Tag Archives: 2016 Patriots Draft

Patriots Offense Will Lean On Heavier Two Tight End Sets

Steve Balestrieri
September 3, 2016 at 7:18 pm ET

Patriots to Rely on the Strength of Gronk and Bennett

With the release of the 20 players on Saturday, the Patriots have made their initial 53-man roster. It is interesting to note that the breakdown consists of essentially 4 WRs (five if you count Matthew Slater), 4 TEs and 4 RBs with a FB (James Develin).

The good news is that Danny Amendola will indeed begin the season on the roster and not on PUP and the fact that they kept just four wideouts to begin means that rookie Malcolm Mitchell must be very close to returning to action.

So what can we expect to see from the Patriots offense based on the personnel they’ve kept. One thing is for sure, with four TEs on the roster, you can expect a lot of the two-TE run heavy sets in either “12” personnel (1 RB, 2TEs, 2WRs), or in the “22” personnel with (2RBs, 2TEs, 1 WR).

With Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, the Patriots have bookend “Y” tight ends that can be excellent run blockers with James Develin leading the way. We can expect a lot of run-heavy formations like this with either LaGarrette Blount or James White in the backfield. With the extra blockers in-line, it will open up some holes in the running game and put the offense into favorable down and distance scenarios.

Brady-Gronk

Of course, it also opens up the play-action passing scenario as well. Opponents will have to respect the run and with Gronkowski and Bennett, they’ll be able to face a base defense with each at times getting isolated on a linebacker.

With Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan getting the majority of reps initially, we can expect them to each rotate in and out of the slot. Hogan is a bit bigger and faster in the straight line but not as quick in the short areas and out of cuts. They’ll move them around to find favorable matchups but look for Hogan to take over the old Brandon LaFell role as the “X” until Mitchell is healed up.

White and D.J. Foster are the third down and passing backs and each brings a little bit of a different element to the table. White has the experience and knows the offense inside and out. Foster is still learning it, as he missed a ton of time this summer. He still needs to work on his protection and ball security skills but he’s electric in the open field.

It will be interesting to see if the Patriots move him in motion and slide him into the slot on occasion, something he did in college at Arizona State. He and White give them a couple of nice extra pieces in the passing game. Jimmy Garoppolo will have some intriguing weapons to work with now.

The key is to get the rust off of Amendola as quickly as possible and hopefully get Mitchell back on the field as soon as possible. They have some very impressive pieces to exploit mismatches on the field with. The problem is, in the short term, that most of them haven’t worked together as a unit all summer.

There’s lot of work to get done before they head out to Arizona to face the Cardinals. But the coaches and veterans can get it moving in the right direction as soon as they get back to practice. It is time for Jimmy G. and the veterans on the offense to step up and put the work in.
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Patriots, Panthers Preseason Game, What to Watch For

Steve Balestrieri
August 26, 2016 at 6:31 am ET

There are no dress rehearsals, we are professionals, this is the big time” Willie Nelson

Had to use my favorite Willie Nelson quote in there, as we do every year during the third preseason game. The Patriots and the Panthers get at it tonight for the third preseason game and we have five areas of the game to watch for.

With the starters playing into the third quarter, it still isn’t a “dress rehearsal” as Bill Belichick so aptly pointed out this week to members of the media who asked him as such. But we will get a chance to see the starters or whoever is starting this week for an extended look so that will be fun.

But back to the situation at hand, and that’s what to look for from a Patriots perspective tonight. We’ve heard that Tom Brady will make his preseason debut tonight and we’ll get to that in a bit but Belichick’s crew will be looking to get some things accomplished. And foremost should be getting out of Charlotte healthy. Here are our five areas to watch for tonight:

Who Steps Up at WR: With the preseason winding down, we still won’t see Julian Edelman, Malcom Mitchell or Danny Amendola (PUP), so Chris Hogan will be the go-to guy early. But here is where it gets interesting. Keshawn Martin is back to practicing and should play against the Panthers. He, Aaron Dobson, Chris Harper, DeAndre Carter and Devin Lucien are all locked in a battle for the final wide receiver spot on the roster.

Dobson, Ryan 2-3

Dobson, Ryan 2-3

Martin is going to have to show that he’s healthy and able to produce. His versatility and production give him a leg up on the others but they’ve been working with Jimmy Garoppolo and Tom Brady in his absence so they’ll likely have a bit more chemistry and timing down with the QBs.

Carolina has one of the better defenses in the league and they’ll be playing into the second half, so this should be a good test for all of the WRs, as they have just two games left to make an impression with the coaching staff.

