Good morning, and here are our Sunday Patriots news 7-09 and notes for this week. We all hope that everyone had a great 4th of July holiday earlier this past week.
This week, we take a look at some of the under-the-radar players to watch in training camp when it opens in a couple of weeks. However, it doesn’t mean that these players won’t be counted on to deliver meaningful production in 2023. On the contrary, if the team is to succeed this season, they’ll have to step up their game.
Quick Hitters For the Patriots and NFL News:
Corey Dillon: The former star NFL running back who spent most of his career with the Bengals and won a Super Bowl with the Patriots has said that he deserves a spot in the NFL Hall of Fame.
In an interview with the Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr., Dillon said, “I want it all. I am coming for it all,” about the Bengals’ Ring of Honor and the NFL’s Hall of Fame. “You know why? Because I earned it.”
His resume speaks well for his consideration. In his 10-year NFL career, Dillon rushed 2618 times for 11,241 yards (averaging 4.3 yards per rush) with 82 TDs. Seven more scores came via catching passes out of the backfield. He rushed for 1,000 yards or more for six straight seasons. But frustrated in Cincinnati, he was traded to the Patriots in 2004.
In his first season in Foxboro in 2004, Dillion rushed a career-high 345 times for 1635 yards which was a personal and Patriots single-season record (4.7-yard average) with 12 TDs. He added 15 catches for 109 yards and a score as the Patriots rolled to a 14-2 record en route to a Super Bowl victory over the Eagles. In the Super Bowl win, Dillon rushed 18 times for 75 yards and added 31 more yards out of the backfield in the passing game.
In the interview, he also blasted the Patriots for not giving him the accolades that season that he felt he deserved. “I’m about to get on the Pats’ a**, too. It’s coming,” Dillon said. “I’m coming for it all. Give it to me while I’m breathing. If anybody wants to disagree, just go look at the f**king numbers and have a Coke and smile.”
It will be interesting to see how long Canton will make Dillon wait if he makes it at all. But the numbers for “Clock Killin’ Corey Dillon certainly are worthy of earning a gold jacket. While we’re on the subject of the Patriots 2004 team…
“They Cheated Better Than Us”: Former Pittsburgh backup offensive lineman Garrett Brooks appeared on a podcast this week and lamented that the Patriots beat the Steelers in the 2004 AFC Championship Game by using nefarious methods.
Brooks appeared on the “Legal Hands to the Face” podcast and feels the Patriots cheated in the game in Pittsburgh.
“First of all, they were supposed to be sick. They supposedly had 20 guys that had the flu, and they came down and whooped our a**, I mean, they stomped us. I can remember going into the game, and they knew plays before we did,” Brooks said.
He said that Patriots defenders like Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi were calling out plays before the snap.
“Yeah, they cheated me out of a Super Bowl, I should have two Super Bowls now. We were supposed to be in that Super Bowl, it was the all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl, but they cheated better. I’m mad at our coaches because they couldn’t cheat as well as they did,” Brooks added.
DMac, Brady, and Mac: Former Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty, who retired this spring, posted a picture on his Instagram account that sent tongues wagging this week. He was sitting between Tom Brady and Mac Jones under the caption, “Living Life!!!!”
One can only imagine what the three spoke about. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
Training Camp Dates Announced: The Patriots have announced that the 2023 Training Camp will begin on Wednesday, July 26. The Patriots begin their 63rd camp and their 21st at Gillette Stadium this year as they begin preparation for the 2023 NFL season.
The first three dates are July 26-27, and 28, times TBD, There will be another practice scheduled for either that Saturday or Sunday, the 29th or the 30th. Updates will be posted on the team’s website.
The Patriots are also conducting joint practices with the Packers and Titans, but both of those will be conducted on the road before preseason games on August 19th and 25th, respectively.
