Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. It was interesting listening to Eagles players and coaches share their experience from three days of joint practices with the Patriots in Philadelphia. There was one common theme and it came back to one player: Tom Brady. Almost everyone we talked with marveled at the way Brady looked at age 36. Some expressed surprise at his size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), maybe not fully aware of how big he is and how well he takes care of himself physically, while others felt the level of competitiveness he showed was at a higher clip than they were accustomed to. Both the Patriots and Eagles got a lot out of last week's joint practices. For the Eagles, the chance to be in Brady's presence, in that type of setting where the clubs totaled nearly 7 hours and 30 minutes of practice time, appears to have left an indelible impression. Hearing this from the Eagles also served as a reminder that it's something that might be taken for granted at times here in New England.
2. The Buccaneers are coming to town this week for joint practices with the Patriots, but word out of Tampa is that it would be a surprise if cornerback Darrelle Revis takes part in full-team drills. That's a shame because a Revis vs. Aaron Dobson matchup in 11-on-11s would have been a treat, not to mention a great test for the youngster from Marshall. But the Buccaneers are smartly using caution in how they bring Revis along (he's been practicing in individual drills), and with the competition level rising in joint practices, the feeling seems to be that Revis isn't yet at the point where practicing him full-go in that type of setting (if at all) would be the right decision.
2b. Total number of former Rutgers players on the Patriots and Buccaneers rosters: 18. It's nine apiece for both teams. Might Bill Belichick or Greg Schiano sign a Scarlet Knight before Tuesday just to break the tie?
3. Former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has had a terrific training camp for the Cardinals. A third-round draft choice, Mathieu was also on the radar of the Patriots, who hosted him on a pre-draft visit and viewed him as one of the best corners in the draft. Had the Cardinals not selected Mathieu 69th overall, and he was still on the board when the Patriots selected 83rd, I wouldn't have been surprised if the Patriots pounced; New England ended up with Rutgers cornerback Logan Ryan at that spot. While it seems fair to say Mathieu was the superior prospect football-wise, he also came with more off-field questions than Ryan. It will be interesting to chart the course of both players' careers given the Patriots' interest.
4. There will almost certainly be growing pains with the Patriots' young receiving corps, as few rookie receivers make the transition from college to the NFL seamlessly, especially in a complex system like the one the Patriots run. At the same time, it's easy to feel the guarded-but-tangible excitement from within on the potential of the Patriots' overall wide receiving corps -- projected to be Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce. If things continue on their current course -- and that remains an "if" at this point because everyone still expects some rocky moments and adversity along the way -- the Patriots should be faster, bigger, smarter, deeper, tougher and more explosive than they were last year. To get to that point, the Patriots went the tear-down-and-rebuild route, with each decision on last year's top receivers (Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch) having its own unique dynamic. What has resulted for the 2013 corps is a higher upside. But also still an element of the unknown.
4b. For all the media attention placed on the offense, Wes Welker's departure, Aaron Hernandez's void and the influx of rookie receivers, a strong case could be made that the defense is still the more critical issue for the Patriots this season. We touched on the topic last week, and I'm interested to see if public perception shifts at all in this area after Friday's preseason opener.
5. Spending time around the Eagles, the situation they currently find themselves reminds me a little bit of the 2000 Patriots because they are attempting to transition from a 4-3 defense under Andy Reid's old regime to a 3-4 scheme under first-year coordinator Billy Davis. Not all the pieces fit and it's going to take some time to put it all together, just as it did for Bill Belichick in his first season as coach when assessing which players in Pete Carroll's 4-3 would fit his blueprint for what he wanted his defense to be. Belichick generally prefers bigger defenders, and that's why someone like defensive end Greg Spires (6-foot-1, 265) didn't last in New England but found success in a 4-3 scheme better suited to his skills. The Eagles look like they currently need more size, as the Patriots showed by running through them.
6. The Falcons have one of the NFL's most lethal vertical offenses, but one growing concern is their offensive line's ability to give quarterback Matt Ryan the necessary time to get the ball downfield. Starting right tackle Mike Johnson was lost to a season-ending leg injury this past week, and top backup Lamar Holmes might not be ready for prime-time. As we keep an eye on some of the Patriots' early-season opponents (they visit Atlanta in Week 4), the Falcons' challenge to protect Ryan looks like a key area to monitor. The Bengals were getting after Ryan pretty good in Thursday's preseason opener.
7. Two players whom I think deserved the good that came to them in Friday night's Patriots-Eagles preseason opener were New England tight end Jake Ballard and Philadelphia receiver Greg Salas. That was a long road back for Ballard, who underwent serious knee surgery early in 2012 (torn ACL, microfracture), and one could see how much his return to game action meant to him in the locker room afterward. Between the injury and ensuing rehab, coupled with a change of teams (Giants to Patriots), he didn't have many guarantees over the last 18 months. There is always great respect for players who overcome in those types of situations. As for Salas, he is a prime example of how a promising young player can be hurt by not having the chance to develop in one system. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Rams in 2011 and showed early promise in Josh McDaniels' offensive system before he was derailed by injury. Then the Rams had a coaching change in 2012 and Salas had a new system to learn (Brian Schottenheimer's). But by the end of training camp, he was traded to New England where he was reunited with McDaniels; however, when the club hoped to sneak him through waivers a few months later to address a short-term need on the offensive line, the Eagles -- then coached by Andy Reid -- pounced. Then the Eagles made a coaching change from Reid to Chip Kelly in 2013, so Salas is now on his fourth offensive system in three years. Brutal. But Salas flashed late in Friday's preseason game, and with the Eagles ravaged by injuries at receiver, maybe this is finally his chance to stick in a dynamic system in which he could flourish. Some young players have the good fortune of continuity to aid their development, which can be crucial. Those who don't can have their careers potentially derailed. That's what Salas has been fighting against since entering the NFL.
8. Any guesses on the active NFL player who leads the NFL in punt return average (minimum 40 returns)? If you guessed New England's Julian Edelman, you nailed it (72 returns, 13.1 avg.).
9. One area in which the Patriots have done a nice job in Belichick's tenure is identifying college specialists (kickers, punters and long snappers) who have a chance to develop into NFL starters. This thought was reinforced after the Raiders last week extended the contract of long snapper Jon Condo, who was with the Patriots in 2006 training camp and has developed into one of the NFL's better players at the position. The year before, the Patriots had then-rookie free agent kicker Robbie Gould in camp, and he could have been a successor to Adam Vinatieri the following season had the club held on to him. Gould has gone on to have a solid career with the Bears. They also drafted Stephen Gostkowski (fourth round, 2006), punter Zoltan Mesko (fifth round, 2010) and claimed snapper Danny Aiken on waivers from the Bills in 2011. Then this year, rookie free-agent punter Ryan Allen has looked impressive in his competition with Mesko. It's an often-overlooked area of the roster when it comes to player development, but those are some pretty good results.
10. I heard two comparisons made by media members that made a lot of sense when it came to current Patriots players. Top draft pick Jamie Collins (52nd overall, Southern Mississippi) is almost like a throwback to when the Patriots signed free-agent Roman Phifer back in their Super Bowl championship years -- he's an athletic, coverage-based linebacker. Meanwhile, in a less flattering comparison, 2011 second-round draft choice Ras-I Dowling draws a parallel to 2008 third-round pick Shawn Crable. Both Dowling and Crable have the desirable physical makeup and look good stepping off the bus, but nagging injuries, among other things, have stopped them from reaching their potential as football players to this point.