How Much Will Butler/Ryan Play at CB? With the roster competition going on at the corner position, Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are locks for the roster. Ryan just recently shed his red non-contact jersey and they may play only the first quarter as the coaches may want extended looks from the young corners vying for roster spots and playing time.

Rookie top draft choice Cyrus Jones is another lock and he’s played well this summer. He and second-year corners Justin Coleman and Darryl Roberts are vying for reps with rookie UDFAs Jonathan Jones and Cre’Von LeBlanc. Coleman is a near roster lock and the remaining three are essentially battling it out for a final roster spot.

Jonathan Jones had the early advantage in camp but LeBlanc has been right on his heels. Both have played very well this summer. Jones is gifted athletically while LeBlanc is a guy who saw his draft stock slip because he didn’t test well this spring. They may each see some time against Carolina’s top offense. Roberts didn’t have a great summer but turned it up against the Bears a week ago. He had a good week of joint practices and then had three passes defensed in the preseason game. He’s still in the mix.

Gaffney, Foster Each Trying to Earn a Roster Spot at RB: Much of the social media banter with the Patriots RBs centers around if the team will make a move for another back to come in and add to the depth or lack thereof at the position. LeGarrette Blount is, for now, the big back who will carry the ball between the tackles. James White is the third down passing back specialist. He’ll catch the ball out of the backfield or split out wide to create mismatches. Brandon Bolden is the STs player who can sub in as needed.

Gaffney

That leaves a single roster spot there for the taking since Dion Lewis will start the season on PUP when it was learned on Sunday that he’d need additional surgery on his knee. Tyler Gaffney and D.J. Foster are each vying for the final spot. Gaffney was originally drafted by Carolina two years ago before being hurt and spending the past two seasons on IR. He’s healthy now and offers the additional big back depth of running the ball between the tackles and catching the occasional pass. He shined against New Orleans in the first preseason game. Now he’ll be looking to do it against his former teammates.

Foster was one of the most intriguing pickups of the spring. An UDFA from Arizona State, he is the quickest and smoothest route runner of the Patriots backs. With nearly 2500 yards each running and receiving in college he is a guy that has a ton of potential. But he pulled a hamstring in minicamp and has been MIA all summer. Now finally healthy, he’s going to have to show, and quickly that he belongs.

Offensive Line Play Against Tough Defense: While the game planning aspect is out of the game here, this will be a good test for the Patriots offensive line against a very tough Carolina front seven.  And the Patriots seem to have their starting five OL set with the trade of Bryan Stork and the news that Sebastian Vollmer is probably going on IR. Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Josh Kline and Marcus Cannon will be the Pats starting unit this week and on Week 1 in Arizona.

Now is the time for coach Dante Scarnecchia to get this unit’s play down and get the communication and calls in seamlessly. One of the issues last year was the constant mixing and matching done because of the numerous injuries that hurt their continuity. Here’s a chance to begin to work on that and getting the group to function as one.

Finally, the Quarterbacks, Who plays and how much? Tom Brady made it clear that he wanted to play, wants to play in the preseason and expects to play. Brady made the trip to Charlotte and is expected to play, at least some but who starts?

If I’m Bill Belichick, I give Brady a series, hopefully around 6-10 snaps to get him a feel for game action again and then have Garoppolo play into the third quarter. Although he won’t have many of his weapons (Edelman, Gronk, Amendola) for this contest, its valuable experience against a tough defense that will serve him well when the games count for real in two weeks.

This way we’ll see all three QBs get some game action in as Brissett can log some snaps in the 3rd-4th quarter and gain some needed experience himself. There’s no right or wrong answer here, Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to feel their way here and do what they feel is right.

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Patriots Get Barkevious Mingo In a Trade with the Browns

Steve Balestrieri
August 25, 2016 at 2:42 pm ET

Intriguing Former Top 10 Pick Instant Depth on the Edge

The Patriots zigged while the rest of the world zagged. The talk of the social media world surrounding New England was that the Patriots would probably try to swing a deal for a running back. Bill Belichick and the Pats, however, swung a deal for the Cleveland Browns former #6 overall pick Barkevious Mingo. He’ll instantly upgrade the depth of the roster on the edge.

Besides having the coolest name in the NFL, Mingo much like Jabaal Sheard came into the NFL with the Browns after having been scouted by New England. And, like Sheard, after a good rookie season, he’s watched his production fall off the past two years.

Oct 26, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo (51) at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 26, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo (51) at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Mingo, 6’4, 240-pounds came out of LSU in the 2013 NFL Draft and was thought to be one of the next big-name edge rushers. He notched five sacks in his rookie campaign, saw that fall to two in 2014 and got zero a year ago as he was relegated to mainly backup duty.

