trying to get to Terrence Nunn. The second, he knocked away a deep ball, a Matt Gutierrez pass that was intended for Nunn.
Wheatley’s biggest gains this season could come as a kick returner. With Ellis Hobbs gone, the job is now open, and he’s expressed interest in getting a shot at the position. He got some looks in minicamp (along with Laurence Maroney, Matthew Slater, Julian Edelman and Darius Butler), and it appeared he performed well enough to earn another shot when training camp convenes later this summer.
Jonathan Wilhite: Wilhite was the biggest beneficiary of Wheatley’s injury, and it showed this spring. Wilhite got reps ahead of Wheatley, and if the season started tomorrow, would likely be the No. 1 candidate for the job of nickel or slot corner. His best moment of the spring came when he came away with an interception of a Brian Hoyer pass that was intended for Robert Ortiz. But Wilhite was burned by Moss on a long pass play with Tom Brady, and was also the victim of a sweet connection between Kevin O’Connell and Greg Lewis later in full-squad minicamp.
Shawn Crable: After spending his rookie year on IR because of a shin injury, I don’t know if there was anyone happier for the chance to get on the field for the minicamps and OTAs than Crable. He threw himself into each drill -- while some guys were out there at half-speed, he was clearly fired up for every dreary exercise, including one where the young outside linebackers were practicing coming off the edge by starting in a three-point stance, rounding a cone on the “outside” and picking up a towel. Watching that drill, it was easy to see why Richard Seymour has marveled at Crable’s speed at coming off the edge. (BTW, those spindly legs appear to be pretty much a thing of the past.)
Crable said he’s spent a lot of time in the offseason watching a lot of tape on Willie McGinest -- if he’s half as good as Willie, he’ll likely spell Pierre Woods on passing downs this season. But like Pierre Woods, ultimately Crable’s playing time this year will depends largely on whether or not the Pats decide to add to the outside linebacking spot.
Matthew Slater: You know how we said Crable was excited to just get on the field? I got some of that same feeling from Slater for several reasons, not the least of which includes the fact that he’ll be asked to do just one thing this year -- play safety -- which is a huge weight off his mind. He didn’t complain about what he was asked to do as a rookie, but he certainly sounded happier to just focus on one thing, as opposed to his first season when he got a taste of both sides of the football as well as special teams. This spring, he saw a lot of work as a safety. (Some of this can be attributed to the fact that Brandon Meriweather wasn’t out there at all this spring.)
In addition, he worked as a kick returner. In that same vein, here’s some food for thought: At the golf tournament earlier this month, Slater was so complimentary of new special teams coach Scott O’Brien, it made you wonder about the relationship he had with ex-special teams coach Brad Seely. Slater spoke of O’Brien in glowing terms, raving about his ability to make him feel confident.
“He believes in me and he has confidence in me, and as a player, that’s helpful, that your coach is behind you,” Slater said of O’Brien. “It makes you feel that much better about going out there and doing the job you need to do.”
Given Slater’s poor performance as a returner last year, a change in coaching might be just what he needs.
Pierre Woods: The Michigan product was taking most of his reps with the starting defense, and unless there’s a major personnel move before the start of training camp (Derrick Burgess?), he figures to get most of the snaps at the outside spot opposite Adalius Thomas this year. (Not sure if this means anything, but Woods appeared really relaxed and conversational when talking to the press this spring -- it could be a sign he’s secure with his spot.)
Woods and the rest of the young linebackers got a big boost recently from coach Bill Belichick. Speaking on Patriots.com, Belichick sounded impressed at their level of offseason commitment they’ve shown.
“Players like Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable and guys like that, they’ve been in here the whole offseason. They haven’t missed a day,” Belichick said. “I don’t think you have to ask them to step up. I think they want to step up and be the players they can be and hit their potential.”
Gary Guyton: Guyton looked solid throughout the duration of the OTAs and minicamp, but his fortunes could be tied to the status of veteran Paris Lenon. The two are primarily known as pass defenders, and if Lenon continues to step up and be a veteran presence in the middle -- he was taking the calls in the front of the defensive huddle on more than one occasion -- then that could mean fewer snaps for Guyton this season.
Ron Brace: I would love to tell you I saw plenty of the big 6-foot-3, 330-pound rookie out of Boston College. But the defensive linemen practice in the far corner of the practice field, so far away from where the media was sitting that whatever they were doing was a mostly just a rumor to us. As a result, I don’t have many notes on his performance throughout the spring practices.
However, there were a couple of moments on 11-on-11 work during full-squad minicamp work where he did line up with veteran defensive lineman Richard Seymour as part of a four-man front, and appeared to hold his own -- although I’m willing to bet some of that is due to the fact that both Jarvis Green and Ty Warren weren’t in attendance for any of the sessions this spring.
Darius Butler: After watching rookie minicamp, I initially thought that Butler had a shot at getting some reps at cornerback this season. But after watching some of the veterans throughout the spring -- through no fault of his own -- it certainly appears Butler faces an uphill battle for playing time. Between Bodden, Springs, Wilhite, Wheatley and Mike Richardson, it might be too much to ask for Butler to make a real dent at defensive back this year, even as a nickel back. Butler did have a couple of nice moments during the OTA sessions. First, he picked off a Tom Brady pass intended for Randy Moss in the end zone. Second, he took a pass away from Greg Lewis, stepping in front of a Brian Hoyer pass for Lewis on an in-cut.
That’s not to say that he won’t make the team -- he’s an undeniable talent who will someday see regular reps. It’s just a numbers game right now. With the full squad in attendance, the second-round pick out of UConn saw the bulk of his time on special teams, and will likely spend the bulk of his rookie season on special teams.
Vince Redd: Richard Seymour told reporters that Redd was built like a basketball player, and the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Redd looked more like a power forward going after a rebound on one play during practices. After jumping offsides, he hopped back in time. He then knocked down a pass, and was almost able to corral the ball for an interception. He didn’t appear to get a ton of reps with the starters, but remains an intriguing prospect, and could make some decisions difficult if they have to choose between Redd, Guyton and Paris Lenon. (If the Patriots can’t use him, he’ll find a spot on the Celtics as a backup to Leon Powe.)
Paris Lenon: Lenon, who arrived toward the end of the spring, is an X factor for fellow inside linebackers Redd, Guyton and Eric Alexander. The veteran has certainly made a good first impression -- after spending one session on the sidelines, tagging along with linebackers coach Matt Patricia, he was taking the calls in front of the defensive huddle. It remains to be seen how he’ll transition from the Tampa 2 to Belichick’s 3-4, but early indications seem to say he’ll do a good job.
Past experience tells us that there’s very little middle ground when it comes to veteran linebackers joining the Patriots at the mid-point of their careers. You either get Roman Phifer or you get Monty Beisel. The Patriots are hoping that Lenon is much closer to the former than the latter.