Patriots

Perry's five Patriots mini-camp observations: Who's building momentum?

Perry's five Patriots mini-camp observations: Who's building momentum?

FOXBORO — With Patriots mini-camp now in the books, let’s highlight a few of our observations from the team’s three days of work... 

HOW'D BRADY LOOK?!?!


All eyes were locked on Tom Brady last week as he undertook his first spring practices with the team. Fair or not - because players are in shorts and tees, and because this isn't thought of as a competitive camp - his every throw was closely scrutinized. The results? Fine. It certainly didn't look like he'd taken two months off. He also didn't exactly light the world aflame. He was fine. We tracked his play through the first two days of minicamp here and here. On Day 3, it was a mixed bag. Brady sailed three passes early in a 4-on-3 period - the last of which, intended for Chris Hogan, forced Brady to half throw his arms in the air out of frustration. Later in the practice, he had another attempt to Hogan broken up by Ryan Lewis, and another pass landed incomplete when he threw behind Rex Burkhead. Brady had a handful of very accurate throws as well, including a long pass dropped by Jordan Matthews, a deep strike to Jacob Hollister fit in between defenders, and a low and accurate strike to James White at the goal line where only White could get it. So, in summary, how'd Brady look, a question I've heard several times from Patriots fans the past few days? He was fine, but even he would probably admit there's plenty to fine-tune, as there always is in spring practices. The difference this year is he's left some of that fine-tuning for his teammates to handle without him. 

GRONK ENJOYED HIMSELF


As is the case with any player - Brady and Rob Gronkowski included - judging performances at this time of year is perilous work. But people are hungry for information. They want to know how these players look, and so we do our best to relay what we can while providing all the important qualifiers: there are no pads; many practice periods are not competitive - even when the offense and defense align across from one another; this isn't real football. That said, Gronkowski looked spry. He caught what was thrown to him, even passes that were a touch off the mark. And almost every completion in an offense-versus-defense period resulted in some kind of celebration. It was a little over the top at times, but consider Gronkowski's answer to a question I asked him at the end of his press conference last week: When you don't feel good, the game can be "awful"; when you do, the enjoyment is "off the charts." He clearly feels good, and he doesn't care who knows it. That's excellent news for the Patriots. Don't be surprised, though, if when the competition ramps up a bit in training camp defensive players don't fire right back with wild celebrations of their own. This has happened in the past, when the offense and defense -- especially when Gronkowski is involved -- try to one-up each other with the post-play reactions. Bill Belichick has often let that stuff go, unsurprisingly, as it can't help but contribute to the competitive nature of the sessions. 

DRAFT WEEKEND QUARTERBACK CALL IN FOCUS


While Brady will garner the most attention of the three Patriots quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling are worth watching closely as well. If only because how they play in training camp and preseason could shine a light on how the Patriots opted to handle that position in this year's draft. By waiting until the seventh round to draft a quarterback in what many considered a deep class at that position, they passed on what could have been an opportunity to take one in the first few rounds. They had two first-round picks to play with, and signal-callers from our "Prototypical Patriots" series lasted into the fourth round. Belichick said back in 2014, after the team drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, that he didn't want the Patriots to be like the Colts when the Colts lost Peyton Manning to injury. Should anything happen to Brady in 2018, the decision to go with Hoyer and Etling behind Brady will obviously be revisited. Both Hoyer and Etling fumbled on Day 3, leading to laps for both, and both had accuracy issues at points.

COACHES IN MID-SEASON FORM


Even though Belichick is always quick to point out that spring work is more of a "teaching camp" than a "competition camp," that doesn't mean that there aren't consequences to how players handle their responsibilities on the field. Belichick sent the entire Patriots offense for a lap after a substitution penalty on Day 3, then gathered the team around him for a few moments before getting back into the practice. Dante Scarnecchia was also unafraid to let players have it, tearing into the left side of his line - guard Isaiah Wynn and tackle Trent Brown - on Day 2. And Brian Flores could be heard from across the field admonishing players, and briefly pulling one linebacker from a practice period when an assignment was botched. This is how business has been done in New England for a long time now, and players understand it. It's interesting to see how that method is viewed in Detroit with Matt Patricia now running the show. 

BUILDING MOMENTUM

Jacob Hollister missed Day 1 for undisclosed reasons, but he was among the standouts on Day 2 and 3. He showed a good connection with Brady in the reps they took together, making impressive catches over the two days despite close coverage from the likes of Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. He also shook rookie linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley in a 4-on-3 drill that had his offensive teammates roaring...Bentley's work in the pass game, outside of that rep on Hollister, wasn't bad. A self-proclaimed "thumper," he is viewed as a traditional "Mike" linebacker and could project to the NFL as a player who sees the vast majority of his work on first and second down. His instincts in the passing game, though, flashed on occasion in minicamp as he got his hands on passes on multiple occasions. He's seen some work alongside Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower this spring, and he could compete with Elandon Roberts as a middle-of-the-field presence in base packages...The cornerback spot opposite Stephon Gilmore will draw plenty of eyeballs in the last OTA session open to reporters on Thursday. Jason McCourty did not take part in team work in mini-camp, and Eric Rowe often worked across other corners last week, leaving undrafted rookie JC Jackson to take on the bulk of the reps with Gilmore. Jackson seemed to hold his own, breaking up a pair of passes on Day 3. With seventh-round rookie Keion Crossen rehabbing an injury, Jackson and Lewis both picked up valuable reps. If everyone's healthy, there could be a good competition brewing between young Patriots corners that carries over to training camp. 

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This whole panel picked Patriots to beat Chiefs ... except Ray Lewis

This whole panel picked Patriots to beat Chiefs ... except Ray Lewis

Just as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, Ray Lewis will always pick against the New England Patriots.