The Patriots signing Sheard a year ago was an under the radar signing that paid off big time for them. They’re obviously hoping that the signing of Mingo will be catching lightning in a bottle twice.

Sheard suffered an MCL sprain and is expected to miss 2-4 weeks after having an outstanding summer. Rob Ninkovich tore a triceps muscle and is expected to miss possibly the first month of the season. Shea McClellin has been on the shelf as well with an injury.

The team still has Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Rufus Johnson in the meantime. Mingo gives them the versatility to either line up on the edge as a defensive end or blitz as an outside linebacker.

This is a really nice pickup by Belichick, who was still working out the compensation for the trade, but the addition of Mingo immediately adds more depth and versatility to the Patriots front seven.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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Patriots Roster Coming Into Focus, Team Releases Three Veterans

Steve Balestrieri
August 23, 2016 at 9:43 am ET

The Patriots have released three more veterans today as they cut ties to CB E.J. Biggers, RB Donald Brown and DE Frank Kearse according to sources. Bill Belichick has always favored cutting loose veterans as early as possible if they don’t fit into the team’s plans, to give them a better chance of latching on with other teams. This seems to be the case here as none of the three appeared close to landing a roster spot.

Brown seemed to have a good shot at making a roster spot. LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis were coming off of serious injuries, Tyler Gaffney is unproven and Brandon Bolden is mainly a ST’s player. That left James White and a bunch of question marks.

Brown takes a breather after running some drills

Brown takes a breather after running some drills

But Brown, got hurt early and camp and struggled to get back on the field. Both Gaffney and Blount had solid preseason outings in back-to-back weeks so the team will probably roll with them, White and Bolden to at least initially start the season.

Kearse was a DE in Washington and projected to be an interior player here. He didn’t stand out much during training camp and with others playing at a higher standard, he wasn’t projected to make the team.

Biggers came from Philadelphia as a free agent and signed a 1-year, $840,000 contract with a modest $25,000 signing bonus. With a lack of depth from 2015 in the Patriots secondary, he was thought to be at least in the mix for a veteran presence at cornerback.

Hogan,-Biggers

But undrafted rookies Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc as well as 2nd-year player Darryl Roberts have all outplayed him this summer. Not that Biggers play was poor, but the younger, faster and more athletic players were standing out daily. That forced the team to release V’Angelo Bentley and now Biggers.

With his release, the corner position now has Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, LeBlanc and Roberts as their six top players. They may only opt to keep five so the competition will heat up in the final two weeks.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots – Saints, Preseason Game, What to Watch For

Steve Balestrieri
August 11, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

It’s all about the backups and evaluating them

The Patriots and Saints open the preseason for both teams with a game tonight. The big focus is what to watch for in the game. It is unlikely we’ll see Drew Brees or Tom Brady much more than a series or two. Brady has appeared in the preseason opener the past few years but may sit this one out and Brees told the media on Wednesday that he will only play a series. Players like Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Martellus Bennett will likely not play.

So what things will Bill Belichick and the coaching look to accomplish tonight? Being the first game of the preseason, the score is pretty much secondary to getting some things sorted out. And with a solid 90-man roster heading into preseason action, it is imperative for the coaches to get each of the guys on the bubble as many looks as possible.

So here are our Five Things to Watch for Tonight:

Offensive Line Groupings/Play: The Patriots offensive line was the weak link in the team in 2015 and they suffered a slew of injuries that ruined any chance for continuity a year ago. The team brought back Dante Scarnecchia in the hope that he can get the line play back to where it was before he retired.

Blount in the run game

Blount in the run game

Injuries have once again reared their head early in camp. Sebastian Vollmer is still on PUP and is out.  Jonathan Cooper was hurt early in camp and hasn’t practiced in 10 days. Tre’ Jackson will be out as well and how much Bryan Stork plays after suffering yet another concussion will be a question mark.

Rookie offensive lineman Joe Thuney has been solid in camp thus far at left guard. He and fellow rookie RG/C Ted Karras have performed well. But what will bear watching is how well the line holds up in protection for the three quarterbacks and just as importantly, can they open any holes in the running game. We should see plenty of different combinations as the game goes on. There is still plenty of room for competition here. This will be the first test to see how well Scarnecchia’s tutelage is progressing.

Quarterback Reps: The elephant in the room, everyone wants to know, who starts, how much does each play and how will the offense look under each? This overblown story line continues to be the talk of training camp and as much as Bill Belichick gets tired of answering it, it isn’t going away.

