- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass from his own 2-yard line in a recent practice and briefly hesitated as no receiver flashed open. Holding on to the ball longer than he desired, he attempted to thread a pass over the middle to receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, which turned out to be a major mistake.
Cornerback Darrelle Revis was lurking, and when Brady’s delivery was slightly behind the intended target, it was easy pickings for Revis, who jogged into the end zone for the would-be touchdown.
Curious what has stood out from the first eight practices of Patriots training camp?
That play sums it up. Revis, and the difference he could potentially make for the Patriots’ defense, has been the early story of camp.
Revis versus Brady has been fun to watch.
“I played against him a number of years when I was in New York and he’s one of the best to ever play, and then you can see it, even in practice,” Revis said. “He’s a hard worker, man, and he brings out the best in you. It’s awesome. It’s great competition.”
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. Revis and the team’s other free-agent cornerback, Brandon Browner, have set a physical tone on defense. The Patriots ranked 26th in the NFL last season on third down, and it would be shocking if the unit isn’t considerably better in 2014. This looks like the most talented defense in Bill Belichick’s 15-year tenure as coach, with the possibility of as many as eight first-round draft picks on the field.
2. Brady is still Brady, and Belichick is still Belichick. There has been no noticeable decline in Tom Brady's arm strength, accuracy and decision-making, and with an improved defense, there shouldn’t be as much burden on him to carry the team. Oh, and about all that chatter of Brady no longer being among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks? You better believe the player who still carries a chip on his shoulder from being a sixth-round draft choice heard it and is motivated to prove the doubters wrong. Under Belichick and his staff, the Patriots are always well prepared each week.
3. Tight end Rob Gronkowski did not open training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list, as he has been medically cleared to play after undergoing surgery for a torn right ACL on Jan. 9. That helped the Patriots open training camp with some momentum. Gronkowski has said he plans to play the entire 16-game regular season, and when he’s in the lineup the dynamic of the offense is dramatically altered.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Should they have added more offensive firepower in the offseason, especially when factoring in the possibility of Gronkowski being sidelined at some point? Former Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell and rookie running back James White are the main new weapons on offense, so the club is counting on a big jump from second-year receivers Aaron Dobson, Thompkins and Josh Boyce, and also banking on Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola staying healthy.
2. One of the biggest losses for the team might prove to be retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who had a knack for getting the most out of unheralded players. The middle of the offensive line didn’t hold up well in the AFC Championship Game and there hasn’t been decisive movement from the team at those spots. That’s a tough spot for first-year offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo to step into.
3. The Patriots are relying on several key players to come back strong from injuries -- Gronkowski (torn ACL), defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (ruptured Achilles), Dominique Easley (torn ACL), Will Smith (torn ACL) and Tommy Kelly (torn ACL), linebacker Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral muscle) and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (broken ankle) among them. Especially when considering remarks of players like Revis, who talked about needing two years to get back to the desired level of comfort from his torn ACL, that could be some reason for concern.
White, the fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin, looks primed to play a significant role on offense. He’s been praised for his maturity and playmaking ability on first, second and third down. At 5-foot-10 and 206 pounds, he can sometimes be tough to locate behind big offensive linemen.
Rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo seems like he’ll benefit from a year learning behind the scenes. He’s had some struggles in practice, as one would expect for a young signal-caller in a complex offensive system.
With Dobson opening training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list, Thompkins has elevated to a top role at receiver alongside Edelman and Amendola. Dobson underwent surgery for a stress fracture in his left foot March 10.
Easley, the defensive lineman who tore both ACLs in a three-season span at Florida, has yet to practice after opening camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
Former Browns general manager Michael Lombardi, in his first year serving as an assistant to the coaching staff, has watched every practice and is often seen chatting with Belichick at various points.
Crowds have been off the charts at training camp, with 22,886 attending the team’s night in-stadium practice Aug. 1. They’re excited about their football in New England, as they should be. This looks like another strong Patriots team.