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From the Hart: 10 mild takes from Patriots spring practice

Posted Jun 26, 2014

PFW recaps what we saw in Patriots OTA and mini-camp workouts with an eye on what's to come in training camp.

Bill Belichick's team has 13 spring practices in the books and now has set forth out into the down time between now and training camp.

For the media – which had access to six of the 13 spring sessions – there is much more information to work with when looking ahead and projecting just how the 2014 New England squad might come together than we had just a few weeks earlier.

No pads have been strapped on. Not a single player has made a practice tackle, block or tough run. But there’s still a decent amount information that could be gleaned from the spring action under gleaming sunlight.

Here are one man’s mental meanderings regarding the Patriots based on a half-dozen practices under non-contact, jersey-free conditions. Take them for what they’re worth and with the requisite room for error that should be expected at this time of year – say plus/minus 50-percent!

1 – Passing concerns: It was hard not to notice the lack of weapons in the New England passing game this spring. Rob Gronkowski was with the rehab group. Aaron Dobson was amongst the missing. Brandon LaFell made a minor cameo. Josh Boyce got dinged up late. Maybe the only good sign was the Danny Amendola seemed healed from the groin issues that limited him last fall. Still, the receiver position is a dubious depth chart of injury concerns and uncertain options. The tight end spot as a factor in the passing game is almost solely based on No. 87’s health. The lack of weapons and depth in the passing game was even more evident when Jimmy Garoppolo ran the second unit made up of unknowns, have-nots and some likely never-wills.

2 – Big D front: With Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly returning from injury the middle of the defensive line could be as big as ever. Sealver Siliga is also in that mix after his evolution late last year. Veteran Will Smith adds intriguing size to the left end spot. Jamie Collins adds size and length on the outside, and the trio of him, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower is a pretty big bunch. If/when the Patriots want to field a big front seven in 2014, the option should be there.

3 – Athletic D front: While Matt Patricia’s defensive font has the potential to field a massive lineup, a few substitutions could make the group a very athletic unit as well. Dominique Easley appears on track to make a rookie impact and bring a penetrating style to a group that already has Chris Jones returning and, who knows, might someday field Armond Armstead. At linebacker Collins brings a unique athleticism to the edge and the trio with Mayo/Hightower is more athletic a threesome than Brandon Spikes offered. Throw veteran backup James Anderson to the mix and the front has a small, coverage linebacker with a unique skillset and proven track record. The front should have versatile options in dealing with opposing passing attacks.

4 – James Develin is awesome!: A year ago Develin earned his keep as a versatile fullback. His multi-effort touchdown at Houston just oozed want-to. This spring the former Brown defensive lineman may just have been the Patriots best tight end on the practice field as he continues to prove his multi-purpose value. Given lack of depth at running back and tight end, Develin seems like a certainty to make the team and contribute.

5 – Interior line depth: While the Patriots return the entirety of last year’s starting offensive line, there’s no certainty there won’t be changes up front. The most likely spots for that would be either center or right guard. Or both. The interior offensive line may be one of the deepest most competitive areas on the New England roster. As many as five guys took reps at center this spring. But there was plenty of rotation at guard as well. If it’s only about fielding the best possible lineup, Ryan Wendell could find himself in a fight for his job and roster spot. Wendell doesn’t have the versatility to move to guard, so if not the starting center he could be gone. But if money is an issue, Dan Connolly and his $4 million-plus cap number could make him expendable. Regardless, new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo has a lot of depth to work with in the middle of his unit.

6 – Does size matter?: From oversized corner Brandon Browner to tiny running back Roy Finch the Patriots have a handful of unique athletes whose size jumps off the field. At 6-4 Browner is unlike anything the Patriots have had at cornerback since maybe Tebucky Jones. Finch is a quick, unique playmaker as a pass catcher or return option who must prove his 5-7, 167-pound frame isn’t too much to overcome. And let’s not forget 6-8, 277-pound undrafted tight end Justin Jones. The former basketball player is raw and had his hiccups this spring, but his unique size is literally hard to overlook. Wonder how these size-driven athletes will look different when the pads come on in late July?

7 – Mike check: Belichick may have lost a trusted, experienced, on-field advisor with Dante Scarnecchia’s retirement, but gained one with the addition of assistant to the coaching staff Mike Lombardi. The former Browns GM and longtime Belichick confidant spent a lot of time chatting with the head coach on the practice field this spring. Lombardi is thought of as a personnel man, but he seems to have a greater on-field role than that with the Patriots. Now Belichick has both Ernie Adams and Lombardi as two pair of extra eyes to advise him on the practice field and elsewhere.

8 – Backfield committee openings: As it stands today three running backs would appear to be locks to make the 53-man roster assuming injuries aren’t an issue – Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and fourth-round rookie James White. The Patriots have carried five running backs with regularity in recent years. The big-bodied backup job is also up for grabs with LeGarrette Blount – the offensive workhorse and star late last season – having taken his skills to Pittsburgh. That means a guy like undrafted rookie Stephen Houston might have a nice shot at a roster spot. Or Finch could be an undersized weapon. Or Brandon Bolden could revitalize his fading status. Regardless, there are jobs to be won. But it also wouldn’t be unprecedented to carry just three backs if the roster breakdown calls for it. Lots of decisions to be made here once the pads go on.

9 – Fading youth: You can only get by for so long in the NFL on draft status or potential. At some point a lack of impact production or a proven value in a role will mean the end of the line. That is a reality that the likes of Jake Bequette, Tavon Wilson, Bolden, Armstead and others face this summer. The first two are former high picks who’ve yet to prove they can have an impact on defense. The latter two have less resume cache and simply have issues with health and getting/staying part of the team. All are in a fight this August.

10 – Backup QB battle: It might not come with the pre-packaged, ESPN-driven, unwarranted hype that came with Tim Tebow last summer, but the back quarterback job in New England is a focal point once again in training camp. The selection of Jimmy Garoppolo in the second-round brought immediate attention to the spot. Unlike Tebow, Garoppolo has already shown he can actually run an offense. Ryan Mallett missing spring practices to injury is less than ideal as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. Maybe both will join Brady on the roster this fall, although the Patriots have carried three passers just once to open the year in the last five seasons. It’s clear Garoppolo is the future at the backup QB spot. He looked pretty good this spring. The future could be as soon as September if Mallett isn’t careful.

What do you think of the list? Notable issues we missed? Way off the mark with something? Let us know with a comment below!

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