New England Patriots - Camp Questions

by Hal Bent,

As the New England Patriots roll through their first week of training camp and get ready for joint-practices with the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay (Technically, a body of water, not the city) Buccaneers and subsequent pre-season games, all eyes are on the rookies, new additions, old friends returning to the fold and last year's players to see who fits where, what changes they effect on both the offense and defense, and much speculation about different aspects of the team that likely won't be answered for a while.  That said, there are many questions in training camp that cry out for answers (otherwise, there would be no need for snarky bloggers), so the situation calls out for a few knee-jerk educated guesses (I mean, semi-informed prognostications) for how things shake out:
  • A veteran or two (or three or four) will be cut (or traded away for a future draft pick if possible). As always, it will come as a surprise to many, but with a Bill Belichick coached team, it always happens.  
    • Wide Receivers Dont'e Stallworth or Deion Branch could be part of the numbers game if it comes down to them and Special Teams Stars/Back-up Wide Receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater for a final roster spot.   I don't think Wide Receivers Jabar Gaffney and his versatility and multi-year experience in the offense is going anywhere, but it looks like five receivers for four spots.  Unlike Stallworth, Gaffney put up the numbers consistently here and with other teams.  He has too much value to be cut, and eventually the numbers are going to crunch someone.  Slater and Edelman are " 4" Special Team Players, meaning they play all four (Punt Return, Punt Defense, Kick Return, Kick Defense) and Stallworth or Branch need to accept that Special Teams are a requirement for the job they are  fighting for and that they need to shine there as well as outside the numbers on offense.
    • On defense, Defensive Tackle Ron Brace and Defensive End/Outside Linebacker Jermaine Cunningham have big, red targets on their backs.  Everyone is watching them to see if it is boom or bust.  Both are second round picks who have yet to contribute in any way on the field the past few years.  With their hefty price-tags and a disturbing history of a severe lack of production, both have younger players behind them pushing to steal that last roster spot at their respective positions.  Cunningham and Brace need only look at the recent history of high draft picks of the past who have been cut (Wide Receivers Taylor Price, Brandon Tate, and Chad Jackson, Linebackers Tyrone McKenzie and Shawn Crable, Quarterback Kevin O'Connell, and Cornerbacks Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite, and Tyrone Wheatley, just to name a few).  A high-draft pick is never guaranteed to have secured a job in New England without earning it in the locker room or on the field at practice.  These two need to fly around training camp and the pre-season games to earn their way onto the roster.
    • Offensive Tackle/Guard Robert Gallery also is someone who seemed a lock to make the squad and one week into camp has some serious competition.  Gallery, once upon a time the best offensive lineman prospect in the game and number two overall pick, was signed as a depth swing lineman, with his veteran smarts and ability to fill in at two positions seemingly making him appear a key component. However, the Patriots young, developing linemen are making it tough on him.  With Guard Logan Mankins and Tackle Sebastian Vollmer potentially being healthy enough to start the season instead of going on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List, and still no official retirement from Guard Brian Waters indicating he may still be back to start the season, Gallery is starting to look like an insurance policy that may be too expensive to keep. Marcus Cannon can play Guard and Tackle like Gallery and is younger and cheaper, Ryan Wendell is a Guard/Center who has filled in well when called into action, and Guard Donald Thomas has opened eyes so far during training camp in attempt to play his way onto the roster.  Add in Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen who can play Guard or Center, and the depth at Offensive Line is suddenly looking deeper than expected.  Robert Gallery is going to have to hold his own to earn a spot on the roster.  Like high draft picks, a free agent with a decent signing bonus already in his pocket still has to earn his roster spot.
  • A drafted (or undrafted with this group they brought in) rookie is going to look great in garbage time, and when the Patriots need to try to sneak him through waivers to get him on the Practice Squad, one of the less talented teams is going to claim him.
    • The sixth and seventh round picks by the New England Patriots oftentimes require a year or two of seasoning, be they developmental offensive or defensive linemen, or secondary players or receivers needing to learn the system. Unfortunately, the scouts for the other NFL teams show up en masse for the last few pre-season games in order to snap up their talent.  With the legendary depth of the roster, the Patriots are always trying to get some guys through waivers and onto the practice squad.  The other teams know these players are going to be available, and often swoop in to snatch them up.  For example, late round picks Offensive Linemen like Ted Larsen and Thomas Welch in 2010 got scooped up.  More often, the Patriots now bite the bullet and stash the player on injured reserve (paying them their full salary rather than a reduced practice squad rate) in order to keep the vultures at bay.
    • Sixth and seventh round picks Safety Nate Ebner, Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and Wide Receiver Jeremy Ebert have already had their injuries, dings, etc to keep them out of practice.  Worst-case, all three can open the season on the  Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List and protect them into the first six weeks of the season. Undrafted free-agent Offensive Lineman Markus Zusevics is already on the training camp PUP List and is a candidate to stash on injured reserve as well.  The other impressive undrafted players who impress in the preseason but get caught in a numbers game may find that their "hang-nail" or "strain" can keep them around if need be.
  • A big injury is going to happen. It's just a matter of to whom, and to what extent.
    • This is the NFL, injuries happen.  That's why the depth of the roster is so vital.  Look at last season when the Patriots went four-deep at center, or in 2008 when Matt Cassel earned his big contract and trade.  Even last year at the Super Bowl when Rob Gronkowski was hurt, the entire offense suffered and struggled throughout the game.  That was why the Wide Receiver position and Tight Ends were loaded up on in the off-season.  You can bet Bill Belichick decided right then and there that he wasn't going to end up in that situation again, trying to decide if Chad (nee Ochocinco) Johnson or Matthew Slater was needed at Wide Receiver in the Super Bowl.  This season, the bases will be covered to make sure that situation is a distant memory.
    • This is another reason why getting Linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the first round was not only for additional speed and thump at linebacker, but as insurance for Jerod Mayo or the oft-injured Brandon Spikes.  See oft-injured Safety Patrick Chung and the drafting of Tavon Wilson in the second round as the same type of move.  The defense struggled mightily when Mayo, Spikes or Chung (and Wilfork, I'd imagine as well) were out of the lineup. They are the backbone of the defense and the Patriots were very thin behind them all.  Now, there are some pieces in place to avoid those games where opposing offenses moved up and down the field unencumbered by the weak attempts to stop, slow, or delay them.