Patriots 4th & 2 Podcast: If you haven’t listened to our PatsFans.com podcast, “Patriots 4th & 2”, in a bit, please check it out. Patriots 4th & 2 is expanding. Russ will join Derek and me occasionally but is going to focus on frequent (about daily) short podcasts during the week once training camp and the season begin. These will be about 15-20 minutes long and focus on one topic. That will bring more great content from the crew. Derek and I will also join Russ from time to time as well.
Derek and I spoke about the DeAndre Hopkins situation, the new contracts, and training camp questions last week, and we took a week off in the slow time before training camp begins.
Russ Francis/Chuck Fairbanks: The former Patriot tight end and head coach both should be in the Patriots team Hall of Fame, and the fact that especially Francis isn’t is an absolute travesty. Francis and the Raiders’ Dave Casper changed the game with how teams used the tight end position…this will be on our Sunday posts until it happens.
Training Camp 2023, Under The Radar Players —
The Patriots are entering the 2023 season with a roster that is widely considered middling at best and easily the worst in the AFC East, especially on offense. However, if a few of the unheralded players on the roster produce solid years in 2023, the outlook for the team will definitely improve.
We’ve always seen that the Patriots team was traditionally better than the sum of its parts. That was reversed in 2022, again, especially on the offensive side of the ball, as the Matt Patricia-led offense struggled badly. With Bill O’Brien returning to the fold, that situation should certainly improve, but adding some increased production elsewhere would certainly help.
So, here are our under-the-radar players (in no particular order) for the Patriots training camp, which begins in a couple of weeks.
Pierre Strong: I loved this pick a year ago, as the New England offense, which was so speed deficient, drafted not only the fastest WR in the draft class (Tyquan Thornton) but also the fastest RB in the draft, Strong from South Dakota State, who had 10 of his 40 collegiate TDs go for 50+ yards.
He is fast and explosive and was generally seen as the eventual replacement for James White as the Patriots’ third-down receiving and change-of-pace running back. But like White and other pass-catching backs, notably Damien Harris, Shane Vereen, and Kevin Faulk, Strong had a red-shirt type of rookie season, where he saw very limited touches in the offense and played mainly on special teams.
The Patriot offense is tough for rookie running backs as there are many different scheme-related blocking assignments and option routes that the backs must learn in the passing game. That’s why the team under Bill Belichick has always leaned more on veterans rather than rookies.
The Patriots believe that Strong could be the replacement for Damien Harris’ impending free agency leaving by drafting him in the 4th Round of the 2022 NFL Draft. And although he only rushed ten times in 2022, he gained 100 yards, not a bad average, at 10 yards a pop. He had three runs of 10+ yards and two more of 15+ yards, including a nice 44-yard run against the Cardinals on SNF.
If Strong can become the #2 in the 1-2 punch with Rhamondre Stevenson, it would go a long way in easing up the workload on Stevenson, which he wore down in the stretch run of 2022. I look for Bill O’Brien to scheme up some better-designed pass plays to take advantage of Strong’s speed, where if he’s isolated on a linebacker, it would be a mismatch. He and Ty Montgomery should be locked in quite a camp battle for reps this summer. It will be one area to watch.
Tyquan Thornton: The other speedster draft pick from a year ago was Thornton, who the Patriots took in the 2nd round (50th overall) in last year’s draft. Thornton, a 6’2, 185-lb speedster from Baylor, ran a blistering 4.28 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine prior to the draft.
He was having a good rookie training camp before breaking a collarbone in a preseason game. He missed the next six weeks, and it really set back his development. In just his second NFL game, he caught four passes and a TD while rushing for a 19-yard TD against the Cleveland Browns. But for the rest of the season, he would only score one more touchdown. He finished the season with just 22 catches for 247 yards and two scores, which was less than hoped for inside the building.
He struggled against press-man coverage and hitting his exact spots on his routes. But to be fair, the offense in 2022 was never in sync, and he was not used properly to take advantage of his speed.
