Commentary

Making sense of the moving parts

Position battles and sophomores' progress highlight an active training camp

Updated: July 29, 2014, 7:13 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Bill Belichick sometimes refers to the NFL season as being on a treadmill, specifically when it comes to describing the abruptness of how it can end. What we've experienced since last Thursday is the opposite side of that, as the Patriots have eased into their training camp workload with a light jog. The intensity is being built slowly.

The defense, with cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner standing out, has been the early story line of note.

But there's a long way to go and a lot of ground to cover, so let's get right to it.

Q. Hey Mike, do you think the Pats will have Rob Gronkowski on a "snap limit" during the first few weeks of the season, like baseball does with pitchers? Maybe use him exclusively on third down and red zone plays? - Imala (Brisbane)

A. Imala, it would be a surprise to me if Gronkowski is playing every snap right from Week 1. We can look to last year, with his snaps played, as a good example of how the Patriots brought Gronkowski along gradually upon his return.

Jets: 51 of 79
Dolphins: 33 of 65
Steelers: 48 of 75
Panthers: 63 of 72
Broncos: 86 of 86

So I'd expect something similar in 2014. To me, the biggest thing with Gronkowski is that it's no longer a medical issue (he's been cleared by doctors) as much as how they manage him football-wise. This question captures that dynamic nicely.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP PhotoEven an 80 percent Gronk is better than no Gronk, right?

Q. Hi Mike, Darrelle Revis' and Rodney Harrison's comments last week regarding the condition of their surgically repaired ACLs would seem relevant to our expectations regarding Gronk this year. Many seem to believe the mere fact Gronk will be ready for the season opener means he will be his old self. Shouldn't we "tap the brakes" as they say? Even Wes Welker, with 86 receptions in 2010, had 36 fewer catches the year after his ACL tear. Gronk will be an important member of the offense this year, but historically speaking, won't we have to wait until 2015 for "Gronk to be Gronk?" - Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A. This is fair, Tman. At the same time, 80 percent of Gronkowski is still better than many of the tight ends in the NFL. I think getting 80 percent (I picked the number arbitrarily) of Gronkowski over a full 16-game schedule is still a big difference-maker, which is why I've focused more on whether he'll be able to go wire to wire than anything else. One positive in that regard through the start of training camp: In a limited workload, Gronkowski doesn't appear to show any hesitation/doubt on the field, unlike what we saw last year when he returned and didn't seem fully comfortable with the forearm.

Q. Mike, I know the season is right around the corner and I'm ready for it, and I have an offensive line question for you. I find the starting battles in several spots to be very interesting. How do you see some of those matchups shaking out? It would seem Dan Connolly needs to win a starting job in order to stay on the roster with his relatively high price tag. What about Ryan Wendell? If he ends up being beaten out, does he still stick as a backup? Does Marcus Cannon potentially slot in as a starting guard and how does that affect the tackle depth? In short, let's hear every scenario on the planet as it applies to the Pats O-line. - Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A. Dean, this is the area I've tried to watch the closest at training camp, especially in the full-pads practices because that's when we see the one-on-one pass-rush drills. I'd start at center, where rookie Bryan Stork has been solid and is a legitimate threat to win the starting job. He is listed at 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, which is a good size for the position, and he's anchored well and appeared to play with good technique in the three one-on-one reps I've watched. My question with Stork is how it will look when he takes those reps against players like Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly compared with Marcus Forston and L.T. Tuipulotu? Second-year guard Josh Kline is the top competitor for Connolly's right guard job. He's off to a strong start in camp, and while Connolly has looked solid too, my educated guess is that the team would approach him about reducing his base salary ($3 million) at some point because it'shard to believe that they'll keep him at that number. Cannon had been exclusively at tackle until Tuesday, when he got his first work at right guard. So there's a lot of moving parts, and now let's see how injuries over the course of camp potentially affect things. I think many options are in play, including Wendell maybe sticking as a backup if Stork beats him out.

Q. Hi Mike. Thanks for the "it's-way-too-early" roster projection. But do you think 8 DBs plus Browner is enough? Do you think they might keep another DB or two instead of one of the DLs or TE/RBs? - Peter (Texas)

A. Peter, I think eight defensive backs is too light and would require multiple players on the practice squad to provide the necessary depth -- Justin Green, Daxton Swanson, Malcolm Butler and Travis Hawkins as the top candidates, as they have shown up at one point or another over 17 practices with some good ball skills. One of the challenges in this year's projection is figuring out how to manage the high total of offensive skill-position players, and something had to give somewhere in that projection.

[+] EnlargeDan Connolly
AP PhotoVeteran Dan Connolly is facing serious competition from second-year guard Josh Kline and could be asked to reduce his base salary ($3 million).