Jimmy G takes the snap

Jimmy G takes the snap

Tom Brady has taken the first reps with the offense for the majority of camp but it looks like he’ll sit for the first preseason game. Garoppolo will take over and play the first half and possibly a series to start the second half. Jimmy G. didn’t have a great week after a nice start to camp and he’ll be looking to rebound. He’ll have to process things a bit quicker and make some better decisions with the football than he did the past 3-4 days.

Jacoby Brissett would then have the second half to get some much-needed experience and get into a rhythm with the offense. This will be a balancing act with Belichick and Josh McDaniels as they’ll go with how things play out on the field. There is no right or wrong answer and I’m sure Belichick will say tomorrow night, that they did what they felt was best for the team.

Running Back Depth: One of the areas that we pointed out as a big area of need in the offseason was the running back position. Both LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis are coming off of season-ending injuries. Blount has looked quick and he’s running much better than I would have thought possible this early in camp. He should see a few reps early in the game but other than that, it is all on the backups. Check out Lee Schechter’s nice piece on the running backs from yesterday.

With Dion Lewis still on PUP, the backup positions are still wide open. James White has the most experience and he’s a good pass receiver but he goes down very easily when running the ball. He’s still too one-dimensional so who gets some reps tonight?

Tyler Gaffney is finally healthy after two lost seasons with the Panthers and the Pats where he never saw the field. He’s a big back at 6’0, 220 pounds and has shown some quickness at hitting the hole and good vision as he’s gotten more work with Donald Brown sidelined. He should get plenty of chances to show what he can do against the Saints. One possibly alarming thing I’ve noticed with him is that he tends to run upright perhaps too much so when going thru the hole, it is something that sets him up to take big hits.

Blount running up the middle

Blount running up the middle

Joey Iosefa and Brandon Bolden should see some work as well. Brown and D.J. Foster probably won’t play as they’ve been out nursing injuries. Foster was one of the more intriguing guys that came out of the UDFA class but he just hasn’t been on the field enough to see anything from.

Wide Receiver Competition: With Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola out, I don’t expect to see much of Chris Hogan tonight. That opens the door for the other WRs to stake out a claim for additional reps and a chance to stick on the roster.

Dobson, Ryan 2-3

Dobson, Ryan 2-3

Veteran Nate Washington is back on the field, and he, along with Keshawn Martin, Chris Harper, Aaron Dobson, DeAndre Carter, Devin Lucien and 4th round draft pick Malcolm Mitchell have been embroiled in some terrific competition this summer.

Mitchell has been coming on as of late and it will be interesting to see if the team tries to get him some work with Garoppolo early in the game. Don’t go to sleep on Dobson yet, he started out this summer very strongly although lately, his targets have tailed off. But the biggest thing for him is that, up to now, he’s been able to stay healthy.

Cornerback Rotation: The Patriots spent their top draft pick on CB Cyrus Jones this spring. But as of now, he’s the 4th CB in the rotation behind Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Justin Coleman. That isn’t a knock on Jones, it is just that Coleman, with a year in the system, has fared better thus far in training camp.

With Ryan still sporting a red non-contact jersey, he probably will sit the opener out. Will the Patriots thrust Jones into the starting right corner spot with Coleman remaining in the slot? Or will they go with the veteran E.J. Biggers or perhaps Darryl Roberts who started the first preseason game a year ago?

Like the WRs, the competition has been fun to watch this summer at corner. Biggers, Roberts, and UDFAs Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and V’Angelo Bentley are all fighting it out for essentially one spot on the roster. Jonathan Jones has flashed with his speed and athleticism thus far but the games should really bring out the best in the struggle.

Some individual players to watch for:

Trey Flowers: The second-year DE has a propensity for rushing the QB. He had a strong camp a year ago and has been ramping up his play the past few days. He’s locked in a struggle with Geneo Grissom and Rufus Johnson for playing time. All three made the roster a year ago.

Markus Kuhn: The big German defensive lineman arrived with little fanfare from the Giants and was thought to be a long-shot to make the roster. But he’s gotten plenty of reps and has shown himself to be really stout at the point of attack in practice. Now he’ll get the chance to show it in a game.

Kuhn double teamed, McClellin drops into coverage with Bennett

Kuhn double teamed, McClellin drops into coverage with Bennett

A.J. Derby/Clay Harbor: The two tight ends are vying for the coveted third tight end spot behind Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.  Derby is a converted QB who spent last year on IR. But he’s shown a knack for making some plays in the passing game. He has good athleticism and has displayed good hands at catching the ball.

Harbor was signed as a free agent from the Jaguars but started the season on PUP. Now he’s back to work and has the experience and production to be a “move” tight end in the offense. He and Derby may see work together on the field in the “12” personnel sets with two tight ends.

