PHILADELPHIA – Nine full-team practices into Patriots training camp, we have a clearer picture of some of the key areas surrounding the team.
Predictably, the turnover at receiver has drawn the most attention. A lot of new targets. A lot of youth. A lot of potential.
A few thoughts on this area:
Trickle-down effect on Tom Brady. This has been a great challenge for Brady, now in his 14th year, to work with so much youth. I think it has put him outside his comfort zone a bit and that can be a good thing, as the task seems to have invigorated him in some respects. His work with the young targets has already been noted by Bill Belichick.
Kenbrell Thompkins should be mentioned with draft picks. While plenty of the spotlight has been shined on second-round pick Aaron Dobson (Marshall) and fourth-rounder Josh Boyce (Texas Christian), and understandably so, Thompkins should also be included in that group. The former Cincinnati Bearcat is getting a lot of top reps and his footwork stands out as something particularly notable for a young receiver.
Danny Amendola and the Wes Welker defection. On Monday, Belichick said that Amendola has become a very dependable player for the team, which came in the context of practice performance and consistency. That was a Welker trademark as well. We know the slot position in the Patriots' offense traditionally produces big results -- going back to Troy Brown and then Welker -- so if Amendola remains healthy and available on a weekly basis, the stage is set for potential big results.
Let's get to some questions, as we're here in Philadelphia for the team's joint practice with the Eagles:
Q. Mike, I think one of the best battles in training camp has been at the WR position. I think Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompson make the team. I have heard many predict that Michael Jenkins gets cut in favor of another young player in Kamar Aiken, but I just don't see a Bill Belichick-coached team keeping that many young receivers and Matthew Slater. There is simply not enough experience there. Your thoughts? -- David (North Attleborough)
A. David, if everyone is healthy, this is the way I see the receiver position breaking down:
and Matthew Slater
It's a young group, and with that will come some growing pains, but I don't think a team keeps an experienced player just for the sake of experience. These look like the top wideouts to me and I see greater upside with this group than in 2011 and 2012, but there almost certainly will be some bumps along the way because of their youth. For Jenkins and Aiken, my feeling is that it will take an injury for them to break through.
Q. Mike what are some of the differences between Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, specifically from when Welker arrived in '07? -- Jacob S. (San Antonio, Texas)
A. Jacob, one of the big differences is the injury history. Welker had a cleaner resume in that regard. Specific to the physical makeup and skill sets of the players, Amendola is a bit bigger and is faster from a straight-line perspective. Welker, to me, was probably a little more polished as a route-runner when it came to change of direction, instincts, and feel for the underneath option routes. Not that Amendola isn't excellent in that area, too, but Welker had something that noticeably stood out in that regard from the first moment we saw him in '07.
Q. Mike, which TEs do you project stick on the 53-man roster? I am excited about Zach Sudfeld's emergence. Can NE afford to keep Gronk, Ballard, Fells, Hoomanawanui, and Sudfeld? -- JB (Dallas)
A. JB, I would be surprised if five tight ends are on the final roster. The first domino to fall is whether Rob Gronkowski opens the year on the physically unable to perform list. If he does, he wouldn't count against the 53-man roster, but it would keep him out of action for at least the first six games. Let's assume that's the way it unfolds; at that point I think you have a maximum of three tight ends making the roster. Right now, Jake Ballard could have a tough time breaking through. The knee still looks like it's a factor for him. On Zach Sudfeld, good combination of size, running ability and catching the ball. If he's healthy, and that was a big knock on him coming out of Nevada, he looks like a promising prospect to work with.
Q. Tim Tebow's greatest strength is going to be preparing the defense for the read option. Buffalo, Miami, Jets and Panthers could all be running some version of the read option. Tom Brady and Ryan Mallet can't provide the defense with a reasonable simulation. Do you believe that would be enough for a spot on the 53? -- Anonymous
A. Yes, I do believe it will be enough for Tebow to earn a spot. At this time last week, I wasn't as decisive. Now, after watching the first nine practices of training camp, that would be my bet.
Q. Mike, Jim Irsay wants to build his Colts like the '04 Patriots, one of the most complete teams, according to him. So, what is the biggest difference between the '04 and the '13 Patriots? Everybody is always talking about the WR position, but I'm not sure the '04 WR corps was better than the actual '13 WR corps. Maybe it's time to stop comparing WR corps from the famous '07 WR corps and to focus on the whole team, compared to the '04 team. What does the '13 Patriots need to be as complete as the '04 Patriots? -- David L. (Coleraine, Canada)
A. David, two areas stand out to me with any comparison to the 2004 team. It starts with defense. Rules were different back then, but that would be the area I'd start with when making any comparison. I think the '13 Patriots have a chance to be better than they've been on defense, but it remains a developing picture. The reason I say that is because of continuity and the growth of players already on the roster (Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower). Bill Belichick referenced "double growth" when talking about players who are transitioning from Year 1 to Year 2 -- both mentally and physically -- and that can sometimes be easy to overlook when factoring in the potential improvement of a unit. The second area is the running game. That '04 team, with Corey Dillon, could really grind it out.
