Note from Camp: Rookies make way into Defensive mix
Wise headlines a group of defensive rookies earning playing time with the starters
After spending the past two weeks feverishly reading the Patriots beat to keep up to date on training camp, I finally managed to make my annual pilgrimage to Foxborough to see the team in person. Here are my observations from yesterday's action packed joint practice session with the Jaguars.
Rookies earning top reps on D
Some of it may be due to defensive stalwarts Dont’a Hightower and Alan Branch remaining on the PUP list for now, but the Patriots had four rookies in the defensive front seven see considerable snaps with the 1s: Deatrich Wise, Harvey Langi, Derek Rivers and Adam Butler.
Of those four, Wise appears to be the safest bet to play a meaningful role Week One against the Chiefs. A fourth round pick from Arkansas, the 6’5, 270 pound brings unique physical traits to the table that appear to make him an ideal fit for their defensive schemes and techniques. I was excited to see him in person after hearing of his rise to the top of the depth chart following Rob Ninkovich’s retirement and the rookie did not disappoint. Wise was clearly entrenched with the first string defense throughout the day and looked good going against the Jaguars first stringers, particularly in the pass rush one on ones. That drill included an impressive sequence in which he put Cam Robinson (this spring’s #34 overall pick) on skates with a strong bull rush before making quick work of starting guard Patrick Omameh with a swim move inside on his next rep.
Langi, a highly touted undrafted rookie from BYU, appeared to benefit rep-wise from the unexpected absence of Shea McClellin. Langi took seemingly all of the first reps with the 1s on the edge in team drills, flashing with a would be sack, but he also opened eyes with a dominant display in the pass rush one on ones. He absolutely pancaked an unidentified right tackle on one rep, sending his larger opponent flying onto his ass with a bull rush, and later dusted Malcolm Bunche with a lightning quick inside spin.
While those two had already seen quite a few reps with the ones leading up to yesterday, top draft pick Derek Rivers saw by far his most extensive reps with the ones of camp. He didn’t flash much outside of one possible sack off the left edge, but it was interesting to see him utilized in a number of roles against the Jags top offense. While he saw snaps on the edge, he was also often lined up in a two point stance at various spots along the interior defensive line, sometimes rushing but often dropping into shallow coverage. Matt Patricia has an impressive history of creating offensive confusion regarding who is rushing or dropping back into coverage, and Rivers appeared to play a part of those scheme games yesterday.
Butler is another undrafted rookie who backed up the training camp hype with a dominant display in the one-on-ones. His length and explosion make for some true pass rushing upside, which he displayed with one particularly quick win inside due to excellent hand usage. An undrafted rookie from Vanderbilt, Butler rotated in amongst the ones throughout the session. Like Wise, Butler can play multiple positions across the defensive line, but he figures to be mostly in the mix for snaps as an interior sub rusher for now. He was also part of a goal line package that looked stout.
While we’re on the subject of the defensive line, it was noteworthy to me that veteran Kony Ealy seems entrenched with the 2s at the moment. While the likes of Wise and Langi got quality reps against Jacksonville’s starters, Ealy and fellow vet Geneo Grissom had to wait their turn for the second team scraps. It is worth noting that Ealy did spend some time with the trainers tending to an apparent arm injury, but it was eye opening to see him still out there during the “opportunity” period at the end of team drills, going against the third stringers. He did get a would-be sack during that period, but his presence out there during a time reserved for the back of the rosters was damning. With so many young players emerging on the defensive line, there could be room for only one between the disappointing Ealy and Grissom. It’s likely that Grissom’s special teams contributions would tilt the scale his way in that scenario.
Stars look the part
This years Patriots team has a buzz about it reminiscent of the 2007 team that stomped it’s way through an undefeated regular season. Like that team, it’s obvious that this team is absolutely loaded with studs on both sides of the ball. The stars who were present and participating for the Pats all looked poised for monster 2017 seasons during yesterday's session.
We’ll start with the defensive side of the ball, where the signing of Stephon Gilmore could make the secondary scary good. Both Gilmore and bookend Malcolm Butler made multiple impressive plays on the ball as part of a secondary that smothered the Jaguars passing game. Neither guy was perfect: Gilmore gave up a touchdown on a scramble drill and got whistled for holding on a deep contested catch by Allen Robinson, while Butler was beat several times in one on ones by Marqise Lee and Arrellius Benn. However, they were lights out on the majority of their snaps, with Blake Bortles completing just 5 of his 17 attempts in team 11 on 11s.
