Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Linebacker Jamie Collins looks primed to make the jump to the rare three-down front-seven defender in the Patriots’ system, and one confirmation of this came in the last two days of practice: When the Patriots worked on punt and kickoff coverage, Collins wasn’t part of the drills. Collins was a core special-teams contributor last year, but with the club planning on a major uptick in his 2014 defensive snaps (25.8 percent last season), initial plans seem to be in place to lighten his special-teams load.
2. Those who hope to see more of 275-pound Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower rushing the quarterback off the edge rather than chasing running backs in coverage, as he did often in 2013, would have liked what unfolded in one part of Saturday’s practice. Hightower was part of one-on-one rush drills and he proved to be a handful for left tackle Nate Solder on one repetition. If everyone is healthy come the regular season and Hightower teams with Jerod Mayo and Collins at linebacker, I could envision an on-the-line role for Hightower, playing to the strengths of a hybrid talent who could be a nice chess piece for a defense that likes to alter its fronts regularly.
3. One of the things Bill Belichick has said in the past is that the worst thing a personnel staff can do is make a mistake on one of its own players. The thinking is that with extensive time with the player, both on and off the field, no one should know player better than a team's staff. The Patriots have been generally excellent in that area, as there are few players who leave town, perform better, and ultimately earn a second greater payday with their new team. Running back Danny Woodhead, who after a stellar 2013 season signed an extension last week with the Chargers that included a $3 million signing bonus, is one of the exceptions. The Patriots made an offer to Woodhead last year, never really budged and were ultimately content to let him depart for peanuts compared to what they've paid others, such as receiver Brandon LaFell this offseason. Have to think Belichick revisited that decision-making process at some point this past offseason to determine how things broke down internally. Selecting Wisconsin running back James White in the fourth round this year to pair with Shane Vereen might turn out to be a nice recovery.
4. I thought former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien passed one of his more challenging first-year tests as Texans coach – the holdout of veteran receiver Andre Johnson – with flying colors. In doing so, he showed the appropriate respect for Johnson, which was important for other players to see, but also set a tone and clear standard for the program he’s implementing. Johnson reported last week and now a story that lingered all offseason – which had some Patriots followers wondering if the club could somehow trade for Johnson – can be put to rest. It probably helped that O’Brien watched Belichick handle his fair share of those tricky situations over the years.
5. The NFL is apparently going to stress a point of emphasis on defensive holding and illegal contact in 2014, and it will be interesting to see how that potentially affects the Patriots and their revamped secondary. Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner doesn’t think it will, as he noted Saturday that he expects officials to also make a point of emphasis on offensive pass interference. “I think it goes both ways, and I don’t think the game will change too much,” he said. “I’m still going to be aggressive. I’m going to force them to make the call. I’m not going to change my game.” The 6-foot-4, 221-pound Browner , who prides himself as a press corner and is tough to throw over because of his size, is off to a strong start in training camp.
6. Offensive guards are mostly anonymous by nature of the position they play, so it was nice to hear so many platitudes for former Boston College standout Chris Snee last week as he retired after 10 years with the Giants. An elbow injury ultimately led Snee to the decision after he started every game he appeared in with the Giants (141 in the regular season), and owner John Mara said he’ll definitely be added to the team’s Ring of Honor in the future. One the unique parts of Snee’s career is that he played for his father-in-law, Tom Coughlin. That dynamic was nicely captured by Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News.
7. Receiver is one of the toughest positions to project to the NFL, in part because of the complexity in coverages in the pro game and also because there isn’t as much press coverage in college. We’ve seen the Patriots have some notable struggles in this area, and with that in mind, anyone else curious how the Packers have had such success? Since 2006, they’ve drafted Greg Jennings (2006, second round), James Jones (2007, third round), Jordy Nelson (2008, second round), Randall Cobb (2011, second round) and now Davante Adams (2014, second round). The jury is obviously still out on Adams, but the strong track record probably gives us a good indication of where things are headed.
8. While some might have been surprised that the Dolphins opened training camp with fifth-year veteran Shelley Smith at center in place of the injured Mike Pouncey, I don’t think the Patriots were part of the group. When the Patriots had the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Smith in for a free-agent visit this offseason, they also talked to him about the possibility of playing center even though he has exclusively been a guard in the NFL. Smith ultimately believed he had a better opportunity to play in Miami, so he signed there, and it looks like he chose correctly along those lines. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ competition at center (incumbent Ryan Wendell vs. fourth-round pick Bryan Stork) and right guard (incumbent Dan Connolly vs. second-year player Josh Kline) remains one of the more compelling battles in training camp.
9. A few picked-up pieces on the training camp trail: Tough start to training camp for the Vikings, as players had the fire alarm in their dorm go off at about 1:30 a.m. before the day of their first practice. … Also a tough start to training camp for the Jaguars, who arrived at their facility on Friday to learn they had no running water because of a water main break. … Any guesses as to which Texans coach ran sprints with players at the end of practice Saturday? Yup, it was Mike Vrabel. … Nice touch by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who wore No. 99 for the first of training camp in honor of his friend and former teammate Brett Keisel. … Patriots rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is roommates with rookie center Stork during training camp, and running backs White and Stephen Houston are paired together. … After back-to-back full-pads practices Saturday and Sunday, the Patriots won’t practice Monday.
10. Seemingly everywhere you looked Friday at Patriots training camp, there was a former player working in the media. There was Tedy Bruschi on the ESPN set, Scott Zolak (98.5 The Sports Hub) and Christian Fauria (WEEI) on the field conducting player interviews, and Matt Chatham in the tent analyzing what was unfolding for his TV work on NESN. On Sunday, Willie McGinest is due in town to report for NFL Network, where fullback Heath Evans also works. While we’re at it, we’ve also started to see center Dan Koppen pop up on Comcast SportsNet, where Ty Law and Troy Brown also provide analysis. From a pure media perspective, we could field a pretty good Patriots alumni team.