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Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Growing pains in the early going

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston,com

Through the first four practices of Patriots training camp, what have we seen?

A variety of observations fill this week's mailbag, but before we get to them, I think it's important to relay that we are extremely early in the process. It would be foolish to make definitive judgments at this point, as not all plays have been installed and players are still knocking off rust.

At the same time, as a reporter covering the team, this is the time to dig in and gather information that can serve as a foundation going forward. We don't get this type of access to practice once training camp concludes.

So as we proceed, keeping that balance in mind is crucial.

Q. Hey Mike, with the receiving corps being a major story during camp, I was wondering what we could expect from a rookie in terms of production -- best case scenario. Here's a great article from 2004 for perspective. Very cool list to share with your readers -- must say I forgot how good Terry Glenn was. If Danny Amendola approaches Wes Welker numbers, then I don't see Aaron Dobson (if he separates himself) eclipsing Brandon Lloyd's campaign of 70 catches, 900 yards, 4 TDs. Nothing wrong with that, and I would take it all day. What is your expectation for Dobson's production, especially if the tight ends are not as prolific? -- JB (Boston)

A. JB, nice find on that 2004 piece. I have been using Deion Branch's 2002 season with the Patriots as a benchmark for Dobson's potential production. Branch totaled 43 receptions for 489 yards and two touchdowns that year. If Dobson stays healthy, and earns a top job, I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers spike a bit higher because of the pace at which the offense plays, producing a higher number of plays run. Through four practices, I think Dobson's presence on the field and the time he's spent catching passes from Tom Brady is one of the top early storylines.

Patriots
Tom Brady's top receiving targets from 2012 have been replaced with new faces, six of them rookies.

Q. Mike, I'm excited to see how the young rookie receivers will impact the offense this year. And I know there have only been three or four practices, but have you seen anything at this early stage that leads you to conclude that this isn't Taylor Price all over again? I remember having very high expectations for him but they did not pan out. Granted he missed his first OTAs due to a late graduation, but he never grasped the system. -- Tom (Boston)

A. Tom, this is my biggest takeaway through the early part of camp: The development with the rookie receivers and the importance of their presence on the field with Tom Brady taking top reps. That, in and of itself, makes this different than the Price situation. We know there are going to be some early growing pains and Monday was one of those days. That said, the top three rookies -- Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins -- have all seemed to handle everything thrown at them from a mental perspective. It's only going to get tougher, so we'll continue to monitor it. I also thought this comment from Brady was notable: "We have a pretty smart group of guys, so that's been a real positive. Hopefully we continue to play smart. It's hard to exist in this program if you're not a smart player."

Q. In light of the Patriots receivers' current status, and with all due respect for those in uniform now, what ever happened with the free-fall disappearance of Brandon Lloyd? -- John (Gloucester, Mass.)

A. John, Lloyd's release was due to a combination of economics, locker-room fit and projected on-field production. Lloyd took pride in being available for the Patriots every week last season, even as he battled some knee pain. His 74 catches were solid production at that position. But after drafting Dobson in the second round, I think the Patriots want to clear the road for him to seize that role. Higher upside.

Q. Mike, I've noticed over the years that the Patriots have a habit of signing mid-level players to presumably add depth for competition purposes but then releasing one or more of them before camp even starts or right at the beginning of camp. They did this with the WR position last year and they did it with Donald Jones this year. Can you help me understand this tactic? -- Curtis (Fitchburg, Mass.)

A. Curtis, often times in those situations, the team has limited financial risk. So the idea is to work with the player in the spring, see how it looks, then make a decision as training camp nears if there is value in continuing that work. Specific to Donald Jones, he was due a $200,000 reporting bonus. With rookie free agent Thompkins rising in the eyes of the coaching staff, coupled with Jones' performance and the economics, it made Jones expendable in the eyes of the staff.

Q. Mike, you mentioned the offseason award winners in a recent post and I noticed Ras-I Dowling was among them. I was wondering if you had the winners from the prior couple years to give some context as to whether there is any correlation between those awards and breaking through on the field. -- Eric (Andover, Mass.)

A. Sure thing, Eric. Last year, they were linebacker Bobby Carpenter, safety Patrick Chung, defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, receiver Julian Edelman, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, linebacker Jerod Mayo, defensive end Trevor Scott, offensive tackle Nate Solder, linebacker Jeff Tarpinian and running back Danny Woodhead.

