Notes from Patriots mini-camp

Notes from Patriots mini-camp

Day 1 of Patriots mini-camp is in the books. Here's a bit on what went down on this windy, overcast Tuesday.
Bill Belichick began the day by excusing Brian Waters' absence ("personal reasons"), so that's one body accounted for. But still no Daniel Fells. The tight end re-aggravated an existing injury and it's hoped he'll be ready at the end of next month for the start of training camp. Myron Pryor was also missing in action.
Off that, we've finally seen the return of Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer. The pair strolled onto the practice field at around 12:37, worked in the bubble until 1 PM, and finally reemerged to run (both in and out of harnesses) on a side field.
Vollmer ran quite stiffly as though aware every second of his back. Mankins was running on his surgically repaired left knee but it is noticeably skinnier than his right and he favored it a bit.
Matthew Slater (unknown injury) and Tracy White (groin) didn't make their way out of the bubble until 1:38 PM, when practice was almost over. Rob Gronkowski (ankle) came out a few minutes later. He didn't stay long -- Gronk retreated into the stadium with assistant strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera.
Brandon Spikes also worked inside and did rehab running for a while.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez, absent last time media had access to an OTA, was on the field and running without event. He looked very quick in and out of cuts during 11-on-11 drills. Brandon Deaderick also returned.
Mini-camp and OTAs resemble each other well because of last August's CBA changes (no pads, so no "live" blocking, tackling, pass rushing, bump-and-run, etc.).
So what did we see? A lot of work from the secondary on pattern recognition. It's slow work -- fundamentals. You want your defensive backs to be able to read routes and react immediately with the appropriate coverages, eventually making it like muscle memory.
We saw a lot of special teams work during OTAs, but the Patriots broke things down a little more this Tuesday with punt-blocking.
Tom Brady threw routes on air to the receiving corps. It's not just the rookies like Matt Roark and Jeremy Ebert who need to see practical applications of the playbook. Considering the number of new Patriots -- Donte' Stallworth, Brandon Lloyd, Jesse Holley, Jabar Gaffney -- there's a lot of work to be done with making the footwork and timing of these routes second nature.
7-on-7 got a little interesting when the down and distance markers were added. This is when we saw some situational football, like third-down plays.
7-on-7 got REALLY interesting when a small kerfuffle broke out on field. I didn't see how it got started -- and it was broken up quickly -- but Rob Ninkovich and Ryan Wendell ended up running laps as a result.
Gerard Warren and Kyle Love also ended up "running" the sidelines. Likely for offsides or other penalties. Oops.
There looked to be a tough development on the defensive line as newly-acquired free agent Jonathan Fanene spent a long time with the training staff having his left knee checked. Fanene was on his back on the sidelines for several minutes while having his knee observed by trainer Jim Whelan. Fanene stayed on the field for the remained of practice but appeared to labor some as he came down a long flight of stairs and walked toward the Patriots locker room.
Rookie Chandler Jones also spent time with the training staff gesturing toward his ankle but it didn't appear serious.
Bill Belichick was exceptionally vocal during the 11-on-11 drills.
Patrick Chung fielded some punts in plus-50 situations. He caught one punt at about the 2-yard line then, realizing the gaffe (anything inside the 10, the returner usually should let bounce) he slammed the ball to the turf.
Julian Edelman also worked punt returns, but didn't have any temper tantrums.

Belichick explains matching in the secondary

Belichick explains matching in the secondary

FOXBORO – Here’s a leftover from last week I’m dredging up because it’s really instructive in giving insight to something we all flap our arms about: how the Pats decide whether to play zone, man-to-man or match receivers with their secondary.

The jumping off-point was asking about Trumaine Johnson -- a long-tall corner for the Rams. As Belichick about Johnson and the difficulties he poses, at 6-foot-2, it brought to mind the team’s acquisition earlier this season of Eric Rowe. The 6-2 corner they got from the Eagles filled a need in that the Patriots other corners are not very tall, headlined by 5-9 Malcolm Butler.

So I asked Belichick if the team strives to have different sized players in the secondary.

“That’s if you move them around,” he explained, meaning size only matters if you intend to put size-on-size. “If you don’t move them around, if you play a guy at one positon and he plays on the right side or the left side, you cover the guy that’s over there, which I’d say is more the situation than not. There are some teams or some situations where you’ve got him, he’s got the next guy, you’ve got somebody else, but I’d say that’s by far the lower percentage of the plays, by far. Generally, you see a corner play – some games are different. We’ll match to this guy and somebody else matches to that guy. Teams will do that. There’s some of that, but by and large, most teams play at one position and whoever is in that spot, that’s who they cover.”

