The ranks are closed around Deflategate as the Super Bowl champions are focused on one thing: their title defense. Sudden hero Malcolm Butler steps into a bigger role, a new running back is showing some flash and more observations from Foxborough
Site: Practice fields outside Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
What I Saw: Afternoon padded practice, Tuesday, Aug. 4. Sunny, high 80s. The team made it off the practice field just before the storm clouds rolled in. (Make of that a metaphor what you will.)
Three things you need to know about the Patriots:
1. Tom Brady is still taking all the team reps with the starting offense. At some point you’d that expect backup Jimmy Garoppolo will need to take meaningful reps with the first-team offensive line and skill players to prepare for the starts he’ll make if and when Brady serves his four-game suspension from the NFL. But not yet. Garoppolo has gotten in some 7-on-7 work and individual drills with the starters, but so far all the 11-on-11 reps in practice have belonged to Brady.
2. Tom Brady is still also not talking publicly. His only public comments since the NFL upheld his four-game suspension for his purported role in Deflategate remain the lengthy statement he published on his Facebook account last Wednesday. Each day, when the team’s media relations staff comes around during practice to ask for interview requests, the beat reporters and national media in attendance request Brady. Each day Brady leaves the practice field without talking.
3. Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is primed for a major upgrade in his role on the Patriots defense. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner gone, Butler looks in line to step into the starting cornerback void—yet another stage in his stunning ascent from a fringe-of-the-roster undrafted free agent one year ago. Butler earned the distinction on Tuesday of the first player to pick off Brady in this training camp, when he undercut a slant route intended for receiver Josh Boyce in the 11-on-11 team session. “He’s just taken the next step,” safety Devin McCourty said of Butler. “He’s trying to learn as much as possible. We know one thing we’ll get out of him is competing against receivers. That’s what he does exceptionally well. Everything else, we just keep talking to him, whether it be the first time he saw routes or different combinations in zone coverages. We just continue to talk to him like we do all the young guys. I think he’s moving forward and trying to step up and be more verbal.” Revis’s offseason return to the Jets has left a big question for the young players on the Patriots roster to answer.
What will determine success or failure for the Patriots: The cliché answer would be “block out Deflategate,” but we all know Bill Belichick is the best in the league at closing ranks and eliminating distractions. Even if Brady serves all four games of his suspension, who’s betting on the Patriots not winning 11-plus games and taking the division yet again? Not me. For a team that hasn’t had a losing record since 2000, failure is relative, so I’ll answer like this: The two potential trouble spots that could hold the Patriots back from defending their title are the defensive backfield and the offensive line.
Player I saw and really liked: Travaris Cadet, a fourth-year running back who spent his first three seasons with the Saints. The scouting report on Cadet from the New England beat writers was that he catches the ball well, and he showed that in Tuesday’s practice with a clean reception in the back of the end zone against tight coverage from linebacker Jonathan Freeny (the ball was also beautifully thrown by Garoppolo). The Patriots have a lot of power backs, with LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray, but they’re looking for someone to step into the role the now-departed Shane Vereen held. Cadet also plays a lot on special teams, covering and returning kicks, which adds to his value to the team. “I’m working day to day on trying to become a complete player,” he said. “Running the ball, blocking, pass pro-ing, and being able to create mismatches out of the backfield just as well as lining up at receiver.”
Five dot-dot-dot observations about New England: Wide receiver Julian Edelman, who beat writers said appeared to tweak something during Sunday’s practice, was dressed in his uniform and came out for stretching but then retreated to the field house and did not practice. … WR Danny Amendola had two nice back-to-back TD catches from Brady during red-zone 11-on-11 drills, beating corners Logan Ryan and Tarell Brown. … The Patriots rewarded Rob Gronkowski by paying him early $4 million of a $10 million option bonus that is due by the end of the year, ESPN reported. Picking up the option will keep Gronkowski with the team through 2019, so this is a sign of the Patriots' long-term commitment to the game-changing tight end. “It’s a great feeling,” said Gronkowski, who called the organization “first class.” … Last year’s left guard, Dan Connolly, is now retired, and last year’s right guard, Ryan Wendell, is on the physically unable to perform list, so there’s a lot of pressure on two rookies. Twin fourth-round picks Tre’ Jackson (from FSU) and Shaq Mason (Georgia Tech) have been working at the two guard positions with the first-team offensive line. … Belichick was in a bit of a chipper mood after the first off day of camp on Monday. “Alright, how was the weekend?” he said when he walked into his press conference. “Good, good.”
One name I’d forgotten about: Dominique Easley, the Patriots’ first-round pick in 2014. The defensive lineman from the University of Florida played in bits of 11 games as a rookie, but the team shut him down for the year in December because of knee soreness from his collegiate ACL tears. His injury concerns flashed again when he began camp on the PUP list, but he only missed the first two practices. He looks like a player who needs to knock the rust off, but if he can stay healthy, he has the talent to help New England's interior pass rush.
The thing I will remember about Foxborough: There’s something eerie about there being an elephant in the room and everyone going to great lengths not to talk about it, even when they are definitely talking about it. After practice, Belichick had Willie McGinest, the three-time Super Bowl champion who is being inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame on Wednesday, address the team. His message: “Stay tight-knit and stay a team,” Amendola recounted. That pertains to Deflategate. But as McGinest emphasized, he never brought up Deflategate.
Gut feeling as I left camp: The ranks are closed, and this team is in attack mode.
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