On offense, Brandin Cooks once again put on a show. I was unfortunately not in position to see the effortless one handed grab he made during one on ones (his second in as many days), but I did see him make plenty of plays in 11 v 11s, including a deep touchdown which felt too easy. Gronk was unstoppable as well, catching six (count em!) touchdowns on the day. He other catch might have been his most impressive play, snagging the ball over the helmet of linebacker Telvin Smith while tapping his toes to stay just in bounds for the first down reception. The highlight play set up a spike and a Stephen Gostkowski field goal in a situational drill.
Other impressive showings came from the running backs. With Mike Gillislee still rehabbing an unknown injury, first team reps were divided between Brandon Bolden, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. Lewis flashed his trademark explosiveness on several occasions in space, looking far more comfortable in year two following his 2015 ACL surgery. Meanwhile Burkhead flashed his versatility, playing a variety of roles in the passing game while also looking like the team’s best healthy goal line option. Burkhead only scored on one of his two attempts, but he impressively fought off hits in the backfield on both reps. He runs with excellent pad level and balance that helps to counter his lack of prototype bellcow size.
Bolden got his share of reps and did score a touchdown in a red zone drill, with a long run down the sideline also amongst his highlights. He did get stuffed on his lone goal line attempt and seemed to create fewer yards after contact than his competition.
Finally, both Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo looked strong in efficient sessions against the Jags 1s and 2s. Brady was ruthlessly efficient, completing 19 of 27 passes against a Jags secondary that clearly missed PUP list members Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Colvin. According to the Herald’s Jeff Howe, three throwaways and a drop by Hogan made up half of Brady’s incompletions. Garoppolo was equally ruthless running the 2s, going 8/9 with an absolute dime deep to Devin Lucien standing out as a the play of the day. Lucien appears to be making a big play a day at camp, this time getting his feet down for the touchdown getting behind two defenders. He more than anyone has taken advantage of Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola’s absence from team drills.
Swing tackle battle: Fleming in danger?
Another battle for a roster spot appears to be happening at swing tackle, where incumbent Cam Fleming and veteran LaAdrian Waddle both have gotten snaps in Nate Solder’s absence. With Solder, Marcus Canon and third round pick Tony Garcia (not present at practice) all roster locks, there’s probably only room for one of these guys come final cutdown day.
By the looks of Tuesday’s practice, Fleming might be in trouble. The 2014 fourth round pick won the job and filled in competitively in two spot starts to begin the year last season, but he’s in the midst of a tough summer. A day after reportedly getting roasted by Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue, Fleming was clearly second in the rotation at left tackle with the ones. Waddle got the bulk of the work with Brady, with Fleming getting the occasional series but seeing more work with Jimmy Garoppolo and the 2s. Waddle wasn’t perfect by any means, but he looked better than Fleming, whose struggles with speed off the edge continued today.
Competition at linebacker
There’s uncertainty at linebacker beyond PUP member Hightower and veteran David Harris, who looks like the starting Mike linebacker. On this day, Kyle Van Noy appeared to be the weak side linebacker paired with Harris and taking the first reps with the ones. Elandon Roberts and Jonathan Freeney made the second pairing and rotated in occasionally with the 1’s as well. Roberts flashed occasionally, gathering a would-be sack in team drills. He also made noise by bowling over 4th overall pick Leonard Fournette in a RB vs LB blitz pickup 1 vs 1 drill. Harris and Freeney were both unspectacular, while Van Noy had some highlights (drawing a hold while pancaking Chris Ivory on a blitz) and lowlights (losing Ivory in coverage for a touchdown) in team drills.
In addition to McClellin, cornerback Eric Rowe was a noteworthy absence. Rowe, who was spotted limping at the end of Monday’s session, was seen post practice on the field, suggesting his ailment is nothing too serious. Jonathan Jones played the slot in his absence, rebounding from getting shook badly on a one v one rep early to make an impressive PBU on a deep ball later in practice.
The entire second team defense got sent on a penalty lap by Coach Belichick following a Chad Henne completion. From the stands it was tough to see what the infraction was.
Tight end Dwayne Allen had a nice back shoulder catch for a touchdown in red zone team drills. He continues to see all of the snaps in hurry up situations this camp, replacing Gronk in the huddle.
The Patriots front seven looked stout during goal line work. Jacksonville scored on two of their four attempts, but both scores required impressive second efforts from TJ Yeldon and Leonard Fournette just to barely cross the goal line.
One fun moment came from Patrick Chung, who gave the crowd some dance moves when the O'Jays "For the love of money" came on the speakers. With Branch still on PUP, someone had to pick up the dancing slack.
Finally, a crane was spotted during the session, moving a suspiciously banner-like object around the South (non lighthouse) end of Gillette Stadium. A sign of things to come?