Kamu Grugier-Hill: The rookie LB/S has crazy athleticism and could be a factor on special teams. But with the lack of depth at linebacker, he could see some significant snaps on defense as well. The team used him at times covering the TE Bennett during scrimmages. It will bear watching if he can carve out a role for himself.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Training Camp Practice Observations 8-3

Steve Balestrieri
August 3, 2016 at 7:01 pm ET

Physical Session, Heavy on Situational Football

The Patriots concluded their sixth training camp practice on Wednesday morning in full pads, their third such workout under sunny, warm skies at the Gillette Stadium practice fields. The hitting was heavier than in any session yet with the focus of the day being situational football.

Not Practicing: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, Tre’ Jackson, Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Ebner (Olympic Games), Jonathan Cooper, Keshawn Martin, Chris Hogan, Donald Brown, Bryan Stork, Clay Harbor

Alan Branch passed his conditioning run and was back at practice today. But the team was easing him in.

Early Focus on the Running Game: The morning started out with the fans, the smallest crowd to date, singing a Happy Birthday ditty to QB Tom Brady who acknowledged the gesture with a wave to the carolers.

The early focus was on the running game, LeGarrette Blount seems very healthy this summer and he, Tyler Gaffney, D.J. Foster, Brandon Bolden and James White all saw some work carrying the ball. Gaffney did some of his best running of the summer today, displaying good vision and hitting the holes quickly. There was some solid hitting going on with some audible pops heard up in the stands for the first time.

With Bryan Stork out, David Andrews, Joe Thuney, and Kyler Kerbyson all got work at center. Thuney seems to be really catching the eye of the coaches, especially Dante Scarnecchia. The rookie has stood out as arguably the best OL in camp thus far. They keep putting more on his plate and he continues to excel. Shaq Mason seems to be healthy now and after watching most of Monday’s practice from the side, got a lot of work inside.

Brown and Kuhn stuff the hole

Brown and Kuhn stuff the hole

Markus Kuhn and Malcom Brown combined for a nice stop early in situational work. They were doubled and filled the hole, allowing Dont’a Hightower to come in and stop Blount for no gain.

Quarterbacks Start Slowly: Both Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo started slowly in the early 7-on-7 drills. While neither looked particularly sharp, Jacoby Brissett shook off his poor showing on Monday night and followed that up with perhaps his best practice this summer.

But Brady and Jimmy G. heated up once the team did their first 11-on-11 drill. Aaron Dobson worked across the middle and easily beat his coverage in the right corner of the end zone for a TD on the pass from Garoppolo.

Brady had Chris Harper on a deep route with Malcolm Butler in coverage but the ball was just overthrown, despite a nice diving effort from Harper who just got a fingertip on the ball. Brady lobbed a beautiful arcing pass to Melvin Mitchell who had beaten Cyrus Jones. But just as the ball arrived Jones was able to knock it away.

Brady hit Dobson on a deep seam route with Devin McCourty in coverage. Gaffney did a great job of picking up Geneo Grissom on a stunt to give 12 the time to throw.

Brissett made a really nice deep back shoulder throw to Mitchell who ran about a 15-17-yard route. He turned with E.J. Biggers in coverage and the ball was right there. Brissett put some nice zip on that pass.

Brady recognized single coverage on Gronk with a safety, (Vinnie Sunseri) and threw a jump ball to Gronk in the corner of the end zone that was too easy.

1-on1 Drills: The big men were really getting at it today. And once again it was Thuney the rookie who beat all comers, including Terrance Knighton. Other winners included:

Grissom was able to bull rush past LaAdrian Waddle with some nice power.

Rob Ninkovich blew past Shaq Mason with a quick move outside.

Marcus Cannon pancaked Rufus Johnson who tried to bull rush past him.

Jabaal Sheard beat Nate Solder with a speed rush to the outside.

Geneo Grissom beat Josh Kline cleanly to the outside.

Vince Valentine bulled his way past Kerbyson with some nice power.

During the tackling drills where the defender has to shed a blocker and then take down the runner, Markus Kuhn shed a Ted Karras block to take down a runner. And Ninkovich with a quick inside move on what looked to be Cameron Fleming hit the runner for a loss.

Wide Receivers in Focus: With Amendola and Edelman yet to practice and Chris Hogan and Keshawn Martin out, the younger wide receivers have been getting a ton of reps. We’ve already mentioned some of the work Dobson did, but Chris Harper, DeAndre Carter and Malcolm Mitchell were all displaying some solid work.

In early 1-on-1 drills, Mitchell spun Justin Coleman completely around and made a nice play on a pass from Brady. He beat Cyrus Jones on one deep play and had another swatted away at the last moment.

