FOXBORO, Mass. — When Thursday’s joint practice session between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers comes to an end around 4:15 p.m., training camp will officially be over in Foxboro.
There won’t be much to glean from the final Patriots training camp practice, since it’s a walk through the day before a game. The players will be in shorts and shells, going through the motions at less-than-half speed. That means this is the perfect time to look back while it’s still fresh in the mind to go over the Top 10 takeaways from Patriots summer camp.
Training camp started two days early this year when Bill Belichick held a press conference Wed. July 24 to address the Aaron Hernandez situation. Players were badgered by questions the next day whether the murder investigation would distract the team. A solemn Vince Wilfork said the team would have to concentrate on football to get past the tragedy. It looks like the Patriots, and the media, have done just that, as the name Hernandez hasn’t been whispered around Gillette Stadium since the last week of July.
The final padded practice of training camp had the crowd go eerily silent halfway through when Tom Brady went down clutching his knee after Nate Solder got embarrassed on a bull rush by Bucs defensive end Adrian Clayborn. The uncertainty at the time had everyone within a 200-mile radius of Foxboro reeling, but the future hall-of-famer — and his knee — will survive.
In the three weeks between those two events, the Patriots ran a lot of drills, players improved before our very eyes, the team practiced with the Eagles and Buccaneers and even played a preseason game in Philadelphia.
Here’s what we saw in those three weeks of training camp:
1. Patriots found two undrafted gems: Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld started to stand out in the spring during OTAs and minicamp, but they proved how consistently good they can be during the summer. Thompkins has only had one bad practice, which came in the first week of camp during the team’s session under the stars at Gillette Stadium. Thompkins proved it wasn’t the time of day or bigger setting that made him have a case of the dropsies, as he impressed in last week’s preseason game against the Eagles. Thompkins can seemingly do it all. He flies by defensive backs on go routes, he can stop on a dime after the catch and his route running is second only to Danny Amendola on the Patriots’ roster.
Sudfeld has been nearly as impressive, gathering more and more reps with the first team (though, Belichick says there is no such thing) as the summer has progressed. Sudfeld’s speed and quickness sets him apart from the rest of the Patriots’ tight ends. He still needs to prove himself as a blocker, but since he’s been setting up in Hernandez’s old “flex” spot, that isn’t as important as his receiving skills.
2. Tim Tebow is improving: Let’s just get this out of the way now. Tebow was really bad when training camp first started up. There were some chuckles in the media tent over his inability to get rid of the ball on time, look off his first target or even deliver a ball in the general vicinity of his intended receiver. But Tebow showed some real improvement by the time Wednesday’s practice had finished.
His favorite target is Quentin Sims, and sometimes Tebow still has trouble looking past the 6-foot-3 receiver, but the third-stringer was delivering the ball with some zip and accuracy as he got the second team moving. Tebow is still no Brady, nor is he Ryan Mallett, but if he continues to improve, he could just yet find a spot on the 53-man roster.
3. Patriots top picks flashing, but inconsistent: It’s slightly telling that the top rookies on the team so far are Thompkins and Sufeld, both of whom New England swooped up after the draft. Top picks Jamie Collins and Aaron Dobson show flashes of what made them second-rounders, but also that they’re still rookies and may not be able to be relied upon consistently early.
Collins still shows some hesitation in coverage and against the run, though he seems to have no problem rounding the corner to rush the quarterback. Dobson has a flair for the dramatic, as he’ll make incredible leaping catches, but can struggle with drops and route running.
4. Rutgers rookies catching on quickly: Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan and Steve Beauharnais are showing why Belichick loves picking up Rutgers players. Harmon and Ryan are finding reps with the first-team defense in training camp, while Beauharnais is running the second team from middle linebacker.
Harmon has been the most impressive of the three, finding a role behind Devin McCourty at deep safety, but Ryan could be relied upon heavily this season if Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling can’t get healthy. Beauharnais seems primed for a role as a special teamer and backup linebacker.
