FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There is a fine line to navigate when analyzing the first four days of New England Patriots training camp.
On one side, it has been a limited work sample. Bill Belichick is fond of saying at this time of year that there is a lot of football to be played.
At the same time, the evaluation process for coaches has been sped up because of the limited practice opportunities compared with years past. On Sunday, Belichick said that the team will have just seven practices before the New Orleans Saints come to town for joint sessions and then a preseason game.
With this as a backdrop, our ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporters select three players who have caught their eye early in training camp, and three who did so for other reasons:
RB Brandon Bolden. The rookie free agent out of Mississippi has impressed with his acceleration, bouncing a few runs to the outside and then shifting into top gear quickly. When the Patriots signed Joseph Addai, it made sense that the club was looking for a veteran presence to pair with 2011 draft picks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. But Addai didn't even make it to training camp, opening the door for Bolden (5-foot-11, 220 pounds), who, in addition to some hard-charging running (such as a goal-line touchdown on Sunday), has caught the ball well.
DL Jonathan Fanene. The team's marquee free-agent signing has been a tough block for interior offensive linemen, specifically in one-on-one drills. Although much of the media attention has centered on how the Patriots might replace the 20 combined sacks of Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, it somewhat overlooks that pressure can come from more than just the edge. Fanene is a high-motor, athletic lineman who figures to play a key role in sub packages as an interior rusher -- a Jarvis Green-type role.
WR Brandon Lloyd. Some of the early headlines are warranted, as he's made the transition to New England look seamless (even though it has taken a lot of work). He's not necessarily a burner, but he looks like a professional route-runner who has shown the ability to get behind the defense. When the football crosses into Lloyd's neighborhood, he's usually coming down with it, providing the Patriots the perimeter presence they were lacking in 2011.When two receivers are on the field, it figures to be Lloyd and Wes Welker as the top choices.
FB Spencer Larsen. It's not necessarily that the versatile former Denver Bronco has done anything wrong; there just hasn't been anything that has stood out at this point that might sway the decision-making process to keep a fullback after not carrying one last year. Special teams will be a big consideration for him as he's lined up on all four big units, highlighting his potential value in that area.
CB Sterling Moore. If not for Moore, the Patriots probably wouldn't have advanced to Super Bowl XLVI. He came through in the clutch, big-time. So when the second-year man out of SMU returned to the team this year, the thought was that he might be ready for a climb up the depth chart, possibly to challenge for top-end playing time. It hasn't happened. Like almost all the other cornerbacks, Moore has been beaten over the top early in training camp as he looks to recapture the magic from late last season.
RB Brandon Bolden. As part of our Bubble Watch series leading into training camp, Bolden was listed as a long shot to make the roster. Things quickly changed when veteran Joseph Addai was released, opening a lane for the Ole Miss product to find his way onto the team. Bolden already has seen time with the top kickoff coverage unit as well as on the second wave of three other special-teams units. Although not spectacular, Bolden has shown some ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in addition to his skills as a ball carrier.
DL Ron Brace. After a slow start to his 2010 (active/NFI) and 2011 (active/PUP, eventually reserve/PUP) training camps, Brace has been a full participant in the first four days of his fourth training camp since entering the league. The former second-round pick has flashed the strength that helped earn him his high billing in the draft and has been perhaps the top performer in one-on-one passing drills. The key for Brace will be putting it all together and maintaining consistency throughout the preseason, when he figures to see plenty of live action.
LB Dont'a Hightower. The first-round pick has impressed in his first few days in training camp as an NFL player. He has appeared to fit the bill of everything the team looks for in a linebacker: big, strong, tough, focused and instinctive. Although he earned roars from the crowd on Sunday after he overpowered running back Eric Kettani during a pass-rush drill, Hightower also has sniffed out several screen passes in team work early in camp. However, he will need to be tested as a coverage linebacker in the passing game.
S Nate Ebner. After missing rookie minicamp with an injury, Ebner returned for OTAs and appeared set to make progress as training camp began. But he has yet to practice this July, with an undisclosed injury keeping him out of the first four days of training camp. Ebner played only three defensive snaps last season at Ohio State, and every practice he misses this summer will only dig him a deeper hole when it comes to learning to play his position (safety) at an NFL level. With stiff competition on special teams as well, Ebner needs to get back on the field soon.
