Tom Brady and the Patriots are just about done with spring workouts. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)
With the spring OTAs coming to an end this week and minicamp done, here are 10 questions — in no particular order — we still have about the Patriots as the countdown to late July and training camp begins.
1. How soon can Julian Edelman return to full strength?
If you spend time obsessively monitoring social media, it appears there is some progress when it comes to the health of Edelman. He was healthy, he was in a walking boot (for some sort of procedure on the same foot he injured late last season) and now, it appears he’s out of the boot. It’s not like he needs a ton of reps to get up to speed with Tom Brady, but from this perspective, getting him on the field sooner rather than later would eliminate some of the uncertainty around his situation.
2. Was Aaron Dobson’s performance a tease, or something he can build on?
There were a ton of familiar faces on the offensive side of the ball missing from minicamp, but Dobson was the guy who did the best to take advantage of the opportunities he was given. He pretty much caught everything that was thrown in his direction over the course of the three days, but what impressed us the most was his compete level when going against cornerbacks. He consistently won the one-on-one battles, and flashed some moments of real talent. For a guy who has been a non-factor the last two years, the question is now whether or not he can build on that going forward into training camp as he continues to fight an uphill battle for a roster spot at the back end of the receivers’ depth chart.
3. Is Rob Gronkowski right when it comes to Jimmy Garoppolo?
We spend a lot of time talking to people like Gronkowski and Jeff Christiansen who know more than we do about Garoppolo and his development, and they all seem to believe that he’s ready to step in to start the year if Tom Brady is sidelined because of Deflategate. And he certainly looked the part over the course of the spring workouts — while the Patriots’ didn’t necessarily increase his workload, he looked confident and polished in the sessions that were open to the media. But the truth of the matter is that there’s no way of knowing what sort of quarterback Garoppolo will be when asked to take significant snaps. As Christiansen said, the opener on the road against the Cardinals would be a challenge for any signal-caller, but at the same time, three consecutive home games would appear to set up relatively nicely for the Eastern Illinois product. Ultimately, it’s a great unknown. Like Christiansen said, that’s why we buy the tickets, right?
4. Will we get some closure on Deflategate?
We are still waiting for the other shoe to drop when it comes to the en banc hearing, which means — as of this writing — there’s still uncertainly around the quarterback position for the first four games of the regular season. Short answer? The Patriots would love some clarity at quarterback sooner rather than later. For what it’s worth, they didn’t appear to deviate from the norm when it came to quarterback reps over the course of the spring workouts that were attended by the media, as it went Brady, Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett.
5. Can Cyrus Jones step in and start at nickel corner?
Over the course of the spring workouts — both minicamp and OTAs — it was hard not to notice how comfortable the rookie out of Alabama looked while playing alongside starting defensive backs like Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty. At this stage of the offseason, when it comes to first-year players, all you’re looking for is that they aren’t consistent error-repeaters. And while it was hard to judge defense because there were no pads on, Jones looked to have no issues when it came to keeping up with the veterans. He’ll certainly bear watching when training camp comes around, but at this point, he appears to be headed in the right direction as a third/nickel corner. In addition, with no Edelman or Danny Amendola on the field, he had plenty of chances to work as a punt returner. While he bobbled a few, he looks like he’s certainly going to be part of the conversation at that position in 2016.
6. How many changes are we going to see when it comes to the defensive front seven?
It’s not like the Patriots are going to operate out of a 3-4 as their base defense this season, but a first glance of that side of the ball reveals that they will have the ability to be a little more multiple than they were last season. The addition of Terrance Knighton — a pure nose tackle — as well as the inclusion of multidimensional linebackers Shea McClellin, Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich — gave things a bit of a different over the spring sessions. It’ll be interesting to see how newcomers like Chris Long (who may have a slightly different role than he had in St. Louis) take to the system and how much more responsibility second-year defensive lineman Malcom Brown will have on his plate. But don’t be shocked if there are some new defensive wrinkles up front for the Patriots in 2016.
7. How healthy are Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount?
Trying to assess the state of the roster via spring workouts is always a dicey proposition, but it’s even tougher to figure out the state of the Patriots running game because we saw Lewis only once, and didn’t see Blount at all. The injuries to their two lead backs (not to mention the fact that fullback James Develin was on the shelf all year) left the New England running game stalled out by the end of the season. The Lewis and Blount combo can still be a powerful 1-2 punch for the Patriots’ ground game, but we’ll have to wait until July to get a real sense of where they are when it comes to their health. One thing worth noting — newcomer Donald Brown looked good this spring, particularly working as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. We didn’t include him on our initial 53-man roster projection, but if Lewis and/or Blount aren’t ready to go right out of the gate in July, he’s earned the right for more reps.
8. Can Dante Scarnecchia revive the offensive line?
Tough to tell at this point, because there were no pads on this spring and most of what we believe will be the starting offensive line (Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Tre’ Jackson) weren’t on the field at all when the media was let in to cover the workouts. Like the Lewis/Blount question, this is one we really won’t know about for sure until late July. And even then, the Patriots usually do a ton of shuffling up front in hopes of finding the right combination. Check back with us sometime around Labor Day for the answer to this one.
9. What’s a realistic ceiling, numbers-wise, at the tight end position?
A completely unscientific check of some of the best seasons for any tight end grouping revealed these to be the top 5:
2011 Patriots: Aaron Hernandez (79 catches, 910 yards, 7 TDs) and Rob Gronkowski (90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs)
169 catches, 2,237 yards, 24 TDs
1984 Chargers: Pete Holohan (56 catches, 734 yards, 1 TD), Kellen Winslow (55 catches, 663 yards, 2 TDs), Eric Sievers (41 catches, 438 yards, 3 TDs), Ron Egloff (11 catches, 92 yards)
150 catches, 1,927 yards, 6 TDs
1983 Chargers: Kellen Winslow (88 catches, 1,172 yards, 8 TDs), Eric Sievers (33 catches, 452 yards, 3 TDs), Pete Holohan (23 catches, 272 yards, 2 TDs).
144 catches, 1,896 yards, 13 TDs
2015 Titans: Delanie Walker (94 catches, 1,088 yards, 6 TDs), Anthony Fasano (26 catches, 289 yards, 2 TDs), Craig Stevens (12 catches, 121 yards, 2 TDs)
132 catches, 1,498 yards, 10 TDs
2004 Chiefs: Tony Gonzalez (102 catches, 1,258 yards, 7 TDs) and Jason Dunn (17 catches, 120 yards, 3 TDs)
119 catches, 1,378 yards, 10 TDs
Based on what we saw this spring, we’re going to put them in this neighborhood, provided both stay healthy for all 16 games. Even with Edelman, Amendola, Lewis and the rest of the offensive skill position players getting their share of targets, it’s reasonable to think that the Patriots could get somewhere in the vicinity of 150 receptions combined from the tight end spot.
10. Who’s going to be the next guy in line for a new contract?
While we in the media got all worked up about potential deals for Butler, Collins and Dont’a Hightower, it appears that the spring has come and gone without a new deal for any of them. From this viewpoint, at least one of them will get a new contract between now and the start of the regular season.