Patriots

Takeaways from OTAs and minicamp: Cooks, Gilmore already impressing

Takeaways from OTAs and minicamp: Cooks, Gilmore already impressing

FOXBORO -- OK. Now it's the offseason. Really. This time we mean it. 

The Patriots had their last spring practice on Thursday, meaning that until the end of July, when training camp begins, everyone is on vacation. Players, coaches, executives. All off. 

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With no on-the-field access for more than a month, here's one last run-through of the things we learned in Patriots OTAs and minicamp.

* Tom Brady is still decidedly out of his mind when it comes to his energy and level of competitiveness. During one of the first OTA practices open to reporters, he hit DJ Foster with a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone toward the end of the session and celebrated the thing as though they had just clinched the AFC East. Physically, Brady looks the same as he has in recent "passing camps." He was generally very accurate with the football. 

* For as good as Brady looked, Jimmy Garoppolo still probably throws the tightest deep ball of any Patriots quarterback. He had several opportunities to put that on display before suffering a leg injury that kept him on the sidelines for the final few snaps of minicamp and all of Tuesday's workout. 

* Jacoby Brissett is moving in the right direction. He impressed with his ability to make checks at the line and complete long throws with touch. At this time last year, the strong-armed passer could be found chucking throws into the stands when he wasn't sure about where to go with the football. During spring work, he seemed to make progressions quickly and take the short-to-intermediate throws when they were there. He knows he's not a "young pup" anymore, and he's hoping to move up the depth chart. 

* Brandin Cooks is able to reach a different gear than most of his teammates. At one practice, he caught a crossing route from Garoppolo and was able to out-run three defensive backs on his way to the end zone. He's also shown good early chemistry with Brady, catching a high-degree-of-difficulty back-shoulder throw deep down the sideline with Malcolm Butler in tight coverage. He went out of his way to spend a little extra time with Brady following one spring session that was open to media, and it appears as though those mini-summits have already started to pay dividends. 

* Rob Gronkowski declared himself "100 percent" early this spring, and he looked it. He did not hesitate to leave his feet for contested catches, and there were plenty -- particularly with Patrick Chung or Jordan Richards in coverage. We'll get a better sense of what Gronkowski can do in training camp when the pads come on, but the early returns have been positive for the tight end who recently was given an incentive-laden restructured deal for 2017. 

* While Cooks may have another gear in terms of his speed, there's another newcomer to the Patriots whose athleticism stood out at OTAs. Stephon Gilmore is smooth. He transitioned quickly from his backpedal into a sprint, and when he showed good body control when contesting passes at their highest point. Gilmore often seemed to be in tight man coverage, and he didn't let up when passes were completed in his direction. Though there was no contact during these practices, he was consistently reaching in and trying to pry footballs loose at the last minute. 

* Let's continue to roll through the veterans in their first year with the Patriots. Dwayne Allen admitted that he wished his first on-the-field work with his new club had been a little more hiccup-free. He dropped a handful of passes during practices open to the media, and he looked a little tight as he attacked throws that forced him to try to extend his catch radius. Following Tuesday's practice, he spent extra time with Brady and fellow tight end James O'Shaughnessy to get a few more reps in before heading inside for the day. 

* Rex Burkhead had his share of up and down moments in spring work as well. Though he showed good hands in his opportunities catching passes out of the backfield with Brady and Garoppolo, he needed a little additional coaching from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels at times to decipher the nuances of certain routes based on the coverages in front of him. How Burkhead is able to pick up the Patriots offense, particularly his responsibilities as a route-runner and pass-protector, will be fascinating to track in training camp. If those things come to him quickly, he could be an interesting dual-threat option out of the backfield. Burkhead also saw kick-coverage responsibilities during OTAs.

* Here are a few names you may not know yet, but who could garner more attention as real football gets closer: 1) O'Shaughnessy, acquired in a draft-weekend trade with the Chiefs, appeared to be the smoothest-receiving tight end of the group after Gronkowski. 2) Undrafted rookie safety David Jones out of Richmond is an intriguing athlete at 6-foot-3 and a shade over 200 pounds. He was used as a returner in the kicking game, and there was a point during Tuesday's practice where he got a little work with what would be considered primarily the first group of Patriots defensive backs. He missed half of last season for the Spiders due to a fractured forearm, but if he can stay healthy he's an NFL athlete. He ran a 4.43-second 40 at his pro day and jumped 34 inches in the vertical. 3) Harvey Langi is a name you may have heard because he was the highest-paid undrafted rookie in this year's class. He saw time as an off-the-ball linebacker this spring and made an interception of Brissett off of a tipped pass during the last sequence of 11-on-11 work Thursday. Langi could have an opportunity to earn a roster spot based on the fact that he plays a position that could potentially use some depth behind Dont'a Hightower, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy. But he was also working extensively with special teams coach Joe Judge this spring. Another off-the-ball linebacker who saw plenty of work on "teams" was Arkansas product Brooks Ellis. 

