Week 1 of Patriots training camp is in the books, and one thing we must constantly remind ourselves of is not to overreact.
Yes, Aaron Dobson looks good so far. But we’ve seen that show before, and it hasn’t ended well each of the last two seasons. Yes, Jimmy Garoppolo looks like he deserves to be one of the 32 NFL starting quarterbacks. But let’s see how he does in a real game, not just in a practice or exhibition setting.
That said, we’ve still learned a lot about the Patriots after watching five practices (two in full pads) — much more than we did in watching five practices in the spring.
With one week of training camp down and four to go, here are some initial impressions:
1. This looks like the best quarterback depth chart in the Bill Belichick era.
And it should be, because the Patriots have invested more in the position over the last three years than they ever had under Belichick, using a second-round pick in 2014 on Garoppolo and a third-round pick this year for Jacoby Brissett.
Previous backups included Rohan Davey, Damon Huard, Matt Cassel, Kevin O’Connell, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Mallett, and Doug Flutie and Vinny Testaverde at the end of their careers. The current trio looks like the best the Patriots have had, top to bottom.
“We have three players we want to work with,” Belichick said on the first day of camp. “In some other years, I’ve seen teams that probably don’t feel like they have anybody, or maybe they have one. I think we’re in a good situation. We’ll just see how it plays out.”
Tom Brady looks as sharp as ever as he turns 39 Wednesday, and we have few concerns about him maintaining his elite level of play. Garoppolo, now in his third year in the system, is playing with a confidence that is hard to miss.
If NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock thought Mallett “popped” with “first-round arm talent” in 2014, wait until he sees Garoppolo, who looks far better than Mallett ever did in four preseasons with the Patriots. Garoppolo hasn’t played in a meaningful regular-season situation, but I believe he’ll be better than Davey, Cassel, Hoyer, or any of the other Brady backups.
And Brissett looks like he belongs, too. He’s a big, athletic kid who throws with accuracy, zip, and timing, and throws the best deep ball among the three quarterbacks.
Assuming the Patriots have all of their key pieces ready to play for Week 1 — Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, and the offensive line — here’s betting they will get along just fine with Garoppolo.
2. The offensive line is already banged up.
We’re only a week into camp, and already the offensive line is a walking MASH unit. As of now, only one “starter” is actually playing: left tackle Nate Solder. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and guard Tre Jackson are still on the physically unable to perform list. Center Bryan Stork left Friday’s practice with an injury. Right guard Jonathan Cooper injured his foot and has been put on the shelf for a little while. Left guard Shaq Mason still hasn’t practiced, and Josh Kline practiced for the first time Monday night.
The good news is that these injuries have given the backups plenty of opportunities. Second-year center David Andrews is playing well in Stork’s absence (and could make Stork expendable). Marcus Cannon is getting much-needed reps at right tackle. Rookie third-rounder Joe Thuney has taken a ton of reps with the first team and looks great at right guard. Sixth-rounder Ted Karras has gotten good reps at guard and center.
But the line is the No. 1 story for the Patriots this year, after it was decimated by injuries in 2015, then shellacked by the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots really need to get their starters back soon to get quality reps with each other before the season begins.
3. The wide receiver competition is really tight.
Four roster spots are already set: Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, and rookie fourth-rounder Malcolm Mitchell. That leaves one spot, or at most two, for six players: Aaron Dobson, Keshawn Martin, Chris Harper, Devin Lucien, Nate Washington, and DeAndre Carter.
Injuries to Edelman, Amendola, and now Hogan have given the others plenty of opportunities. It won’t be an easy decision for the coaching staff.
“I think our competition at receiver is probably as good as it’s been since I’ve been here,” Belichick said Monday on Sirius XM NFL. “Obviously we can’t keep all of them, but it should be a good battle because they all have skill.”
Dobson has played well, and the coaching staff would love for him to finally reach his potential. The 2013 second-round pick is the tallest receiver on the team (6 feet 3 inches) and is probably their only true deep threat at receiver.
But he has looked good in camp before. When it comes time for the regular season, he gets injured or is too inconsistent to stay on the field. He also doesn’t play special teams, which will hurt his case.
If we look at the money, then Martin is probably the favorite for the fifth spot, as the Patriots gave him a $600,000 signing bonus in January. Harper has also made some big catches in camp. But the dark horse is Carter, a 5-8 speedster who spent part of last season on the Patriots’ practice squad. Every time you look up, Carter is making a big play. He also returns kickoffs and punts.
The only one who isn’t helping his case is Washington, the 11-year veteran who missed the last four practices after vomiting on the field on the first day. We hope he’s OK, but he’s not going to make the team if he’s standing on the sideline.
4. Gronk has been incredible.
Rob Gronkowski has been everything the Patriots could want, and more. He has been absolutely dominant at practice, to the point that we hope it doesn’t ruin the confidence of Patrick Chung or Jordan Richards, the poor saps who have been forced to cover him.
And he has been a great ambassador for the Patriots, giving multiple press conferences already (even if he doesn’t want to) and connecting with the fans. He signed autographs on the first day of practice, and was the last player on the field signing autographs Monday night.
His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, attended Sunday’s practice and got in a little face time with Belichick. Gronkowski is set to make $14 million the next two years, exactly half of what the top receivers (Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas) are making.
When I tweeted Monday that Gronkowski deserves a raise, it was funny to see that the tweet was “liked” by Rosenhaus.
The Patriots have no need to double Gronkowski’s pay, but they should keep the big man happy and pay him a few million more this year, based on everything that he means to the team on and off the field. Considering that he’s due $14 million the next two years and $19 million over the final two years of his contract, the Patriots can just move some money around and pay him more up front. He’s earned it.
5. Other thoughts.
Not sure what Jamie Collins has been eating this offseason, but the free-agent-to-be linebacker looks HUGE. The Patriots list him at 6-3, 250 as always, but his neck is noticeably thicker and he looks like a tank. Hope it doesn’t cost him any of his speed . . . LeGarrette Blount looks motivated as he fights for a roster spot, and I like rookie D.J. Foster so far over James White in a way-too-early roster projection. Foster makes some tough, competitive catches, especially on wheel routes . . . Cornerback Cyrus Jones was drafted in the second round and will get on the field at some point, but second-year pro Justin Coleman has been taking most of the reps as the third cornerback and is playing well . . . So far, the Patriots have practiced in scorching heat, driving rain with cooler temperatures, and at night in the stadium. Belichick couldn’t ask for a better variation of weather to prepare his team for the season.