Q. Since Brandon Browner won't play the first four games of the season, will this affect how much preseason action he gets? Are the Pats approaching things with him differently? I want to see him play. - Marvin C. (Dorchester, Mass.)

A. Marvin, we're now through 17 practices going back to spring camps, and Browner hasn't missed anything or been limited in any form. We'll have to see if the Patriots alter course in this area, especially now that Alfonzo Dennard (shoulder) is off the physically-unable-to-perform list. But my educated guess is that Browner's reps remain strong.

Q. Mike, do you think that the Patriots will look at moving Browner to strong safety? His size and strength would seem perfect for covering TEs and crossing patterns. Let Ryan and Dennard fight it out for the RCB spot, with the other taking the fifth DB spot in those sets. - George (Pattaya, Thailand)

A. George, moving Browner to safety on a full-time basis is not a consideration because it would negate two of his best assets -- physical play at the line of scrimmage to re-route wide receivers, and his 6-foot-4, 221-pound frame being tough to throw over on the outside. There might be times when we see Browner match up against a tight end in a specific game plan (e.g. Aqib Talib vs. Jimmy Graham last Oct. 13) this year, but the Patriots have no plans to move him to a more traditional safety role on a consistent basis.

Q. Hi Mike, regarding DE Chandler Jones , I love what he is showing so far at training camp. I think his development goes hand-in-hand on the success of this defense and I think his sacks and "pressures" in 2014 are going to be two of the most important statistics to gauge how good the Patriots' defense is going to be. Your thoughts? - Memo A. (Mexico)

A. Memo, Jones has been a force in one-on-one drills, usually starting things off by going against left tackle Nate Solder, who is a very good player as well. Jones told Pat Kirwan of CBSSports.com and Sirius XM NFL Radio something that captures his growth as a pass-rusher: "I used to have a preconceived plan on each pass rush, but now I can react to a tackle's set and counter after the snap."

Q. Hi Mike, have you heard anything in regards to Will Smith? At the moment he's our top backup DE after Chandler and Rob Ninkovich. My feeling is that he had already lost a step before tearing his ACL, and I have doubts that he will get back to a high playing level. - John (Brisbane)

A. John, I've watched Smith closely in one-on-one drills and there's usually a high-powered collision when he's involved. He's 6-foot-3, 282 pounds, and I still see some pop there. Don't count him out just yet, while also factoring in the upside with second-year player Michael Buchanan, who could also help as a reserve rusher.

Q. Hey Mike, would love to buy into the hype surrounding the defense this year; it could be improved with the signings in the secondary and a return to health for Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. But the offense looks vulnerable with a thin receiving corps, no LeGarrette Blount this year and an O-line that was inconsistent last year. Are we pinning too much on a couple nice signings on D and a healthy Gronk? - Scott (Woodside, Calif.)

A. Scott, I think it's fair to ask if the Patriots have done enough on offense and debate the topic. I also think it's a good reminder that the team ranked third in the NFL last year in points scored. So when I sum it up, I'd say the system is very strong and should produce points, and if the defense is stronger, maybe the margin for error is lessened for the offense, and that's the key because it's about the complete team. At least that would be the hope from a coaching perspective. Tom Brady shared a thought along those lines in his visit to ESPN's SportsCenter set early in training camp, pointing out how the offense averaged 23 points per game during the Super Bowl championship years. It's a lot more now, which has raised the bar of expectations.

Q. Hi Mike, I wanted to touch on something you mentioned a couple weeks back, specifically around the Patriots being the lone team in the league without a coach who has prior experience as an NFL player. In my eyes, a former player not only adds a certain level of credibility, but also brings the ability to relate to and connect with the players that perhaps other coaches might not have. Did the Patriots and BB make a mistake by not including a former player among their coaching ranks? -- Neil (South Boston)

A. Neil, this was a topic brought to light by Gil Brandt of NFL.com. Bill Belichick has spoken about the value of having a coach on staff who has played the game, specifically Pepper Johnson. Would it be nice to have one? Sure. Is it the difference-maker in a Super Bowl championship? I wouldn't go that far.

Q. I am getting deja vu regarding Kenbrell Thompkins. He was the surprise hit of last year's camp, too. He contributed early in the season, but as soon as Aaron Dobson was healthy, he was on the sidelines. Is he a player who is better when the pads are off, or is there something else missing, such as blocking skills? Or is he for real this year? - Dave (Saskatoon)

A. Dave, the biggest thing for Thompkins is sustaining over the full season and being more consistent on a day-in and day-out basis. He will be on the team, but at the same time, I think it will be a disappointment to the club if Aaron Dobson doesn't seize that top role alongside Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, which would put Thompkins mostly in a No. 4-type role.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Browner
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaBrandon Browner hasn't been limited at all during training camp and should continue to see full reps.

