FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots’ first practice of 2013 did a great service to providing insight, confirming what we believed to be true while helping clear up what was otherwise fuzzy.
Here’s my quick takeaways on the practice:
1. Ups and downs – Observers of the Patriots wide receiver competition were high on Michael Jenkins after OTAs and minicamp. He appeared to be rising on the depth chart. But at the same time Jenkins was spending so much time catching passes from Tom Brady, many of his peers were unavailable to practice because of one ailment or another. In training camp Friday, we saw Jenkins’ reps decrease while the bulk of Brady’s throws went to rookie Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, and third-receiver Kamar Aiken. Aiken’s prominence certainly surprised.
2. Tight end mumbo jumbo – A number of the many questions entering training camp centered around what the Patriots will do at tight end, with Rob Gronkowski (back) unable to participate and Aaron Hernandez gone. While the team continues to evaluate the position, there were certainly hints dropped about which mix of players the team has in mind. The trio of Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells, and Zach Sudfeld appear to be in direct competition with each other as Gronkowski’s primary backup, while Michael Hoomanawanui is seeing competition, although to a lesser degree, from rookie Brandon Ford. This confirms what we already had come to believe exiting minicamp.
3. Tebow can catch – We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but it’s not often that the team’s third-string quarterback is taking part in drills that require him to catch the ball. He caught three balls in some receiver-like drills that were geared toward defenders. But it was significant because he was not asked to help throw those very same passes. Tom Brady did. Ryan Mallett did. It really shouldn’t surprise us that Tebow is catching passes in practice because he has done it before in New York. However, his day was not nearly as great passing the ball, completing 6 of 10 passes in 11-on-11 drills with two interceptions. Both interceptions were poor throws, one over the middle of the field that was uncatchable for its intended target and the other on a screen pass. He has to improve.
4. They are who we thought they were – The Patriots secondary and linebacker corps is starting to develop just as suspected. Cornerback Kyle Arrington is key here, working as the team’s starting right corner and shifting inside to the team’s “star,” or slot corner, in passing situations. This is the same as it was last year, except Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling are essentially competing to back him up. Also in the secondary, free agent pickup Adrian Wilson has slid into the first-team group opposite Devin McCourty at safety. Patriots top draft choice Jamie Collins subbed in as an outside linebacker in passing situations for starter Brandon Spikes. Spikes was joined by Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower again in the first team.
Of course, as the team continues to practice and evaluate each position, players will continue to move up and down out of their respective groups. Friday just so happened to confirm a lot of suspicions on which way the team was leaning in key areas.