NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Albert Breer details his visit with the New England Patriots. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
Foxborough, Mass., where the expectations following the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots can be quantified -- 36,000-plus filled the Gillette Stadium practice field stands and adjacent Patriots Experience park over the first three days of camp. Bill Belichick turned 60 earlier this year, Tom Brady turns 35 this week, and there's a palpable sense that the time is now for this loaded roster.
1. The Patriots are all in.I wrote last year at this time that the Patriots were pushing their chips to the middle of the table, with moves to get Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco as proof. Those two didn't work out, but New England got to the Super Bowl anyway, and that "urgency of now" mentality is still apparent. Four times in the last five years, at this juncture, the Patriots held two first-round picks, and in the first three of those occasions they pushed resources forward, traded down and built to the future. This time around, they cashed their chips in, moving up twice in April -- first for Chandler Jones, then for Dont'a Hightower -- to inject athleticism and size to their front seven. As a result, a team that's worked to control the draft board over the last decade has just five picks total in the 2013 NFL Draft. At least on the surface, that reflects a team playing very much for today.
2. Brady's sharp as ever. OK, so we just went over how this could be the twilight of Brady's career? With the caveat that things can change in a hurry (See: Manning, Peyton), be aware of this: He still looks very much on top of his game. It's hard not to appreciate how every receiver is hit in stride, with a chance to get upfield. Or how every teammate is having his feet held to fire constantly, with Brady just a drop or a bad route away from lighting into someone. Or why it works for him because of the massive credibility he has with teammates. Brady mentioned to me on Saturday that he thinks "the great part about being around here is that the expectation is only to win, and there's nothing else. It's not about selling tickets or t-shirts, it's to win football games." And that is just it for No. 12. It's easy to respond to someone like that when it really, genuinely is as much about you as it is him.
3. It's hard to put a ceiling on Brandon Lloyd. Brady's new top outside threat was once a symbol of the Redskins' personnel woes and tagged a locker-room cancer. Then, he met Josh McDaniels. In 25 games under the new/old Patriots offensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams, Lloyd caught 119 balls for 1,953 yards and 14 touchdowns, which projects to 76 catches, 1,250 yards and nine touchdowns over 16 games. And now he gets to play with Brady, with a connection between the two already apparent. At one point on Saturday, the quarterback threw down the right sideline to Lloyd, who climbed over cornerback Sterling Moore and fast-closing safety Josh Barrett to steal the ball away. Afterward, Lloyd said it "just takes time" to build the quarterback-receiver relationship. These two seem to be well on their way.
4. Wes Welker's replacement might not be a receiver at all. Belichick offered up an interesting answer when I asked on Friday about having depth behind a unique player like Aaron Hernandez. "If you have (a similar player) then you could put that player in there for him," the coach said. "If you don't have that, then you have other players on your roster who would do things maybe not quite the same but fill a similar role. If he's an inside receiver and (Wes) Welker is an inside receiver, then they're not the same, but they're both inside receivers, as an example." That makes you wonder if the Patriots see paying both Hernandez and Welker long-term to be redundant. Next year, when Welker's contract is up again, Hernandez is going into a contract year. And this type of situation isn't unprecedented. In 2004, Brandon Stokley went for 1,000 yards for the Indianapolis Colts and was Peyton Manning's most trusted target. Injuries wound up driving him out of Indianapolis a couple years later. The man who replaced much of his production: Dallas Clark.
5. The defensive issues here aren't solved. The hope is that, long-term, Jones gives New England the kind of pass-rushing threat offenses have to gameplan for, but he's still seen as a bit of a project. Andre Carter still could be brought back to ease the transition for the years-old Patriots problem of getting pressure on the passer. But the real issue here, at least at this point, is on the back end. In the two days of practice I watched, as impressive as the Patriots' offense was, the corners looked very ordinary. The Patriots badly need Devin McCourty to bounce back from a bad sophomore campaign, and second-year pro Ras-I Dowling to stay healthy. There's still time, of course, but early signs weren't great.
THE NEW GUYS
Dont'a Hightower. If you've been around Belichick long enough, one thing you pick up on is the weight his praise for rookies carries. He talked up Jerod Mayo in 2008 and McCourty in 2010, and both were 16-game starters. And he's had similar plaudits for Hightower. For good reason, too. At one point in individuals on Sunday, Rob Gronkowski tried to engage the rookie in a blocking drill, and Hightower got in the tight end's pads and jacked him up into a standstill. At that point, a coach warned other offensive guys that if their technique was off, Hightower would make them pay. That tells you plenty about this new guy.
Chandler Jones. The freakishly athletic Jones is a bit of a projection, like Jason Pierre-Paul was for the New York Giants two years ago, and their respective transitions to the pros could be similar. As a rookie, the Giants coaches put JPP in spots to take advantage of his athleticism, without ever starting him, and got 4.5 sacks and six passes defensed in return. Last year, of course, Pierre-Paul became a starter and exploded. That's not to say Jones will become JPP, just that the Patriots could follow the developmental blueprint.
Jabar Gaffney/Donte' Stallworth. We've already touched on Lloyd. You can pencil him into the opening day lineup now. Gaffney and Stallworth, on the other hand, will have to fight to get on the roster. Both played in New England previously, and have a rapport with Brady, which signifies the team is looking for more certainty in what they're getting, after the failed Ochocinco experiment. These two are likely fighting with incumbent Deion Branch over one or two jobs.
Belichick might be 60, but there's a strong feeling around the league that he's not close to being done, and could well outlast Brady in New England. When asked about his future, Belichick's stock response privately has been, I'm told, "What else am I going to do?" Here's the thing -- he's comfortable. He went to prep school and college in the region, lives in the seaside town of Hingham, and his beloved Nantucket is a short drive/boat ride away. He's got all the power a coach could want organizationally, and now his son is working for him. Maybe he reverses course down the line, but at this point my sense is he's staying in Foxborough for quite a while to come.
- If there's one thing that should scare folks in New England, it's the uncertainty on the offensive line. This team needs to get Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer healthy, and Brian Waters back.
- Speaking of the line, I covered the Patriots day-to-day from 2005 to 2007, and still there are a few things out there like watching Dante Scarnecchia, a fixture in Foxborough since 1982 (with a two-year hiatus in Indianapolis), coach that group. I think "Mean SOB" covers it best.
- I think Rob Gronkowski will be fine, because he prioritizes football. But here's the issue he's created for himself. If he were to go for 70 catches, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns this year (still* really* good numbers for a tight end), folks will attribute the drop-off to his offseason antics.
Put it this way: The question that was most popular during Day 1 of this team's training camp was, "Can you go 16-0?" Expectations couldn't be much higher in Foxborough. And so I figure I'd ask the boss, owner Robert Kraft, what he thought of any 16-0 talk. He took a page from the Belichick playbook. "For every one of these 19 years we've owned the team, I've felt excited," Kraft told me. "Any owner in any city should be. If you're not excited now, when everyone has a chance, when will you be? At this point, you have no idea who'll get injured, just like we didn't know Tommy would go down in the first quarter of the first game (in 2008). What I've learned is you should always be excited in the beginning. But I really love the position we're in. Everyone's shooting for us in the division. And our focus is on getting to the end of the year as healthy as we can, and winning the division. That guarantees us a home playoff game, we can reward our fans with that, and see what happens from there." Somehow I think, and this is just a sneaking suspicion, Kraft might be hoping for just a little more than that.