The Patriots finished up their fourteenth practice of training camp today and will back on this fields this afternoon. Some of the highlights included Jerod Mayo drilling Wes Welker twice (best thing for him), Tom Brady getting fired up, and Julian Edelman spending some time with the running backs (should I not mention that?).
Training camp has been open for a week. Through the personnel groupings, injuries, and performances what exactly have we learned so far?
Our observations after the jump...
On offense, the miraculously early return of Wes Welker has to be the biggest storyline. It seemed a safe bet that we wouldn't see Welker until October but now he's out there, facing contact, and preparing for the season almost like he didn't have a catastrophic knee injury just seven months ago.
The even better news is that it looks like the Patriots will have a solid supporting cast around Welker and Moss this year. Receivers Brandon Tate and Taylor Price are having good camps, as are rookie Tight Ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronk and Hernandez (who needs a nickname) should really help in the red zone where the Pats struggled last year. Already in camp Brady has been consistently finding the rookies in the end zone.
On defense the secondary is looking deep and versatile. As always, Coach Belichick has rotated all his defensive backs through all the positions, building versatility and preparing for any injuries that might arise. Devin McCourty looks like he will make an impact this year both on special teams and as a cornerback. Darius Butler looks like he could make a big jump in year two, as does Patrick Chung. Brandon Meriweather and Leigh Bodden remain solid.
The inside linebacker corps is the deepest it's been in years, with Brandon Spikes drawing interesting praise from Belichick as a player with excellent instincts. Tyrone McKenzie has brought a physicality that is much needed while Jerod Mayo looks to return to the form that won him Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008. Gary Guyton has missed time with an injury, but it does not appear to be serious.
With Derrick Burgess still contemplating retirement and Shawn Crable looking for a new job the Patriots are even thinner this year at outside linebacker than they were last year. We're now counting on Tully Banta-Cain to be even better in 2010 than the career season he had in 2009. As to who lines up across from him it could be rookie Jermaine Cunningham who's been seeing time with the first defense. Starting a rookie at OLB would be both exciting and terrifying. There's also veteran Rob Ninkovich in the mix, but OLB remains a question mark.
With Logan Mankins not in camp, and fill-in Nick Kaczur missing in action since the early days at camp the Pats are looking to Dan Connolly to fill the hole at left guard. Connolly did gain some experience last year, but when you're down to your third guy on the depth chart one week into camp it's never a good thing.
The Pats had a huge question at right defensive end coming into camp but injuries have prevented as much competition there as BB would surely like. Ty Warren, Myron Pryor and Mike Wright have been missing with undisclosed injuries and Ron Brace apparently can't pass the conditioning test due to cramps (wtf?). This leaves free agent pick ups (and 3-4 defense newbies) Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis to man the defensive end positions next to Vince Wilfork. The Pats need more than anything to get healthy on the defensive line.
Derrick Burgess - clearly Burgess took the Patriots by surprise by suddenly deciding to think about retiring. Hopes were high that Burgess could build on his strong finish to 2009, now it looks like the Pats will have to look outside for additional pass rush help. And the pickings are slim right now.
Ron Brace - news broke today that Brace hadn't passed his physical yet, which then led to later news that he hadn't passed it because he hadn't passed the conditioning run. If this is the case it's highly disappointing for Brace. He knew what the test would be. He knew that he plays a position where there would be opportunity for him to get on the field. He knew that he struggled as a rookie and needed to make a good impression. He knew all this and yet here we are, a week later, and he still can't pass the test. If much more time goes by, with an undrafted rookie named Kyle Love drawing lots a praise, Brace might want to brace himself because he could get cut.
Shawn Crable - I know, I still can't get over it.
We have reason to be excited about the Patriots offense in 2010. If they can get solid play out of whoever plays left guard they will surely be in the top ten, if not top five, offenses in the NFL. On the defensive side questions still remain, especially along the line and with the pass rushers, but the secondary and inside linebacker corps is deeper than it has been in a long time.