Recently signed wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei, in his first practice with the team Thursday, surprised observers by blowing past a Patriots cornerback for an easy touchdown grab on a deep throw from Tim Tebow.
The cornerback he beat so easily? That would be third-round pick Logan Ryan. And while Tuinei isn’t a name so readily known around these parts, he is one of the many questionably talented wide receivers on the team’s roster that have consistently schooled Ryan during training camp.
But Ryan’s not the only Rutgers defensive back being humbled by the NFL experience. Fellow rookie and college teammate Duron Harmon – who was also a third round pick – has suffered some tough setbacks in practice too, coming off the field and appearing at times as if his head was spinning. And then there’s the undrafted rookie Brandon Jones, who has lost more than his fair share of one-on-one battles.
It’s been enough to warrant asking how the Rutgers rookie contingency – consisting of Ryan, Harmon, Jones, linebacker Steve Beauharnais, wide receiver Mark Harrison, and now defensive lineman Scott Vallone – are faring after a week of Patriots training camp.
This is, after all, Rutgers North. With the Patriots’ signing of Vallone Thursday, the Patriots have nine former Scarlet Knights on the roster.
“We got a lot of Rutgers guys here, we’re all leaning on each other,” Ryan said. “We have a lot of great teammates and the older guys have been great to us so far, so I have nothing but positive things to say.”
For Ryan and Harmon, who are also roommates during training camp, that same contingency of Rutgers rookies is also like a support group. After long days at camp, the plays of the day and thoughts on the next are what dominate their conversations.
“We discuss more on our mistakes, the defenses that are getting installed the next day, we go over our calls and things like that,” Harmon said. “And more so, just trying to pick each other up. If we know somebody [didn’t have] a good day, we tell him we got tomorrow to get better and get going.”
Said Ryan: “We get to just really just bounce our days off each other, bounce the playbook. He’s a safety, I’m a corner, so we can communicate a lot about the defense and really quiz each other when we’re walking in the building each day. So it’s a huge help.”
Ryan, it appears, is clearly on the low rung of cornerbacks on the roster. Ahead of him on the depth chart are corners Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, and Marquice Cole. On the other hand, Harmon is competing for time in a much smaller group of safeties. He has gotten work with the top defense recently. But he’s still behind veterans Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson, and Steve Gregory.
“I would just say right now I’m just trying to make sure I don’t mess anything up out there,” Harmon said. “I’m just focusing on me making the right calls, doing what I’m supposed to do, when I’m supposed to do it.”
Their former Scarlet Knights teammates and fellow rookies are a mixed bag. Beauharnais has been steadily competing as a backup inside linebacker and on special teams. Jones, another cornerback, has been getting the same schooling as Ryan in drills that heavily favor wide receivers. Vallone, who has one practice under his belt, spent time mostly observing team drills Thursday. And Harrison, a wide receiver, has yet to practice after recovering from a foot injury.
Ryan and Harmon both say that day-to-day improvement is key.
“I have the same mentality every single day,” Ryan said. “Just come out here improve, get better on one thing or a mixture of everything. And kinda get a better bond with the guys out there on the field and learn the playbook.
“I feel like I’m better than I was on Day 1. So I think I’m getting better each and every day. So, so far, so good.”
Justin Francis makes space for himself
Some competitions on the Patriots’ roster are less obvious than others. Justin Francis, who won a spot on the team’s 53-man roster as a rookie free agent out of Rutgers last season, comes back with nothing guaranteed this season. On a roster with 16 defensive linemen, it can be hard to stick out. But Francis, who may not be as speedy as Chandler Jones or as technically sound as Rob Ninkovich, continues to prove in drills that he is a force to reckoned with.
What’s more, it appears he, along with Marcus Benard, have taken away precious repetitions from Jermaine Cunningham, the team’s surprise stud last season before his suspension for performance enhancing drugs. (A league source told the Globe last year that Cunningham tested positive for Adderall, which is commonly prescribed to individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or attention deficit disorder (ADD).)
For Francis, he’s too busy with his head down in the trenches to pay attention to the numbers game at work. The Patriots carried 10 defensive linemen the past two seasons on the 53-man roster. After beating out veterans for a spot on last year’s roster, he had a quiet season as a backup until Week 17, when he exploded for three sacks against the Miami Dolphins. However, that doesn’t mean he thinks he has a leg up on anyone.
“Right now I’m just coming out here doing the best I can. Just focusing on my craft and focusing on the details,” Francis said. “You’re right, every year is a competition. Those who aren’t afraid to compete, they stick out in the end. And that’s what it’s all about, everybody out here coming to compete. And that’s what you want, that’s what makes the team good.”
In just his second year, Francis said he was only mildly comfortable as an NFL player.
“Last year was last year,” Francis said, dismissing the memories of his three-sack performance against the Dolphins. “I played a little bit. Got my feet wet a little bit. But I’m still a young guy. You have to play for a couple of years to really sink your teeth into the NFL. So right now I’m still learning. I’m listening to Vince [Wilfork], [Tommy Kelly], and Rob Ninkovich, every day. I’m in their hip, in their brain, picking their brain, just working on whatever I have to work on and stealing whatever I have to steal from those guys in order to better myself. So right now I’m comfortable, it’s a blessing to be out here. I thank God to be out here for allowing me to come out here and just play the game I love.”
Keep your eyes on him.
Tweet of the week
— Vince Wilfork (@wilfork75) July 31, 2013
Divvying up the competition
One week in training camp and all you’ve likely heard about the Patriots wide receiver competition is that there is Danny Amendola locked in as the team’s slot receiver and an open position for the team’s outside receiver. But let me shift the conversation. As fans who have watched training camp practices know by now, many of the team’s practices have included three wide receiver sets in 11-on-11 drills. This isn’t totally unheard of in these parts. The Patriots were a three wide receiver dominant offense prior to the 2010 season, which was the rookie year for tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. So when you hear Amendola and Aaron Dobson are running with the team’s first group, they’re being joined by at least one other player. It’ll be interesting to see how that shakes out, particularly after the team’s first preseason game.
Ben and Zuri – please please please stop wit the tebow time updates. You talk more about him than frigging Brady. It’s embarrassing.
Tom Brady is very deserving of all of the extensive coverage he gets. But what he does in practice is very much expected and otherwise not noteworthy.
On the other hand, what Tim Tebow often does in practice is altogether unexpected. On Thursday, it was Tebow running the option. Last week, it was Tebow catching passes. I’m sorry, but as much as it would be nice to avoid the topic for a certain segment of our readers, the Patriots have determined that Tebow’s use will be an ongoing conversation.
But have no fear. Brady is still QB No. 1. We’ll let you know if he happens to do something out of the norm, too.
What’s to come
– The Patriots continue training camp practice 2:20 p.m. Friday and at 9 a.m. Saturday. Practice times are undetermined for Sunday or Monday.
– Former Patriots coach Bill Parcells will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
– The Patriots will hold joint practices with the Eagles on Tuesday, Aug. 6 and Wednesday, Aug. 7 at the Novacare Complex in Philadelphia prior to their preseason opener on Friday, Aug. 9.
– Alfonzo Dennard’s next probation hearing in Nebraska is set for Aug. 27.
– The Patriots open the 2013 regular season Sept. 8 at the Buffalo Bills. That’s now five weeks away, or 38 days.
Zuri Berry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.