As fans, we desire to hear something / anything from the team that indicates they will be better, stronger, faster, and maybe more importantly, healthier than last year. The preseason is the season for hope. All teams are undefeated. All teams have made moves to try to improve the roster. All teams are looking to hoist the Lombardi at the end of the season. After the current round of team building activities, just how much should we take away from what the team has done to date.
The quick answer is nothing. Most of the activities aren't mandatory (per the CBA). They weren't practicing in pads (per the CBA). They were moving half-speed. There was no contact (per the CBA). In short, no football has been played to date. Teams are still undefeated, but they may not be any good. That is the short answer, but that answer is also inaccurate. If there was nothing to be gained from OTA's and mini-camp, the team wouldn't do them. So what exactly, is the team looking for?
With the returning veterans, they are looking at fitness and overall health. They already know, more or less, what they bring to the table. Some guys, like Brace, would show up out of shape. He's no longer a Patriot. Some guys, like Vince Wilfork, were injured and it gives the coaches and trainers a chance to see how they move on the field. Sure, it's half-speed and no pads, but if a guy looks bad in that setting, it'll only get rougher down the stretch. Is Vince football ready? Probably not, but it looks like he's moving in the right direction. Trending upwards is a good way to look at it, because at this time of the year especially, you are looking for improvement. You want the needle pointing up.
With free agent veterans, like Revis, they are looking at form and fit. They have many seasons worth of film with the Jets and the Bucs, and that's what got him in the door. Now they have to see how he fits in with the Patriots scheme. A scheme, they may change a bit with him in it. Can he still play man coverage as well as he once did? Does he seem to be picking up the terminology? It also gives the other guys around him a chance to see his tendencies in a process that will continue all year long. That process is a two way street. What's McCourty's range? Just how much can Revis afford to gamble in coverage? They're finding that out. They're veterans after all.
With rookie draft picks, they are looking to see how well college film translates to NFL success. Every rookie has something to learn. Are they listening? The thing Belichick hates most from players is repeat mistakes. That's a sign that the arrow is no longer pointing up. Guys will make mistakes. Smart guys learn from them. For instance, Bryan Stork put the ball on the ground several times this preseason. That's not the way to make a good first impression. They'll be looking for improvement come training camp where there will be pads and contact and center to QB snaps will become even harder. Generally, the higher you were drafted, the more mistakes can be forgiven. That brings us to the undrafted free agents.
The Patriots have invested almost nothing in an undrafted free agent. The contracts are cheap, no draft picks were spent, and for every one you cut, ten more are waiting in the wings. With 90 man rosters eventually getting cut down to 53 plus an 8 man practice squad, these guys need to show they have enough potential to stick around. Often, this means special teams value on the Patriots. Guys like Tedy Bruschi, Wes Welker and Rob Ninkovich have worked their way from special teamers to starting roster through a lot of hard work. The Patriots value special teams as much or more than other teams, and the special teams coach has an input on the final roster. Guys like Roy Finch may show some flash as a undersized running back, but if he's going to hover around the bottom of the RB depth chart, he better have ST value. That's what has allowed Brandon Bolden to stick around so long. They are trying Finch at returner, and if he makes the roster, that will probably be his "in".
Right now they have a bit of a baseline for all of the players, but the depth chart is far from set in stone. Every guy is heading home with a "TO DO" list of things they need to improve. HoF QB is working on his footwork. Rookie QB is trying to learn the playbook. Veteran backup QB is trying to get healthy enough to be in the roster discussion. Camp will show which guys are leveling off, which guys are trending downward, and which ones still trending upward. They'll don pads, they'll hit each other, and some guys will get hurt. It's hard to improve when you're in the training room, but it gives someone else an opportunity to show why they should be on the team.
What should we take from the work the team has put in to date? Jamie Collins is a tight end? Kenbrell Thompkins is knocking Lafell off the roster? Browner is the consensus to line up across from Revis? No, we're a long way from knowing any of that. The coaches are moving guys around, trying things, and seeing what they have to work with. If there's potential, they'll try them out at camp if not, it'll go into the dustbin of NFL history.
Some guys will be offseason superheroes, like Studfeld last year. Some guys will quietly put in the work, and make the roster by working hard and limiting mistakes, like Ninkovich when he first got here. Some guys will flash and fizzle, having great days and meh days, like Jimmy G. right now. Inconsistency is a Belichick swear word.
What players have done to date is their introduction to the 2014 Patriots. A good first impression is important; the players have built their foundation with the coaches and each other. What they do from here on out determines whether they stick on the roster. From this point on, the only thing that matters is what they bring to the team. The intros are over, and now the real work begins.