With the New England Patriots finally hitting the practice field this week, Phil Perry shares his bold predictions for Pats training camp as well as the top storylines that will be monitored over the next few weeks.
The upcoming season may be the most challenging in NFL history for rookies to contribute. And yet here we are, predicting that a rookie tight end will end up as the star of Patriots training camp. That's gnawing-on-coffee-grinds bold, no?
OK. Maybe not. Depends on just how off-the-wall you like your predictions, I guess. But bold is what we're going for here as we try to foresee what we'll witness on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium over the next month. Hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times, please. Let's go.
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1. DEVIN ASIASI WILL BE THE STAR OF CAMP
I know what you're thinking. "The star? Like, as in the best of the bunch?" Well, no. Probably not. But he will be among the top performers, in my opinion. And because it's training camp -- because we're itching for a look at the new names -- that'll make Asiasi "the star."
Part of the reason I can envision him having success is that he'll have opportunity. There's no veteran ahead of him demanding every rep with Cam Newton.
He's also in possession of a tremendous physical skill set. He has excellent body control for someone weighing 260 pounds. He's capable of sudden cuts in and out of breaks. He'll be working against a young linebacking corps in coverage at times and with a quarterback who has loved throwing to tight ends over the years.
Put it all together, and I think he'll be a legitimate standout among other big names whose success this time of year will be a little more expected.
2. SUDFELD MEMORIAL HYPE-TRAIN-LEAVING-THE-STATION AWARD: J.J. TAYLOR
Every August our collective conscience as football followers in this region wanders back to a tall, long-haired tight end making play after play in training camp.
Zach Sudfeld was hope personified, the premier example of a player who emerged from nowhere, seemingly, to look like a game-changer in the summertime.
This year? That player will be J.J. Taylor.
An undersized human joystick type, he was undrafted out of the University of Arizona. He'll work in as a punt and kick returner, I believe, and has the ability to both run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield.
Will he be more Dion Lewis or Jeff Demps? Hard to know before laying eyes on him in a Patriots uniform, but I'm leaning toward the former right now. And tales of his ankle-breaking ability relayed from reporters to fans will have folks clamoring to see him on the 53-man roster Week 1.
3. TWO ROOKIE DEFENDERS NOT NAMED KYLE DUGGER WILL START
Part of this will be by necessity, of course. There's no way around it: Lose four veteran linebackers in one offseason, and odds are you're going to be relying on a few young fill-ins.
Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche feel like the most likely candidates to help make up for the departures of Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts. There is no one-for-one replacement for Hightower, but it looks like Ja'Whaun Bentley will be the closest thing the Patriots defense has for that role.
For Collins? I like Uche as a reasonable facsimile. He was a prolific second-level blitzer at Michigan. He's a twitchy athlete who can cover. He's not as long as Collins, but he's a dynamic athlete.
Jennings may have the toughest gig of the bunch if he's the first- and second-down replacement for Van Noy. Chase Winovich (listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds) excelled in a third-down sub-rusher role for the Patriots as a rookie, and he'll challenge for a more regular spot. But Jennings looks like he has the frame to set the edge (6-foot-3, 259 pounds) on early downs.
Kyle Dugger is a next-level athlete who could end up as Belichick's punt-returner in Year 1. But with Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips looking like the top two options at safety at the moment, he may have to wait to start.
Here's how Belichick assessed his rookie class on Friday: "I think they’re just trying to keep their head above water and try to swim or paddle in the right direction knowing that they’re not really able to keep up, but they’re doing the best they can and they’re way, way ahead of where they were a week ago, two weeks ago, a month ago, two months ago. So, a lot of progress there, but a long, long way to go."
4. DAMIERE BYRD WILL WIN THE NO. 3 RECEIVER JOB
Here's what we think we know about the Patriots receiver group when healthy: Julian Edelman and N'Keal Harry will be out there regularly. Other than that? Eh...
Mohamed Sanu clearly has an advantage over other younger receivers in this shortened offseason. He has an advantage over veteran newcomer Damiere Byrd in that he's been in the system since the middle of last season.
But I could envision a scenario in which Byrd -- whose top-off-the-defense speed makes him a different type of player than Sanu or Jakobi Meyers -- is the No. 3 wideout in 11 personnel packages for Josh McDaniels.
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Particularly if the team wants to work in more Shanahan-style concepts -- with a flat option, an intermediate option and a deep-threat option all on the field simultaneously -- Byrd could end up playing starter snaps.
Where does that leave Sanu? He'll provide valuable depth as someone who can play in the slot and on the outside, but I'd anticipate the Patriots wanting to give Harry every opportunity to be a legitimate starting "X" receiver, and we know Edelman is still their most dependable option on key downs.
Value in roster-building then comes into play. If Sanu isn't a top-three wideout, and if he's not a big-time special-teams contributor, and if he's making $6.5 million, is he long for the roster?
5. COACH WE'LL BE DISCUSSING THE MOST: JEDD FISCH
Fisch was named quarterbacks coach this offseason, a title that McDaniels typically holds in addition to his offensive coordinator role.
Having bounced around the country working high-profile jobs both in the NFL (Vikings and Jaguars offensive coordinator) and in college (Miami and UCLA offensive coordinator), Fisch has worked alongside a number of brilliant offensive coaches.
Early in his career, though, he took a position coaching Mike Shanahan's receivers in Denver and appears to have been significantly impacted by a Shanahan system that features heavier personnel packages, wide-zone runs and play-action passes.
In Jacksonville, he emphasized some of the same concepts. Working in Los Angeles under Sean McVay (another Shanahan acolyte) Fisch was swimming in another system heavily influenced by Shanahan.
The reason we'll be discussing Fisch and his early impact on the offense, I think, is because we'll see some of those Shanahan elements in the Patriots offense as it redefines itself following Tom Brady's departure: Fullbacks leading the way for wide-zone runs, two tight end packages and play-action bootleg roll-outs.
That last element -- helped by quarterbacks who have no issue with a "moving pocket" -- wasn't something that was featured prominently with Brady behind center. But with Newton and Jarrett Stidham, McDaniels will have no problem calling for those kinds of looks in 2020. And Fisch will be instrumental in helping them master that portion of the Patriots playbook.
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