One factor to consider is the Patriots will be without Browner for the first four games of the season due to NFL suspension. Dennard, who has started 20 games (including playoffs) in his first two NFL seasons, is a top candidate to fill that void, as is Ryan, who started seven games last season and led the team with five interceptions.
Dennard’s on-field presence was the most notable news item from Patriots headquarters on Tuesday morning, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick held a news conference before practice.
A few notes from Belichick:
- With a players' day off Monday, Belichick said it gave the coaching staff a chance to catch up on planning-based things.
- Third-down, two-minute and down-and-distance situations will be a big part of practice this week as the staff prepares the team for more game-like situations.
- Belichick on claiming rookie running back Tyler Gaffney (sixth round, Panthers) on waivers: “He had a real good year last year, went to Stanford, and then was in baseball for a year. I think he’s a good all-around back that we want to work with. He was available and we’ll see how it works out.”
- Asked about veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and his recovery from a ruptured Achilles, Belichick acknowledged there are “a lot of positive signs” before adding that no player or coach is where they need to be at this point.
- When asked about players working with others in the offseason, such as Tom Brady with throwing coach Tom House, Belichick said the organization supports those decisions. He lamented that the team’s own coaches don’t have more time with players.
- Asked about the progression made by center Ryan Wendell over the years, Belichick lauded Wendell for coming as far as almost any player he could think of in his 40-year career. “When he first got here, he couldn’t even make our practice squad,” he said. Belichick sidestepped a question when asked if the arrow is still pointing up for Wendell, who dipped in 2013 after a strong 2012 season, adding that’s what training camp competition will determine for all players.
- Belichick on first-year offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo: “He’s smart, well-prepared, and he has a good rapport with his players. He’s a good communicator, works hard. Has a good level of experience. I’m definitely pleased with the job he’s doing. … We all have a long way to go.”
"It’s been good working with James White. He’s a very interesting and versatile player," Belichick said on the program. "He does a good job in the passing game and in the running game -- both inside and outside. Blitz pickup -- we have a pretty extensive offense for him to learn, but he’s working hard at it. We’ll just let him go and see how it goes, but I think he has the ability to compete on all three downs, in both the running game and the passing game."
White is listed at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds on the Patriots' roster, which might be slightly generous height-wise and puts him closer to the physical profile of Ravens running back Ray Rice (5-8, 206).
Traditionally, the Patriots' "lead" back has been a bit bigger than that, with Stevan Ridley (5-11, 220) the most recent example. LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 250) was the biggest of them all, and when he signed with the Steelers in free agency this offseason, it was easy to assume the Patriots would look for another big back to fill the void.
Instead, they went the smaller route with White, who gives the Patriots a potential different look in that he can sometimes be tough for defenders to locate behind bigger blockers. We've seen that early in training camp, such as the time White squirted through the right side with a strong burst, something he did often at Wisconsin in averaging 6-plus yards per carry.
So while White's pass-catching ability has been noted often in recent months, Belichick's remarks about him competing on "all three downs" remind us that White should also be part of the consideration when it comes to early-down running plays.
9:15 a.m. ET -- Bill Belichick news conference
9:45 a.m. ET -- Practice
approx. 12 p.m. ET -- Player interviews
This is the fifth overall practice of training camp, as players were off on Monday. The Patriots have had two practices in light shoulder pads and helmets and two in full pads, and now have four straight practices this week, plus a possible Saturday walkthrough, before traveling to Richmond, Virginia, for joint practices against Washington early next week.
Here are a few storylines we'll be following today:
1. The possibility of any players on the physically-unable-to-perform list or non-football-injury list to start practicing.
2. Bill Belichick's thoughts on claiming rookie running back Tyler Gaffney on waivers from Carolina.
3. Following up on tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who might have been nicked up at the end of Sunday's practice.
4. If it's a full-pads practice, rookie center Bryan Stork possibly getting some reps against top defenders in one-on-one rush drills.
The release of Hull, who had been signed to a one-year deal April 24, shaves off a layer of depth in the competition for core special teams roster spots. On Saturday, Hull was noted as being among those competing for a niche role.
Other backup linebackers who fall into that special-teams-specific category include Chris White, Ja'Gared Davis, Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon and Taylor McCuller.
Hull was not part of our most recent roster projection.
In doing so, they essentially added an additional draft choice, as Gaffney was selected in the sixth round in May. The cost: Gaffney's $420,000 base salary for 2014.
Gaffney, who was part of our "Beyond the first round" series leading into the draft in part because of his excellent 6.78 time in the 3-cone drill, could help the Patriots in 2015 upon his return to health. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in a practice Friday.
The Patriots' top three running backs -- Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden -- all enter the final year of their contracts. Rookie James White, the team's fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin, is signed through 2017. Gaffney's contract also extends through the 2017 season.