5. There’s not much depth behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly: It appears the Patriots had high hopes for Armond Armstead. Unfortunately, the CFL import has missed all of training camp after undergoing surgery for an infection. Now, the team has just Marcus Forston and a gaggle of undrafted rookies behind Wilfork and Kelly.
It appears the team will throw a defensive end — right now it’s Marcus Benard — in at defensive tackle in nickel and dime packages, while Forston and Cory Grissom have been the top depth in the base defense. Benard presents a pass-rush threat, but he struggled holding his ground against the run in New England’s preseason game with the Eagles.
6. Ryan Mallett still not ready for prime time: There are still three preseason games to go, but Mallett’s first showing against the Eagles and his three weeks of camp haven’t proven he’s ready to start in the NFL. Mallett has a big arm but still has issues with his touch and accuracy. He’s certainly not a threat with his mobility and he’s even underthrown receivers a few times.
Mallett will have to show drastic improvement in his final three preseason games to get another team to come calling, willing to trade for the third-year quarterback to be their future starter. It appears having Tebow nipping at his heals hasn’t done the trick to get the wheels moving on his development.
7. Safety battle stagnant: While Adrian Wilson seems primed to start next to Devin McCourty when the NFL season starts up, the longtime veteran hasn’t exactly stood out in training camp. Of course, Wilson’s skills don’t really translate well to practice. He’s a hard hitter and what he lacks in mobility, he makes up for with his instincts and experience.
Wilson has been playing up near the line in a hybrid linebacker role, and if that continues, the Patriots will need to stick another safety back deep with McCourty in certain situations. Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory haven’t stood out in the role. If anything, Harmon seems to be the next-best option to play next to McCourty, and it’s my prediction that Harmon will get some starting reps this year. While Wilson and Gregory seem comfortable reading and reacting, Harmon’s instincts tend to have him moving in the right direction at the snap.
Harmon will be especially valuable if Devin McCourty has to move down to cornerback at any point this season. In that case, Harmon would be a better option at free safety than Gregory or either Wilson.
8. Patriots lack of depth at cornerback becoming a concern: New England looked primed to have the best depth at cornerback they had seen in years. Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington would start, with Ras-I Dowling, Logan Ryan, Marquice Cole and McCourty backing them up. But injuries to Dennard and Dowling have had the Patriots reeling.
Ryan has been getting first-team snaps and McCourty has been moving up to play cornerback intermittently. That just weakens the safety position, which would do more harm than the good of having McCourty playing outside. If the Patriots have to deal without Dennard and Dowling, the drastic improvement we saw in the secondary late last season will be a half-season mirage.
9. Brandon Bolden shines in practice, LeGarrette Blount shines in game: The battle for the fourth running back spot will likely wage until hours before the Patriots have to make their final cuts on Aug. 31. Bolden shows the better quicks, speed and moves in practice, while Blount tends to run into blockers more often than not. Of course, Blount was the star of the Eagles’ game, taking a video game-esque run all the way to the house after doing a complete 180 when he couldn’t find space on the left side of the field.
The Patriots could hold on to both players, but that would mean weakening the depth at another position. Undrafted rookie George Winn has shown to be a viable practice squad candidate to store as the fifth running back.
10. Patriots expanding their defense: In 2011, the lockout, combined with some new faces in the defense, forced the defense to go to a base 4-3 without much originality. Last year, the team started to show more 3-4 looks, but it appears the vaunted hybrid defense will be returning in full force this season.
The team has showed three-man and four-man lines throughout training camp that have Chandler Jones playing seven-technique, five-technique and even standing up on the outside as an edge rusher. The Patriots have also shown a three-man nickel defensive front, which would mean the team could keep three linebackers on the field.
With so much continuity on defense this year, the Patriots are bound to be more creative. The team is bringing back 10 of 11 starters, with numerous other bit players returning, as well.