With matching receivers being the exception rather than the rule, the next logical question is why? Why would you let a little guy cover a big guy if you also have a big guy who could cover?

Because offenses make it complicated, Belichick answered.

“The easiest thing in the world is for one player to match another,” he explained. “‘OK, you go cover this guy.’ Alright, great. But what do the other 10 guys do? That’s the problem. It’s easy to matchup one guy. That’s simple. What do the other 10 guys do? What if he’s here? What if he’s there? What if he goes in motion? What if he’s in the backfield? What if it’s this personnel? What if it’s that personnel in the game? Then how does all the rest of it matchup? That’s where it gets tricky.  You can be spending all day, literally, on that. OK yeah, you take this guy but what are you going to do with the other 10?”

Belichick also delved into other options including a coverage concept the Pats used when Darrelle Revis was here. Giving Revis the opponent’s so-called No. 2 receiver and doubling the No. 1.

“You can matchup and put your best guy on their best guy, or you can matchup and put your best guy on let’s call it their second best guy and put your second best guy on their best guy and double him,” Belichick said. “If you’re going to put your best guy on their best guy and double him anyway then you kind of lessen the matchups down the line. It’s like setting a tennis ladder, or whatever. If you put your bad guy at one and you win two through seven, great. If you put your best guy at one and he gets beat by their one and then your two versus their two, you know. That’s what you’re doing. You have a three to four-man ladder there with the receivers and your DB’s [defensive backs], except we don’t have to match them that way. You can match them however you want.”

It’s a fascinating discussion and it comes into play the next two weeks as the Patriots will see a true test with receivers like the Ravens Steve Smith and Denver with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas.

The Patriots will have decisions to make. Chances are they’ll use a little bit of everything. But these are some of the the things they weight when doing so.

Call-up coming? Belichick likes what he's seen from p-squad receivers

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Call-up coming? Belichick likes what he's seen from p-squad receivers

The Patriots find themselves in a difficult spot following Sunday's win over the Rams: They are a team that likes to lean on three-receiver sets, yet they have only three healthy receivers.

Danny Amendola suffered an ankle injury during a punt return over the weekend that further thinned an already thin position group. The healthy receivers left on the depth chart are Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell.

The Patriots will in all likelihood make an addition to their 53-man roster at some point in order to bolster their depleted receiving group, and in a way, they've been preparing for this.

With just four true receivers on the active roster, the team has been adding and subtracting wieoutes on their practice squad for much of the year. They began the season with rookie seventh-round pick Devin Lucien and fourth-year wideout Devin Street on the p-squad. On Sept. 14, they added DeAndrew White as a third receiver on the 10-man unit, giving them a relatively unusual amount of practice-squad depth at one spot. 

After Street was signed away by the Colts, the Patriots gave practice-squad shots to Da'Ron Brown and Shaquelle Evans. Neither of those players stuck, but Lucien and White have.

"I think they’ve made good progress . . . They both have been consistent," Bill Belichick said during a conference call on Tuesday. "They’ve been out there every day. They work hard. They’ve made plays for us in practice on the scout team against our defense, so overall our guys on the practice squad do a good job.

"They certainly help us get ready for the games by simulating our opponent’s schemes and playing styles and at the same time they’ve improved with their individual skills and techniques. Both of those guys – they’ve done a good job for us."

ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reported on Sunday that the Patriots voluntarily increased the salary of White (from the minimum of $6,900 per week to $10,000 per week), perhaps an indicator that he's the favorite as a call-up to the 53-man roster.

White, who has been named one of New England's practice players of the week three times this season, is in his second year out of Alabama. He was signed by San Francisco in May of 2015 as an undrafted free agent, and he played in four games as a rookie, catching two passes for 18 yards. He also returned six kicks and returned one punt for the 49ers.

There are free-agent options available to the Patriots should they choose to go that route.

Keshawn Martin, who was released by the Niners on Nov. 8 and is a free agent, could be an attractive option given his punt-return experience and his understanding of the Patriots system. Others who are out there and have spent time with the Patriots include Aaron Dobson, Nate Washington and Kenbrell Thompkins.

Should the Patriots feel as though they would be straining to add a receiver to the 53-man roster, they could find some help with the depth they have at running back. Dion Lewis, James White and DJ Foster are all capable pass-catchers who have the ability to line up wide or in the slot. Foster, who was a college teammate of Lucien's for one season, played receiver as a senior at Arizona State.