Quick-hit thoughts on the NFL and the Patriots:
1. A lot can change between now and the end of training camp, but the under-the-radar Patriots offensive player who has arguably built more momentum than any other to this point is rookie free-agent receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. Friday's release of veteran receiver Donald Jones, who was due a $200,000 reporting bonus, was tied in part to Thompkins' strong work in the spring, when he was taking first-team repetitions by the end of mandatory minicamp. Thompkins (6-foot, 193 pounds) played at Cincinnati in 2011 and 2012, and had modest production (44 receptions in '11, then 34 in '12), which contributed to his going undrafted (the Patriots inked him to a free-agent deal with a $2,500 signing bonus and $2,500 of the base salary guaranteed). After playing at the junior college level, he had hoped to finish his college career at Tennessee, signing with the Vols in 2010, but he left when coach Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal, and the NCAA ruled he had to sit out a year because of transfer rules. So Thompkins is a bit older than the standard rookie (he turns 25 on July 29). He also had a tougher upbringing and was arrested seven times between the ages of 15 and 18. I spoke with one scout who felt those troubles were behind Thompkins. Still, from a football perspective, the scout didn't see much "wow" factor; Thompkins isn't particularly fast (4.54 in the 40) and there weren't necessarily any intangibles that stood out to the scout. But a strong performance at the Texas vs. Nation game, coupled with some things clicking for him in the spring with the Patriots, has him in position to be a sleeper to watch in training camp.
2. It's been 11 days since Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence in Lincoln, Neb., and the team is keeping him on the roster for now. Dennard's version of what unfolded differs from the official police report, so it basically comes down to a "he said, he said" type of situation, and at this point the club is giving Dennard -- who was a solid performer on and off the field for them prior to the incident -- the benefit of the doubt. I don't think that means they will absolutely keep him on the team when all is said and done, but they have enough reason to believe in Dennard at this point to feel the right thing to do is let the situation play out legally before making a final decision.
3. A resolution to the Patriots' pursuit of the $3.85 million signing bonus for Jonathan Fanene is coming. Fanene, one of the team's top free-agent signings in 2012, never played a regular-season down for the club and was released in August 2012 with a "failure to disclose physical condition." A hearing is set for Monday. Fanene received more than half of the signing bonus when he signed, and the rest of it was deferred. Team president Jonathan Kraft shared his viewpoint on the situation in August 2012 during an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub (link here).
4. Last week, it was mentioned that the Patriots will open training camp with three straight 9 a.m. practices, which was notable from this viewpoint because it was a change from last year (when practices started at 1:30 p.m.). Looks like I might have read a bit too much into Bill Belichick's thinking of going with the early start; the idea that perhaps going earlier created the setup most conducive for success. If not for a Taylor Swift concert at Gillette Stadium next weekend, which will draw big crowds, it turns out the practices actually might have been scheduled a bit later in the day. I'll take the 5-yard penalty for jumping to conclusions too quickly, while also asking: Who knew Taylor Swift could actually have an impact on the team's scheduling? In all seriousness, such is the case when a team practices and plays in a multiuse facility.
5. The most interesting thing I heard Bill Parcells talk about during a national conference call last week previewing his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was when asked if there was one season that stood out to him as his best coaching job. He picked the 1999 Jets, who started the season 1-6 but finished 8-8. "That wasn't any monumental success or anything, but I think most coaches will tell you when you start 1-6, it's tough to maintain the things that you need to be successful," he said. That was the year starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde was lost to a season-ending Achilles injury in the season opener against the Patriots. I would have figured Parcells to pick the 1990 Giants; he did pick the NFC Championship Game victory over the 49ers that season as arguably his most memorable game. I liked his story of how referee Jerry Markbreit later told him it was the greatest game, with the most talented players, he had ever officiated.
6. Listening to Parcells made me wonder: When Belichick looks back on his Patriots tenure, will he view the Tom Brady-less 2008 season (11-5) the same way Parcells did the '99 Jets? Many point to a weaker schedule that year for the Patriots, but when you lose Brady and turn to a backup who hardly played in college (Matt Cassel), it takes some top-notch coaching to lead a team through that type of situation.
7. I also wonder, when Belichick looks back on his time with the Patriots, if there will be any regret not surrounding Brady with more weapons at receiver on a consistent basis. I don't think the Patriots have valued the receiver position as highly as others (e.g., no first-round picks at the position under Belichick) and the thought comes to mind because there are a lot of questions for the Patriots at the position entering training camp.
8. Did you know: Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 19 will be holding their training camps in their home practice facility. In 2000, only five of the then-31 teams stayed at home. The Eagles, who trained at Lehigh University the last 16 years, are the latest club to shift back to their home base. The Cowboys and Dolphins both had rookies and veterans report to training camp Saturday, and by this coming Saturday, every team will have started training camp.
9. I think one of the most important players in the AFC East who might be flying under the radar a bit is Dolphins left tackle Jonathan Martin. The second-year blocker out of Stanford is the projected starter at left tackle, and he's reportedly added 15 pounds this year after getting pushed around at times in 2012 (some of that showed up on the Patriots' tape). For a team that is relying on second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill to take a decisive step in his development, it shouldn't be overlooked that a new left tackle is being broken in as well. Martin was a second-round pick last year who mostly played right tackle in 2012.
10. At a time when watching the game at home might have more appeal than in previous years, teams like the Patriots seem to be working hard to focus on improving the in-game experience. The Patriots recently informed season-ticket holders that tickets will be mailed out in late July, while also touting some enhancements when it comes to the in-game experience. For example, season-ticket holders will have a new "game-day live app" designed to "enhance [the] game-day experience with exclusive in-game content and videos, weather and traffic updates." The club also noted more than "1,800 feet of new LED boards [that] will display more game-day content including: fantasy football updates, out-of-town scores, and game stats." Also, given the NFL's new bag policy, the club is sending clear bags, with the Patriots logo, to its season-ticket holders.
11. Good luck to Sports Illustrated's Peter King as he launches his new website "The MMQB" tomorrow. Peter has been kind to me over the years, and like many others, part of my Monday morning routine is checking out his "Monday Morning Quarterback" column. Now we have another destination to put on the must-reading list.
12. And finally, our ESPNBoston.com Patriots coverage team will have its depth thinned this year as Mike Rodak is on to bigger and better things. Details of his new opportunity will be officially announced when all the I's are dotted and T's are crossed, and I'm happy that he'll still be in the family. Mike's contributions to our Patriots coverage have been invaluable and I'd like to tell you a quick story as to how it all unfolded. It was right around this time on the calendar in 2010, and we were mapping out training camp coverage on ESPNBoston.com (our first camp, but second season covering the team). Plans came together late for the possibility of bringing on a "student assistant" and I had met Mike online through the Patsfans.com website. He had insightful posts on the site and also tipped me off, via email, to help me break some stories. We met briefly before camp that year and the decision was made -- thanks to our editors Peter Lawrence-Riddell and David Lefort -- to bring him aboard in a role that would develop based on how much he could handle. It turned out to be a lot, especially for someone who was a sophomore in college. Three years later, this May, Mike graduated from Providence College and his strong work and hustle to chase the story was recognized for a position that many would covet even after working in his field for decades. Mike made ESPNBoston.com's Patriots coverage better and he'll do the same in his new job, which I've compared to him moving from coordinator to head coach. He has his own show to run, and I wish him all the best.