* Injuries are always part of the story for any team during the spring and summer, and the Patriots are no exception. Malcolm Mitchell, Hightower, Duron Harmon, Lawrence Guy and Kony Ealy all missed practice time at various points. Alan Branch was a limited participant during mandatory minicamp practices and was not present for OTAs, as is typically the case for him as he chooses to stay with family in Arizona during optional offseason workouts. Because all of those players figure to play important roles on this year's club, their status bears watching when training camp begins. Undrafted rookie offensive lineman Andrew Jelks also missed time. He missed Vanderbilt's last two seasons with knee injuries. Back in March, Vandy coach Derek Mason -- who was invited to watch Patriots spring practices by Bill Belichick -- said Jelks "was the best player coming into this program when I got here."

Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

There was more breaking Patriots news this afternoon.

This time it was related to Gronkowski, and a health scare.

But it wasn't the Gronkowski that plays for the New England Patriots.

So it is unfortunately confirmed that Rob Gronkowski's horse will not be competing in the Kentucky Derby.

The 3-year-old colt named after Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski had a “minor setback,’’ according to trainer Jeremy Noseda when he spoke to The Racing Post.

Gronkowski was unbeaten in starts, earning his place in the Kentucky Derby field.

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Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Breaking down the edge defender spot is one of the reasons the Prototypical Patriots series is such an interesting one to put together.

For instance, last year, Deatrich Wise was an easy fit. His height, arm length, production (when healthy), and the conference he played in made him a perfect fit. He was Chandler Jonesian.

But Derek Rivers, who was taken one round ahead of Wise? He didn't make the "Prototypical" list. At 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds at last year's combine, Rivers was nearly a full 20 pounds lighter than what Bill Belichick has typically looked for in his top-101 edge defender draft picks in New England. Not exactly the "prototype."

Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) was 6-3, 266 pounds. Jones (first, 2012) was 6-5, 266. Jake Bequette (third, 2012) was 6-5, 274. Geneo Grissom (third, 2015) was 6-3, 262. Trey Flowers (fourth, 2015) was 6-2, 266. All powerfully built. All from Power-5 conferences.

Rivers, who went to Youngstown State, was a bit of an anomaly. What did it mean? Did the Patriots see him as a player who could pack on pounds and look like his edge predecessors? Did they see him as a more versatile weapon who could play both on the line and off? Did they simply look at his outstanding athletic testing numbers (6.94-second three-cone, 35-inch vertical, 4.61-second 40 time), and say to themselves that they could work with him?

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Because Rivers suffered a season-ending injury in training camp last year, it's hard to know exactly what their plan was for him. In camp we saw him both rush the passer and play in coverage. He aligned in both two-point and three-point stances, on the ball and off.

The Rivers pick may show that the Patriots prototype is adjusting. And it may continue to adjust if the team is going to shift back to more 3-4 looks now that Matt Patricia -- who favored a 4-3 and helped change the Patriots' front in 2011, one year before he was given the coordinator's title -- is in Detroit.

Still, we generally know what a Patriots defensive end looks like. He stands between 6-2 and 6-5. He's in the 260-pound range. His arms are between 33 and 36 inches. His hands are about 10 inches. He runs the three-cone in less than 7.3 seconds. His vertical is at least 33 inches. His broad jump is about 120 inches. His 40 time is under 4.9 seconds, usually.

There's obviously much more than a list of physical benchmarks a prospect has to possess in order to be considered by the Patriots -- skill set, college production, durability and character all play a role -- but it's not a bad place to start.

Who fits that bill in this year's class? Let's take a look. They one player who likely isn't within range for the Patriots, unless he slides, would be NC State's Bradley Chubb. He's expected to go in the top-five picks and could hear his name called as early as No. 2 overall to the Giants. 

PROTOTYPES IN RANGE

MARCUS DAVENPORT, UTSA, 6-6, 264 POUNDS

There are plenty of knocks on Davenport. He's raw. He played against lower-level competition and was able dominate because of his superior physical gifts. His hands are small (9 1/8 inches). But he checks just about every other marker from a size and athletic testing perspective, and he's thought to be a hard worker with a high ceiling as a 4-3 defensive end. He may go as early as the teens. My hunch is that, while gifted, he isn't so off-the-charts special (4.58 40, 7.2-second three-cone, 124-inch broad, 33.5-inch vertical) that he'd be worth the Patriots trading up for. 

SAM HUBBARD, OHIO STATE, 6-5, 270 POUNDS

Again, let's go ahead and start with the negatives. He ran a 4.95-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which was a full tenth of a second slower than what Trey Flowers ran in 2015. Not good. But his 10-yard time was 1.69 seconds, which was much more in range for the Patriots. Jones ran the same 10-yard time in 2012. Wise ran a 1.68. Otherwise, Hubbard is what the Patriots want. He was productive in Urban Meyer's defense, recording 13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles. A high school safety -- who was headed to Notre Dame on a lacrosse scholarship! -- Hubbard is quick and explosive for his size. He jumped 35 inches in the vertical and clocked a ridiculous 6.84-second three-cone drill. On paper, Hubbard is one of the best fits for the Patriots in this class, and he could be had at the top of the second round. If his 40 time drops him into the bottom of the second or top of the third round, he'd be a steal. 

