Here are 10 things we learned about the Patriots over the course of 2014 training camp, which came to an end of Monday:
1. If he stays healthy, Julian Edelman looks like he’s going to have a terrific year.
Throughout camp, it was clear that there were occasional miscommunications between quarterback Tom Brady and his pass catchers — a pass would be a little too far ahead of a receiver, or a timing route would be just barely off. None of that happened with Edelman, who appears to be in perfect sync with Brady as the season nears. He took part in all 17 practices, which could be taken as an optimistic sign when it comes to his 2014 season. Last year was the first year of his career where he stayed healthy enough to play in all 16 regular-season contests, and he responded with 105 catches, 1,056 yards and six touchdowns, all of which were career bests. (He became just the third receiver of the Brady era to top 100 receptions in a season — Troy Brown and Wes Welker were the other two.) Based on what we’ve seen from him this summer, if he stays healthy, he should top at least 70 catches, depending on what Rob Gronkowski and newcomer Brandon LaFell can offer the passing game.
2. Ditto for Darrelle Revis.
There was much ado made about the fact that Revis gave up a big pass to Jeremy Maclin in the joint practices with the Eagles, but as he explained after the session, it’s no worries. Revis has had a very good summer, and he apparently been happy to lay low while other cornerbacks go back-and-forth on Twitter arguing about contracts, interceptions and the like. There have already been several analogies made between Revis and Randy Moss, circa 2007, and right now, the cornerback appears to be on that same path when it comes to being an impact player in his first season with the Patriots.
3. The back end of the wide receiver depth chart has some interesting possibilities.
Based on what we saw over the course of the summer, it seems safe to say that the Patriots will Edelman, Danny Amendola, LaFell, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins at wide receiver. Given the fact that they’ve had an average of 4.8 receivers on the roster (not counting Matt Slater) the last five years, where does that leave 2013 fourth round pick Josh Boyce? Or Brian Tyms, who has become the people’s choice in his relatively short time with the team? Because of his four-game suspension, Tyms has some roster flexibility (he can stick around during his ban and not count toward the 53-man roster), but what to make of Boyce, who has been underwhelming to this point in the summer? Truthfully, Tyms has shown more than Boyce at this point, but maybe Boyce gets a four-game window to show what he can do while Tyms is sidelined, or maybe the Patriots carry one less skill position player at another position on the roster. Regardless, cutdown day promises to be interesting as it relates to the wide receiver position.
4. Versatility remains paramount.
All over the field — on both sides of the ball — there are players who are capable of lining up at multiple spot. Offensive lineman Jordan Devey has played both guard and both tackle positions, while Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline and Dan Connolly have displayed the same level of positional flexibility up front. Taylor McCuller has moved from fullback to linebacker and back again. James Develin has lined up as a fullback and tight end, while Nate Solder has also gotten work as what Bill Belichick has called an ‘end of the line’ player, or tackle eligible. On defense, defensive end Chandler Jones has dropped into coverage, playing a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end spot once patrolled by old friend Willie McGinest. And at defensive back, the lines continue to be blurred between cornerback and safety, as corners like Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan have seen extended stretches at safety, both in practice and in games. The more you can do, the more you can do for us is a common mantra around Foxboro, and that is true again this year.
5. When it comes to Rob Gronkowski, there’s a real feeling of optimism, but also a slight sense of deja vu.
Gronkowski was on the field on Monday, running routes in full pads with the rest of his teammates in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. And while there wasn’t much contact, the sight of him knocking around on the field is certainly a reason for optimism for New England football fans. In many ways, Gronkowski is a separator for the Patriots — if he’s healthy at the right time, there’s the very real chance New England wins those last two games and gets over the hump for ring No. 4. At the same time, his appearance should be taken with a grain of salt. Granted, he wasn’t nearly as far along last season as he was this year, but it’s easy to recall the sight of him running around on the lower fields at Gillette Stadium last summer, teasing everyone with the possibility that he’d be back for Week 1 of the 2013 regular season. Not to sound overly conspiratorial, but it’s important to remember that there are no coincidences around Foxboro, and given the fact that it was the final public practice for the fans and the final opportunity for the media to watch and record every detail of the complete workout, it was hardly a surprise he was out there. Now, every defensive coordinator from Denver to Buffalo has it in the back of his mind that Gronkowski is closer to a potential return.
