FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots finished 10 grueling weeks of offseason workouts with one final minicamp practice on Thursday. They plugged their new personnel into the lineup, worked on new schemes, and battled relentlessly on the practice field.
Surely, we have a good grasp of the team’s strengths and weaknesses, and can safely say that the Patriots are on their way to competing for a fourth Super Bowl championship.
“With all due respect,” Bill Belichick said this week, “we haven’t really done anything on the field.”
Fair enough. Belichick isn’t just being a wet blanket. These offseason workouts were a nice way to get back into football and start the 2014 season, but won’t have much effect on the games this fall. The practices were non-contact by NFL rule, so we don’t really know if the offensive line will be any better this year, if the running game will still be as productive without LeGarrette Blount, and if the defensive line is ready to bring more heat this season.
“We’ve taught a lot. I think hopefully we’ve learned a lot,” Belichick said. “But we haven’t had the competition that we’re going to have in training camp. It’s just not the same.”
Still, even though the practices were glorified 7-on-7 passing camps, we can draw some lessons from the Patriots’ offseason. Some of the biggest takeaways:
■ There was a lot of talk about guys “playing faster” now that they’re in their second year with the Patriots — Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, and Jamie Collins. Amendola and Thompkins, especially, were impressive. Amendola looks to be developing a good rapport with Tom Brady, and Thompkins was sometimes dominant in drills, getting the better of new cornerback Brandon Browner several times.
That’s all well and good, but “playing faster” is straight from “Football Offseason Clichés 101,” along the same lines as players reporting to camp 10 pounds lighter/heavier and in “the best shape of their career.” Amendola and Thompkins looked dominant last offseason and training camp, too, and both faded away during the regular season. It’s great that Amendola, Thompkins, Boyce, and Collins are “playing faster” this spring. Whether they can do it in the regular season is a whole different matter.
■ Along the same lines, there’s a reason the Patriots signed Brandon LaFell, drafted Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon in the seventh round, signed three undrafted free agent receivers, and had 12 receivers on the roster before cutting Reggie Dunn on Thursday. The Patriots clearly aren’t ready to give Thompkins or Boyce the fifth and final receiver spot (not counting Matthew Slater). And, frankly, they shouldn’t, given their struggles as rookies. Gallon could wind up on the practice squad, but at this point I like his chances of making the roster better than Thompkins’s or Boyce’s. The best chance for one of those two to stick could be if one of the top three receivers — Julian Edelman, LaFell, or Amendola — gets hurt in training camp, or if Aaron Dobson has a setback on his foot injury in camp.
■ Jimmy Garoppolo throws a beautiful ball, and I can watch him rip it in 7-on-7 drills all day. But the kid isn’t ready to be the No. 2 quarterback yet, and it would behoove the Patriots to hold onto Ryan Mallett for another season. And that’s OK. No one should have expected Garoppolo, who played in the football division formerly known as Division I-AA, to be NFL-ready the second he arrived in Foxborough. There’s a lot to like about his game, but Garoppolo had too many fumbles, interceptions, and indecisive moments for the Patriots to entertain trading Mallett. A redshirt year will do Garoppolo well.
■ The Patriots don’t seem to have much at tight end behind Rob Gronkowski — Michael Hoomanawanui and undrafted rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson — but watch out for LaFell playing the “Hernandez” role. “He played all of our wide receiver positions, plus he knew the tight end position,” his former coach, Ron Rivera, told me in March. LaFell was also a “want-to” blocker in Carolina, meaning he doesn’t mind getting physical in the run game. Patriots fans, meet your new Swiss Army Knife.
■ Duron Harmon looks like the leader in the clubhouse to win the starting strong safety job. He worked with Darrelle Revis, Browner and Devin McCourty most of the spring, and was smart enough to spend his offseason studying film of some of the top safeties in the game. Logan Ryan looks like a good bet to start the season as the No. 2 cornerback during Browner’s four-game suspension. Ryan and Browner should also be cross-trained at safety given the team’s relative lack of depth at the position. Revis says he’s no longer thinking about his repaired ACL, which is a good sign. And either Tavon Wilson or Patrick Chung won’t be with the Patriots in Week 1.
■ Right guard Dan Connolly is probably in trouble this training camp. The coaching staff is high on second-year player Josh Kline, and considering the Patriots can save $3 million by cutting Connolly, we wouldn’t be surprised to see him beaten out by Kline, who earned a lot of time with the starting offensive line as Logan Mankins took a break. Four spots on the offensive line seem set — LT Nate Solder, LG Mankins, C Ryan Wendell and RT Sebastian Vollmer — and Kline, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming and Jon Halapio look like good bets to win roster spots.
■ Watch for 5-foot-7-inch running back Roy Finch and 6-8 tight end Justin Jones as undrafted rookies who could make the team — you can’t teach speed or height. Running back Brandon Bolden could easily be beaten out by rookie James White for a roster spot. And don’t be surprised if either Stephen Houston (6-0, 230) or Jonas Gray (5-10, 225) makes the team in the “Blount” role.
■ Belichick did bring a little levity to the end of Thursday’s practice, busting out soccer balls and having some fun with his players before releasing them for a five-week break. But Belichick didn’t cancel the final day of minicamp or Organized Team Activities, like he often does. And Belichick didn’t have any guests at practices — no Bon Jovi appearances, no college coaches such as Urban Meyer or Brian Kelly observing the festivities. It’s possible Belichick invited his guests to one or more of the practices that weren’t open to the media. But Belichick didn’t mess around in free agency this year, spending big bucks on Revis, Browner, LaFell, and Edelman, and it didn’t look like he was messing around this spring, either.