Q. Of the main three incoming second-year wide receivers, Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins, it seems all three have been hindered by injuries, but still put their work in. Which do you think is in the best position to make a big second-year jump, assuming all three are healthy by the first preseason game? - Jonathan (San Diego)

A. Jonathan, Thompkins has clearly made the biggest jump at this point. Dobson still has the highest ceiling, though.

Q. Mike, I did my annual pilgrimage to training camp in Foxborough and also watched a lot of YouTube on Jimmy Garopolo. My thinking is the Pats reached a bit on him in the second. He seems too short for the role (despite his 'measurables'). Yes, I know there are others shorter than him who've had success, but I'd never draft a guy like this in the second. He can't see passing lanes properly in the pocket and will have to roll out and improvise a lot -- just like Manziel did and does. I think he'll have to be pretty darn special to be truly successful. Your thoughts? - Carl (Natick, Mass.)

A. Carl, I think Garoppolo was drafted in the right spot in terms of value. The Texans, picking at the top of the third round, probably would have taken him three picks after the Patriots did at No. 62. So I don't contest the value and don't think size will be the primary issue for Garoppolo as he grows in the system. This will be a great year for Garoppolo to learn behind the scenes, and that's probably my biggest take: Let's not judge him after four training camp practices. It's a big jump for any rookie, especially at that position. So I'd sum it up this way: This isn't like cornerback Chris Canty in 1997, when you watched him at some of his first practices and asked, "Is this guy really a first-round pick?"

Q. Mike, I noticed Bill Barnwell listed cornerback Kyle Arrington on his 'All Bad Contract' team. I have also noticed writers around the league mention Arrington as a weak link. Finally, I would guess 90 percent of Patriots fans are down on him, to say the least. In many ways you seem to be standing alone on this one. Any thoughts on why nobody seems to see what you see? - jrea (Huntington Beach, Calif.)

A. Jrae, does this make me the president of the "Defend Kyle Arrington Club?" I'm not overlooking some of the struggles Arrington has when asked to play outside. Most would agree that he's at his best in the slot and has delivered some very good performances against top players (e.g. Victor Cruz, Wes Welker) within the overall scheme. He's a tough player against the run as well. My feeling is that because he has been beaten badly at times, those plays stand out to many and negate a lot of the good plays he's making, such as when the ball isn't coming his way.

Q. Hey Mike. I'd like to know what positions on the Patriots' roster look thin in terms of depth? - Eric (Quincy, Mass.)

A. Eric, I'm keeping an eye on linebacker as the area where depth is a bit of a question. One thing that could help is that Rob Ninkovich could be used there in the event of emergency.

Q. Mike, you've noted several times that the Pats were 26th in the NFL on third down last season. For the past couple of years I've been frustrated at the number of third-and-long conversions they've given up. What is it that both the offense and defense are doing differently in these situations that leads to these big plays? - Joseph K. (Andover, Mass.)

A. Joseph, there isn't one answer in this case, but something Rob Ninkovich and Devin McCourty pointed out at the start of training camp was the unit's struggles against the screen last year. Sometimes that's just a matter of effort and rallying to the ball. It looks to me like they should be able to cover better this year, which in turn, should help the pass rush. I believe that they're positioned to be better in that area this year.

Q. Hi Mike, what are your thoughts on Jeremy Gallon thus far? A guy that fast and shifty who can throw, run and catch playing for a coach with a penchant for versatility ... I imagine Belichick's dreaming up all kinds of situations for him to impact the game. Do you think Gallon will make the team, and how do you think the team will make the most of his Swiss Army knife skill set? - CJ (NYC)

A. CJ, Gallon has hardly practiced, and one thing I've learned over the years is that when a rookie receiver isn't out there right away, it's awfully hard to catch up. As each day passes by, I'd predict a red-shirt year for Gallon in 2014.

Q. Mike, this question was asked in a prior chat by someone else, but you didn't directly answer it. If the local media did not tout Zach Sudfield, would other teams know he was worth signing off the Patriots' practice squad? That is, could the Patriots have limited his time in preseason games and his exposure to the local media in practice so they would have felt comfortable putting him on the practice squad? - Acton E. (Austin, Texas)

A. Acton, Sudfeld actually never made it to the practice squad. He was claimed on waivers when the Patriots were hoping to move him to the practice squad. My take is that the media didn't have much, if anything, to do with the Jets claiming Sudfeld. There were four games of preseason tape, plus some games in the regular season, for teams to evaluate.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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