Curran's camp battles to watch
Time for some football
Between Gronk going under the knife, Welker going to Denver and Hernandez and Dennard going to jail, we’re all ready to talk some football. So let’s do that. Training camp opens on Friday and, surveying the roster, there aren’t that many spots up for grabs. These are the most noteworthy Camp Battles you’ll be watching unfold beginning this weekend...
Tavon Wilson vs. Adrian Wilson
Second-year man Tavon brings youth. Adrian, entering his 13th season, brings experience and a resume. They’ll battle over the safety spot next to Devin McCourty. Last season, the Patriots opened the year with Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory back there but Chung’s internal GPS broke and he played awful while Gregory showed he’s not big or athletic enough to be a starting NFL safety. McCourty, after an up-and-down start to the season at corner, moved to safety and flourished. Playing next to Gregory, McCourty was cast in a strong safety role much of the time. But McCourty will be best in a free safety-type role where he can roam and give support over the top and be the secondary’s general on the field. That’s why the addition of the longtime Cardinal Adrian Wilson made sense. He’s linebacker-sized and brings the physicality the Patriots have missed at the back of their defense for some time. Plus, he brings experience that should help McCourty. The Cardinals turned Wilson into a part-time player, though, taking him off the field in nickel situations last year. He believes he can still play every down at 33. Tavon Wilson showed as a rookie that he had a knack for finding the ball (four picks). The size difference between the two -- Tavon is 6-feet, 210; Adrian is 6-3, 225 -- gives the Patriots options. They could very well wind up in a platoon back there, but watching the way the competition plays out could give a signal to whether the back end of the secondary will get some consistent play over 16 games.
Brandon Bolden vs. LeGarrette Blount
Brandon Bolden flashed his potential in Week 4 last year when he went for 137 yards on 16 carries against the Bills. Prior to that, he’d had 17 NFL carries and nobody knew who the hell he was. And then Bolden was gone, a PED suspension taking the wind out of his season. For Bolden to re-emerge, he’s got some work to do. The backs ahead of him -- Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen -- have begun to carve their roles. Bolden’s best fit is as a short-yardage back and Ridley backup (Vereen is more of a changeup back similar but not identical to Danny Woodhead). He’s 5-foot-10, 220, surehanded, 23-years-old and seems to be a smart kid. But Bolden will have to fend off LeGarrette Blount who the Patriots acquired from Tampa during the draft. Blount had a 1,007-yard season as a rookie in 2010 but his role diminished in 2011 and he was supplanted by Doug Martin in 2012. Blount carried just 41 times. With nine fumbles in his first two seasons and a spotty record as a short-yardage back, the fury that the 6-1, 245-pound Blount runs with is tempered by inconsistency. Long term, Bolden is a more valuable player.
Bill Belichick vs. The Media
“Robert spoke about that situation recently. I’ll let his words stand for the organization. I have nothing to add.” That’s what Bill Belichick probably wants to say on Friday when he’s asked for the first time about ex-Patriot Aaron Hernandez. But saying that will only ensure that Hernandez, Belichick and the Patriots will live on in future news cycles for who knows how long. I’m not saying Belichick “owes” the public or the media any comment on Hernandez. He’s not an elected official drawing his salary from taxpayer money. He’s a football coach, an integral part of a successful, privately-owned franchise. I am saying that, in this instance, it behooves Belichick to speak frankly and succinctly about how the Patriots either misjudged or were “duped” by Hernandez, express regret for getting played, and move on. At Belichick’s behest, the Patriots employed a kid with a checkered past they thought they could manage. That they couldn’t manage him is not their fault. That they took the chance is something they obviously regret and saying so is all that need be done. Kraft owns the team but Belichick is its symbolic chief. You may have noticed, though, that Belichick is stubborn. He won’t give the media its pound of flesh to satiate them because, in the end, he knows he’s going to be damned and criticized either way. In the days after a Patriots employee was hauled off the sidelines for taping the signals of the Jets defensive coaches, Belichick spent his press conferences stonewalling questions and saying he was “moving on to San Diego.” It was the wrong approach and an infraction equal to jaywalking morphed into a capital offense because the media was allowed to go in any direction it wanted with its speculation. The circumstances now are obviously different. But the situation is similar. The quickest way for the Patriots to move on from Hernandez and into the 2013 football season is to acknowledge whatever regret needs to be acknowledged and be done with it.
Jake Ballard vs. Daniel Fells
With Rob Gronkowski probably laid low for the early part of camp (and possibly the regular season) the Patriots need someone to be a Gronk facsimile. The 6-foot-4, 252-pound Fells and the 6-6, 256-pound Ballard will try to replicate. Both have in-line blocking ability. Fells showed good hands in limited reps last year. Ballard showed excellent hands in 2011 when he was with the Giants before blowing an ACL and having microfracture surgery which cost him the 2012 season. While Ballard has seemed like the reasonable fill-in for Gronk, he didn’t appear to be fully back to health during minicamps. He slogged through some routes and wasn’t a full-go participant. Microfracture surgery is hell to come back from.
Michael Jenkins vs. Aaron Dobson
Long term, Aaron Dobson is obviously more viable than Michael Jenkins, a 6-4, 217-pound 30-year-old who has been a complementary receiver good for about 45 catches a year most of his career. Dobson is a rookie with excellent size and athletic ability who may take some time to develop. Camp is going to be hard for him and a lot will be expected. If he can’t signal he’s ready, then expect Jenkins to emerge early at the position.
Logan Ryan vs. Ras-I Dowling
Ras-I Dowling’s brittleness is a problem. He’s got excellent length and potential but he’s been unable to stay healthy his first two seasons in the league. Ryan, one of the long list of Rutgers players the Patriots pulled into their program, is in a position to battle Dowling during camp if he can stay on the field and inspire confidence.