It was Christmas in July for New England Patriots fans, as the organization opened camp this past Thursday in Foxboro, MA. As the wide-eyed and ambitious crowd closed around the practice fields at Gillette Stadium — the red, white, and blue practice jerseys began to appear signaling the start of the season.
Yet on the eve of camp opening, pieces were still being added to the puzzle as veterans Tim Bulman and Visanthe Shiancoe were signed and running back Joseph Addai was cut. With such roster moves being made and the high energy in camp, even just in its first weekend, storylines and position battles are already forming. Here is a block of notes and things to keep an eye for.
The Elite Ends
We already know of the two-headed monster that is Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But the additions made to the position are intriguing.
First was Daniel Fells, who had some experience with the St. Louis Rams before becoming Denver’s starting tight end in 2011. Then came Jake Ballard, who will likely miss the season after having ACL and microfracture knee surgery this offseason. Ballard was a versatile weapon for the New York Giants and his signing is intended to have an impact next season. Shiancoe is the latest veteran signee, who had successful stints with both Minnesota and the New York Giants.
All are well-rounded blockers and receivers so how they are utilized will be something to watch. With roster spots so few and the retirement of left tackle Matt Light, the one who shows the best blocking ability may be the one kept.
There is also undrafted free-agent Tyler Urban from the University of West Virginia, who has been getting reps in camp. And while Urban might not be as familiar a name, the Pats have an eye for undrafted tight ends. Last year, Will Yeatman was on the roster but was cut at the end of camp. He signed with Miami a day after being waived and would start two games.
The Other Guys
All offseason people have been spinning their theories over how the Patriots running attack will shape up and the same names pop up: Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead, and Shane Vereen. But the Patriots have two other running backs that could make some noise — Brandon Bolden and Eric Kettani.
Bolden follows a similar story to former Patriot and now Cincinnati Bengal BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Like Green-Ellis, Bolden was signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free-agent out of Ole Miss. Green-Ellis spent some time on the practice squad before being called up and Bolden could have a similar road but that doesn’t have anything to do with talent.
During one drill, Bolden took a handoff and ran hard up the middle, as the gap closed Bolden juked right then turned on the jets and bounced outside to his left. The run left fans surprised and pleased, with one fan marveling, “He’s running like he wants a job.”
The other back is a familiar face…sort of. Kettani was on the training camp roster last season and made it to the practice squad, all after serving two years of active duty in the Navy. Yet in October the Navy called again and Kettani would have to leave the team. While serving his country, Kettani also filed an appeal that would allow him to eventually resume playing with New England. The process took over six months and allegedly a few phone calls from head coach Bill Belichick, who petitioned for the Navy to allow Kettani to continue his football career.
In speaking with Patriots Football Weekly, Kettani mentioned the dynamics of playing football on the ships. “It was kind of difficult [to play catch] on the flight deck. Miss the ball and it’s overboard. No Tom Brady’s on the flight deck.”
Defending the Line
Defensive line has been one of the most renovated positions this season. In total the team has added seven new players over the course of the offseason. With the Patriots defense now primarily based on a 4-3, that figures to be a heavy rotation, but all the additions leave some question marks along the roster.
It seems as if Rob Ninkovich’s move to defensive end might be more permanent. He spent time last year at both end and outside linebacker. The other edge is presumably first-rounder Chandler Jones. This would leave Trevor Scott, Aaron Lavarias, and Jake Bequette to battle for positions behind them. However, Brandon Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene also have experience on the edge as well as inside.
All this leaves former second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham at a crossroads. A former Florida Gator, Cunningham had 19.5 sacks in his time in Gainesville. While a productive member of two National Championship teams which were run by Belichick’s friend Urban Meyer, things have not panned out in New England. After starting 11 games as a rookie, he started none his sophomore season and only appeared in nine games as opposed to 15 in his rookie season.
But Cunningham isn’t alone. Another former second-rounder, Ron Brace, could be facing an end to his time in New England as well. With Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love forming a gargantuan roadblock in the middle there is an abundance of depth behind them.
Again, Deaderick and Fanene have experience in the middle, along with consistent veteran Gerard Warren and newbie Bulman. Then there is also a group of youngsters vying for time, which includes Marcus Harrison, Marcus Forston, Justin Francis, and Myron Pryor.
The biggest competition for Brace comes from Pryor, who has always been a significant and versatile player but has had trouble avoiding the injury bug and Francis, an undrafted free-agent out of Rutgers who lined up next to Wilfork numerous times during OTAs. Brace, had his best season in 2010 when he started five games and had 23 tackles but injuries and inconsistency kept him off the field for much of ‘09 and ‘11. In those two seasons he has a combined two starts over 16 games with 12 tackles.
By Nathan Rickard