Q. Hey Mike, it's still really early, but who have you been most impressed with on the offensive and defensive side? Most disappointing? -- Peter (Virginia Beach)
A. Peter, I'd say the rookie receivers have come along quicker than I anticipated. Didn't seem like the smoothest spring for them, so I had some questions coming in. On defense, Chandler Jones looks like a handful in pass-rush drills. On the disappointing side, I have been pulling for Jake Ballard because that was a very serious knee injury he suffered in 2012 and I can only imagine how challenging it was to come back from. My disappointment is more for him because it looks like it's still lingering. On defense, Tavon Wilson would be the choice. The 2012 second-round pick doesn't seem to be in the mix for top-unit playing time. We talk about that Year 1 to Year 2 jump often and he's in that category. But right now, it looks like he's a special-teams presence, first and foremost.
Q. Mike, can I get your stat predictions for Chandler Jones and Danny Amendola this year? Also do you think Aqib Talib will be here long-term? -- Mike (Braintree, Mass.)
A. Mike, stat predictions are always tough, but here goes: Jones doubles his sack total, from 6 last year to 12 this year. Amendola, if healthy, catches 100 passes. On Talib, I do think the Patriots will make an effort to lock him up with a 3-year, $18 million type deal that we saw some of the top corners get this offseason, but hard to know if that will be good enough at this point.
Q. What would be your early projection for Aaron Dobson's role and actual results for this upcoming season? -- Paul (Detroit, Mich.)
A. Paul, I've been using Deion Branch's 2002 rookie season as a benchmark for Dobson -- 43 catches and four TDs. There aren't too many rookie receivers who light it up right away, and while it wouldn't be shocking if that happens with Dobson (especially with Tom Brady throwing him the ball and the pace at which the offense plays), that seems like a fair estimate while factoring in potential injury along the way.
Q. It was nice to see Bill Parcells get inducted into the HOF. He was a very good coach. People forget, but he picked a lot of key players that were the core for the Patriots' Super Bowl seasons. He also almost won a Super Bowl with the Pats in his fourth year. Do you think he will make it into the Pats HOF? He was only with the Pats for four years, but he turned the franchise around and set the franchise up for the success and ultimately the three Super Bowls. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Ashley, I do think Parcells will, one day, find his way into the Patriots Hall of Fame. His candidacy has been debated the last few years and I'm a supporter. I know it was only four years, and I know the ending was messy, but I'm a believer that it was Parcells who laid a big part of the foundation for the organization's success in the Bill Belichick era, starting with the core of players you mentioned. Of those with Patriots ties in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, only one is not currently in the Patriots Hall of Fame -- Parcells. It probably won't happen in the next few years with such a logjam of candidates, but I do see Parcells, one day, getting in.
Q. Mike, watching the Hall of Fame speeches got me thinking about what current Pats would end up in the Hall. While the players can all be debated (Brady a local, maybe Wilfork, and if Gronk continues his dominance he's in as well), I was thinking more about Dante Scarnecchia. Here's a guy that has been as successful doing his job as anyone in the history of the NFL. The only thing is, would they ever elect a career position coach? -- Dan (Apex, N.C.)
A. Dan, Scarnecchia is a terrific coach and a sure-fire Patriots Hall of Famer. That is a slam dunk. What a great career here. As for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, that's generally a bit out of reach for position coaches.
Q. Hey Mike, if the Patriots were to cut Ras-I Dowling at the end of training camp, I think there's virtually no way he isn't claimed off of waivers by another team as a former second-rounder with a great physical makeup. If he were to go unclaimed, however, would he theoretically have practice squad eligibility? -- Eric C. (Los Angeles)
A. Eric, Dowling would be eligible for the practice squad if he clears waivers. He meets the criteria, which is laid out below: 1. A player who has not accrued a season of NFL experience (e.g. a rookie). 2. A free agent who was active (46-man game-day roster) for fewer than nine games during their accrued season(s) is eligible for the practice squad (e.g. Dowling; Jake Bequette). 3. A player cannot be on a practice squad for a third season unless his team has a full 53-man roster.
Q. Hi Mike, I have a question about a WR I have been intrigued by this summer, Quentin Sims. Every time I watch training camp highlights, I see Sims making downfield catches look easy. Do you see him making the practice squad? -- Jay (Revere, Mass.)
A. Jay, I could see Sims landing on the practice squad. It's a bit early to be making projections like that, in part because it's hard to tell if players like seventh-round picks Michael Buchanan and Steve Beauharnais will be on the roster or practice squad, but Sims would be an ideal candidate to develop with one of those eight spots.
