The New England Patriots opened training camp today in Foxborough at Gillette Stadium and the theme is clear: these aren’t your older brother’s Patriots. Gone from the team’s facility are the pictures of the heroes of the past decade; Troy Brown, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, etc. are all off of the empty walls in the locker room and throughout the stadium. It’s time for these new Patriots to form their own identity. With 24 players drafted the last two drafts, the team’s youth movement is in full effect.
Young players are being expected to step up in key areas. Darius Butler is expected to start at left corner; Sebastian Vollmer is the starter at right tackle; Pat Chung is challenging for the starting job at strong safety; two-thirds of the tight end group are rookies; rookie Brandon Spikes and Tyrone McKenzie are battling for reps next to Jerod Mayo at inside linebacker, and who knows what the hell is going on at outside linebacker opposite Tully Banta-Cain. After Shawn Crable was released yesterday, Steve reported earlier today that Derrick Burgess is not at camp and is considering retirement. That leaves Rob Ninkovich, who got plenty of reps with the starting unit today, Pierre Woods, and rookie Jermaine Cunningham as the players most likely to fill in that OLB spot. Aside from the positions mentioned, it’s highly possible that a young player, maybe Brandon Tate or Taylor Price, impress during camp and start opposite Randy Moss at wide receiver. Perhaps one of the younger guards, like Rich Ohrnberger or Ryan Wendell, do a better job at filling in for Logan Mankins at left guard than Nick Kaczur and wrestle the starting job away.
Those are just a few of the many storylines unfolding during the Pats’ 51st training camp. Steve and I will be at the morning session tomorrow to take it all in, and there will be a post up tomorrow afternoon after we return. Here are some of the highlights from today’s two sessions:
- The red-zone, which was a sore spot on both offense and defense last season, was a focus in both the morning afternoon sessions. In the morning, the defense got the upper hand. After an incomplete pass from Tom Brady to Brandon Tate, the defense stuffed Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris twice on consecutive downs. In the afternoon, the offense got the better of the defense. Both rookie tight ends, first Rob Gronkowski and then Aaron Hernandez, caught touchdown passes from Brady.
- Speaking of the rookie TE’s, they continue to impress. Hernandez, in particular, looks like he will be a pass-catching machine. he is being lined up at multiple spots and is showing he knows how to get open. Gronkowski is using his power blocking and his height (6’6″) getting open against defenders, such as he did in the end zone to catch a TD pass.
- Tom Brady was NOT wearing the bulky knee brace he wore all last season after returning from his ACL surgery. He instead was wearing a black sleeve on his knee. If he continues to do this will be interesting to see. Just the fact that he did not have it on for practice is a positive sign that he’s improved from where he was last season, which is EXCELLENT news for Pats fans.
- So far, Mike Wright looks like he has the inside track to start at right defensive end. Last season, that spot was manned by Jarvis Green while he was healthy after the team traded Richard Seymour right before the start of the regular season.
- While Darius Butler has the initial edge to start at left corner, rookie first-rounder Devin McCourty did get some reps at that spot with the starting unit.
Not on the field for either sessions were WR Wes Welker, DL Ron Brace, WR Darnell Jenkins, the maybe-retiring Derrick Burgess, and the unsigned Logan Mankins.