Carter put a nice move on Cyrus Jones and was in the clear, forcing the rookie corner to grab a handful of jersey, in what was an obvious pass interference. Harper was making plays as well, going all out for deep balls on a couple of occasions.

Bill Belichick mentioned the depth at wide receiver earlier. With the top four WRs out, the team was still able to get some good looks on offense.

Play of the Day: Late in practice, the team was doing situational work with Bill Belichick calling out the down and distance. With the offense facing a 4th and 1 from the 1-yard line, Brady handed off to Tyler Gaffney.

Cornerback Darryl Roberts recognized the play, shot into the gap and was able to fight off the block of Joey Iosefa who has 50 pounds on him and still drop Gaffney for a loss at the four-yard line. With the team having six corners fighting for two slots on the roster, this is the kind of play that the coaches will remember.

The Special Teams return game is still led by the rookie Cyrus Jones. The primary job is his to lose at this point. He, V’Angelo Bentley and Matthew Slater were sharing duties but Jones always went first.

Joe Judge lit into the coverage team early in the practice for not lining up correctly. He’s a fiery, detail oriented guy and he has an incredible amount of depth to work with this year. I think this special teams unit can be….. special.

Patrick Chung blocked a field goal attempt late in practice.

Tomorrow’s practice begins at 9:15 a.m. We’ll be there, stay tuned…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Training Camp 7-30, Photo Gallery

Steve Balestrieri
July 30, 2016 at 4:55 pm ET

Miss out on today’s action? There were more than 21,000 fans in attendance for Saturday’s practice session. Here are some of the photos from today. Be sure to stay tuned to PatsFans.com as we’ll post daily after-action reports from the latest at training camp as well as a daily photo gallery. Check back soon for the recap of the practice session from July 30.

For the Patriots, the Defense Never Rests

Steve Balestrieri
July 29, 2016 at 5:00 am ET

First Month of the Season Will Be Time for Defense to Step Up

The Patriots first practice session is in the books as training camp is underway. While everyone is trying to break down the exact number of snaps that Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo got with the 1st team offense, that isn’t what I’d take away from the day. The Patriots defense seems like it may be prepping up to be a bit more aggressive this year.

With Jimmy G. taking the reins for Weeks 1-4 while Brady gets an early vacation to Costa Rica with Giselle, the pressure is going to be on the defense to step up. That will take a lot of the onus off of Garoppolo and still give the Patriots the chance to win. That’s why some of the lesser talked about developments concerning the defense today may provide an inkling as to how they’ll play.


Rob Ninkovich is one of the Patriots most versatile players. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans.com Images)

It’s only one day and one practice but the team continues to tinker with Rob Ninkovich and Shea McClellin on the edge. The Patriots worked Ninkovich at linebacker a bit during the spring. That continued during Thursday’s practice session. McClellin who came over from the Bears this offseason spent most of the spring lining up as a defensive end. Today the Patriots had each doing more of the same and more. Both spent some time both rushing off the edge and dropping into coverage.

It is significant even though it’s early because it shows, at least initially that the team is going to take advantage of the players’ versatility. By showing different looks, formations and coverages, Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia can be more aggressive and keep opponents off-balance.

Newcomer Chris Long was mostly quiet on the first day of camp but what was noteworthy for him was that he was kicking inside, similar to what Jabaal Sheard did a bit last year. On obvious passing downs, adding Long as an interior sub-package pass rusher will help keep the pressure on the quarterback.

 

Chris Long will be looked at to provide additional pass rush in 2016

Chris Long will be looked at to provide additional pass rush in 2016

Ninkovich has been a jack-of-all-trades since arriving in Foxboro in 2009. He’s been a long-snapper, an outside linebacker and defensive end. Earlier this summer, Ninkovich hinted around that he’s comfortable doing anything asked of him by Belichick.

“What I can control is how I play on Sunday. So, really, that’s what everyone else is thinking: How can we perform better and whatever else comes out of it, we all might have to step up. That’s just the way it is.”

In an interview with Sirius Radio’s Pat Kirwan, Ninkovich talked about Belichick putting the team in the position to succeed. “I think Bill [Belichick] does a great job every year,” Ninkovich said. “He gives us everything we need to understand as far as going into a season, where we need to be mentally. And I think we all know that we have to go out there and perform at a high level, we have to put in the work now, put in the work in the offseason, put in the work in training camp. That’s where the games are won or lost.”

