FOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick might have said “training camp is not over” in his press conference after Friday night’s game, but it has certainly ended for fans and media members.
We won’t be gleaning much at practice from here on out, but that just means we’ll be watching the games a little bit closer during the last few weeks of the preseason. No unit has been glaringly bad in New England, though some have not progressed as hoped this summer.
Check out how the Patriots grade out positionally below.
Tom Brady‘s been an A+, Ryan Mallett‘s been a C+ and Tim Tebow‘s been a D. Averaged out and weighed toward Brady, that becomes a B+ overall for the quarterbacks.
Knee injury or not, it doesn’t look like Brady has lost a step at all this summer. I expected more out of Mallett, though. There hasn’t been a practice where Mallett has really shined yet. Now in his third year, expectations were high for the Arkansas product, and so far, he has not delivered.
RUNNING BACKS: A-
The Patriots’ running backs have been just as good as advertised this summer. Stevan Ridley seems to have bulked up — and maybe he would have been able to take his 61-yard run against the Eagles to the house if he was still at his 2012 size — but for the most part, the third-year back seems just as quick and shifty as ever. Ridley and all the backs have shown off impressive receiving skills in training camp and the preseason.
Shane Vereen will be a dangerous weapon in 2013. He has the ability to run or catch out of the backfield, and if he splits out across from a linebacker, watch out — he’s probably going deep. Vereen will be exploiting mismatches all season. Blount and Bolden each appear to have improved while battling for what might be the fourth and final running back spot on the roster.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B
Expectations about the Patriots’ wide receivers were wisely tempered coming into training camp. Danny Amendola and the rookies (sounds like a ’50s doo wop band) have gone above and beyond in exceeding those expectations. Kenbrell Thompkins has been the biggest surprise and appears poised to take on the starting role across from Amendola in the fall. Thompkins can play any of the receiver positions in the Patriots’ offense and will fit in no matter who is playing around him.
Everyone else, from Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce to Quentin Sims and Kamar Aiken, have been so impressive that the Patriots let go of three veteran receivers with more proven track records.
TIGHT ENDS: B
If Rob Gronkowski were healthy, this would no doubt be an A, but since Gronkowski is standing on the sideline in sweats rather than suiting up, taking passes and blocking defensive ends, it gets lowered to a B, even though Zach Sudfeld, Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanwanui and Daniel Fells have looked good.
Ballard is still a bit gimpy, recovering from his February 2012 knee injury, and Fells has missed time recently with what we guess is an injury. Sudfeld has been the most impressive receiving tight end and will likely take Aaron Hernandez‘s old flex tight end spot, even if he likely won’t receive as many snaps as Hernandez did.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
If the Patriots hadn’t been ravaged with injuries at right guard, this might be much higher. Unfortunately, Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon, Markus Zusevics and Tyronne Green have all been bit (some harder than others) by the injury bug. Connolly and Zusevics are finally back to participating in practice, while Cannon is still out and Green has been placed on injured reserve.
That string of injuries has left Will Svitek starting at right guard. Svitek has been all right, but not good enough that he’s a risk to steal starting snaps from Connolly or Cannon — whoever makes it out of training camp as the starter.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES: B
Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly have looked great, but the Patriots could have afforded to go into training camp with better depth along the interior. Marcus Forston and Cory Grissom have certainly had their moments, but Forston is a second-year player who only played one game last year, and Grissom is an undrafted rookie. If Wilfork or Kelly go down, two very inexperienced, undrafted players would be thrust into big roles.
There’s very little chance it could happen, but the Patriots could really use a player like Richard Seymour right now to rotate with Kelly at three-technique defensive tackle.
DEFENSIVE ENDS: B+
The Patriots looked to have a ton of quality players at this position going into the summer, but only Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have really flashed in preseason games. Marcus Benard looks great in practice, but he’s been playing the three-technique defensive tackle spot in sub packages, where he has a tendency to get eaten alive by blockers.
Jermaine Cunningham has been hurt, Jake Bequette has been invisible, Justin Francis hasn’t flashed much and Michael Buchanan winds up three yards behind the quarterback on nearly every passing down. Competition was supposed to breed success at this position, but in all actuality, it’s just created a clump of players all near the same level.
This is easily one of the Patriots’ deepest and most talented units on the team. Jerod Mayo is one of the best overall linebackers in the NFL, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes can both bring a thump in run defense and the pass rush, Jamie Collins was all over the field on Friday night at Gillette Stadium against the Buccaneers, Dane Fletcher looks fully recovered from knee surgery, Steve Beauharnais has proven to be quality depth at middle linebacker, and you could do much worse than Mike Rivera and Jeff Tarpinian as reserves/special teamers.
Collins looks like he could step in right away on third down in coverage, and he’s looked good swinging around the edge as a pass rusher. Fletcher has a year to prove he’s fully healthy, then he could easily find himself on another roster next year with a starting role.
This unit was set to be much improved in 2013 with Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard back in the starting roles, Kyle Arrington in the slot and Ras-I Dowling, Logan Ryan and Marquice Cole as depth. It hasn’t exactly panned out that way so far, though.
Dennard and Dowling (shocking) have been hurt, which has thrust Arrington into a starting role. Arrington is not as strong outside as he is in the slot, and he’s had some so-so moments in training camp. Talib and Arrington looked great on Friday night against the Bucs, while Cole seemed to have a moment of miscommunication and Ryan had his highs (a pick six) and lows.
This unit has looked better in practice than it has in games. That’s likely because Devin McCourty has been practicing but not playing in the preseason. Adrian Wilson has looked better in games than practice, Steve Gregory hasn’t had glaring moments in games, Tavon Wilson has had two rough games and Duron Harmon impressed in Game 1 but had some rough moments in Game 2.
Overall, this unit should improve greatly once McCourty comes back. That could be this week, since he shed the red practice jersey Monday.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Stephen Gostkowski is now 2-of-5 on field goals, which has some wondering why the Patriots aren’t bringing in any competition for the kicker. Zoltan Mesko has been on his A-game with Ryan Allen pushing him. The Patriots have given up some big returns this preseason, though, including 63-, 40- and 33-yard kick returns and a 62-yard punt return. Bill Belichick might have a conniption if that continues during the season.