I drove by Gillette this morning and the excitement in the car was palpable. Inside the stadium, I imagined the Patriots’ rookies getting thrown into the deep end of the NFL training camp pool, preparing for their conditioning tests and the month-long grind upon which they’re about to embark.
The Patriots entered this offseason with a huge amount of cap space, so we knew there were going to be significant additions and extension and the team did not disappoint. For a team that just won the Super Bowl, their offseason looked far more like one of the offseasons where they had fallen just short of the ultimate prize.
So it’s difficult to pin down which players I’m most excited to see. I mean, if I don’t write Tom Brady here is it sacrilegious? Because of course I’m excited to see him, as well as Gronk back out there with a “healthy” back and all the rest of the players who we’ve grown to love in recent years.
This list of most intriguing
5. Derek Rivers – How Rivers will fit into the defensive scheme is unknown, but what is known is that he can get off the ball with the best of them. That kind of pass rushing prowess should get him on the field early, but there will certainly be a learning curve as he grows to understand how to get to the QB in the NFL. He won’t be able to dominate simply because he has a hair trigger. He’ll need to learn counter moves and how to set tackles up for the key moments in the game. What I’m most interested to see is how much time he spends standing up vs. having his hand down. The classifications between defensive end and outside linebacker are murky in the Patriots scheme and not necessarily discernible simply based on whether or not a guy is standing up or has a hand down. Rivers should have a role on defense this year, but we’ll get a good sense of how extensive that role will be based on what they have him doing in camp.
4. Lawrence Guy – Easy for Guy to be considered “Just a Guy” as he’s bounced around to four different teams in his first five years. But if you’re a pass rush guy (as most of you are) you should be extremely curious to see how Guy looks in New England. Here’s what NFL.com had to say when they ranked him as the 8th-best interior rusher last year.
A five-year veteran, Guy had stints with the Colts and Chargers before coming to Baltimore. He has 5.5 of his 6.5 career sacks since signing with the Ravens. Despite only registering a single sack, Guy brought consistent pressure with a 4.24 average yards to the quarterback on pass rush attempts. He only played 47 percent of the defensive snaps, so he’s a rotational player, but his value to the team appears clear.
It’s a safe bet that Guy, along with Rivers, are the favorites to step into the pass rush roles vacated by Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard. With Trey Flowers‘ ability to slide inside, it could give the Pats their most devastating interior pass rush duo in a long time.
3. Tony Garcia – There might not be another offensive player with more future impact potential riding on him than Garcia. The lack of a Nate Solder extension this offseason was telling. There’s still time to get one done, but on paper it appears that Garcia could be looking at an apprentice year before taking over the starting job on the left side. We all know what a critically important position the left tackle spot is. Well, nowadays both tackle spots are critical, but the left tackle is always the premiere blocking position and with Solder entering his final season, it would be unlike the Pats to not have a plan there. We know Garcia will get world class coaching and the expectation should be that he’ll step into the swing tackle role this year. But I’m most curious to see how he does against the better defensive ends and pass rushers on the roster. If he holds his own early like Joe Thuney did last year, it will bode very well for the future.
2. Kony Ealy – Ealy is another one who is a bit under the radar due to the other splashy signings this offseason, but if his performance in Super Bowl 50 is the kind of player the Pats are getting he should play a significant role on defense this year. Mostly I’m curious how he fits in with Rob Ninkovich and Trey Flowers, specifically if he’s about to take Ninkovich’s job. I’m not quite ready to put Ninkovich on the bubble just yet, he got a late start to his career and should have some tread left, but if Ealy isn’t outplaying him it’s a far worse sign for Ealy.
1. Brandin Cooks – This one is obvious. Any time the Pats bring in an exciting weapon for Tom Brady, all eyes will be on him and I’m no different. Will Cooks never leave the field ala Randy Moss? Or will the Pats cycle through their potent receiver depth to keep teams on their toes as far as matchups? We’ll have to wait for the regular season to know that, but in camp we’ll get a good idea how Cooks works in conjunction with the others and just what kind of new dimensions his speed opens up for the offense.
Honorable mention – Stephon Gilmore – I am excited to see Gilmore and I’m curious to see if he has the same kind of tackling consistency Logan Ryan had. That was a hallmark of the Patriots’ defense this year and that toughness that Ryan brought will be missed. Of course, if Gilmore is shutting down receivers and not even letting them catch the ball it won’t really even matter how well he tackles. But overall we know how he’ll fit in, likely on the outside right side of the defense.