Q. Hi Mike, not including health issues, of all the positions on the Patriots, it seems that safety is the weakest for skilled players. Between Steve Gregory, Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson, what is your observation of their individual abilities? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Joe, I'm still getting a better feel for Harmon, the third-round pick from Rutgers, who appears to have very good football instincts. He broke on a Tim Tebow pass toward the sideline for an interception in one practice, and I remember thinking to myself that it was a good play. Still, I'd like to see more. Gregory is a smart player who doesn't have the athletic upside of Harmon and Wilson, but he makes up for that with anticipation and heady play. Good communicator. Wilson, right now, looks more like a factor on special teams. He doesn't seem to have the same level of instincts as the other two.
Q. The Patriots have had nine practices and still have not played a preseason game, but Armond Armstead still has not practiced. At which point do you think he would have missed too much time for a young player to make up or are we already there? -- David
A. David, I don't think we're there yet, although I'm not aware of the level of severity of what he's dealing with medically. The first thought I had was to compare his situation to Marcus Cannon's in 2011. Cannon was activated off the reserve/non-football injury list on Nov. 15 that year. It probably makes it less likely that he would be a major contributor, but I think it's too early to count him out.
Q. Mike, when is Alfonzo Dennard expected to go to trial for his latest mishap? I haven't heard anything but I would like to think, since he was arrested on "suspicion" and subsequently released, they will overlook what could potentially be a career-changing blow to a young man on the rise. -- ECF (DC)
A. Dennard is due in court on Aug. 27. Given his uncertain status, coupled with Ras-I Dowling being sidelined with injury, the cornerback spot bears watching.
Q. With ALL the Scarlet Knights in camp, can you please give us an idea as to who will end up where by the end of camp? -- Ray H. (Brookline, Mass.)
A. Ray, let's call this the "Rutgers Report." We can lock in safety Devin McCourty and defensive end Justin Francis, as well as third-round picks Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon. The next question would be if seventh-round pick Steve Beauharnais (linebacker) flashes enough to warrant a spot. Those are the players to watch in this area; the others are long shots from this view. Someone like Mark Harrison, who has yet to practice as he rehabs from a foot injury, could be a practice squad candidate along with the others.
Q. Hi Mike. I'm wondering whether we will be seeing any 2-back sets this year. When I think about putting the 11 most talented offensive players on the field, I'm imagining Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen with Gronk (when he's back), Amendola, and Boyce. Then you have Leon Washington for your third-down change-of-pace back. The Pats went to two tight ends when they had two great tight ends. Now they have two great RBs. Any chance? -- Brian T. (Keene, N.H.)
A. Brian, they sometimes play with two running backs, which at one point was referred to as their "pony" grouping. I don't think it will be a base offense, but it's definitely in their playbook. If I had to guess, I think we'll see a three-receiver offense as the main grouping in 2013. A lot of upside with these receivers.
Q. Mike, do you think with all of the turmoil having extended the contract of someone who had questions (Aaron Hernandez) that the Pats should consider extending out Big Vince? He's the proverbial "heart and soul" of the defense, isn't old or diminishing skill-wise, and is a pillar of the community. I suppose I sound like his agent, but he's up after next year and is the type of veteran presence, and person, who should be a Pats lifer. I know he's still got this and next year to play out, but I've watched him his entire Pats career and would love to see him finish his career with the Pats. -- Art (Chicago)
A. Art, I was thinking about Wilfork the other day, in the context of how he's still going strong entering his 10th NFL season. He's a rock. I understand the thought of extending his contract, but I wouldn't put it at the top of the list given that he is signed through 2014 and there are some other players who, because of timing, would likely be addressed first. Those players include center Ryan Wendell and defensive end Rob Ninkovich, both of whom have deals that expire after the 2013 season. Some might also include linebacker Brandon Spikes in that mix. I would also think safety Devin McCourty (signed through 2014) might be on the radar as well.
Q. It's time for BB and Richard Seymour to bury the hatchet and sign a one-year deal. Big Sey would allow them to have a fantastic three-man DT rotation in four-man fronts, while also allowing them to run a 3-4 seamlessly. I know he isn't what he used to be, but he's still an excellent player and would put this hybrid defense on another level. Right now, Marcus Forston is the top backup and he was on the practice squad last year; not sure I am too comfortable with that. Thoughts? -- Scott (Charlotte)
A. Scott, I agree with the depth being thin at defensive tackle, but I wouldn't hold your breath on Seymour. While some players at that stage of their career might be willing to play for closer to the veteran minimum, I don't sense that is the case for Seymour. I don't see the Patriots ponying up to the level that might entice Seymour to want to play for them. And even if the figure was right -- let's say around $4 to $5 million for one year -- there still would be those past issues to overcome. I just don't see it happening.