Everywhere you look, you see training camp preview. We’re no different, though we think ours are more thorough and more entertaining to read. See if you agree:
Defensive Preview By Greg Doyle
The Patriots head into camp looking very strong along the defensive line, with little room for competition. The top four will be the newly signed to a long-term deal Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green. It seems unlikely anyone could crack that top four rotation. Marquise Hill should be set as the fifth guy and depth despite an unproductive first two years. This will be the year to prove himself, though he should at least get the roster slot to have an opportunity to do so. The last couple spots seem to be where the competition will be. Mike Wright stayed on the roster, after being an undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati, for most of the season. He showed hustle and some versatility to play outside and inside. He has a good chance to make the team and even join the rotation. Santonio Holmes, a nose tackle, has some talent and should compete with draftee LeKevin Smith for the backup spot to Vince Wilfork. Give Thomas the edge with a year in the system and Smith could head to the practice squad. Dan Klecko could be out of opportunities and reports from mini-camp are he is working with the linebackers. Recent pickup Jonathan Sullivan is loaded with talent, but has shown little inclination to use it in his time in the NFL. He’ll have to demonstrate an immediate 180 to work his way into the rotation consistently.
Linebacker is a little slimmer, depth wise, heading into camp. Tedy Bruschi, Roosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel all will be mainstays, obviously. There is some question if Vrabel spends most of his time outside or inside. The thought is, he’ll probably prepare in camp for both, but start the season outside where he is best suited. He can capably play both, however. The fourth spot will likely be between Tully Banta-Cain and Monty Beisel. Beisel needs to show he has adjusted to the Patriots system better early on if he wants to start the season in the rotation. Banta-Cain needs to show he is ready to take on a bigger role outside, helping to replace Willie McGinest. He’s been in the system long enough and has shown flashes. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with more opportunity. Recent re-signee Chad Brown is back to hopefully make a bigger contribution in his second year with the club. Larry Izzo should make the team due to his special teams ability. Don Davis is probably a good candidate for the same reason. The rest of the spots come down to competition between draftee Jeremy Mincey, an outside player with good talent, and free agent signee Barry Gardner who has a lot of experience in the NFL. Eric Alexander, who has spent some time here learning the system, also has a shot. The last few spots will come down to whom among these four plays the best in camp and pre-season games.
The secondary the last two years seemed stacked in pre-season. Yet in both season, injuries hit hard and the Pats were scrambling by seasons end to field experienced guys. This year they look solid again heading into camp. Asante Samuel, last year’s talented rookie Ellis Hobbs, Eugene Wilson and free agent signee Eric Warfield all appear assured of spots. Rodney Harrison too should rejoin the group at some point depending on how he progresses off the major knee injury he suffered last year. At that point, it becomes less clear. Watch to see how Randall Gay performs. He looked like a top flight prospect in 2004, only to suffer thru an injury riddled season last year and missing most of the year. If he returns, he’ll contribute. Camp and pre-season games should point towards how that will sort out. Artrell Hawkins came in and played well last year and should be safe as a safety/corner depth swing man. Hank Poteat at corner is a journeyman, but has generally played well since joining the Pats. 2005 draftee James Sanders showed ability at points last year and may be ready to start while Harrison recuperates. Watch to see how he plays in the preseason and what units he is paired with. On more shaky ground are free agent signees Mel Mitchell, safety Tebuckey Jones in his second tour with the Pats and returnees Gus Scott and Chad Scott. A few of these are likely to get a look. From all appearances, rookie Willie Andrews has ability and may stick if he shows he can both cover kicks and return them on special teams. Ray Ventrone is a safety and hard hitter, without much upper echelon collegiate experience, who the Pats liked last year, kept on the practice squad last year and allocated to NFL Europe, where he gained some experience, in the spring. He has a shot, but will have to make inroads on special teams. All in all, the most competition on the team for the final few spots may be found at defensive backs. Any injury causing a player to miss significant practice time could be fatal to his shot to make the team.
Offensive Preview by Scott Benson
A few words: Just to say that I’m happy to be back here at GDRV for the 06 season. I’m looking forward to being part of the new GDRV team approach, and to be honest, I’m kind of hoping we get blazers.
Now, here’s a few words about the 2006 Patriots offense.
Coaching: It’s safe to call Josh McDaniels the offensive coordinator now, apparently. That’s a relief. There were a few tears in the press box last fall when Bill Belichick wouldn’t admit to what was already evident to most of us anyway; McDaniels was calling the plays. Clearly Belichick bucked under the intense pressure and promoted McDaniels, probably in self-defense. Score this one for the Knights!