When the Patriots did the same thing with tight end Jake Ballard in 2012, some said it was against "unwritten" rules in the NFL. That drew a somewhat fiery response from coach Bill Belichick.
This is essentially Ballard, Part II.
The Patriots hope this one works out with more favorable results, as Ballard never emerged with the team and landed with the Arizona Cardinals, where he's had more success.
Gaffney, a sixth-round draft choice out of Stanford, sustained a season-ending knee injury in a practice Friday.
The claiming of Gaffney is similar to what the Patriots did two seasons ago with tight end Jake Ballard, who was waived by the Giants with the intention of placing him on injured reserve that year. But before the Giants could place Ballard on IR, he had to clear waivers, per NFL rules when teams are under the 90-man roster limit, and the Patriots claimed him.
"The bottom line is Tyler's injury is a season-ender. It's not a little tear that could be scoped and he'd be back in three weeks," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman told the Charlotte Observer. "This was a legitimate, season-ending injury. We have Jonathan Stewart, who's not practicing, and we needed the roster spot. Plain and simple. ... This is a very competitive business, and people are going to try to improve their team within the rules. And this is within the rules."
The Patriots inherit Gaffney's contract, which runs through 2017 and calls for base salaries of $420,000, $510,000, $600,000 and $690,000.
Similar to Ballard, the Patriots are likely to keep Gaffney on their 90-man roster, before moving him to IR when rosters are reduced and a player doesn't have to go through the waiver process. That means the team would pay him $420,000 for 2014 for the chance to work with him in 2015 and beyond. Three of the Patriots' top running backs this year -- Stevan Ridley
Brady was at ease in speaking with co-hosts Jim Miller and Pat Kirwan and here were some of the sound bites:
Rookie running back James White (fourth round) making an impression. “He has a real maturity to him that you don't often see in a young player. Nothing seems too big for him. You tell him something one time and he gets it and you don't have to talk about it again. In the few practices we've had out there, he's really made an impression on everybody. So hopefully he continues to do it, and he can be a real threat for us, something we didn't have last year; we had it from the guys we had in here, but it's nice to have another player like that."
Fellow QBs Ryan Mallett and Jimmy Garoppolo are solid teammates. “We have a good group. Ryan has always done such a great job when he’s got the opportunity. For him, he just hasn't got many opportunities. I'm excited to see it when he does. He comes to work every day and he's a real mentally tough kid. I really love that about him. And Jimmy, he’s been here for a short time and he's made a great impression on everybody."
"Darrelle is special," Law added. "He is a different level. So when you look at the secondary now, when you look at another 24 out there and that elite of a cornerback and as a football player, you can really see these guys getting over the hump again. And bringing back home the trophy, where I think it belongs because we always strive to be champions."
Here are some other takeaways from Law's analysis of this year's defense:
Best defense in 10 years? Adding Revis was a major move in Law's eyes, but he is focused on the extra experience and leadership of the rest of the Patriots’ defensive personnel in 2014. “I think it is [the team’s best defense in 10 years] because you’ve got to talk about the experience there is -- not only with the secondary because I think that was one of the weaker links in the defense for the last few years -- but you strengthened that five times with Darrelle Revis and you have [Brandon] Browner there,” Law said. “[Rob] Ninkovich getting another year of experience, [Vince] Wilfork. There’s a different type of leadership. Chandler Jones, another year of experience. So it is going to be amazing what these guys can do.”
Health is the key to winning a Super Bowl. Law thinks the Patriots have all of the pieces to win the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl, but last year’s health issues still raise a red flag. “You can have all the talent in the world but if you can’t stay out there on the field, you’re going to be hurting your team,” Law said. “So if this team can stay healthy and the offense can continue putting up the numbers consistently like they have been doing with Tom Brady leading the pack and they can protect him, good things are going to happen.”
Law knew all along that Revis was destined for greatness. Law and Revis both grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a small Pittsburgh suburb that produced multiple NFL talents. Despite the age difference, Law saw early on that Revis was a game-changing player. “When you look back and I’m a player in the NFL and this guy [Revis] is still in Pop Warner and I was fortunate to play long enough where he made it to the NFL and we played together on the field as two guys from Aliquippa,” Law said. “But seeing it right away -- his agility, his passion, his aggressiveness at such a young age.”
Law’s Super Bowl pick. Law may be an analyst these days, but he isn’t shy about who he wants and thinks will win it all in 2014. “Hopefully I can still do my job, you know being an analyst, but I’m going for the Patriots every time.”
But for those curious of some New England Patriots first impressions, there's only one place to start -- the defense.