With an improved and deeper secondary in 2016, the Patriots may be more apt to be a tad more aggressive this season. No team blitzed a defensive back less than the Patriots a year ago. We may now be looking at a little bit of a change. It will definitely be something to monitor as the days go on in training camp.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, cornerbacks and the safeties.  And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

 

 

Four Things To Watch For At Patriots Training Camp

Steve Balestrieri
July 27, 2016 at 12:03 pm ET

Lots of positions/players will demand attention this summer

The Patriots headed into training camp this morning. The veterans had to report in and join the rookies who have been at it since Sunday. Now the dog days of summer begin as the team begins to come together on the field and the competition begins in earnest for roster spots in 2016. Here are four things that you need to be watching for.

It can be a daunting task, with 90 players running around on two separate practice fields, it can be a blur at times. While most fans that make the trek down to Gillette watch Brady and the wide receivers do their thing, there are lots of other activities going on that will also bear watching very closely this year. So let’s start with the elephant in the room.

How Will the Reps Break Out Between Brady and Garoppolo?
Normally this one is a no-brainer. Brady loves the work, the competition and tries to protect his snaps like a miser would a pile of gold dust. But with #12’s suspension, this year the coaches face an intriguing dilemma. How will the QB reps with the 1st team offense play itself out?

There is no more “if” Brady is suspended. It’s happening and he’s going to sit the first month of the season. Now Jimmy Garoppolo is no longer facing a possible scenario where he may be forced to play the first quarter of the season, he is.

Brady and Josh McDaniels share a moment

Brady and Josh McDaniels share a moment

Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniel will have to walk a fine line here. Garoppolo must be prepared to take the field on September 11 against the Cardinals and run the offense smoothly. Brady, on the other hand, has a lot of new weapons in the arsenal that he has to get comfortable with. Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell are all new faces who will be counted upon in 2016. And Brady WILL be the starting QB from Weeks 5 to 17 and beyond once the playoffs begin.

Brady can’t just skip training camp, then the first month of the season and be expected to be sharp against the Browns in Week 5. And Jimmy G. will also need time to work in a comfort level with the same players. There is no right or wrong answer here. The coaches will have to find a happy medium. I would expect Brady to get just a hair over the 50 percent mark in practice with Jimmy G, getting the lion’s share of preseason game work.

Who Steps Up at Running Back?
This was one of those positions we thought the team would address this offseason. But they mostly decided to stand pat. The only additions were veteran Donald Brown and UDFA D.J. Foster. As a result, this position is truly wide open.

With Dion Lewis coming off of an ACL injury in November and beginning camp on PUP, coupled with LeGarrette Blount coming off of a serious hip injury, the positions are there for the taking.

Foster takes a handoff inside the "triangle" from Tom Brady

Foster takes a handoff inside the “triangle” from Tom Brady

Blount has been a favorite of Bill Belichick and he did have a decent season before he was injured. He’s that punisher that the team likes when they get ahead on opponents and Blount has proved that when he can get to that second level, he’s very effective.

But if he can’t move effectively? The team is in a rough spot. For the big backs that can pound the ball, that would leave them with either Tyler Gaffney or Joey Iosefa.  Gaffney is entering Year 3 and still hasn’t taken the field and Iosefa had one big play on his resume from a year ago. Brandon Bolden is just there for STs and as an emergency fill-in.

The team will clearly err on the side of caution with Lewis which opens up camp and preseason for the third down passing back role. James White was very good out of the backfield but the team showed zero confidence in him as a runner. Donald Brown is a vet who may be getting a little long in the tooth. He can do a bit of running and is a good receiver as well as an excellent blocker. Foster is an intriguing guy who looks dynamic out of the backfield. If he can prove he can run with the ball, he’ll be the guy to watch.

Cornerback Depth, Who’s #2 and #3?
Malcolm Butler is the Patriots top cornerback. That isn’t going to change unless he gets hurt this summer. But here is where things get interesting. While both Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman return after starting as the right and slot corners respectively, competition is wide open.

Top draft choice Cyrus Jones is going to push Coleman at a minimum for the starters job at slot corner. He may even push Ryan for the right corner spot and force him into the slot. But the competition doesn’t end there.

2-Roberts,-Coleman

Also competing for a roster spot is 2nd-year player Darryl Roberts, veteran E.J. Biggers and UDFAs Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc and V’Angelo Bentley. The young players are all on the smaller side but very athletic and have return ability.

Jones and LeBlanc stood out this spring, the final slot may come down to STs ability. Roberts made an outstanding play as a gunner in minicamp, something that had to catch the coaches eye. This will be a fun position to watch this summer.

Interior Offensive Line, crowded with New Faces:
While we thought the team would address tackle this spring, the team again threw us a curve and stood pat. But they added several new faces in the interior offensive line and how it plays out will bear watching.