I’ll tell you something about McDaniels, though. The kid likes to air it out. He makes Charlie Weis look like Woody Hayes. It’s as though he looks in the huddle and says, “hey, that’s Tom Brady!” and then spends the rest of the game sending in pass plays trying to impress him. I’m too old for this 60/40 pass/run split, Josh. Criminy, at least run a draw play so I can catch my breath.
‘Bombs Away’ McDaniels will have his hands full in 06, with a group of rookies from a surprising draft devoted almost exclusively to offense. How he develops and integrates Chad Jackson into a receiving mix that is decidedly thin is to me the offensive focal point, though we’ll also be anxiously awaiting a glimpse of the future of Laurence Maroney.
Quarterbacks: Hey! That’s Tom Brady!
I’m no more objective than Josh, frankly. So here’s your preview – Tom Brady is the friggin’ quarterback. Beat that.
One more thing – I like a pissed off-Brady in 06. He didn’t make any secret of his frustration with the outcome (and his own play) in Denver, or of his intention to ensure it didn’t happen again. To me, this spells success. Let’s just say he doesn’t get the primo parking spaces for nothing.
It sure looks like Matt Cassel – like Brady before him – will move into the number 2 slot in his second year with the team. Most people seemed to think the Pats would move on a veteran quarterback when Our Doug retired this spring (after 63 memorable years in the game), but so far, no dice. It’s hard to believe they’d bring in anybody but a 3rd stringer now, and some (the estimable Mike Reiss, for one) are even wondering if the Pats will trim back on quarterbacks (to 2) to squeeze in players elsewhere.
I was impressed with (and amused by) Cassel’s Young-Steve-Grogan pre-season, and he acquitted himself pretty well in the final regular season loss to Miami (in fact, so well that people immediately accused him of throwing the game). He’s got a bit of athletic ability and a sound arm, and you have to like the makeup of a guy who comes from four years on the bench at USC (the University of Sitting Constantly?) to a number two spot in the NFL in a little over a year. I don’t think Matt Cassel has been coasting.
I look at it this way – do I really think that the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl without Tom Brady playing 16 games? No. Do I think that all could be saved if only Those Cheap Bastards had gone the extra mile for Jay Fielder? No. Do I think that if – God forbid – Matt Cassel had to come off the bench and take a few series or even finish a game, he’d embarrass or imperil anyone? No, not really. No more so than anybody else that had to follow Brady.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I say to you…Matt Cassel…why the hell not?
Running Backs: Corey Dillon is old and fat and hurt and he had a terrible 05 and he’s got a persecution complex and he’s probably going to submarine Maroney just like he turned on Heath Evans and I heard from some guy he carries a nuclear warhead in his car and BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH.
Maybe Dillon’s done. If so, what’s the point of beating the hell out of him for it? The Patriots got one magnificent season (and a world championship) out of a then-30 year old Dillon, and if that’s all they ever get, I’m fine with it. It’s not as though we can berate him back to form.
Maybe he isn’t done, though. Say Dillon hangs around long enough to burrow a few more tough yards, dispense a few more stiff arms, and own a few more fourth quarters…you can’t tell me you can’t find a roster spot for him. And with Maroney here, do you need Dillon to be the 300-carry back anymore?
I don’t know much about this young man Maroney and his career at Minnesota, except to say I don’t recall him playing for Hayden Fox in the old Craig T. Nelson series. I hope not. I don’t want to talk out of school, but I question the quality of the Golden Gophers’ coaching during the years 1989-1997. Van Damme, the defensive coordinator? An idiot.
And now we come to the part where we say that though they’re both a year older, and facing new competition, both Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass have been invaluable cogs in the Patriots success and can never be taken for granted and are still likely to contribute to further success with their savvy playmaking and unselfish team play and downright affordability and…I have to admit I’m believing this less every year.
Kough It Up Kevin lost me – perhaps his most ardent defender – in Denver. The Patriots were grinding upfield with the lead and the ball and I was just turning to my wife to say ‘they have them’ when Faulk laid his most prodigious of eggs. You know what happened after that. I will forever believe it was all the inevitable consequence of the Worst Possible Thing at the Worst Possible Time.
Maroney doesn’t seem to be considered much of pass receiver, yet anyway, and the Pats don’t have another back with Faulk’s particular skill set (unless, strangely enough, it’s Pass, the titular fullback, who begins camp on the PUP). I’ll never argue that Faulk doesn’t provide a consistent spark as the lone back in the spread offense, or that he won’t be doing it again this year. But seriously, that fumble was a killer.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention intriguing rookie utility man Garrett Mills, the productive Tulsa alum who may be a fullback if he isn’t a tight end if he isn’t an h-back. What’s that Taylor Hicks always says? Possibilities!
