The New England Patriots will have to learn to be internally motivated again starting next week.
Open training camp at Gillette Stadium concluded Monday, so the fans will be gone, as will the media, and Bill Belichick will be able to coach his players in peace.
Here’s the four biggest things we learned through two-and-a-half weeks of practice.
1. THE PATRIOTS COULD HAVE THEIR MOST LOADED UDFA CLASS EVER
This lesson might sound crazy at first, but while the Patriots are known for producing talented undrafted free agents, they’ve never had a seriously loaded class. Here’s the competition.
Fans voted 2014 as the best class in a landslide, but that only produced one player.
I am absolutely, 100 percent getting ahead of myself here, but wide receiver Austin Carr, tight end Jacob Hollister, defensive tackle Adam Butler, linebacker Harvey Langi, cornerbacks Kenny Moore and D.J. Killings, and even safeties Damarius Travis and Jason Thompson have had impressive moments in training camp and preseason.
Langi and Butler have seen time with the first-team defense, and Hollister is very much in the running for the Patriots’ No. 3 tight end role after gaining over 100 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars while making impressive contested receptions.
2. THERE STILL ARE DISTINCT TIERS AT QB
Jimmy Garoppolo is the same degree better than Jacoby Brissett than Tom Brady is superior to Garoppolo. No one could come out of training camp thinking anything other than Brady is the No. 1 QB, Garoppolo is No. 2 and Brissett is No. 3.
This tells us two things: No. 1, next offseason will be fascinating. If Brady plays at the same level as he did in 2016, and if Garoppolo doesn’t drastically improve over the next season, then the Patriots can’t justify the possible decision to roll with the younger player moving forward. No. 2, the Patriots potentially have a difficult decision to make with Brissett this season. They likely will keep him because of the uncertainty still surrounding their top two quarterbacks, but as far as the 2017 season is concerned, they don’t need to.
If there wasn’t risk involved, they could try to slip Brissett onto the practice squad, but a team like the New York Jets or Buffalo Bills could elect to claim him just to spite the Patriots. The Patriots also could pull some funny business and find a way to get Brissett on injured reserve.
3. NEW ADDITIONS HAVE BEEN A MIXED BAG
No, we’re not overreacting, just simply stating facts.
The good: Wide receiver Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore look like blue-chip players. They’ve been fantastic and as good as advertised. Tight end Dwayne Allen also stopped dropping passes and seems ready to be the Garth to Rob Gronkowski’s Wayne.
The not-so good: Running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead and tight end James O’Shaughnessy have been limited with injuries, and pass rusher Kony Ealy still isn’t playing on the first-team defense. They all could pan out, but that’s been their summer so far.
Linebacker David Harris and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy look primed to play roles this season.
4. PASS RUSH IS THE BIGGEST QUESTION MARK
The Patriots currently have just four healthy pure defensive ends on their roster — Ealy, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Caleb Kidder. They also have Deatrich Wise, who’s dealing with a head injury, and Keionta Davis, who was signed last week but sat out of his first practice Monday. He went undrafted because of a bulging disc in his neck.
Hybrid edge rushers Langi, Derek Rivers, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy also could count as pass rushers, as could Butler, who’s more of an interior player.
There are just a lot of questions in this role outside of Flowers, who almost certainly will start at right defensive end. The Patriots liked to put at least three pass rushers on the field last season on third down, so some players will have to stick.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images