Thursday, August 5, 2010
Updated: August 6, 12:05 PM ET
Early returns on Pats' young players
By Mike Reiss
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The theme of 2010 New England Patriots training camp is "fresh start, fresh faces" -- a result of the team selecting 24 players over the past two drafts. Add in No. 2 quarterback Brian Hoyer, who made the club as a rookie free agent last season, and what's resulted is an unprecedented injection of youth.
If the Patriots are to defend their AFC East title, and potentially contend for a Super Bowl championship, the development of this group is crucial. About half of the youngsters look as though they will be in the "high impact" category this year.
After watching 14 training camp practices, the following is one opinion on how the 25 rookies and second-year players are positioned on the roster:
Cornerback Darius Butler (second round, 2009) -- The former University of Connecticut standout is the projected starter on the left side, and his quickness has been evident in camp, as he's consistently around the ball. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, he isn't a big, physical corner, but more in the Asante Samuel mold. "Darius is very athletic. He's got good quickness, he's got good playing speed. He plays the ball well," said director of player personnel Nick Caserio.
Safety Patrick Chung (second round, 2009) -- A projected starter alongside Brandon Meriweather, he looks like a more confident player than the rookie who appeared in 20 percent of the team's snaps last season and whose playing time was significantly slashed late in the year. He's a playmaker on a defense that needs more of them.
Outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) -- In the perfect Patriots world, the coaches would probably be grooming Cunningham behind the scenes, but he's been thrust into the fire in the wake of Derrick Burgess' unexpected decision not to report to camp. At the least, he should be rushing the passer in specific packages and looks like the team's fastest outside linebacker.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman (seventh round, 2009) -- What a difference a year makes, as at this time last year, Edelman was being booed by the training camp crowd for not being able to catch a punt. He's a capable insurance policy if Wes Welker experiences a setback, is a top candidate to return punts and could be used in a variety of roles on offense.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski (second round, 2010) -- His size (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) is hard to miss in the red zone and his powerful blocking could help the running game on the edge. He might have the largest hands on the team, which is why the ball seldom seems to be dropped when it's thrown in his direction.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez (fourth round, 2010) -- There has been a lot to like from Hernandez, whose route-running, speed and sticky hands have had Tom Brady looking in his direction often. He should be part of a variety of packages, contributing from the get-go. On Thursday morning, Hernandez got an earful from Brady after not running downfield on a scramble play, which seemed to reflect the mistakes that sometimes come when relying on young players. "Aaron is an athletic guy; he's fast, he's got good quickness," Caserio said. "He gets into the defense quickly and catches the ball well."
Long snapper Jake Ingram (sixth round, 2009) -- He stepped in for Lonie Paxton last season and made about as smooth of a transition as could have been expected. That should continue.
Cornerback Devin McCourty (first round, 2010) -- The former Rutgers standout has been thrown right into the mix, sometimes lining up with the top defense, and he's held his own. His projected role is the No. 3 corner and top backup at both outside spots, with added value on special teams.
Punter Zoltan Mesko (fifth round, 2010) -- The true evaluation will come in preseason games, when the pressure is on as a punter and holder, but the early returns are favorable. He has the strongest leg of any punter in the Bill Belichick era.
Inside linebacker Brandon Spikes (second round, 2010) -- It wouldn't be a surprise if he's in the starting lineup on opening day alongside Jerod Mayo. His size (6-2, 250), power and on-field maturity have been hard to miss over the past five days since he stepped in for Gary Guyton. Bill Belichick lauded him as an "interesting player to coach" who sees things that others might not.
Wide receiver Brandon Tate (third round, 2009) -- He's the top candidate to line up alongside Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the three-receiver set, although the true test will come in preseason games to see how he gets off the jam. But even if he struggles, Tate should be the team's primary kickoff returner, and that's a unit that has been fingered for improvement from 2009.
Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (second round, 2009) -- It's hard to believe he wasn't invited to the NFL combine last year. He has been locked in as the starting right tackle from day one and hasn't been moved off the spot.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer (rookie free agent, 2009) -- In retrospect, Hoyer should have never gone undrafted. He has generally looked sharp in camp and has a decisive command of the huddle, looking like a capable No. 2 behind Brady.
Inside linebacker Tyrone McKenzie (third round, 2009) -- It seems as if McKenzie has been overtaken on the depth chart by Spikes. A physical player, he's delivered some of the hardest hits in camp, but it looks as if he'll have to emerge on special teams to carve out his niche.
Wide receiver Taylor Price (third round, 2010) -- He had some significant catch-up work after missing spring camps because he had yet to graduate, but has seemingly made significant strides and projects as the No. 5 receiver on the depth chart. "He's got a good skill set -- he's big, he's physical, he can run, he has good playing strength and good hands," Caserio said. "I know he has dropped a few balls here and there, but I think he's working at a good pace. I think he's moving in the right direction."
Defensive lineman Myron Pryor (sixth round, 2009) -- After surprise contributions as a rookie, he should once again earn a roster spot as he provides value as an interior sub rusher and backup nose tackle.
Defensive end Ron Brace (second round, 2010) -- The former Boston College run-stuffer remains on the nonfootball injury list and has yet to practice in training camp. He's missed valuable time, and if he doesn't return in the next week, he could open the season on the reserve/nonfootball injury list, which would buy him more time and wouldn't count against the team's 53-man roster limit.
Tackle/guard George Bussey (fifth round, 2009) -- One of the team's offseason award winners, he spent his rookie season on injured reserve. He could sneak onto the roster if Nick Kaczur doesn't return to full health, but his contributions would likely come in a backup role.
Defensive end Brandon Deaderick (seventh round, 2010) -- He has shown some quickness as a pass-rusher at defensive end, but any contributions seem likely to be at least one year away.
Center/guard Ted Larsen (sixth round, 2010) -- He should make the club, but the signing of veteran Eric Ghiaciuc on Wednesday looks like a sign from the coaching staff that he needs more seasoning before he can be counted upon in games.
Center/guard Rich Ohrnberger (fourth round, 2009) -- Known for his mean streak at Penn State, Ohrnberger hasn't consistently displayed that nasty side on the practice field. If the Patriots felt he was ready to step in, it's hard to imagine they would have signed Eric Ghiaciuc.
Defensive lineman Darryl Richard (seventh round, 2009) -- He showed his loyalty to the club last season by staying on the practice squad when the Cleveland Browns wanted to sign him to their active roster, but he once again faces long odds to earn a roster spot. He looks stronger than last season.
Quarterback Zac Robinson (seventh round, 2010) -- The best evaluation will come in preseason games. At this point, he hasn't done anything on the field that is likely to alter the Patriots' plans in terms of keeping an extra quarterback in addition to Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer.
Offensive tackle Thomas Welch (seventh round, 2010) -- The Patriots are well-stocked at tackle and Welch is a prospect to develop for the future. He has been working on short-snapping to increase his value to the club.
Defensive end Kade Weston (seventh round, 2010) -- At this point, he's shown up more than Ron Brace, holding his ground in the goal-line defense on a fourth-and-1 situation Thursday morning in an effort that earned him praise from veterans. He is a promising big man who probably could use a bit more time before emerging.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.