I managed to make it up to Gillette Stadium today. Here are my observations from today's practice.
No Dobson, More KT/Boyce The biggest story from today’s practice is clearly the absence of rookie receiver Aaron Dobson. After impressing early in camp, the second round draft pick didn’t practice today due to an apparent injury
Dobson is out on the field watching practice. Walking gingerly, seems to be favoring right leg, but doesn't appear too seriousThis was very disappointing, as I was looking forward to seeing Dobson in person for the first time. However, his absence merely opened up more opportunities for fellow rookies Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins. Neither were perfect (Tom Brady looked annoyed on one play when Boyce initially didn’t motion correctly on an audible, for example) but both flashed the obvious talent that has many excited about their future in New England.
— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) July 30, 2013
Thompkins was especially impressive. The lanky (6’1”, 195) receiver is a quick natural route runner, very athletic and does a good job of using his long arms to snag the ball away from his body. The rookie had several hard fought battles with top cornerback Aqib Talib today during one-on-ones. The veteran corner won the first battle with a deflection, but was beaten on the second after falling for a Brady pump fake.
Thompkins continued to impress throughout the day, making arguably the play of the day later during team work on a deep touchdown from Brady. On the play, Thompkins used his speed to get behind fellow rookie Logan Ryan and then made a great adjustment on the ball, leaping to make the highlight reel catch just over the shoulder of Ryan and safety Devin McCourty. It was the kind of play that top playmaking receivers make.
Boyce wasn't as flashy, but the rookie fourth rounder looks very solid out there. We already knew about his speed coming out of college, but Boyce also appears to be a very good route runner. It's a skill that will serve Boyce well; running precise routes is a must in New England's complex offense. Thompkins and Dobson are a little bigger and might have a slightly higher ceiling, but Boyce looks like he could contribute this year if needed.
There is a notable difference in backup quarterback Ryan Mallett this summer from previous years. The third year quarterback simply looks much more comfortable running the offense than he did in years past. It's hard to tell whether this is a result of better mechanics (the errant throws that used to plague Mallett were no where to be found today) or mental improvement caused by experience running the offense, but the quarterback prospect looks much better this offseason.
Mallett's talent, of course, has never been questioned and the quarterback showed off his canon of a right arm today with some impressive throws. If (frantically knocks on wood) something where to happen to Brady this year, Mallett looks much more prepared to play meaningful snaps this year.
On the other end of the spectrum is third-string quarterback Tim Tebow. There's no way around it; Tebow simply isn't an accurate passer. The world's most famous third-string quarterback stands out like a sore thumb next to Brady and Mallett. Even when throwing against air, Tebow seems to struggle with his accuracy. Of course, Tebow is notoriously a poor practice player (dating back to his Heisman Trophy days at Florida) who plays better in live situations, but that doesn't change the fact that he has a career completion percentage under 50% for a reason. If Tebow makes the roster, it will be based more on his value as a practice opponent/occasional decoy than anything he brings to the table at quarterback.
Tight End Mix
With Rob Gronkowski watching in shorts and a T-shirt, there are plenty of reps to be had at tight end. The emergence of undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld is making this look like one of the fiercest position battles at camp.
The mammoth Sudfeld (6’7”, 260) is standing out for more than just his size. The rookie made one of the plays of the day, making a diving, one-handed catch during goal line work on a play action pass from Brady. Sudfeld also drew attention earlier in practice with a nice leaping catch down the seam. Both plays were tightly covered, but each time Sudfeld was able to use his size to make the play against smaller defenders. Positively Gronk-like. At this point, it would be very surprising to see Sudfeld not make the active roster; there’s no way he could be stashed on the practice squad without another team snagging him.
With Gronk and Sudfeld likely to make the team, Belichick could be faced with a decision; either keep five tight ends on the roster or release one of three established veterans: Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, or Jake Ballard. Hooman continues to look like a solid, reliable player, while Fells appears to have shaken last year’s struggles. Fells is the most athletic of the team’s non-Gronk options and continued what has been a strong opening to training camp with several nice grabs today.
This could leave Ballard as the odd man out. The former Giant just doesn’t look particularly comfortable on his surgically repaired knee. Ballard was never particularly fast before his injury, but his lack of speed and fluidity really stands out compared to his competition. The tight end did absolutely nothing on offense during practice today.
Ballard has proven to be a solid contributor in the NFL, but at this point it’s hard to see what he brings to the table that his competition can’t match or better. Will Belichick choose to keep a fifth tight end over using that roster spot somewhere else (presumably on someone with special teams value?). Nothing is out of the question, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Ballard doesn’t make this team.
Practice ended on a testy note with a mini-skirmish between RB Stevan Ridley and CB Kyle Arrington. The altercation stemmed from Arrington laying a big hit on Ridley during team red zone work. Ridley took exception to the after the play, angrily tossing the ball at Arrington. The two continued jawing after the play, with Ridley taking a swing at Arrington. Arrington swung back, but the two were quickly separated before things could escalate. This wound up being the last play of practice as Coach Belichick quickly huddled the team up to settle things down.