In 2010, they were Mayo, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, receiver Matthew Slater, safety James Sanders, cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, defensive lineman Mike Wright, running back Kevin Faulk, guard Dan Connolly, Edelman and offensive lineman George Bussey.

As we remember, there was no offseason program in 2011 due to the lockout. In past years, I used to highlight these awards a bit more as a reflection of players on the rise. But as we've seen from 2010 and 2012, that hasn't been the case with all offseason award winners.

Q. Mike, I noticed Tom Brady won an offseason award this year, which he hasn't done in a while. Was he actually present in Foxborough this offseason? -- Gick (Bangkok)

Tom Brady
As one of the team's offseason award winners, Tom Brady gets his parking spot back.

A. Yes, Brady met the attendance requirements in Foxborough to qualify for offseason program honors.

Q. Mike, what is your take on the safety spot? Devin McCourty is obviously locked into one spot. Then Adrian Wilson or Steve Gregory for the other, with the other being the top backup? And can the Pats really afford to then carry 3 other safeties (Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner) without handcuffing themselves in other areas? -- Dan (North Adams, Mass.)

A. Dan, I struggled with this in our first roster projections before training camp. In the end, I kept six with the thinking that Ebner is similar to Matthew Slater at the receiver position; while that is the position he is aligned with, his value on the roster is more tied to special teams. Harmon is a developmental prospect one assumes they will want to protect, so he could fall into the potential Jake Bequette 2012 redshirt-type category. And Tavon Wilson should be on the roster based on his special-teams contributions and with development in mind. So the key question is whether any of the younger safeties might show enough progress to close the gap on someone like Gregory. Through the early part of camp, Gregory has been around the ball, and I'd keep him on the roster. One thing to keep in mind is that you also might have an Alfonzo Dennard suspension to help absorb another roster spot.

Q. Mike, I haven't heard anything, good or bad, on Harmon. I would assume he is simply working as the fifth or sixth safety, is that accurate? With him being a third-round pick I would consider his spot on the roster as being a lock. Do you see this year being a red-shirt year for him (similar to Jake Bequette last year) or would he provide any game day special teams value? -- Johnny (Wilmington, Del.)

A. Johnny, Monday night's practice ended with Harmon intercepting backup quarterback Ryan Mallett. He has been working as the fifth/sixth safety behind McCourty, Gregory, Adrian Wilson and Tavon Wilson. On special teams, my sense is that he would be more of a second-unit/backup option at this time.

Q. Mike, would you consider Will Svitek a roster lock? Seems like the Pats are high on Markus Zusevics (carrying him on the roster last year after being on the PUP) and it sounds like Elvis Fisher has looked good. Plus, Marcus Cannon, even if he starts or backs up up at guard could always bump to tackle in a pinch. -- Steve (Canton, Mass.)

A. Steve, I put Svitek on the roster in the first roster projection, but feel that "lock" is too strong a word to describe his status. On the other young linemen, that's still a developing picture as there have only been two days of full-pads practice (looks like Zusevics has struggled a bit to me). Svitek would currently get the edge, but that one needs some more time.

Q. Mike, I know it is early, but any insight as to what the fullbacks have been doing in camp thus far? Doesn't seem like anyone gives either a chance to stick. Are they running any two-back sets with the fullback included or are they simply working with the running backs and doing special teams? -- Jamie (Salem, Mass.)

A. Jamie, we have seen some two-back sets and fullbacks James Develin and Ben Bartholomew are getting their work. We've also seen tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in that role. I think Hoomanawanui is the likely option going forward.

Q. Hey Mike, how does Daniel Fells look? He is one player I am surprised has made it this far. I mean he only caught four passes last season and I remember in the Seattle game TB hit him in the hands coming across the middle for a 1st down and he dropped it. Needless to say TB was very upset. Is he a good blocking TE? It just seems that those two have a tough time getting in synch. He was only targeted 10 times all season. Is Sudfeld getting any first team looks in front of Fells? I just don't think TB has that much confidence in Fells for him to stay. Your thoughts? -- Phil (Braintree, Mass.)

