Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. One of the unforgettable images of Patriots training camp came Aug. 5 when the team held a three-hour full-pads joint practice with Washington in hot, humid temperatures, before Bill Belichick capped it off by having players run end-of-practice sprints while imploring them to dig deeper because it could be how they feel in the fourth quarter when a game is on the line. I asked cornerback Darrelle Revis about Belichick’s direct involvement with the team’s conditioning, and he agreed it’s a bit different from what he’s seen in the past, when a strength coach is usually the person leading those drills. Revis shared the viewpoint that it’s not just about conditioning -- which will be key with a sweltering season opener Sept. 7 in Miami -- but also Belichick’s way of attempting to build mental toughness within his team.
2. With roster cutdowns coming this week, it is the time when teams that have depth at certain positions might try to acquire an asset in exchange for a player that might not make their club. I’d put the Patriots in that category, with wide receiver, running back and cornerback the spots that are most well stocked. I’d imagine Belichick will be working the phones to see if there is a deal that presents itself. Covering his team, you’re almost conditioned to brace for the inevitable surprise.
3. Not too long ago, I wondered if Vince Wilfork's career could be threatened by the torn Achilles he suffered last September. Now, I’m wondering if it actually might prolong it. Wilfork has worked hard to shed weight this year, is moving well, and it’s hard to miss how his interior push contributed to the edge pressure the Patriots had Friday against Cam Newton and the Panthers. I think Wilfork is not only back to where he was in 2013 before the injury, but is currently playing at an even better level than that. The only question now is if it sustains.
4. When a player is suspended, as Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner is for the first four games of the regular season, the question is sometimes asked about what they do over that time. They aren’t allowed at the team facility, and in the case of Browner, he told me last week that he plans to return home to California. “We do so much conditioning around here and they’ll give me a workout program before I take off from here,” Browner said before playing just 14 snaps in Friday’s preseason game against Carolina. “I’m going to maintain what I have and I think I’ll be in good shape when it’s time to come back.”
5. The identity of the Panthers' offense reminds me of recent Steelers teams in that they have a big, athletic quarterback who can extend plays to go along with a power running game, but the offensive line looks like a question mark. It’s hard to fill every hole in a two-year span, especially when inheriting a challenging salary cap situation, but I’d think offensive tackle is GM Dave Gettleman’s next major area to address. Meanwhile, 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) looks like a perfect receiver for the Panthers’ system and at first glance, I mistook him for a linebacker. More than just his solid production Friday (5 catches, 47 yards, 1 catch negated by penalty), Benjamin impressed with the way he competed, especially when going up against Revis.
6. With a four-game suspension for Chiefs starting right tackle Donald Stephenson announced on Friday, it’s notable from a Patriots perspective because New England travels to Kansas City in Week 4. The Chiefs were already an O-line in transition, with three starters defecting in free agency, and it’s never a good thing when depth is being tested before the season begins.
7. Revisit the first round of the 2012 draft and see if you agree with this: If teams could do it again, Patriots defensive end/outside linebacker Chandler Jones would be a top 10 pick. Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Luke Kuechly, Dontari Poe, Alshon Jeffery, Lavonte David, Bobby Wagner and Matt Kalil would go before him, and maybe Doug Martin, Mark Barron, Nick Foles and Alfred Morris are in the mix too. But Jones isn't far off, and he's still ascending. The Patriots take their fair share of criticism for missed draft picks, but I’m not sure they get enough credit for the ones they do hit, like Jones (21st overall).
8. The public perception of Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington isn’t as high as the internal view, in part because Arrington’s miscues have sometimes produced big plays for the opposition. But if there was ever any doubt about how Bill Belichick views Arrington, who has also worked at safety at times this year, they were cleared up in Belichick’s always-informative pre-game interview with Scott Zolak on 98.5 The Sports Hub on Friday. “He is [valuable],” Belichick told Zolak. “He’s played over 80 percent of the plays the last couple years, plus he gives us a lot of plays in the kicking game. He’s played inside. He’s played outside. He’s a strong tackler, one of the most athletic players on the team in terms of speed, quickness, jumping ability, just overall athleticism. He has a lot of ability and a lot of versatility for us.”
9. As noted by always-on-the-ball Field Yates, if veteran defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga makes the Cardinals' roster, the Patriots will receive a $855,000 credit on their 2015 salary cap because Sopoaga had $1 million in guaranteed money on the contract the Patriots inherited when acquiring him last season; something for Patriots followers to watch as rosters take shape this week.
10. Patriots backup quarterback Ryan Mallett has played much better the last two weeks and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say Jimmy Garoppolo might have something to do with that. It is often said that competition can bring out the best in everyone, and Garoppolo’s impressive early entry into the team’s program has been hard to miss. I still think Mallett enters the year as the Patriots’ No. 2.