Is this guy really going to be our kick return man? (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
I don't think there has been this much excitement and anticipation surrounding Patriots training camp since Randy Moss joined the team five years ago. There's just something in the air this year that has me more amped than usual for preseason to start; Tom Brady has more weapons than he has ever had, the infusion of youth and talent on the defensive side of the ball has all kinds of potential, Josh McDaniels is back calling the plays on offense, and some of the positional battles that are about to take place should be an absolute blast to watch. And of those positional battles, I think at this point the majority of them have already been covered to death, even though camp hasn't even started yet.
All eyes have been on the receiver position since late February, trying to figure out who are locks, who is on the bubble, and who will be on the outside looking in when all is said and done. We will all be watching the Patriots backfield, looking to see whether Stevan Ridley or Shane Vereen emerges as the team's primary running back, and what role veteran Joseph Addai will be able to play with the team. We'll even be scrutinizing the backup quarterbacks, monitoring Ryan Mallett's progress from year one to year two and whether the team will showcase Brian Hoyer enough to draw interest from potential suitors. There are players to pay attention to on the injury front, and what the final offensive line will look like at this point is anybody's guess. There is a lot of excitement surrounding the rookies, but questions still remain as to whether or not the team did enough to address its defensive woes last season. There is also always one player that seems to come out of nowhere during training camp and goes on to not only make the team, but become a solid contributor to the Patriots throughout the year. A lot of people are high on undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden. Others seem to think that Nate Ebner will end up becoming a stud.
But those questions have already been asked more times than I care to remember, and I'm sure we're going to hear plenty about them all from every angle once training camp officially gets underway. Today I wanted to briefly mention some of the preseason storylines that haven't been getting as much attention as others, but should still be incredibly interesting and fairly crucial to the team's development.
Base Offense. Training camp definitely isn't the best place to get a line on what kind of base offense a team is going to be running, as this is the time to try out multiple formations and schemes in order to evaluate talent and see what works and what doesn't. However, I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye on whether we see one type of formation more than others and what seems to have the most success against the defense. In their 2007 preseason, New England operated a good deal out of the spread formation, which is primarily what they used to shatter the NFL record books that season. If the Patriots experiment with a lot of larger sets with 2 tight ends, a running back, and a fullback, it could be a good indicator of a return to the ground came in Foxoboro. Which leads quite nicely into:
The Fullback Battle. I'm as excited as anybody to see what happens between Ridley and Vereen in training camp and how the New England backfield is going to play out. I don't want to lose sight of the fullback battle, though, because this position could really be the X factor in terms of Belichick's inclination to buck NFL trends and zig when everyone else zags. Very few teams employ a fullback anymore as the league continues to heavily favor the pass, but having a solid blocker in the backfield can really open things up in both the running game and the mid-to-deep range passing game. As I mentioned before, I think that his versatility and his previous connection with Josh McDaniels makes the job Spencer Larsen's to lose at this point. However, Tony Fiammetta is definitely a better pure fullback and is coming off of a much better season, so I don't think that this battle is as cut and dry as some would think. I know I'm looking forward to a lot of hard hits and training camp scuffles that result from each of these monsters blocking just a tad too hard for a practice situation.
Base Defense. Much like the base offense, it's going to be hard to really gauge what New England's base defense is going to be based on preseason practices. Last year, the team switched from a 3-4 back to a 4-3 in order to best utilize pass rushers Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. Now that both players are gone, and with Carter's return uncertain, New England could shift back into the 3-4 to take advantage of their depth at linebacker. While the switch to 3-4 makes sense at this early stage, there is still a lot that could happen over the next few weeks that may make the 4-3, or even a nickel package, a better choice for a base defense. Maybe Myron Pryor , who has showed flashes in seasons past, is finally able to stay healthy enough to make regular contributions. Maybe this is the year when Ron Brace finally steps it up. Not many people have mentioned Jonathan Fanene and what he is able to bring to the table, and Carter may very well return to the team. In the secondary, there are a lot of cornerbacks currently on the roster, and while that is a training camp battle all unto itself, if enough of them prove themselves worthy, maybe the size and strength of players like Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling renders the nickel more effective, as a lot of size up front and speed at the linebacker position could combine with that size and strength in the secondary to allow for more corners to help police the underneath routes and help prevent the big play. I'd honestly be surprised if the nickel package won out, and as of now all signs do point to the 3-4 as making the most sense, but it's definitely worth paying attention to.
