It's almost too good to be true. Only 5 more days till training camp. I can see it now: Brady lobbing deep passes to Lloyd, McCourty getting back up to speed, seeing our new additions in the secondary and front seven, injured players returning for duty, and witnessing some of the most intense training camp battles I will be blessed to witness (or even read about). I can't remember a time when I was this excited about training camp. So many questions will be answered. Many more questions will be brought up. And it all sets up for pre-season and then the regular season. Like a delicious appetizer, until you are brought the main course that tastes like gold in your mouth.
Heading into training camp, I think its safe to assume that almost literally every position is a toss up, save for the QB position (and a couple others). Looking to see who surprises, and how they look is going to be a great treat. Unfortunately, it could mean some unfortunate training camp cuts too. Whatever the case, we can count on Bill Belichick to bring up the best pats team he can. I'm not going to do a top 5 watch list, or a top 10. I'm just going to list some players that I think will be interesting to see. I'll try to keep away from the obvious, but there will be a few names here that will be obvious only because it would be almost immoral to not put them there.
This is a guy who would be at the top of my list. We all know he is a typical BB player. He can play every LB position, as well as a 4-3 End in pass rushing situations. The question is where, and how, will BB use him most? For the past two years our two talented MLBs in Mayo and Spikes have been our unquestioned starters in the middle. Although Spike's has some injury concerns, its an understatement on how he means to our defense overall. On the outside, Ninko has been improving every year, and has been making a name for himself as an above average, underrated OLB in the AFC. Will Hightower start opposite of Ninko? WIll Hightower start over Spikes? Is it safe to say that he'll be our 4-3 End pass rusher? No doubt having Jones and Bequette make answering these question very difficult. Hightower is my #1 guy to look for in training camp personally.
At the start of the offseason, we all thought it would be in the teams best interest if they grabbed up a Free Safety. Since the departure of Meriweather, we have been unable to find a replacement (and as much as I hate Meri's freelancing, I thought he at least made plays). With Chung getting injured for most of the year, our safety group was thin, and very concerning. Hell it could have had a big hand in why McCourty and our pass defense was letting up all these yards.
Did I build this up enough for you? When we brought in Gregory from free agency, I thought it was a great signing. Not a big name guy, but he at least played both SS and FS positions, and is considered to be better in the FS spot. SO we have some versatility there. He is projected as a starter in our defense next to Chung, and that alone makes me want to keep a nice close eye on what this player can do for us. We needed another safety. Will Gregory be the guy? How much can we expect from him? How will his camp be, and will it hold big indications on how he will do this season?
Stevan Ridley and RB group
This is really a two parter. Ridley had a couple really nice games last season that showed flashes of what he can do. Similar to how Cunningham was in 2010. We've also seen Ridley struggle, and I'm not just talking about the fumbles in back to back games more then his running vision. This year, he was projected as our starter, and many holding high expectations for the young RB. But then..... the pats signed up Joseph Addai, and Vereen decided to have a very good mini camp.
Ridley's job is in jeopardy. We all know Ridley is a runner. However he has some stiff competition ahead in order to hold onto the starting spot (that was arguably never certain in the first place). Vereen in college was known to be a good blocker, tremendous receiver, and from what footage I saw, he was a good runner as well with above average speed. He can pretty much literally do it all. Although he was injured for most of last year. Then we have Joseph Addai. A veteran, and veterans always get a plus 1 in BB's camp. He has very good blocking skills being in Indi, and has shown to be a very good receiver, and a good, but not great, runner. He also has an injury history too. So in reality, we need to take some notes on how each RB is doing. BB will probably try each one out with the first team, and ever snap will count for all 3 on what their roles will be in the offense.
The wildcard guy. I mean.. that's how I view him seeing as how he was projected later by the talking heads, and we picked him up in the 2nd round. It seems safe to say that he'll be the 5th man in sub packages. He has played some LB in college, as well as some CB. We don't know how this kid will do. That's part of the reason I'm joining the Tavon Wilson Training Camp Watch (TWTCW). Wilson is a big mystery of the bunch. The name that many don't always talk about with Jones and Hightower stealing the show. With our safety group, and the fact that we run mostly a sub package defense, Wilson could arguably be the most important player in our passing defense this year. Think about it, it's almost likely he'll be the 5th man in the secondary. He can line up as a LB, and cover like a CB, doing both jobs. His role in our defense this year is going to be a large one imo. Now.... this is only assuming no one in the secondary steals the 5th man spot. Which is a very good possibility. Win or lose the job, many are going to see what Wilson brings to the table in training camp, and is definitely a player I would like to keep an eye on.
Another two parter. Coming off the 2010 season, McCourty was being hailed as a top 5 CB in the NFL. He faced against very good competition too. Then the 2011 season came in, and McCourty found himself in a sophomore slump, possibly trying to do too much to try and compensate the lack of safeties (it IS something to take into account). Regardless, we all have seen McCourty struggle last year, and this is year that he'll have to prove himself to the public media that he is the 2010 McCourty we all thought he was. He'll be lining up with Brandon Lloyd, and I am very interested in reading the reports on how well he is doing against him. Lloyd is a tough WR, but if he faced the 2010 McCourty, I expect McCourty to do fine against him. Hope he gets a jumpstart with a great camp.
Then we have Ras-I Dowling. The guy that many in 2011 were fine with, but was hoping for that elusive pass rusher instead... We see him start his first game, and from the little he played, he looked very good. Then the injury happened, putting him on IR for the year, and we were left to wonder how much a difference he would have made to our secondary. Dowling is now back in camp in 2012, and hopefully healthy. The 6'1" CB is projected to start in our lineup yet again, and essentially one thing is stopping him: health. We all know the talent of the former supposed top 10 pick in the draft before his injury. Health is what I'll be keeping an eye on. Any sign of a leg injury will scare me. His talent is there, and will be interesting to look out for as well (heck, if Dowling does get injured, definitely look at how Dennard is doing. He was a 2nd rounder of course before he punched the cop).
In my eyes, the 3rd receiver spot is Gaffney's. The 4th WR spot is one of the more intriguing battles in camp, pretty much between Stallworth and Branch. We all know about Branch, and the chemistry between him and Brady. He is a slot guy, who can play outside, and Brady can count on him to be where he should be. However, his age is an issue, and his skill is noticeable depleting. That's what Stallworth has over him. Aside from being a WR with good height, he has speed with him. CBs may have an easier time defending Branch, and Stallworth can run the deep routes. However, Brady may not have great chemistry with him. I don't know. But whoever Brady is comfortable with will win this battle I'm guessing. If Brady gets in a groove with Stallworth, we could very well see Branch's last year in New England.
I wish I had a crystal ball to tell me what will happen after camp. Who starts, who doesn't. But on the other hand what's the joy in doing such a thing? Training Camp is only 5 days away, and when it comes the battles will commence. Players will draw "Oooh's" and "aaaah's" from the public, and we'll celebrate the Patriots warming up for Pre-season and the start to another year of Football. Oh it's so close..... I can almost taste the main course. It's coming. And I'm hungry.