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Chief Thoughts: Early reflections on the Patriots’ 2019 training camp

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Training camp doesn’t matter. Except when it does.

New England Patriots Training Camp Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The dead season is over. Lord, does it feel good to say that. Of course we’re still weeks away from a real football game but at least we have honest to god football back in our lives. Enough of training camp has passed that preliminary analysis can begin, but as Bill Belichick so often says, we have got a long way to go. None of this should be interpreted as definitive or ironclad. Let’s get started.

The Sacrificial Seconds

Our own Michael McDermott has an interesting theory on the Patriots’ second round defensive back selections. He suggests that Belichick is sacrificing second-rounders in exchange for satanically powered undrafted free agents. I’ve found this theory as good as any in describing the Patriots’ enduring record of second round busts and the recent trend of UDFA gems.

While J.C. Jackson has continued to preform at a high level in camp, second-round pick Duke Dawson has continued to struggle during his sophomore season. Though it’s worth noting that players like Keion Crossen and D’Angelo Ross might be guarding inferior wide receivers, it’s fair to say Dawson’s play during camp has been less than impressive. Cutting a second-round pick after one year would be unusual, though. Very few general managers are willing to abandon their assessment of players so quickly.

It’s an embarrassing admission of failure to cut a second round pick after one year, which is why many general managers prefer to keep high draft picks on the roster rather than cut them. You might suggest that the cut throat Belichick, clad in the armor of his unimpeachable record, would never stand for dead weight. But I would remind you that second round pick “37” survived for years in spite of his abysmal play. Hopefully, Dawson can rally — but I’m afraid a player who should make the roster on the merits of training camp may be cast aside in favor of Dawson’s steeper draft investment.

The positive news is that Joejuan Williams has begun a minor rebound, something I am hopeful he can build on. I believe in the the logic behind his selection. The league is going to be filled with receiving tight ends, big slots, and big outside receivers for the foreseeable future. The Patriots need an answer to those players and someone with Williams’ size and pedigree should be just that.

Thus far, the rookie seems to be have struggled both mentally and athletically. The athletic limitations will haunt him his entire career but I’m not ready to write him off for the mental mistakes. He was a smart boom-or-bust player in college. Transitioning to the NFL is extremely difficult for most players and Williams is going to have to dramatically refine his game to compete at the next level. What I want to see from him are flashes. He has given us a glimmer. Hopefully he can continue to grow.

The Meyers Conundrum

I think Jakobi Meyers presents a good opportunity to discuss part of the way I evaluate talent from the outside looking in. I am a big believer in floor measurables. I think there are certain ranges players need to hit in order to have a strong chance of a productive NFL career. The reverse is not true for measurable ceilings. There are graveyards filled with the corpses of combine warriors that washed out of the league. It is much more important to be a good player than a good athlete in the NFL. However, I buy into the theory that most players need a solid athletic floor to succeed. Anquan Boldin is the once-in-a-generation exception, not the standard.

Having an athletic floor does not mean you have to run a fast 40. Athletic floors simply mean you have a certain degree of athleticism, in some area, that allows you to compete against some of the best athletes in the world. Take Dez Bryant. His 3-cone and 30-yard shuttle were in the 10th percentile. Terrible. His 40 was in the 45th percentile. Not great. But he had superior size to combine with 96 percentile in the broad jump and 99 percentile in the split. He also scored an 81 in the vertical jump. Sure, some of his measurables stunk but they were more than compensate by his size and athleticism in other areas. Bryant passes the measurable floor test. Okay, he straight up soared past it, but you get the point.

Most players need to at least be competitive, or have an advantage in, some athletic measurable in order to succeed in the NFL. Most players. Not all. There are two ways that players can succeed in spite of their poor measurables.

1.) Unrealized measurables

The first is unrealized measurables. In other words, combine scores that merely reflect the player’s athleticism as it stands the day of the test, not necessarily their full athletic potential.

