Postcard from camp: Patriots
With Tom Brady healthy, the Pats offense will try to return to its 2008 dominance
In landing an outside pass-rusher, the Patriots have solved their only real problem
New WR Joey Galloway should take pressure off Randy Moss and Wes Welker
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ben Reiter had to say about the Patriots' camp in Foxborough, Mass. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
Setting The Scene
The Patriots' camp has got to be, in some ways, one of the most boring for fans to attend of any in the NFL. There's no picturesque college campus to explore, as the Pats hold their practices on their regular fields, in the shadows of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. The players don't ride bikes, they don't offer up entertaining sound bites, and they interact with fans relatively little -- post-practice autograph sessions are timed on the scoreboard, and end when the horn blows.
All of that is by the design of coach Bill Belichick, who likes his players tight-lipped and entirely focused on their work. The excitement, for both players and fans, will come in the playoffs.
1. Tom Brady is going to be just fine. That Brady is more or less healed from the torn ACL and MCL he suffered on the 15th play of last season's opener ought to have been clear to anyone who watched him in the Patriots' first preseason game. In the opener against the Eagles on Aug. 13, he went 10-for-15 for 100 yards, with a pair of touchdown passes.
You don't need to be told that New England's offense played surprisingly well under backup Matt Cassel after Brady's injury -- so well, in fact, that some have wondered whether the Patriots are to quarterbacks what the Broncos are to running backs (i.e., It's the system, stupid). But a fifth overall offensive ranking (365.4 yards per game) represented a significant drop-off from 2007's Brady-led juggernaut (411.3 ypg). How much better does the offense run under Brady than under Cassel? "Now you're asking me questions that are going to get me in trouble," receiver Wes Welker said to me, with a nervous laugh. Politically correct; but the implication is clear.
2. This is a veteran team -- but not entirely. The Patriots will be, on average, the oldest team in the NFL, but even so there is something of a youth movement brewing here. None of the team's 12 draft picks in 2009 (their most since 1996) will likely make an impression as significant and as quickly as did inside linebacker Jerod Mayo last season . Mayo, of course, won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award after ranking 10th in the NFL with 128 tackles, and was named the defense's preseason captain ("I went to my locker one day, and my helmet had that green sticker on it," he says).
But many of the 2009 rookies will contribute, particularly the four players whom the Pats selected in the second round. Hard-hitting safety Patrick Chung (No. 34 overall) and speedy cornerback Darius Butler (No. 41) will bolster a secondary that struggled at times last year and constituted a major reason New England finished second-to-last in red zone defense. Then there's 6-foot-7 right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (No. 58), who might soon find himself playing on a formerly impenetrable line that became porous in '08 (when New England allowed 48 sacks, 27 more than the season before).
But the 6-3, 330-pound defensive tackle Ron Brace, whom the Pats selected 40th overall out of Boston College, might make the biggest impact of all. He'll spell 2007 All-Pro nose tackle Vince Wilfork in the team's base 3-4 defense, and should line up beside him when they switch to the 4-3.
Belichick is never one to gush about rookies -- or about anything, for that matter -- but he said of Brace's performance against the Eagles, "I thought he was strong at the point of attack. He had some opportunities in the passing game, where he was able to get some penetration in the pocket, was in on a couple tackles, made a play in short-yardage, was in on a couple plays, but -- more importantly -- played his technique well and was pretty stout at the line of scrimmage." For good measure, Belichick added, "There are a lot of things that he needs to improve on, as well."
3. A Super Bowl appearance seems a fait accompli. The Patriots were widely believed to possess a single weak spot heading into camp: they lacked a strong outside pass-rusher, after trading linebacker Mike Vrabel (55 career sacks) along with Cassel to the Chiefs in February for a second-round draft pick. Everyone wondered whether guys like fourth-year pro Pierre Woods or second-year man Shawn Crable -- who have a single sack between them -- could possibly fill the void. Then, on Aug. 4, the Pats announced that they had acquired formerly disgruntled Derrick Burgess, the NFL's leading sacker in 2005, from the Raiders in exchange for a pair of picks in next year's draft, and their number of weak spots went from one to zero.
