Commentary

New targets not slowing Brady

It's early, but New England's revamped receiving corps looks promising

Originally Published: August 12, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- So much for feeling sorry for Tom Brady.

The offseason completely altered Brady's bunch of pass-catchers as camp opened minus his seven top targets from 2012. Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead were gone. Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman were injured.

The Patriots spent two days going against the Philadelphia Eagles' defense, and Brady dominated with a completely new cast of receiving characters.

That bodes well for the future. If Brady can succeed with a younger group of receivers and then get Gronkowski back, watch out.

Here are the five things I noticed at Patriots training camp.

1. Position battles: So far so good for a new group of pass-catchers. Danny Amendola has already established a Wes Welker-type of relationship with Brady. Rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins have done well. At tight end, undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld is challenging veterans Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard and Michael Hoomanawanui for playing time. Their successes may minimize the fullback competition between James Develin and Ben Bartholomew. Who needs a fullback when you have enough weapons at tight end and wide receiver? On defense, Tommy Kelly seems to have fit in at the defensive tackle spot next to Vince Wilfork. Bill Belichick has good size at defensive tackle. A nice battle is brewing at strong safety. Adrian Wilson is the type of leader and run-stopper who appeals to Belichick. Steve Gregory is a good fit against passing teams. Week to week, Belichick will probably come up with different game plans that will use Wilson more one week and Gregory more the next, depending on the opponent.

2. The young receivers: The debate during the dual practices of the Patriots and Eagles was whether the success of the Patriots' passing offense was more due to the solid play of the young receivers or the poor play of the Eagles' defense. Regardless, Brady has to be excited about what he witnessed. Drafting wide receivers has been a long-term problem for the Patriots. The last drafted receiver who succeeded as a long-term starter was Deion Branch, who was taken in 2002. From 2003 through 2012, the Pats used four No. 2 or No. 3 draft choices on wide receivers and went 0-for-4. To succeed with Brady, a receiver not only has to run precise routes, but he has to think the way Brady thinks. That isn't easy. Brady has developed a deep playbook of successful plays since 2001. Though offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels doesn't have an overly complicated scheme, it's up to the receivers to win Brady's confidence. If they don't, they don't get the ball and they become former Patriots. Dobson, a second-round pick, is off to a great start. He's a big receiver with good hands and decent speed. He was unstoppable against the Eagles Wednesday. Boyce, a fourth-round choice, excelled on some of the shorter routes. The big surprise was Thompkins, who's clearly going to make the team. He was a promising receiver at the University of Tennessee who left after the departure of Lane Kiffin. He had some off-the-field issues after the move that lowered his stock. His body is similar to Dobson's, and he looks almost as fast. Still, don't jump to too many early conclusions. Looking good in the preseason is one thing. Carrying it over to the regular season when Brady is very demanding is another.

[+] EnlargeZach Sudfeld
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots might have a steal in undrafted rookie TE Zach Sudfeld.

3. Filling the void at tight end: No one knows for sure whether Gronkowski will be ready for the start of the regular season. He's had back surgery and four operations on his forearm. Hernandez is in jail. But the Patriots may have come up with a sleeper in Sudfeld. The undrafted rookie has been running with the first string and catching the ball very well. Ballard has done some good things in camp, but you wonder if his surgically rebuilt knee can hold up. Fells and Hoomanawanui are the veteran options for Brady. The key, though, is getting back Gronkowski.

4. Good-looking secondary: Physically, the Pats have the makings of a good pass defense. Aqib Talib has had off-the-field issues and injuries, but he's a talented cornerback just a small touch below Pro Bowl level. Alfonzo Dennard, who also has had off-the-field problems, can cover. That allows Devin McCourty to be at safety working with either Wilson or Gregory. The corners have the talent to challenge receivers in press coverage at the line of scrimmage. For that to work, though, the Pats need to develop a second pass-rusher. Chandler Jones had only six sacks last year, but I wouldn't be surprised if he gets at least eight this year. The pass rush has been a problem for Belichick the past couple of years. If the Pats can develop a second pass-rusher, Jones' sack and pressure numbers will increase.

5. Tim Tebow's quiet summer: Tebow-mania is virtually nonexistent at Patriots training camp. One of the most popular players in football, Tebow is an afterthought with the Pats. He's basically being used as a third quarterback, which doesn't mean a lot for a team that usually keeps two on the 53-man roster. He's getting some work as a punt protector, but rarely is he seen at positions other than quarterback, even late in practice. Based on that, you wonder if he's going to make the team. Playing time during the preseason is his only hope. In his corner is McDaniels, the Patriots' offensive coordinator who drafted Tebow when McDaniels was the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Belichick is keeping an open mind when it comes to Tebow, but it's up to Tebow to develop some type of role that would convince the Pats to keep him.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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