A. Phil, in a practice in which the Patriots' offense took a step back on Monday night, one of the highlights was a solid Tom Brady-to-Fells connection up the right seam. Beautiful throw. Solid catch. I agree with you that Brady and Fells haven't seemed to be able to click, but I wouldn't give up on that yet.

Q. Hi Mike, I was wondering who the favorites are at TE going into training camp. With Gronk out for the first half of the season, who fills our two tight end slots. Ballard? -- Neil Pavao (Gainesville, Ga.)

A. Neil, it's only been four days of camp, but this is the way I'd break down the non-Gronkowski tight end depth chart: Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui (FB presence), Jake Ballard, Zach Sudfeld, Brandon Ford. I've watched Ballard a bit closer than the most, just because it's been our first chance to see him since his return from serious knee surgery, and it looks to me like he's still searching for that comfort level.

Q. Mike, every year BB makes at least one "surprise" cut. Would you say Dan Connolly is a leading candidate for that surprise this year? With the money he makes, age and nagging injuries would it make sense to move on from him and transition to younger, cheaper options in Cannon with the McDonalds as the backup interior linemen? -- Steve (Braintree, Mass.)

A. Steve, I think Connolly will be on the roster, although I'm keeping a close eye on Marcus Cannon's rise at the position. One thing to keep in mind is the economic considerations of a cut. Connolly has a cap charge of about $3 million if he's on the roster. If he is cut, the Patriots would absorb about a $1 million cap charge. I still think Connolly has more value to the Patriots than the $2 million in cap savings.

Q. Obviously an important storyline for camp/preseason is what Tim Tebow's role on the team might be (if any). One of the theories is he could be a good scout quarterback for teams that have passers who break the pocket frequently. But in your opinion, is that really worth keeping Tebow, even on the practice squad? When I look at the schedule I only see three quarterbacks that could pose big problems with their legs (Newton, Brees and Flacco). And to be honest, Flacco isn't really a non-traditional QB either, he just is good at running when things break down. I continue to not see much point in having Tebow except just as a positive locker room influence through preseason. -- Alex (Wakefield, Mass.)

A. Alex, while trying to keep things in perspective when it comes to Tebow, I am fascinated by the possible fit with the Patriots. The reason I say trying to keep it in perspective is that on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of importance to the team, Tebow would be closer to the 1 than the 10. But there is obviously some value there in the eyes of the coaching staff, and I'm curious to see how it manifests itself. It's clear that Tebow is playing quarterback and nothing else (he just plays it differently than Tom Brady and Ryan Mallett). In our initial roster projections, I struggled to find a spot for Tebow. Now I'm rethinking that line of thinking.

Q. Hey Mike do you see any holes in the roster that Bill Belichick may fill through free agency? It seems to me that not much has changed to the roster, when there is a definite need for it in certain places. -- Marko M. (Indiana)

A. Marko, one area where depth appears to be thin is the interior defensive line. With Armond Armstead undergoing surgery for an infection and a timetable for his return not determined, I could envision a veteran big body possibly adding value. That position was spotlighted Tuesday morning on our Patriots blog.

Q. What are the chances Zoltan Mesko is cut? Ryan Allen won the Ray Guy Award two years in a row, so he seems like a good punter. Allen will be cheaper while Mesko is up for a contract next year. -- Chris (Lemoore, Calif.)

A. Chris, I still think Mesko is the favorite to retain the job, but Allen's strong leg and direction have caught my eye. In the end, I think the competition will be one that is determined over time, based on consistency. One other thing to keep in mind: Allen has practice squad eligibility.

Q. Are the players wearing unis with or without names and numbers? -- Justin Merriman (Mass.)

A. Justin, the jerseys have numbers on them, but no names. This is a change from the spring camps, when there were no numbers.

Q. Mike, is Steven Ridley fumble-prone? I think most of us think that he's the best RB NE has had in a while (myself included), but I feel like he drops the ball a fair amount. Am I being overly harsh? NE is not going to be able to turn the ball over and win this year. Your report on his recent fumble in practice brought back some memories of last season's drops. -- JB (Dallas)

A. JB, I wouldn't call Ridley fumble-prone, but he has run into stretches when that was an issue (last December, losing the football three times in a span of two games). Tedy Bruschi has talked about this and I'll pass along his thoughts: Sometimes Ridley runs a little upright and absorbs contact instead of running through it. That can leave him more vulnerable to fumbling at times.