Julian Edelman pumped for Patriots camp to begin: 'School's back in session'

Julian Edelman pumped for Patriots camp to begin: 'School's back in session'

Julian Edelman warmed up for training camp Saturday by putting on a clinic in near 100-degree heat.

The Patriots wide receiver helped conduct his football clinic for about 600 boys and girls at Lincoln-Sudbury High School about 40 minutes north of Foxboro. The Super Bowl MVP compared Pats camp, which begins Thursday at Gillette Stadium, to school being back in session.

“I’m extremely excited for the new year. This is a new team. Training camp coming up, this is kind of like when school’s back in session," Edelman told reporters. "We had summer break, [now] you get to see all the fellas. This is where you learn your team and learn each other and become accountable for each other and work hard together and create a consistency together."

The undisputed veteran of a Patriots receiving corps that is short on big names beside himself, Edelman, 33, is ready to mentor young receivers, such as first-round pick N'Keal Harry. 

“This is like the beginning shape form of your team, these next few weeks. It’s a crucial point. We put a lot of hard work in during the spring, and the next step to playing other teams, so it’s definitely exciting.”

With tight end Rob Gronkowski retired, Edelman takes center stage as Tom Brady's favorite target. He led all Pats receivers with 850 yards in the regular season despite an NFL-imposed PED suspension that kept him out of the first four games. His 10-catch, 141-yard performance against the Rams in Super Bowl 53 earned him game MVP honors.

Starting Thursday, he'll lead a receiver group that includes few familiar names: Phillip Dorsett returns, Braxton Berrios is back from the practice squad, Harry is a top draft pick and free-agent signees Demaryius Thomas, Dontrelle Inman and Maurice Harris are among those who've been added. 

Will training camp provide clues as to how the Patriots will deploy Michael Bennett?

Will training camp provide clues as to how the Patriots will deploy Michael Bennett?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where our focus will be when practices begin. Today we take a look at the biggest veteran acquisition they made this offseason, Michael Bennett, and wonder how he'll be deployed.

When the Patriots acquired Michael Bennett in a trade with the Eagles prior to the start of free agency, Bill Belichick was commended almost universally. The consensus was that Bennett would be a pretty nice insurance policy in case Trey Flowers departed via free agency. 

That's exactly what happened. Flowers signed a five-year deal worth $90 million with the Lions that the Patriots were never going to approach. Bennett, meanwhile, was scheduled to make a fraction of that yet showed in 2018 that he still had the talent to replace a reasonable portion of that which Flowers provided. (The Patriots have re-worked Bennett's deal since trading a fifth-round pick for him, giving the 33-year-old a two-year deal worth $16.75 million.)

But what percentage of Flowers' production might Bennett replace? And will Bennett even be used similarly to his predecessor? Is his skill set such that Belichick will have to cook up a unique role, sharing what were Flowers' responsibilities between multiple defenders?

We won't know for sure what Bennett's specific duties will be for the entirety of 2019 based on how he's used in training camp. But I think it's reasonable to assume we will have a better idea of the team's plan for its newest pass-rusher once the pads come on and he's placed in a competitive situation on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.

What makes Bennett's role somewhat difficult to pin down ahead of camp is that a) he's played a variety of techniques, been used in a variety of situations over the course of his career, and b) the same was true for Flowers.

Flowers played all along the defensive line -- left end, right end, three-technique, nose tackle in passing situations -- and was used in just about every situation. He was New England's highest-graded pass-rusher last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and its second-best run-stopper. He played 892 snaps last season, including playoffs, which put him on the field for 77.4 percent of his team's defensive plays. Sixty-eight percent of those plays came against the pass. 

Bennett's career took an interesting turn in his one season with the Eagles in 2018. He played about 100 fewer snaps than he did in each of his previous two fully-healthy seasons with the Seahawks in 2017 and 2015 . . . but he still was on the field for 830 plays and didn't miss a game. His situational breakdown was tweaked a bit as well. Seventy-five percent of his snaps came against the pass last year, a significant up-tick from how he was used in Seattle. From 2014 to 2017, Bennett saw at least 36.5 percent of his plays come against the run. 

What's more is the Patriots have for years been a two-gapping defense. Their linemen and linebackers are consistently asked to stand up their blockers, read the play, then shed and flow to the ball wherever it ends up. How might Bennett fit in that type of scheme? In both Philly and Seattle, Bennett made the most of his ability to aggressively attack a single gap to get up the field quickly. 

