Five positions that need Patriots' attention during offseason programs
Five positions that need Patriots' attention during offseason programs
By Phil Perry
With the frenzy of free agency and the draft behind us, the time for on-the-field observations is getting closer.
Monday's arrival marks the start of Phase Three of the offseason program for the Patriots, meaning it's time for organized team activities and the first practices of the year that will be open to the media.
The rules and regulations for this four-week period are very clearly laid out on the NFLPA's website, but here's a quick run-through:
* During this phase, there will be a maximum of three OTAs allowed in the first two weeks, and 10 OTAs are allowed in total over the course of three weeks.
* Four OTAs may be held in either the third or fourth week of Phase Three. Mandatory minicamp will be held during one of these four weeks for all teams.
* The Patriots will hold two weeks of OTAs, then hold minicamp from June 7-9. The final set of OTAs will take place on June 13, 14 and 16.
* Media members will have access to the OTA on May 26, all of minicamp and the OTA on June 13.
* These will not be padded practices, and there will be no live contact, but helmets will be permitted. This is the first phase of the offseason program in which 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills will be allowed.
While real football is still a couple months away, Phase Three is a sign that training camp is getting closer. Whereas camp is a time for competition, with players jockeying for spots on the final 53-man roster, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has explained in the past that OTAs are used to get players familiar with the team's system.
With that in mind, it's worthwhile to take a look at the positions we've deemed to be the five of the greenest on the Patriots roster. This may not necessarily mean the players at these positions are inexperienced as pros (though some of them are). Rather all five of these spots feature new faces that will have plenty of Patriots-specific information to absorb during this stage of the offseason.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
Many expected the Patriots to load up at tackle after the way last season ended. With Nate Solder on injured reserve and Sebastian Vollmer playing hurt, Tom Brady took a beating. Instead, Belichick and his front office decided to stick with what they had, meaning Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle look like the two top candidates for the swing tackle role. The interior of the line, however, went from what was already considered a deep unit to arguably the deepest unit on the team this offseason. The additions of Jonathan Cooper (acquired from Arizona in a trade) and third-round pick Joe Thuney (who could play tackle in an emergency situation) will give Dante Scarnecchia two new minds to mold in his return to the offensive line meeting room after a two-year retirement. Sixth-round pick Ted Karras will also provide some competition for guards Tre' Jackson, Shaq Mason and Josh Kline if he can pick up on the Patriots offense relatively quickly. That a handful of these players probably will be encouraged to learn center responsibilities as well means there will be no lack of studying going on with this group.
Cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer will have his work cut out for him in these next few weeks. The players who are presumed to sit at the top of the depth chart -- Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan -- shouldn't need much tutelage after playing almost the entirety of last season as starters. The rest of the group, however, is young and has a lot to learn. Rookie second-round pick Cyrus Jones was a versatile and instinctive player at Alabama, though he'll be expected to pick up on techniques taught in New England if he's to be considered for the No. 3 corner role. Undrafted rookies Jonathan Jones, Cre'von LeBlanc and V'Angelo Bentley didn't have the benefit of learning from Nick Saban in college and will have plenty of new ideas thrown their way this spring. Second-year players Justin Coleman and Darryl Roberts will have a head-start on some of their younger teammates, but both missed large chunks of time due to injury last year and can't yet be considered anywhere near seasoned. EJ Biggers is a seven-year veteran, but he's a newcomer to the system as well. In all, it's a group that will have to learn fast to provide some depth behind the two at the top.
Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have said it in the past: After the quarterback position, tight end is the spot that, from a mental standpoint, may demand more than any other. Because of their involvement in both the running game and passing game, there's a great deal to be processed by tight ends on a snap-to-snap basis. Throw in the fact that these players often contribute on special teams for the Patriots because of their combination of size and athleticism, that makes for a steep learning curve. Suffice it to say that Martellus Bennett and Clay Harbor will have plenty on their plates during Phase Three.
On an almost annual basis, there's as much pressure on new Patriots receivers to adapt quickly as there is on any other position group. Part of the reason for that is because the offense is complicated. It's an intricate plan developed over the course of 16 years under the same head coach and quarterback. The other reason there's so much weighing on the shoulders of the wideouts? Their quarterback is as demanding as the game has ever seen. He expects his pass-catchers to be where he wants when he wants them there. If they can't accommodate Brady's every whim, it's hard for them to earn his trust -- and by extension his targets. Free-agent acquisitions Chris Hogan and Nate Washington, as well as rookie fourth-rounder Malcolm Mitchell and seventh-rounder Devin Lucien will be under the gun this spring to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. If they can't keep up with the pace Brady requires, they may find themselves going ignored before long. One thing this group has going for itself: Veteran wideouts Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are expected to be limited in their participation -- if they're able to participate at all -- as they recover from offseason surgeries. That should mean plenty of passes to go around for receivers trying to find their way in a new scheme.
Brady has the offense mastered, obviously. With his input, it's been tailored to him for more than a decade-and-a-half. Jimmy Garoppolo is likely a long way from achieving that level of comfort, but he should be on his way to finishing up his bachelor's. Rookie third-round pick Jacoby Brissett, on the other hand, is in for a mind-numbing crash course in quarterbacking. While he showed an ability to handle the physical aspects of the position at NC State, in many instances he relied on his ability to extend plays and create outside the confines of the Wolfpack offense as it was drawn up. In New England, his escapability will work in his favor, but he'll also have to come to grips with a style that more consistently mirrors Brady's surgical approach. If Brady is suspended for the first four games of the season and Garoppolo is thrust into the starter's role for the first time, that could leave Brissett as the backup, one play away from taking meaningful regular-season snaps -- something Garoppolo was never asked to do in his first two seasons. Between now and Week 1, it's safe to assume that Brissett will be asked to digest more football information than he ever has over the course of his young career.