Let’s use Orlando Brown as an example. Brown was the highly productive tackle during Baker Mayfield’s final collegiate campaign and was consistently mocked in the top half of the first round before his combine performance. Afterwards he wasn’t referenced in the first round again. What happened? Brown’s measurables were horrendous. The tape was there. No one could deny it. But the measurables were so poor that no one would risk biting on the tape until day three of the draft. But imagine if Brown had merely performed average at the combine instead of bombing it? There is a very good chance he would have been picked on day one of the draft instead of day three.

A year removed from the combine, it seems the chances are good that Orlando Brown’s athletic potential does not match how he performed at the combine. Brown’s strength and conditioning coach described him as a “mutant”, stating that “if there were X-men on this team, he would be on it.”

Brown had a bad combine. No, that’s not fair: he had a historically bad combine. But that did not mean he was a historically bad athlete. With the help of the Baltimore Ravens’ dietitians and strength coaches, he began to chisel his monstrous frame. The result was a solid rookie season at right tackle. Just because a player looks like a terrible athlete at the combine does not necessarily mean they are a terrible athlete. It’s up to the coaching staff to figure out if they can build them into something more.

2.) Being a good player

The second way an NFL player can overcome bad measurable is, well, being a really good player. DeAndre Hopkins is the ultimate example of this. He may not be fast but he can high-point a ball, run great routes, and essentially catch anything that is physically capable of being caught. He’s one of a handful of elite receivers in the NFL.

So which is the case for Meyers? Right now my money is on the second example, though we can always hope it’s the first too. Meyers was noted for having a great rapport with his previous quarterback Ryan Finley. He’s continued that trend with Tom Brady. What that tells us is that Meyers has an instinctual feel for what his quarterback wants from him. That’s probably because Meyers used to be a quarterback. That’s incredibly valuable in the Patriots’ offense.

Brady often relies on receivers being exactly where he needs them to be at the exact time he is expecting them to be there. Meyers, like Hopkins, also tested well in the vertical leap. He can climb the stairs, something he excelled at in college, and has proven to be adept at reining in jump balls. Another note that caught my interest was the compliment paid to him by the Detroit Lions’ rookie defensive back Amani Oruwariye, who complimented Meyers’ release. Antonio Brown is an excellent example of how an obscene release, when coupled with route running, can lead to absurd separation despite lacking long speed.

Does that mean I’m calling Meyers Antonio Brown? No. Oruwariye is a rookie defensive back; it’s not exactly like Darius Slay was complimenting him. But player releases are as much about technique as explosive athleticism. Just look at Cordarrelle Patterson. An absolutely explosive tester who had a miserable release that has limited him his entire career. The fact that Meyers’ release is getting complimented is positive because it gives him another potential tool in his box to create separation in spite of being a below-average athlete.

Here is the great, the good, and the bad about Meyers as I see it right now. I think he’s got excellent hands and a good radius. I love how naturally he seems to understand the offense despite spending very little time with it yet. Brady has suffered only a single incompletion when throwing to Meyers, albeit in a small sample size. I like the compliments being paid to his route-running and release. I don’t like him as a big red zone threat, after the catch producer, and his lack of size relative to his athleticism.

Right now, I see a rookie who is creating separation with an almost veteran’s savvy and combining it with a superior catch radius. Meyers has been doing it against first team corners, albeit the lesser ones, so there is reason to believe this might translate to the regular season. I am looking forward to him making some big catches in big moments. A possession receiver who can play inside and outside, I do not see a dominant receiver who can lift an offense, nor frankly, do I see the potential.

I’ve seen people compare him to Mohamed Sanu athletically but Sanu had an excellent 3-cone and broad jump, in conjunction with the above-average vertical. Sanu passed the floor test. Meyers does not. The only top twenty receiver who matches Meyers’ physical profile in the league today is DeAndre Hopkins. But expecting Meyers to perform at that level, or even a shadow of that level, seems overly optimistic. Meyers can be a useful piece to keep the chains moving and I expect him to be targeted in the middle of the field. I honestly see shades of Danny Amendola or a less athletic Malcolm Mitchell. Just because he’s not a future star does not mean Meyers won’t be a UDFA gem in the rough.

If you wanted to make an argument for his ceiling, one good argument would be that he has not played wide receiver very long — really only for a single season. That’s a solid warrant for why a significant amount of his potential might not have been unlocked by the time the draft rolled around.

