FOXBOROUGH — The beauty of training camp is that every year you go in with assumptions and perceptions that ostensibly get obliterated. Without fail.
Last year, the hyperbole surrounding tight end Zach Sudfeld led to an unnatural affinity for a rather unknown player, which ended awkwardly after he was put on waivers. But it was important at the time, we thought, because there was a hole to fill without Rob Gronkowski. There was nothing to indicate, at least in training camp, that a talented tight end like Sudfeld wouldn't stick around for a long period of time. He made it out of camp, but not much further.
This year, with the focus on position battles and roster spots so evident and yet so subjective, there are immediate concerns to consider when looking at the roster. For example, the numbers game, as I like to call it, is the reason why the Patriots are going to have to make tough decisions in the wide receivers group. There are veterans and recent draft picks alike — Matthew Slater, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and Jeremy Gallon — who have to somehow compete with the likes of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Brandon LaFell for snaps. And then there's the stud of July and August himself, second-year pro Kenbrell Thompkins, who has firmly planted himself among the Patriots top receivers.
That's eight receivers. That doesn't include bottom dwellers on the depth chart like Wilson Van Hooser and Derrick Johnson. (Greg Orton, who was carted off the field on Friday after suffering an unknown injury, was mostly projected as a practice squad player.) And it doesn't take into account the injuries that have sidelined Dobson (foot) and Slater (unknown). Or, for that matter, that the team considers Slater more of a special teams player than an actual receiver. (How long is that going to last?) In the end, we're sure based on history and the numbers of players expected to take up positions across each position group, that the Patriots will settle on six or seven receivers. And seven receivers is stretching it.
So with all of that swirling around the noggin, a long hard look at the team's wide receivers group was warranted going into camp. We pegged this to be a battle between Thompkins, undrafted but talented, and Boyce, the 2013 fourth-round pick that is still relatively unknown as far as what he can offer.
But that's when camp throws you for a delightful twist.
On Saturday, the Patriots' first training camp practice in pads, you could see that not only that Thompkins had pulled ahead of Boyce, but that the receivers were no longer worthy of the topic of discussion. Instead, it was the team's defensive backs, who despite playing in a disadvantageous atmosphere of 1-on-1s and 7-on-7s, were outmatching their wide receiver counterparts. Darrelle Revis picked off two passes, including one from Tom Brady on its way to Edelman. We expected that. But Logan Ryan showed tremendous progression from his first training camp last season, in which he was schooled so often by the team's "mediocre" set of receivers that he was erstwhile written off. He picked off a Jimmy Garoppolo pass. (Garoppolo, by the way, did not have a good day. He was picked off three times and fumbled a snap in goal line drills. He had to run a lap for that one.) Tavon Wilson, who got some first-team reps, picked off a Garoppolo pass and Duron Harmon picked off Ryan Mallett.
But it was the bottom dwellers of the defensive backs that really stood out, namely Malcolm Butler. The undrafted rookie who hails from Vicksburg, Mississippi and who played his college ball at West Alabama, stands 5-11 and 190, plays with a good sense of physicality and competitive nature. It's like he's taking after the veterans in front of him, Revis and Brandon Browner. In his senior season at West Alabama, he had 18 passes defended and two interceptions. On Saturday, he picked off a pass and broke up another intended for LaFell. Butler mixed it up with the receivers all morning, winning some battles and losing some. (Boyce burned him once and Edelman got him to back peddle hard on a comeback route.) But overall, for a no namer at the beginning of the day, he turned heads.
Just a day prior, there was plenty of reason to swoon over defensive back Daxton Swanson, too. He had intercepted a pass on Garoppolo (again, he hasn't had a good start) and showed good speed and awareness from the safety position. He was not in attendance for Saturday's practice, though.
And then there's Wilson, a second round draft pick of the Patriots in 2012 and formerly the team's dime defensive back. Wilson can be considered unproven three years in, falling in and out of the coaching staff's favor. He played sparingly in 2013, amassing only 22 snaps on defense. At two separate points, he went seven straight weeks without getting into a game in a non-special teams capacity. So yeah, it comes as no surprise that this training camp is a make-or-break period for him. (Ask him what he's trying to get better at and the abridged version is everything.) On Saturday, he was another guy that saw opportunities — he did some work with the first team — and, as mentioned before, intercepted a Garoppolo pass (who by now, you should understand, is going through a lot of growing pains). It was a pleasant surprise.
So while there was a legitimate reason to be all caught in the numbers game at wide receiver, the defensive backs group continues to draw away and dominant the conversation at training camp. And only a piece of it can be attributed to Revis, arguably the best cornerback in the game. Go figure.