FOXBOROUGH — Saturday marked the first practice of training camp with pads on for the Patriots players. While it is still early and only training camp seeing the players get a chance to go for the first time with the pads on can be a good indicator of who is ready to go.
I had the opportunity to attend practice and a few different players and moments stuck out above all else. It is still very early and a lot of what may stand out now can change by the time the start of the season rolls around. Anyways, here are my takeaways:
1.) Brandin Cooks is going to be a lot of fun to watch. Cooks had the best practice of anyone on Saturday and looked dynamic throughout. Cook’s speed is apparent immediately but he also showed good timing and route running to go along with his physical gifts. He embarrassed Justin Coleman in a 1-on-1, dropping him with a stutter step, and running down an overthrown pass to make the catch in the back of the end zone. He also caught a long bomb in double coverage during a 7-on-7 session. Cooks will only get better as his chemistry with his new quarterback builds.
2.) Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell are being monitored closely. Both were at practice but did little in terms of on field work. They did not participate in drills with the other receivers and saw no work in 7-on-7s or 11-on-11. This is more due to their injury history than current issues. We saw how both can step up in big games in the Super Bowl. For now it is about keeping them fresh for those key moments for Belichick and his staff.
3.) Cyrus Jones has not improved his standing on the depth chart. After a tumultuous rookie season that featured many a muffed punt Jones has not risen back up the punt returner depth chart. Edelman, Cooks, and Dion Lewis all got reps taking punts before the second year man from Alabama. If Jones does not show promise as a returner or in pass coverage his days as a Patriot could be numbered.
4.) Jonathan Jones is establishing himself as cornerback. Jones, the second year pro from Auburn, made his mark as a rookie on special teams. Now, he appears to be rising up as the top option in the slot. In 11 on 11s Jones saw a lot of work as the primary defender on slot receivers and did well with the role. After Gilmore and Butler as the first and second corner options it looks like Jones may handle the smaller, faster receivers while Eric Rowe will be relied on against bigger body receivers. Rowe was solid on the day as well.
5.) Mike Gillislee is the top option at running back. Make no mistake James White, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead will see their fair share of rushes and pass catches, but Gillislee is the top dog. He was given the first carry in a goal line situation and proceeded to plow through two defenders into the end zone. He combines speed with pop and the opportunity is there for him to take the goal line carries that belonged to LeGarrette Blount last year and still be featured as a runner on early downs.
6.) Rob Gronkowski is ready to go. Gronk was a full go through all the positional group works, 7-on-7s, and 11-on-11s. He was moving well and his connection with Brady is still there. It now just becomes a matter of keeping up the same level of health for a season.
7.) Middle linebacker is a weak spot. Dont’a Hightower is on the PUP list and without him the middle is just not the same. David Harris is solid but not someone the Patriots plan to have see a ton of snaps. Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy saw the majority of reps in 11-on-11s and neither did anything note worthy. They were not bad, but they are not the dynamic presence that Hightower is. Hightower has had some durability issues and may not see a full regular season workload, the depth behind him will be something to watch as sub par linebacker play could get exposed against an elite offense in the season. We will have to wait and see how playing time works out at that position.
8.) Duron Harmon injured himself breaking up a pass in the end zone but appears to be ok. He walked off under his own power and there is nothing suggesting the injury is serious. Hopefully Harmon is back out there at full strength in a few days.
9.) Tom Brady refuses to decline as he ages. It probably does not even need to be mentioned at this point, but Brady still looked as sharp as ever. He was hitting receivers in stride and seems to have good chemistry with all of his receivers now.
10.) Harvey Langi, a rookie linebacker from BYU, laid a pair of big hits on Rex Burkhead at the goal line to end practice. The could have been nothing more than an aberration but it was nice to see one of the linebackers making some noise. Langi is probably a long shot to make the roster but he helped himself out in those last few moments.
The Patriots know that defending a title is never easy. Belichick has already gone into his usual routine of saying very little to the media other than the fact that last year does not mean a thing anymore and there is work to be done now this year.
So far, so good. The new additions look like they are adding the element they were supposed to while last years key players still look to be on a high level. There is still a long way to go before we even reach opening night, but there is already the feel that a sixth ring for the Brady/Belichick pairing is well within play.
The Patriots will open the pre season on August 10th against the Jacksonville Jaguars, that will be a good chance to see if these training camp performances hold up when the bright lights come on. For now, we wait, the season will be here soon enough.