During the spring practice sessions, O’Brien had seemingly worked out, placing him in a better position to succeed, taking advantage of his strengths. In an excellent piece on Patriots.com, Evan Lazar highlighted how O’Brien worked with similar build WRs Will Fuller and Jameson Williams, using them from tight splits or utilizing stacked or bunch formations to get them a free release.
Thornton provides the speed element to the Patriots’ wide receiver group. With JuJu Smith-Schuster, DeVante Parker, and Kendrick Bourne, they are far from the best group in the league but are good enough to win some close contests.
The key this summer is for Thornton to stay healthy and be a full go at the start of the regular season. He can be an exciting player in the NFL, and solid production would go a long way in erasing some of “the Patriots can’t develop wide receivers.”
Joshuah Bledsoe: Another guy I was excited to see the Patriots bring on board back in the 2021 draft. Bledsoe was taken in the 6th Round, with the 188th pick overall. He was a valuable, versatile piece in Missouri’s defense in the SEC.
He had a tough time breaking into the lineup because the Patriots have been so deep at the safety position with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, and last year with Jabrill Peppers. But with McCourty retiring, it leaves a hole at deep safety.
Jalen Mills played some safety this spring, and he was at his most productive with Philadelphia when playing free safety. But I think the Patriots will give Kyle Dugger many looks at free safety. He has the speed, athleticism, and smarts to quarterback the secondary as McCourty did in an expanded leadership role.
Bledsoe is another slot/box safety who is aggressive in run support and can cover tight ends. Last year, he had a very good game against the Ravens Mark Andrews not allowing a catch but then allowed two TDs against the Jets’ Tyler Conklin in red zone coverage. If he can tighten up some of his skills, it would free up Dugger for a more expanded role.
With all the talk of the “unicorns” on defense, it would be easy to see the defense play either Mills or Dugger at free safety, depending on who the opponent is.
Demario Douglas: The diminutive slot receiver out of Liberty University is a very intriguing player to watch. I’ve been beating the drum for the Patriots to draft a shifty, quick slot receiver since Julian Edelman retired. The team’s offense has always worked best with that type of player in the fold. Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Edelman, and Danny Amendola have filled those roles for the 20-year dynasty during the Brady years.
And they’ve been missing that. With Thornton stretching the field vertically, Douglas is the kind of player who can stretch it horizontally, an off-the-snap get, open guy who can catch a quick slant and produce yards after the catch.
He has a long way to go. His route running needs refinement; Liberty’s offense was very simple, and he’ll have a lot to learn in a short amount of time. But if he can pick up the Patriots’ offense and put the time in to refine his route-running skills, he could become another very good slot receiver for the Patriots.
“Put Paul Brown at the top of the list,” Belichick said on which coaches he would have loved to coach with. “I would have loved to have done that.”
“I think he really took the West Coast offense, and it was so far ahead of its time with the West Coast principles that Bill Walsh took and turned it into the West Coast offense,” Belichick said. “But, you know, Coach Brown also was so innovative in so many other ways, whether it was the play-calling, whether it was the cab squad, the screen and draw plays that evidently he kind of stumbled into. But that was kind of the creative way that he worked was to see things and figure out how it would disrupt the defense. I know Coach (Tom) Landry was like that, too.”
“When I worked with Jim (Brown), and we’d have a lot of conversations, Jim would refer to Paul Brown very frequently,” Belichick said. “(Jim Brown would say), ‘This is the way Paul did it.’ Or, ‘Paul did it a little bit differently.’ Or, ‘Here’s why Paul did it this way or that way.’ And it really gave me a lot of insight from a player’s perspective into the way that Paul coached the team.”
Bill Belichick on “The 33rd Team Podcast” which also had quotes about the early years of the Patriots dynasty.
“Talent sets the floor; Character sets the ceiling.” Bill Belichick
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Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 53 Man Roster Projection Bill Belichick Danny Amendola Demario Douglas Joshuah Bledsoe Mac Jones New England Patriots Patriots Patriots wide receivers Pierre Strong Tyquan Thornton