6. They are thin at linebacker.
The Patriots’ starting trio of Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo are as good as almost anyone in the league, and it appears that veteran free agent pickup James Anderson has settled nicely into the role of coverage linebacker/third-down presence who will likely see the field on passing downs at the expense of Hightower. However, New England doesn’t have many NFL-ready players past that point, as the offseason departures of Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes thinned its depth since the AFC title game. A handful of youngsters have cycled through over the course of the summer, and the best backup outside of Anderson might be Darius Fleming, who missed his first two seasons because of injury. If a veteran suddenly drops out of the sky and into their laps when the upcoming cuts are released, don’t be surprised if the Patriots try and add a dependable presence at the back end of the depth chart.
7. They have been fairly lucky when it comes to avoiding injury this summer.
Several playoff contenders have already been hit by injury — the Niners (Glenn Dorsey, Kendall Hunter), Colts (Vick Ballard, Donald Thomas), Giants (David Wilson), Broncos (Danny Travathan) and Seahawks (Anthony McCoy) have suffered some severe injuries to this point in the summer. In addition, the Jets continue to see cornerbacks go down at a rapid rate. Meanwhile, New England’s health issues have been limited to backup defensive linemen, as Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones have missed an extended stretch of time because of injuries suffered prior to and during the game against the Redskins earlier this month. While not everyone was at 100 percent, their health was on full display Monday in the final camp session of the summer, when players like wide receiver Jeremy Gallon saw the field for the first time, while players like tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (who had been banged up earlier in the summer) were back with the team in full pads.
8. No one has stepped up and taken the role of kick returner.
The Patriots have gone through several different candidates for the role of kick returner — including Matthew Slater, Shane Vereen, Josh Boyce and Roy Finch — but none of them have made the sort of declarative statement in practice or in one of the two preseason games that you’d like at this point in the summer. Finch had a pair of returns and averaged 26 yards in last week’s game against the Eagles, but he fumbled away one of his chances in the first preseason contest against the Redskins. It’s important to remember that the guy they found to do the job last year — LeGarrette Blount — had just one return over the course of the four preseason games. Then, he went out and had a better-than-average 2014 before departing this past offseason for Pittsburgh as a free agent. So there’s still time.
9. There are still trying a lot of different combinations when it comes to strong safety, as well as right guard and center.
In truth, these are the three positions that still remain up in the air at this point in the summer. New England has run several players through the strong safety spot, including cornerback Kyle Arrington, as well as Ryan, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung. And as of Monday afternoon, they were still doing the same thing. Based on the number of game reps, it appears that Belichick might be leaning slightly toward Arrington, at least at this point. (The coach has talked on a couple of occasions this summer about the similarities between playing the slot as well as strong safety, and so that might make sense, at least from the perspective that he offers you a relatively similar skill set.) Then, there’s right guard and center, which has seen several different possibilities, including Ryan Wendell, Connolly and Bryan Stork at center, as well as Connolly, Josh Kline and Devey at right guard. (Cannon has also seen some time at guard as well.) While it was initially believed that Wendell might have been secure in retaining his old gig, it’s clear the Patriots are taking a long look at Connolly as the new starter, and considering the possibility of a few different candidates at the right guard spot. Two areas really worth keeping an eye on as far as game reps go between now and the end of the preseason.
10. The Patriots are going to go into the season with three quarterbacks.
There’s no debate about the starter, but when it comes to the rest of the depth chart, there’s been a lot of talk about how Jimmy Garoppolo may have surpassed Ryan Mallett for the No. 2 job. From this viewpoint, while the rookie has shown a lot over the course of the summer, he’s still behind Mallett on the depth chart. For what it’s worth, we can divide Garoppolo’s summer into two parts — his inconsistent and underwhelming performances that dotted practice prior to his contest against the Redskins, and everything after. Since that night, he’s appeared more comfortable in the offense and more consistent while on the practice field. But while he continues to progress, it would be rash to move Mallett down the depth chart. (And don’t read too much into the fact that Garoppolo got the call in front of Mallett last week against the Eagles — remember that Mallett missed two practices in the days leading up to that preseason game. When it comes to dividing up game reps, attendance can play a large role in dictating who gets more action that week.) Mallett is still the second-stringer on this team. That’s not to suggest that Garoppolo won’t eventually surpass him, or that Mallett is particularly special at what he does. Only that right now, it’s unlikely the Patriots have enough confidence in the rookie to move him ahead of Mallett on the depth chart. That means three quarterbacks for the first time since 2011.