RASHEEM GREEN, USC, 6-4, 275 POUNDS

Another physically-impressive defensive end, Green offers some versatility. He looks like a base end on first and second downs who could kick inside to generate pressure in obvious passing situations. He has nearly 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and if the Patriots do shift to more 3-4 looks, he could potentially play as an end in those formations -- particularly if he improves his functional strength. He's a little raw and a little less athletic than the parameters set above, but he's also heavier than many Patriots ends. His 4.73-second 40 time, 32.5-inch vertical, 118-inch broad and 7.24-second three-cone are impressive for his frame, and he could be a boom-or-bust second-rounder for New England. 

DUKE EJIOFOR, WAKE FOREST, 6-3, 265 POUNDS

Making comparisons this time of year can be a little dangerous, but when it comes to Ejiofor, it's hard not to be reminded of Flowers (6-2, 265 at the combine in 2015). Ejiofor has 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, while Flowers had 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands. NFL.com's scouting report for Flowers three years ago? "Consistent with hand placement and is technically sound." NFL.com on Ejiofor? "Possesses a mature approach as a pass rusher." Neither player would be described as incredibly "quick-twitch," but Flowers has had great success as an interior rusher and Ejiofor projects similarly because of his length and power. One question mark about Ejiofor is his motor, but he dealt with an injury last season, and late in the second round he'd be worth a roll of the dice. The Patriots reportedly hosted Ejiofor on a pre-draft visit. 

ADE ARUNA, TULANE, 6-5, 262 POUNDS

It'll require some time, but if a team can find a roster spot for Aruna on special teams, and if he takes to the coaching he receivers, he could end up being a late-round find. Classic height/weight/speed prospect since he ran a 4.6-second 40 and has 34-inch arms and 10 5/8-inch hands. His three-cone was lacking (7.53 seconds), but he's explosive as all get out (38.5-inch vertical, 128-inch broad) and worth a shot some time on Day 3 since he's relatively new to the sport. From Nigeria, Aruna only found his way onto a football field as a senior in high school.

IMPERFECT BUT INTRIGUING

HAROLD LANDRY, BOSTON COLLEGE, 6-2, 252 POUNDS

Landry is one of the best pass-rush prospects in this draft class. He might be the best, which could compel a team to call his name inside the top 10. He's undersized by Patriots standards, but an exception could be made if Belichick believes Landry is athletic enough to play a variety of different roles. The question is, would the Patriots be willing to trade way up in the first round to make an exception?

JOSH SWEAT, FLORIDA STATE, 6-5, 251 POUNDS

Sweat is a little light compared to other top-100 edge picks for Belichick, but he's not all that far off from Rivers. Undersized. Great athlete. Sweat ran a 4.53-second 40 and jumped 39.5 inches in the vertical. His broad was 124 inches. There are reportedly some concerns about Sweat's durability, but he could be a second-round gamble.  

UCHENNA NWOSU, USC, 6-2, 251 POUNDS

One evaluator told me that Nwosu looks like a Patriot because he offers the kind of on-the-ball, off-the-ball versatility that Belichick appreciates. Athletically, he tested in the same range as bigger players the Patriots have taken in the past (32-inch vertical, 119-inch broad). That may not help his chances. But he's long (almost 34-inch arms) and a smooth athlete. Would the Patriots view Nwosu's instincts in the passing game -- he flashed an ability to cover on tape, and he's a good enough athlete to do it -- and make him an off-the-line type? Some may see "tweener." The Patriots may see "hybrid." And if they move to more of a 3-4 defense, he'd be an ideal outside linebacker. 

KEMEKO TURAY, RUTGERS, 6-5, 253 POUNDS

Another great athlete (4.65-second 40) with long enough arms (33 3/8 inches) and big enough hands (9 5/8 inches), Turay shows good explosiveness on tape. The Rutgers connection doesn't mean what it once did for the Patriots now that Greg Schiano has moved on, but the school fit doesn't matter much in this instance. This is a relatively rare athlete who needs some polish, but if he's athletic enough to rush and cover on the outside, he could be an outside 'backer for Belichick. 

DORANCE ARMSTRONG, KANSAS, 6-4, 257 POUNDS

Size-wise, Armstrong is right there. He has almost 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and his height-weight combination is within the desirable range for the Patriots. Armstrong would be even more of a fit if he was just a bit more powerful and a bit more athletic. His 40 time was fine (4.87 seconds), but his explosiveness (30-inch vertical, 118-inch broad) left a little to be desired. And he plays more like a 3-4 outside linebacker than a true end (like the majority of the players listed as "Prototypes in Range"). But on Day 3? He could be worthy of a choice and given an opportunity to make the roster this summer. 

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