The Pats brought in former 1st round pick Jonathan Cooper in the Chandler Jones trade. Injuries and inconsistent play have marked his career to date. Now he’s looking to reignite his career under Dante Scarnecchia. The team also drafted Joe Thuney and Ted Karras.

With Josh Kline, Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason missing the spring workouts, it opens up some intriguing possibilities inside. Most assume Bryan Stork and David Andrews are locked in a positional battle for the center job. But Thuney took some snaps there as well this spring.  Health and performance on the field will be the final decision makers here but we could be conceivably looking at a completely different interior of the line in September.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, cornerbacks and the safeties.  And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Training Camp Primer – Safeties

Steve Balestrieri
July 26, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

Deepest Position of the Team, Tough Cuts Ahead

The Patriots head into training camp this week and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up are the Safeties.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So the next position to break down are the safeties. The backend of the Patriots secondary is set, starters Devin McCourty and Pat Chung return and each will turn 29 in training camp so their age isn’t an issue.  Duron Harmon is normally the first man on the field, but he missed all of the spring so 2nd-year player Jordan Richards was taking the majority of his reps. Richards is shorter and stockier than Harmon and is a bit stiff for the backup center field role, he’s better suited to the box or the hybrid safety/linebacker role. Nate Ebner will not be at camp, having been granted permission to play rugby in the Olympics.

Those five plus Brandon King were on last year’s roster. The team let Tavon Wilson walk in free agency but waiting in the wings is LB/S Kamu Grugier-Hill, Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson and the recently signed Vinnie Sunseri.

The team is deep and talented at safety and they’re more than addressed the loss of Wilson who played very little the past two seasons.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards
McCourty is the quarterback of the secondary, a co-captain of the team and the glue that holds everything together on the backend. He still doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his center field play. With each passing year, he’s asserting his leadership more and more and still just 28 is one of the oldest established veterans of the unit.


Pat Chung has excelled in his second stint with the Pats. (USA TODAY Images)

Chung continues to enjoy a renaissance in his second go-around with the team. He plays up in the box and is extremely effective at stopping the run and covering the tight ends. It seems like Chung should be older than 28, but he still has several good years left in his career.

Harmon was considered a reach when he was drafted in 2013 but now he’s a very valuable member of the defense. In certain packages, the team will move McCourty around and bring in Harmon to play centerfield. He played in nearly 54 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and allowed just 4 of 11 passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns in 2015. He was also credited with three passes defended and three interceptions. His 58.5 passer rating against, was the best of the Patriots’ secondary men.

Richards was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft with the 64th overall pick. He has an outstanding football I.Q. and is a high character guy. As a rookie, most of his playing time (21% of the defensive snaps), came after McCourty and Chung suffered injuries late in the season. He’s best suited to the backup of Chung, being used down in the box and covering the tight ends.

On the Bubble: Nate Ebner, Brandon King,
King was a pleasant surprise a year ago, carving out a special team’s role and ending up with the second most tackles on the STs unit. He wasn’t given much of a chance of sticking but worked closely with Special Team’s Coach Joe Judge and had a solid rookie season.

Ebner was given a contract extension this spring and has been a valuable member of the STs unit. But he was granted a leave of absence to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics as a member of the US National Men’s Rugby Team. He’s been a fixture here but his absence could open the door for another player who steps up in training camp.

Kamu Grugier-Hill could be one of those players. An undersized, athletic demon on special teams, he could easily carve out a role for himself on defense as well. He’s one of those LB/S hybrids that teams are filling their rosters with.


Brandon King had a solid rookie season competing on Special Teams. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans Images)

Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Vinnie Sunseri, Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson

Sunseri is an intriguing player, someone I was hoping the Patriots would take a look at in 2014 when he was taken by the Saints in the NFL Draft. He’s the son of the Raiders’ coach Sal Sunseri and was lauded by his teammates at ‘Bama as being a coach on the field. An excellent special teams’ leader, he is also injury prone. He blew out an ACL in his senior season, had his rookie year cut short with a broken arm and missed all of 2015. This may be an audition of another kind. He may end up being a coach in the not too distant future, and maybe Belichick is building off of some first-hand knowledge of him.

Vereen was signed to the Patriots practice squad in November after being released by the Bears and then the Vikings. After the season was over, he signed a future’s contract for 2016. Vereen can play safety and has filled in at slot corner. He’s considered a core special teams’ player and served as a gunner for a bit this spring. He is a longshot to make the roster.

Thompson spent all of 2015 on the Dolphins’ practice squad after being drafted by Miami in the 5th Round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Minnesota. He wasn’t resigned and the Pats signed him to a future’s contract. The 6’0, 212-pound safety is another longshot to make the roster given the depth.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and the cornerbacks.  And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.