CB Sterling Moore. Moore ended his rookie campaign on a high note last season, intercepting two passes in the regular-season finale and recording a key pass breakup in the closing minutes of the AFC Championship Game. In OTAs, Moore appeared slated for a role as the sixth defensive back on the field. Yet in training camp, it has been rookie Tavon Wilson assuming that role, with Moore's time on defense limited to when the less experienced defensive group was on the field. Preseason games will be a better time to gauge Moore's progress on defense.
RB Shane Vereen. One got the sense this offseason that the Patriots would be relying on their two high draft picks in 2011, Vereen and Stevan Ridley, to fill the void left by the departure BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Last preseason, Ridley had the edge over Vereen, who had trouble staying on the field with injury problems. This training camp, Vereen has stayed healthy but has yet to flash the skills expected of a second-round draft pick. He has worked on two top special-teams units, which will help him add value on the 46-man game-day roster if he is not able to emerge as a significant contributor on offense.
WR/PR Julian Edelman. The versatile fourth-year receiver has found himself all over the field, catching passes, returning punts and providing value as a core special-teams player. Edelman has been slippery in the open field, precise in route-running and catching everything that comes his way. While Edelman may not be a major factor in the Patriots' offense this year -- tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez plus receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney are projected top targets -- he continues to make strides entering 2012. Special-teams coach Scott O'Brien recently praised Edelman's development, which he said includes increased field awareness. If Edelman can lock down the top punt-returning job as well as continue to provide special-teams value as a coverage player, he'll be an integral player to the Patriots this season.
G Donald Thomas. The reserve guard is benefiting from the absences of Logan Mankins and Brian Waters, who have yet to step on the field this camp. Thomas, a former sixth-round pick of the Dolphins in 2008, has shown up during both the one-on-one drills against the defensive line as well as during the 11-on-11 portion of practice. Depending on the timetable for the returns of Mankins and Waters, the Patriots may need to hold on to an additional lineman at the start of the regular season. Thomas has a shot to earn a job as a reserve again and seems to be competing with Robert Gallery and Ryan Wendell, among others, at this point.
LB Dane Fletcher. As chronicled by colleague Mike Rodak, Fletcher is one of three players who have appeared on the first team of the Patriots' core four special-teams units. A prominent special-teams role can be enough to earn a player a spot on a team by itself, but Fletcher has shown up as a linebacker, too. He displayed both power and shiftiness in a blitz pickup drill on Sunday, held down run fits during live 11-on-11 action, and hasn't shied from contact. The Patriots have developed some depth in the linebacking core, but 2011 starter Brandon Spikes remains extremely limited in practice. That has opened the door for Fletcher to receive increased reps, and he's answered the bell.
OT Matt Kopa. Given that Sebastian Vollmer began training camp on PUP, where he still remains, the Patriots are thin at the offensive tackle spot. Nate Solder is firmly entrenched as the starter on the left side, and Kopa seems like a candidate to earn a roster spot as his backup. So far, he's looked lackluster from this vantage point, unable to use his length and power enough to his advantage. The pads have been on for only two days, so our sample size remains small, but Kopa's initial performances left something to be desired.
S Nate Ebner. To be fair, it's not so much what Ebner has done that earns his spot on this list but rather what he has not -- and that is step onto the field during practice. He remains sidelined with an undisclosed injury, although he was not placed on the PUP. After playing just three defensive snaps at Ohio State last season, it would seem that the Patriots' coaching staff wants the opportunity to view Ebner in drills to find out more of what he has to offer. He also may be a factor on the core special-teams units, where he stood out at Ohio State. Until he gets on the field, however, he won't have an opportunity to prove his merits.
WR Britt Davis. A developmental prospect at receiver, Davis is a unique package because of his massive frame; he's the Patriots' biggest wideout (6-3, 215 pounds). But inconsistency through four days of work from Davis makes me wonder whether he has the polish to stay around, even on the practice squad. He's flashed in a couple of different drills, notably as a blocker and rising above defenders to catch the football, but drops on other routine throws loom large. Coaches like players who can be the same person every day, and so far it's been an up-and-down offering from Davis.