The Linebacker Rotation. The Patriots are fairly loaded at linebacker, and I can't say with any real confidence what I think the starting corps will be come September. Much of it depends on whether or not the Patriots decide to run out of a 3-4 or 4-3 base defense, but even then there are just so many possibilities that watching where the ‘backers line up is going to be a lot of fun. Do Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes have the edge at inside linebacker? Will Rob Ninkovitch continue to line up on the outside? Does Bobby Carpenter have a chance to make an impact after taking a fair number of first team snaps in mini-camp? Is this the year that Jermaine Cunningham proves his potential as a hybrid end/edge linebacker? And where does rookie Dont'a Hightower fit into all of this? Let's not forget Dane Fletcher and Jeff Tarpinian, who will both be fighting hard for a roster spot. I could legitimately come up with eight or nine different linebacker rotations right now, and odds are we're going to see all of them over the next few weeks.
Safety rotation. This storyline isn't really under the radar, as several analysts have already covered what they think is going to happen at the safety position over the coming weeks. However, what New England decides to do at safety and how the competition at the position plays out is going to have a major impact on how much this secondary improves from last year. Pat Chung is going into camp as the only lock at the safety position; who is going to line up next to him? Steve Gregory seems to be the obvious choice at the moment, but is he really the answer? Will Devin McCourty continue to see time back there? Will Josh Barrett stay healthy long enough to make an impact? New England gave up a lot of big plays in 2011, very much as a result of lack of adequate safety help over the top. The team has cornerbacks galore right now, but they are definitely thin on reliable, solid starters at safety. I'm very curious to see who steps it up.
The Kick Return Game. I love me some Danny Woodhead, but I don't want the little guy back there returning kicks. He's shifty, hard to tackle, and dangerous in space, but he isn't ever going to take one to the house - he just doesn't have the speed. Julian Edelman is an upgrade, but his style of play is much more suited for punt return duties than kickoff returns. I'd love to see the Patriots experiment with some real speed back there and find a player with some serious wheels. Shane Vereen took some reps as a return man last season, as did McCourty; I'd like to see both of those guys back there again to see what they can do. I also wouldn't be adverse to throwing Nate Ebner back there just to see what happens. I'd love to be able to get excited every time the opposing team kicks off, knowing that whoever New England has back there has the wheels to bring it all the way. Woodhead just isn't that guy, and I'm looking forward to see if Belichick looks to improve this position after having a full year to gauge the impact of the new kickoff rules.
Ross Ventrone. I know, I know. I said that these were all important, yet underrated, storylines that will have a direct impact on the state of the 2012 Patriots, and the Ross Ventrone Saga ranks only slightly above keeping the Icy Hot away from the jock straps in terms of positive team development. But any of you who say you aren't curious to see what happens to poor ol' Ross over the coming weeks and months are lying to yourselves. I don't watch reality TV, but I imagine what happened with Ventrone last season is exactly what people love about it. Will he stay? Will they cut him? Will they sign him? Will they release him? Will they go for 22 transactions involving Ventrone this year, improving on the 21 they made last year? Who knows? Ventrone can only play in one more game before he loses practice squad eligibility for 2012, so the team may not toy with his emotions this year as much as they did last. However, watching him get bounced on and off the team like he did is definitely amusing, and I have a feeling that we won't have to wait too long this preseason before we all read about a move involving Ventrone.