Receivers: You one of those people who wants storylines? The receiver position has no fewer than six. They better set up a buffet table over there because spread-trolling scribes are going to hit this position group like moths hit my porch light.
Deion Branch – There is every indication the MVP of Super Bowl 39 will hold out when camp opens. As the Boston Globe has made abundantly clear (I thought the commemorative pull-out section on Sunday was a bit much), Branch wants the team to tear up the remaining year of his rookie contract and show him some love or respect or huge wads of cash or whatever the hell it is that people want in this situation. Personally, I can’t be angry with or disappointed in the Louisville sprite, because if anybody’s earned his slice of the cheddar, it’s Branch. Nor can I find fault with the team’s position. They’ve convinced me that a balanced roster is far more likely to produce the desired result than a top-heavy one. Overpaying a few players leaves you with, well, few players.
So I can’t get caught up in the passion-play here, putting black hats on everyone, and I’m old enough to know that this, too, shall blow over. I figure all that cap room means the Pats have planned to deal with Branch all along. Let them make the sausage; we don’t have to watch.
Chad Jackson – I hated to see David Givens go; I never thought of him as a ‘great’ receiver, but he was a receiver that made great plays. He was physical, he was athletic, he got open. He produced on third down, and he could score. His loss leaves an undeniable void in the Patriots offense. Filling it, and quick, is Offensive Job 1.
Jackson ran a 4.3 at the Combine, but I like the Patriots’ web site description of him as a ‘clutch short area pass catcher.’ That, to me, is what David Givens was. The Patriots should be so lucky to end up with a faster version of him. He needs to get off the PUP first, though.
Reche Caldwell – It’s a horrible ‘first thing’ to write about the guy, but when the Pats signed Caldwell, a BSMW poster immediately dubbed him ‘Paper Reche’. I thought that was priceless. And not entirely unwarranted; though he played 16 games last season, he had played just 15 of the previous 32. He’s got good size, he’s got some experience, but he’s never caught more than 28 balls in a season. He seemed to hit if off with Brady right away, but there’s no telling where this one’s going.
Daniel Graham – You can almost see Graham’s story write itself. If he doesn’t end up as the next free agent departure, I’ll be (pleasantly) shocked. With Ben Watson’s emergence (and to an extent, the drafting of Texas TE David Thomas), and Graham’s best years still ahead of him, it seems inevitable. That’s a shame, really – another likeable player hitting the bricks. I don’t care if Graham ever catches the balls he was supposed to catch; he’s proven himself to be a NFL player on his ace run blocking alone.
Ben Watson – Combine his seemingly limitless potential and the tantalizing flashes with his highlight-heaven 100 yard dash on Champ Bailey, and you’ve got everybody expecting the world from Ben Watson. A guy can go either way on that kind of thing. With Givens gone, Graham going and the receivers thin, the margin of error is pretty slim.
Troy Brown – Even now, you’re damn glad to have Troy Brown on the field for a crucial third-down play. But at some point, time must move on. Here’s hoping that Troy plays successfully for as long as he wants to play, but at the same time, here’s hoping that the next generation of Patriots go-to receivers arrives soon.
Offensive Line: Of immediate concern is the condition of center Dan Koppen, who begins camp on the PUP with the rehab of his bum shoulder. Without him, the Patriots offensive line isn’t as good, or as deep. Matt Light returns after a blighted 05, and frees up Nick Kaczur to fight for the right tackle spot. Logan Mankins (off a promising rookie season) and Steve Neal are back as the guards. Depth should come from the usual standbys (Hochstein, Gorin, and ol’ Cut and Paste Mruczkowski) and returning guards Billy Yates and Ross Tucker.
Other than an occasion of catastrophic injury, I rarely worry about the Patriots offensive line. They may rarely be a great line, but they’re never a bad one. Smart guys who are well coached are the most calming influence.
Yeah, we’ll cast a wary eye at the rehabbing veterans (Kaczur joins Koppen on the sidelines as things begin, though Light is cleared for takeoff), but we’ll also cast a hopeful one in the direction of rookies Ryan O’Callaghan (gargantuan tackle) and Dan Stevenson (Weis-recommended guard). Actual draft choices, even. Ideally, they push the standbys and give the Pats more youthful talent along the line.