Five goals for the Patriots to hit during training camp
FOXBORO -- When Bill Belichick meets with reporters before training camp practices, one of his go-to lines will be, "Just trying to have a good practice today." Or something to that effect.
And even that may not be short-term focused enough to really encapsulate how he's feeling in that moment. If Belichick wasn't looking to rush out from behind the podium and over to to the fields behind Gillette Stadium, he might list in order the things he's set on accomplishing in the 10 minutes following his media availability.
He'd probably like to have a good first practice period. Or a good warmup. Or a good walk through the tunnel out to the grass.
The point is that if he has long-term training-camp goals for this year's team, he isn't speaking them into a microphone in late July.
And that's OK. That's why we're here.
Before the first day of camp kicks off, here are five goals the Patriots might be looking to accomplish before their Week 1 opener at home against the Chiefs.
There aren't many pressing concerns for the reigning champs, but this will be right near the top of the list -- as it always is. The Patriots are deep enough at most spots that even an injury to a big-name player might not be enough to derail their chances at another Lombardi Trophy. (Tom Brady is probably the lone exception to this idea, but Jimmy Garoppolo isn't a bad insurance policy. He's still here for a reason.) How Rob Gronkowski is managed through the summer will be worth watching after he had season-ending back surgery last fall. Dont'a Hightower and Alan Branch will begin camp on PUP, but otherwise, the team is looking healthy after a long 2016 campaign.
GET THE NEW GUYS ACCLIMATED
Can Brandin Cooks continue the positive momentum he built in the spring? Will Stephon Gilmore pick up the communication in the Patriots secondary? How does David Harris handle a new environment and a new system? Making sure these players and others -- Dwayne Allen, Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead -- catch up quickly will be vital. They'll have help. Devin McCourty explained on Wednesday that he's been in this type of spot before with a new teammate to bring along. "I just try to throw as much information at you and try to tell you some key things that you obviously need to know in our defense," McCourty said. "The rookies are the same thing – throw a lot at them, try to help them be successful in the NFL first of all and then see what they retain and just try to help them each day."
FIND OUT WHAT THE ROOKIES ARE MADE OF
There are so many known commodities on this roster, there may be some extra attention paid to those who have yet to play a competitive NFL snap. Derek Rivers was considered a second-round talent by some evaluators before this year's draft. Can he provide some punch as a pass-rusher immediately, or will he need some time to get his legs under him as he makes the leap from Youngstown State? Can Deatrich Wise show the same kind of flashes of potential that his former college teammate Trey Flowers did two summers ago as a rookie? And which undrafted players have a shot to make it? Will linebacker Harvey Langi get the first crack at a reserve role because of the guaranteed money he was given? Or does someone like Brooks Ellis -- who plans to head to medical school whenever he's done with football -- have a chance to crack the 53-man roster at the end of camp?
FILL IMPORTANT DEPTH ROLES
The Patriots need to find a third corner that they trust. The same can be said for their third tight end. Having a swing tackle who is ready to go at the drop of a hat would be nice, too. These aren't roles that are so important that uncertainty with one or all will make fans chomp on fingernails before bed. Yet how players like Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones, James O'Shaughnessy and Matt Lengel, and Antonio Garcia and Conor McDermott develop could be crucial down the line. There's even one featured role that's still a little uncertain: Who is going to be the "big back" now that LeGarrette Blount is gone? Running backs coach Ivan Fears said on Wednesday that he was eager to find out.
“Everybody sees these [backs] as the same," Fears explained. "Yeah they’re all pretty close to the same and that’s fine. But still, somebody’s got to handle each one of those roles that we have in the game. Somebody’s got to play big for us. We have enough guys who can play finesse football. Somebody’s got to play power football for us so we have to find out who’s going to do that. I think a lot of those guys are capable of that. Freakin James White ran the power offense when he was at Wisconsin so, what are we talking about? But he’s got to do it for us here. Not just him, but whether it’s Mike [Gillislee], whether it’s Rex [Burkhead] or Brandon Bolden . . . Somebody’s got to step up and be the big back when we need one, and all those roles that come up in the game we have to find somebody to fit those roles, and I think we will.”
This is the time, with pads coming soon, for the Patriots to get a sense for what they have.
The Patriots coaching staff got after players during OTAs. Belichick has already mentioned multiple times that this year's group hasn't done anything. It's almost as if they're trying to make sure this group isn't starting to believe the hype being drummed up around them as the clear-cut top team in the league. Even even-keeled Matthew Slater showed some frustration about how his team was being ballyhooed during a press conference Wednesday.
"Well, I think it’s quite foolish to believe and to buy into some of the things that are being said about our football team right now," he said. "We have yet to go out and have a competitive practice in pads in 2017, so I think we need to remember that and understand that it’s hard to have success in this league. There are so many good players, so many good coaches. I honestly think it’s quite disrespectful to say some of the things that have been said about our football team to the other players and coaches in this league."
In order to combat some of the effects of all the positive press, it would come as no surprise if this ended up being one of the toughest camps Belichick and his staff have run to date.