Julian Edelman’s sudden departure from camp was the most dramatic moment of the two-plus weeks this summer. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
The curtain came down on our chance to watch training camp practices this week, so it’s time to hand out 10 camp awards for 2016.
1. Most Consistent Performers (and best quotes): The tight ends — When they were on the field, Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski were a handful to deal with. Bennett caught just about everything thrown in his direction, while Gronkowski has spent most of the summer doing Gronkowski-type things. Provided they can stay healthy, they will be as dynamic an offensive combination as the Patriots have ever had. AJ Derby’s continued ability to show up, combined with his standout performance against the Bears, also gives him the early lead here in the race to land the third spot. (The two also consistently provided the best quotes, from Bennett’s take on developing chemistry with two quarterbacks to Gronk’s breath.)
2. Best Rookie: Joe Thuney — The third-round pick out of North Carolina State has stepped into the left guard spot and made the most of his opportunities. Technically sound with good footwork and good versatility (at least at the collegiate level), he’s been able to put plenty of pressure on the rest of the incumbents along the offensive line. At this point in the summer, he’s pushed himself to the front of the depth chart, and distinguished himself as the finest first-year player on the roster so far. Rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell also showed plenty of flash before he went down with an elbow injury in the preseason opener against the Saints.
3. Most Dramatic Moment: Julian Edelman leaving practice — On Aug. 9 in a joint practice with the Saints, the receiver was enjoying a great start to the workout before he tossed his helmet in disgust and wandered over to a medical cart with what appeared to be some sort of left foot or ankle issue. He stood talking with a trainer for a stretch before leaving the field. For a guy who has had left foot issues over the last year-plus, the idea of Edelman going down again was a ghastly thought. By now you know that the story has a happy ending — he’s return to what appears to be full strength. For what it’s worth, Edelman was absolutely electric when he was on the field this summer. The cuts he was making when facing opposing defensive backs were ridiculous. (The injuries to Gronkowski and Rob Ninkovich were a close second, but neither were as overly dramatic as Edelman’s departure.)
4. Biggest Surprise: Tom Brady sitting out the Bears game — Pretty much everyone, including Bill Belichick, said that the veteran was going to be playing against Chicago, even if it was just for a few snaps. And so when the quarterbacks rolled onto the field Thursday for warmups with no Jay-Z and no Brady, it was a big surprise. Everyone knows the thumb story by now, and while anyone who knows the truth about what might have happened isn’t talking, we do know that Belichick relishes the chance to throw a curveball at his team in the preseason on a fairly regular basis. Jimmy Garoppolo faced the curveball, and while he didn’t hit it out the park, the way he responded was certainly positive. (“You have to be ready for anything, at any time. “That’s part of football,” Belichick shrugged after the game. “Things happen that are unexpected.”) If there was ever a circumstance that fit the definition, it was what happened last Thursday.
5. Biggest Disappointment: Bryan Stork — Hard to find a higher profile guy who had a camp like Stork. The center struggled to stay on the field because of injury, one of the reasons he’s No. 2 on the depth chart right now to David Andrews. That, compounded with an inability to keep his cool in a recent throwdown with a Chicago defensive lineman, have him in a fight for a roster spot. New offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper hasn’t been spotted on the field for almost two weeks. Third place goes to the performance of the New England media against the New Orleans media.
6. Lifetime Achievement Award: Brady — Not breaking any news here, but Brady was really sharp for much of the two-plus weeks of camp. In his 17th career NFL training camp, he’s managed to serve as an excellent example to his young teammates when it comes to preparing for another season.
7. Worst narrative: Brady and Garoppolo dislike each other — Make no mistake: The two aren’t the best of friends, but the idea that Brady and Garoppolo are locked in some sort of blood feud is ridiculous. There’s a competitive (and territorial) streak there especially with Brady, especially when you consider that he ascended to the job in 2001 because he took advantage of an opportunity when the starter was out. And Garoppolo has had a few noticeable moments where he’s deferred to Brady at the start of drills. But the idea that Brady hates Garoppolo is absurd.
8. Biggest Question: Does the running game need help? — For those who were questioning the state of the ground attack, the performance of LeGarrette Blount against the Bears was an encouraging sign. And Tyler Gaffney’s effort against the Saints was also positive. But without Dion Lewis on the field to this point of the summer (and Donald Brown’s presence being spotty at best), there remains a vague sense of unease as to the state of the running game at this point on the calendar. Another strong week from Blount, the continued upward trend for Gaffney and at least a token appearance by Lewis would go a long way toward easing any fears. But there’s still a reason why so many folks were at least curious about Karlos Williams when the Bills cut him loose over the weekend.
9. Best Fight: Malcolm Butler vs. Alshon Jeffery — This was one of the best training camp dustups in recent memory in New England. Butler and Jeffery locked up on Monday of Bears week, sparking a battle that spilled over to the sidelines and included several teammates on both sides. It was one of several skirmishes between the two teams over the course of the first two days of joint practices. Given what happened, it’d be a shock to see the Patriots and Bears schedule another round of joint practices in the future.
10. The Zach Sudfeld Award: Gaffney — Every summer, we wildly overrate a new face based on a handful of performances. This year, it’s Gaffney. This isn’t a knock on the running back, who has done very well with the opportunities he’s been given — before it’s all said and done, he could end up pushing his way toward the middle of the depth chart. It’s only to say that he seems to be the people’s choice at this stage of the summer based on a relatively small sample size. At the very least, he’s distinguished himself as someone to watch going forward.