The Patriots are road underdogs entering Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. But after a demolition of the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Round, many NFL analysts believe Tom Brady and Co. will keep rolling to their third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.

Lewis? He's not convinced.

Here's Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason, Steve Smith and Lewis making their picks for Patriots-Chiefs on Showtime's "Inside The NFL" -- with Lewis as the lone dissenter picking Kansas City to win.

What's Lewis' reasoning?

"I think there's a young lion that's sitting in Kansas City named Pat(rick) Mahomes, and he's heard this Tom Brady story too many times," Lewis said.

Simms then reminded Lewis that Mahomes doesn't play defense, but we'll give the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker credit where credit is due: Mahomes was the best quarterback in the NFL this season and will be an absolute handful for the Patriots' defense.

So, why did Lewis' coworkers all pick the Patriots to pull off the upset in Arrowhead Stadium, where they've won just one game since the stadium opened in 1972?

Simms likes the Pats because of their strong rushing attack and excellent screen pass game -- "the best in the NFL" -- which could be valuable weapons in the expected sub-freezing conditions. Smith believes New England is rallying around its "underdog" status, while Esiason has been all-in on the Pats since Week 1.

But considering Lewis once said he'd rather have Rex Ryan than Bill Belichick, we shouldn't be surprised with his selection.

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Neck-roll enthusiasts rejoice: Patriots, Chiefs prove there's still a place for the fullback

Neck-roll enthusiasts rejoice: Patriots, Chiefs prove there's still a place for the fullback

KANSAS CITY -- Anthony Sherman was certain his position should not be considered a relic of football's past. 

The Chiefs Pro Bowl fullback stepped to the podium at Arrowhead Stadium on Friday and was asked about his role and its future in a game that seems to be getting faster and more pass-happy by the year. 

"Three of the four teams left have a fullback and use them on a consistent basis," said Sherman, who graduated North Attleboro High and attended UConn. "Maybe you want to be like us. I don't know."

His numbers aren't wrong.

Sherman played 98 offensive snaps this year for the Chiefs and was the highest-graded fullback in football this season, per Pro Football Focus. New England's James Develin played 399 snaps in 2018, coming in second in terms of playing time at the position to San Francisco's do-it-all weapon Kyle Juszczyk. New Orleans deployed fullback Zach Line on 226 snaps, fourth-most among fullbacks.

Those are three of the top four offenses in football -- the Rams are the other -- and they all have room for fullbacks in their scheme. They also have creative offensive minds pulling the controls who understand when to use the fullback, and how a player at that spot can complement some of the other things they're trying to accomplish. 

What's fascinating is that it's the Patriots -- a team that re-wrote record books over a decade ago because of their passing game, a team that has been as forward-thinking offensively as any -- who have turned back the clock and used their fullback more than any other team left in the postseason. 

On 29 percent of their snaps, the Patriots went with two backs and one tight end (21 personnel) this year. That put them second in that category, behind only the Niners (41 percent), and it's up from their 21-personnel usage in 2017 (24 percent). In 2016, the Patriots used 21 personnel on 16 percent of their snaps, almost half their 2018 percentage.

Bill Belichick's team, it seems, has been building to this. In the latter portion of their schedule, it wanted to get tougher at the line of scrimmage. It wanted to prove it could run the ball when everyone in the stadium knew it would. Since New England's bye week, it's utilized "21" on 35 percent of its snaps. 

But even before that, the Patriots seemed to be willing to go heavier more often. In the offseason, they traded their No. 1 wideout for a first-round pick used on an offensive lineman. They drafted a running back with their other first-round choice. They signed their run-blocking dynamo of a right-guard to a lucrative, long-term extension. 

Did Belichick sense a market inefficiency? Did he believe that the best way to separate from the pack was to fortify his offense's running game because others treated that facet of the sport as an afterthought?  

Did he feel like defenses were getting too light as they focused on defending the pass? (If so, last weekend's Divisional Round win over over the Chargers and their defensive back-heavy alignments was a check in his favor.) 

Or did he sense that this had to happen for this particular iteration of his team? That because of the talent level of his wide-receiver and tight-end groups, the Patriots would have to move the ball on the ground if they were to get to where they wanted to go? Was keeping a 41-year-old quarterback upright with more run plays part of Belichick's thought process?

Hard to say. Could've been a combination of all of those factors. But if you look at the NFL's Final Four, the Patriots aren't the only ones who buck the league's pass-happy trends. It goes beyond fullback usage. 

Three of the four teams remaining -- New Orleans (fourth), Los Angeles (seventh) and New  England (eighth) -- were in the top eight in terms run rate in 2018. And all three ran more than they passed on first down, ranking within the league's top-nine in terms of run rate on first down.

So maybe Sherman was right. Maybe the role of the running game -- and, by extension, the fullback -- isn't dying. But Sunday's AFC title game feels like it will have a say in just how well a relatively old-school offensive attack can work in today's NFL.

Will it be Kansas City's variable passing game, its forward-thinking concepts and its young quarterbacking prototype that wins in the cold in January?

Or will it be the team that likes its two-back packages, the team that over its last four games has nearly split its number of run and pass plays (52 percent pass, 48 percent run) that moves on?

The answer could come early since the drawback of carrying the identity the Patriots do into Arrowhead Stadium is that they don't seem to have the tools necessary to create explosive pass plays through the air when thrust into obvious passing situations. They don't seem built to play from behind.

But if the tools they have -- a grind-it-out running game with a heaping helping of fullback play, a devastating play-action passing game -- are enough to get them the lead? They may never give it back.

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