Bennett thrived in Pete Carroll's 4-3 "under" front for years -- where four defensive linemen shade away from the strength of the offensive formation -- making three Pro Bowls. He often played the five-technique defensive end spot (across from the offensive tackle) and then kicked inside in passing situations. He, of course, played out wide as well, creating havoc just about everywhere he was aligned, as the Patriots found out in Super Bowl XLIX

With the Eagles, Bennett fit their scheme as more of a true edge rusher, rushing off the left side 71 percent of the time, per PFF. From that spot, he was credited with chipping in on eight sacks, with none coming from the right side and one coming from the interior. Of his 78 total pressures last season (tying him with Flowers), 45 came from the left end position.

Will Bennett see more time as an interior rusher for the Patriots now that the team is learning to cope with life after Flowers? Flowers rushed quarterbacks from the inside on 177 snaps last year, far and away the most of any "edge defender," according to PFF, winning one-fifth of those pass-rush reps. 

It'd make sense for Bennett to help make up for that interior production, as he has been an extremely productive interior rusher in the past. PFF credits Bennett with 45 interior pressures on 331 interior pass-rush snaps since 2015. A role more similar to the one Bennett held in Seattle -- more time spent against the run, more time rushing from the interior -- would seemingly benefit the Patriots as they re-shape their line in Flowers' absence. 

All that said . . . Will training camp, where fundamentals are so often the focus, provide us with answers as to how Bennett will be used in New England? Probably not definitive ones. Nonetheless, we'll keep our eyes open for clues once practices kick off next week.

Will N'Keal Harry's contest catch ability translate? >>>

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where we'll have our focus trained when practices begin. Today we start at tight end, where Bill Belichick will have his work cut out for him trying to figure out what to do following Rob Gronkowski's retirement. 

Rob Gronkowski is retired. For now. And if you're one to read into Instagram posts — who isn't? — then you might be coming around to the idea that he's going to stay retired for a while.

That means there are no quick-and-easy answers to the questions surrounding the tight end spot at One Patriots Place. 

Austin Seferian-Jenkins is no longer in the mix. Ben Watson will be on the field when training camp begins next week, but he'll be suspended for the first four games of the regular season after violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. 

It's looking like the starting gig could come down to two players who combined for 24 catches last season. Matt LaCosse had a career-high 24 catches last season with the Broncos. Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, is still waiting for his first regular-season snaps after spending his rookie year on injured reserve.

The Patriots have typically employed tight ends who can do a little bit of everything. That's what made them valuable in New England's offense. That's what made the position so difficult to pick up at times. But whether it was Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Watson during his first run with the team, Christian Fauria or Daniel Graham . . . Bill Belichick has long had players who can move large humans in the running game and serve as capable (or better) pass-catchers.

Yes, there have been tight ends like Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen, Matt Lengel, A.J. Derby, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matt Mulligan, Michael Williams, Aaron Hernandez and Alge Crumpler who've played specific roles within the Patriots offense. But having a do-it-all threat made it easier to change on the fly. It made the offense a little more unpredictable. 

For the first four weeks of the season, it's looking like the Patriots won't have that luxury.

"That's gotta be a position of strength," Tom Brady said during minicamp, "even if it's not one player but multiple players doing different roles. There were times in my career before that where we've had similar approaches."

This feels like one of those times. LaCosse — who ran with Brady during minicamp alongside other projected offensive starters — may serve as the team's top pass-catching option. Izzo, a hearty blocker at Florida State who showed flashes as a receiver last summer, may end up the top run-blocking option.

That could change, of course. This is why camp matters. 

When the pads come on after a few days of practice, will LaCosse show that he can clear space as an in-line player? He's listed at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he will effectively be throwing his weight around if given the chance. 

What about Izzo? What if he consistently comes down with what's thrown his way? What if his flashes as a receiver are sustained this summer? Could he be a true every-down option . . . at least until Watson is back? The good news for Izzo is that this was a run-heavy offense late last year. If that's the plan once again, then the better blocker in camp may have a path to more playing time.

Andrew Beck, the undrafted rookie tight end out of Texas, looks more like a fullback. He took reps with James Develin and Jakob Johnson throughout minicamp and could be valuable insurance for Develin in a system that values its lead blockers out of the backfield. 

Stephen Anderson, meanwhile, looks like a "move" tight end only who could face an uphill battle at a roster spot. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he's listed as having almost the same measurements as rookie receiver N'Keal Harry at this year's NFL Scouting Combine (6-2.5, 228 pounds).

The reality is, however the Patriots attempt to replace Gronkowski, there will be no replacing him. They'll need to get more production from their backs and their receivers — particularly when all options are covered and Brady needs to be bailed out — in order to help make up for what's been lost in the passing game. They may have to turn to an extra offensive lineman at times for a reasonable facsimile of what Gronkowski provided as a blocker.

Someone is going to have to man the position, though. And while Belichick's top two options for the first month of the season are seriously lacking in-game experience, they'll have an opportunity to prove they belong over the course of the next month.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.