Before the fifth Patriots training camp practice, the team's annual night practice inside Gillette Stadium Bill Belichick was asked about second-year tight end Jacob Hollister. He was, as he often is, simultaneously complimentary and realistic.
"Yeah, well each player's role will depend on how they perform and what they do," Belichick began. "I can't control that. But yeah, Jacob improved a lot last year and he's gotten off to a good start this year from the offseason program, to our spring workouts, to the start of training camp.
"He's still got a long way to go. He has a lot of football in front of him. He didn't have a lot of experience--had some--but has gained a lot and will gain a lot more. I think he's got a great future. He works hard, he's a tough kid, he plays hard, practices hard and has become much better at his fundamentals and techniques at his position."
There's a lot in there. There's the acknowledgment that Hollister has a long way to go, that he still has a boatload of experience to get under his belt before a true picture of his potential emerges.
There was also a line or two in there that would qualify as positively glowing coming from Belichick. It's not often the Patriots coach singles out a player, one who just averaged under six offensive snaps per game in his rookie season, and says "he's got a great future."
So which cross section of Belichick's assessment deserves more attention? This seems to be an instance where things were probably laid out for us in order of importance.
Hollister may very well have a bright future, but he has a long way to go before anyone can definitively say what that means.
Undrafted coming out of Wyoming last season, it didn't take long for Hollister to establish himself as a resilient player. In his first preseason game, against the Jaguars, he caught seven passes, showing an ability to make late adjustments to footballs as well as a willingness to take big hits and pop back up for more. He finished the game with seven catches for 116 yards.
Since then, Hollister has built on his reputation as a diligent worker, which has long been the scouting report on him, as former Arkansas coach and current consultant to the Patriots coaching staff Brett Bielema -- who got to know Hollister when Hollister worked out with his twin brother Cody leading up to the 2017 draft -- told Quick Slants the Podcast last year.
Hollister showed enough last year to be trusted to be on the field in hurry-up scenarios when the Patriots wanted to use two tight end packages, getting the nod over Dwayne Allen. And with a full offseason in the Patriots system, Hollister could be identified as a breakout candidate in 2018.
He looks like a more fluid receiver than Allen, and with the wideout position pocked with question marks this summer, Josh McDaniels could turn to more frequent usage of his "12" personnel (one back, two tight ends) in the fall, meaning more work for Hollister.
Still, there's a lot left to learn about Hollister's game. He's made a handful of nice plays through five days of camp, including a lunging touchdown from Brian Hoyer with safety Eddie Pleasant close in coverage on Sunday. But he saw all of 10 targets last season, catching five. He played 93 total snaps, including playoffs, splitting his passing game (45 snaps) and running game work (48) almost evenly. He was inactive for the AFC title game and the Super Bowl, and the most memorable moment of his rookie season may have been when he laid out near the goal line against the Chargers in Week 8 to help spring Rob Gronkowski for an easy touchdown.
Who will Hollister be moving forward? That's still up in the air. Can he be relied upon to move defenders in the running game? Or does the 6-foot-4, 245-pounder fall into the "big receiver" category? At this point, he's closer to the latter as he's the lightest tight end on the Patriots roster.
Likely helping Hollister in the coaching staff's eyes is that he contributed to successful plaus in the offense's goal line packages last year, and the fact that he's a capable special-teams player.
It's not just coaches who like him, either, Tom Brady spent a chunk of Monday night's warmup period going over the nuances of a route with Hollister, and Hollister was part of Brady's daily (and relatively exclusive) passing-game side session during a down moment in Sunday's practice.
Hollister's roster spot looks safe. And there's certainly promise there. But if the expectation is for Hollister's "bright future" to come to fruition in September, that may be too much hype for a second-year player who still shares a meeting room with (and until further notice will cede snaps to) the best tight end in football.