One last notion. I believe in guys who consistently show up in camp translating to the regular season. I especially believe in guys who consistently show up and whose performance is backed up by the coaching staff. I haven’t quite heard the reports I want to regarding Meyers but I’m keeping my ears peeled and you all should too. If Meyers continues to perform, and the coaches are reportedly stoked, I’ll be purchasing a first class ticket on the hype train. As it stands I would put him on the roster today if cuts were being made.

Jamie Collins could be a star

The linebacker has been a straight-up playmaker throughout all of camp. Reports from the Patriots’ coaching stuff have been glowing all the way back in OTAs. Collins is one of only two players that would qualify as “uber athletes” on the Patriots roster. He is as big as a defensive end and yet has consistently splashed in coverage. One of the biggest issues he had when he was with the Patriots is that he tended to make big mistakes that took away from the benefit of his big plays. The mental aspect of the game has been a problem for him in the past.

If Collins is able to string together the same playmaking ability we saw in 2015, while cutting down on some of his bigger mistakes, he’s going to be a special part of this team. I think it’s important to remember a few things, though. Jamie Collins is playing for peanuts. He is playing for peanuts on the team that traded him for peanuts a few years ago. He’s playing for that team because the team he was traded to essentially cut him. So let’s not lose all perspective. We are very early in the process. But I think Collins is one of the few players on this roster with Pro Bowl upside and at minimum he’s shown it consistently at camp. That’s exciting.

Jarrett Stidham might actually be good

I’m a fan of Jeff Howe over at The Athletic and he’s been positively giddy over Stidham’s accuracy. My number one trait in a quarterback is accuracy at all levels of the field. Stidham has shown that consistently throughout camp. I’m not saying that it’s time to push Brady out the door and throw the new kid into the water — there is a hell of a lot more that goes into quarterbacking than just throwing an accurate ball in camp. Frankly, I don’t even care if he’s the second coming of Dan Marino. I love Brady and really hope he can play for the next three years. That being said, injuries do happen. Father Time always wins eventually. It’s not a bad thing when your rookie quarterback shows some spunk.

Various Notes

Braxton Berrios: The guy has consistently failed to get separation at camp, is undersized, and has T-Rex arms. I’m not loving what I see. Berrios has to go to learn to get separation because he’s consistently failing to make contested catches. Brady has targeted him as often as any receiver at camp, so he must be doing something right. But unless he can show more I think his only path to the roster is as a punt returner, and he hasn’t exactly blown people away there either.

N’Keal Harry: As up and down as they come. As long as he can get the mental stuff down I’ll feel good about him.

Phillip Dorsett: I still think he makes the roster.

Tight Ends: The Patriots won’t have a real one until week four and even then they might not really have one. I’m not sure they even replaced the gimped version of Rob Gronkowski.

Extra Cap Space: I strongly believe the extra cap was created for a specific purpose, but there is no telling if that specific purpose will be achieved. Maybe they are gunning for Trent Williams, maybe the Patriots are gunning for someone else. It does not mean they will get them.

Chase Winovich: He’s begun to flash. I’m excited to see what he can offer. I don’t expect him to be a major contributor his rookie season but I do expect him to make some plays.

Dan Skipper: Maybe he has a future down the line but if he ends up being New England’s starting left tackle the team is in some trouble. Dude has gotten beat like a drum at camp, even though he flashed a little run blocking potential.

Danny Shelton: The guy has surprised a lot of folks in camp. Looked good. Solid chance to make the roster.

Keion Crossen : He’s outperformed Dawson as a cornerback and was already a solid special teams player last season. I think his play in the preseason is going to be important. He wasn’t great with his corner snaps during the regular season last year but at least the coaching staff gave him snaps.

Obi Melifonwu: He has a serious chance to make the roster, which is more than I think people were expected heading into this year. He’s not played great but he’s been healthy and flashed. He’s the only “uber athlete” on the roster besides Collins. I was really intrigued by his upside entering the draft, but injuries and the Raiders’ coaching staff may have broken him. I think he needs to show some gains in the preseason to solidify a spot because he’s definitely on the bubble right now.