This appears to be a team that has talent, and lots of it, everywhere: the play of the day on Monday came on a bomb down the left sideline from the fourth-string quarterback, undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer. His pass led to an acrobatic catch by a third-string wideout, undrafted rookie Terrence Nunn. Another 18-0 start might not be in the offing, but the Patriots should come awfully close.
New Face, New Place
Joey Galloway, WR. He'll turn 38 in November, his goatee is now gray-flecked, and injuries limited him to nine games last season with Tampa Bay. Still, the Patriots aren't expecting Galloway, the oldest active receiver in the NFL, to be the player he was a decade ago -- and they don't need him to be. All they will require, really, is for Galloway to use his speed (which is still considerable, judging from his performance in camp) to stretch defenses and draw coverage away from Welker and Randy Moss. And if he can't do that -- well, they only signed him to a one-year, $1.75 million deal.
Galloway, who has caught passes from 18 quarterbacks during his 14 years in the league, seems thrilled to be playing with Brady. "I've always watched him -- unfortunately I was in other places when he was doing what he did -- and I've always been very impressed with him," Galloway says. "Now that I'm here, I understand why he's so successful. Not only because he's very talented, but very intelligent, and knows football very well."
Julian Edelman, WR. Some Pats fans were confused when training camp opened: had Welker changed his uniform number, from 83 to 11? He had not. In fact, New England now has a second receiver in the Welker mold -- short, quick, agile, sure-handed, fearless over the middle -- in the person of Edelman, a seventh-round pick in this year's draft. Edelman played quarterback at Kent State, where he led the nation in QB rushing as a senior with 1,370 yards. Now, though, he seems as if he might be the next quarterback from that MAC school to make an impact at another position, following the trail blazed by the Browns' Flash-turned-Pro Bowl kick returner Josh Cribbs. Edelman led the Patriots with five receptions in their preseason opener against the Eagles, and also returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown.
Are the comparisons to Welker accurate? "Absolutely," Welker says. "We have a lot of similarities. He reminds me a lot of myself when I was a rookie ... He's been a big eye-opener for a lot of guys here, and the way he's been working and playing has been a great thing to see."
From the Club Lounge on the fifth floor of the sparkling new Renaissance Hotel & Spa at Patriot Place, which opened in May, one has a clear and unobstructed view of Gillette Stadium, of the Pats' Dana-Farber Field House ... and of the entirety of the Patriots' practice fields. The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy wrote about the view three weeks ago, but I had to see it for myself -- and it's shocking, really, especially as Patriot Place is owned by Pats' owner Bob Kraft, and we know that Belichick always has espionage on his mind. The Patriots say that they'll erect a screen once practices become closed. It's going to have to be an engineering marvel.
If you're thinking of trying to make a reservation at the hotel for a Pats game, you'll have to have pretty deep pockets. Opening night against the Bills is already sold out, and the cheapest rate for Week 3 against the Falcons was, at last check, going for $329 a night. I wonder how many of the rooms have been booked by binoculars-wielding opposing scouts.
Among the deepest positions on this chasm-deep roster? Tight end. During the offseason, the Patriots signed Chris Baker away from the Jets -- Baker caught both of Brady's touchdown passes against the Eagles -- and traded for former Buccaneer Alex Smith. Ben Watson, who has started 38 games in his five years with New England, might be the odd man out.
If you're a fantasy football participant and you're thinking about drafting a Patriots running back, my advice would be: don't. Who knows how Belichick will split carries between Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney -- and Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are still here, too. Belichick even signed another back, former Texan Chris Taylor, on Monday. Pick Morris, for his touchdown potential, if you must.
Had a not particularly illuminating conversation with Brandon Meriweather, who will start at strong safety, about the keys to the defense. "I think everybody needs to be on the same page, and we need to execute our game plan to the fullest," he said, in what might not qualify as an SI.com exclusive. A Belichickian response, to be sure. Mayo believes that Meriweather, drafted out of the Miami in the first round in 2007, might be on the cusp of becoming the next great safety from the 'U.'
Belichick, after someone asked him on Monday if he's interested in seeing what Usain Bolt could do as a Pat: "Uhhhh ... not right at the moment, no."
For more notes of this ilk, please feel free to follow me on Twitter: SI_BenReiter.
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