Not too early for a few camp stories
The Patriots will return to the practice fields for training camp Monday, with more than two weeks of preseason preparation behind them but still with nearly four weeks ahead until their first regular-season game.
Since the coaching staff took some time to regroup and players had Saturday off, it seems like a good time to look back at the first weeks of camp and go over some of what we’ve learned to this point:
(For the record, there won’t be anything here about the offensive line’s issues. We know they’re there, but with all of the changes and absences of top players from that unit, it seems fair to give them and coach Dante Scarnecchia time to work things out. He has always had his group ready in the past.)
■ Chandler Jones is better than expected. Patriots fans rejoiced when Bill Belichick finally used a first-round draft pick on a pass rusher (and moved up to do it!), but Jones, the 6-foot-5-inch Syracuse product, was believed to come with a caveat: He might not be strong enough right away to do battle with the behemoths at left tackle and would probably be used situationally to start. But he got in the weight room in the spring and has hardly come off the field to this point in practices. On Thursday night, he gave Saints Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod all that he could handle.
■ Wes Welker is still Wes Welker — that is, darn hard to cover. Welker was such a story in the offseason, thanks to his franchise tag designation and then the inability of him and the Patriots to come to a longer-term contract. But things have quieted down in camp. That’s not because of lack of performance. Welker is still one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets, and is still giving defensive backs fits. He wasn’t targeted Thursday night in limited opportunities, but that won’t last long. Welker will have fewer catches this year, but it will very likely be because of the sheer number of options Brady has at his disposal, not because of a dropoff in Welker’s play.
■ Vince Wilfork is as steady to dominating as ever. It’s a broad spectrum between steady and dominating, to be sure, but Wilfork is both. He hasn’t gotten a lot of attention to this point in camp, but it’s probably because he’s doing exactly what has become expected of him: anchoring the defensive line and bullying offensive linemen. In one-on-ones a week ago, he lost his first matchup, against Dan Connolly, and then proceeded to take three more reps, easily winning them all with a variety of moves. If he and protégé Kyle Love can occupy interior linemen and push the pocket, it makes life even easier for the ends.
■ Aaron Hernandez is primed for a breakout season. When he does interviews, it seems like Hernandez gets more questions about fellow 2010 draftee Rob Gronkowski and his zany adventures than he does about himself, but that may change after this year. Provided he can stay healthy, Hernandez will likely show the league his full spectrum of talents. We’ve seen him lined up in several different spots, including the backfield, and Brady has looked to him often in camp. Tight end, receiver, running back, punt returner . . . with the ball in his hands, Hernandez is dangerous.
■ Stevan Ridley is the starting running back. This development hasn’t been a real surprise; of the other players New England has at the position (Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and rookie Brandon Bolden), he was the pre-camp favorite to snag the spot. But Ridley has solidified it, showing the burst and speed that was starting to garner him carries last year before he lost two fumbles at the end of the season. Vereen is the more natural pass-catcher, which is a positive with Josh McDaniels’s fondness for screen passes, but Ridley can do that as well.
■ Brandon Spikes remains an enigma. Or, perhaps more accurately, a source of frustration. When he is on the field, the middle linebacker can be stellar and plays with instincts, energy, and ferocity. But it’s that “on the field” part that has become an issue. Four games lost to suspension as a rookie, half the 2011 season and all of this spring lost to knee problems. Spikes sat out the first four practices of camp, returned, and was immediately playing with the top unit, and then gave an uncomfortable interview with his helmet and tinted visor still on. After a few days, he was back on the sidelines again, not taking part last week. New England needs him, particularly now that the linebacking depth has taken a hit with Dane Fletcher’s injury.