We entered training camp with the thought that the team's evolving D was the key to the team's Super Bowl hopes. The first four practices have reinforced that line of thinking. Assuming relatively good health, it's fair to say this defense has the chance to be one of Bill Belichick's best, and it starts at the cornerback position.
Specific to Revis, one of the things that stands out is how he's seldom in bad position. Belichick has already noted his instincts (comparing him to Rodney Harrison in that area), as there have been times when Revis is breaking on a route before the receiver has done so. At the line of scrimmage, his punch has jarred receivers. His footwork is especially fluid with little wasted movement. His ball skills are obviously solid, too.
In the words of Belichick, I'd say Revis "is similar but different" to when we watched receiver Randy Moss in 2007 training camp. It just looks different -- everything is on a much higher level than you're used to seeing.
Meanwhile, Browner has brought a Harrison-type physical presence to the practice field. On Sunday, he de-cleated rookie running back James White in an 11-on-11 running drill, White landing on his backside as the crowd of 13,000-plus roared along with Browner himself. Longtime Patriots followers might recall how Harrison was buzzing around the field in his first training camp with the team in 2003, his hard-hitting style right on the line between the desired edge/intensity and putting valuable teammates in the cross hairs of friendly fire. That's what we've seen from Browner, who if teamed with Revis could help transform a Patriots' D which ranked 26th in the NFL on third down last season.
So these are some first impressions, passed along with a cautious touch.
We want to relay what we see, while at the time, keeping things in the appropriate context. After all, it has been only four practices.
“The Baltimore game [Dec. 22], we lined him up out there kind of detached from the formation,” Caserio said in an impressive recall from a season of 1,273 offensive snaps (including penalties). “We ran a route with he and [Shane] Vereen and because he was able to execute his assignment, we had a play there.”
The Patriots aligned in a compact formation, with quarterback Tom Brady in the shotgun, Vereen to his left in the backfield, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui on the right side of the line, receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola bunched closely on the left side, and Develin detached by himself to the near right side.
Before the snap on the second-and-goal play, Vereen motioned out of the backfield to Develin’s side, setting briefly to Develin’s left.
Develin was the key on the play as he ran a clear-out route that had safety Matt Elam sticking with him initially, while also creating traffic/a minor rub that linebacker Jameel McClain couldn’t get around as Vereen flashed free to the right flat for an easy touchdown.
With Caserio bringing the play up Sunday, and the fullback position naturally linked with the tight end spot, Develin’s versatility highlights one of the challenges we’ve had in our weekly roster projections.
With three quarterbacks, four running backs, one fullback and potentially six receivers, that’s a lot of skill-position players on the projected roster.
So would the Patriots be comfortable going with just two pure tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Hoomanawanui), with Develin as a possible third option?
Caserio’s remarks further spark thoughts of the possibility.
RUNNING BACKS (4)
Bolden, who has struggled at times early in camp with ball security and catching the ball, still sticks because of his important role on special teams.
When the pads came on this weekend for the first time, the hard-charging Develin was part of some of the biggest collisions as he brings an edge to the offense.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
We went light with just two tight ends in the initial projection but add Williams in this time because we're somewhat intrigued with his potential as a "move" option in the two-tight-ends package. Justin Jones lands on the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVERS (6)
The top four are solidified, and then it comes down to LaFell ($3 million signing bonus) and Boyce (2013 fourth-round pick). Does the team have enough room to keep both?
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
- LT Nate Solder
- LG Logan Mankins
- C Bryan Stork
- G/C Dan Connolly
- RT Sebastian Vollmer
- LT/RT/RG Marcus Cannon
- LG Josh Kline
- RG Jon Halapio
- RT Cameron Fleming
There's a long way to go, but in this projection, Stork (fourth round, Florida State) beats out incumbent Ryan Wendell for the starting job at center.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
- DT Vince Wilfork
- DT Dominique Easley
- DT Chris Jones
- DT Sealver Siliga
- DE Chandler Jones
- DE Rob Ninkovich
- DE Will Smith
- DE Michael Buchanan
- DE Zach Moore
There is always a surprise cut, and 33-year-old Tommy Kelly, coming off a torn ACL that limited him to four games last season, would qualify as one in this projection.
With White and Davis potentially serving as core special teamers, it could threaten 2013 seventh-round pick Steve Beauharnais' place on the roster.
Because Browner is suspended for the first four regular-season games, he won't count against the initial 53-man roster limit. But he is included here because he is obviously a significant part of the team's overall planning for the 2014 season.
Veteran Patrick Chung could always come back during the season in the event of injury. With rookie Jemea Thomas (sixth round, Georgia Tech) sustaining an undisclosed injury on the first day of training camp, he is edged out in this scenario by Wilson, who also contributes on special teams.
One of the under-the-radar training camp competitions is at snapper, where incumbent Aiken is being challenged by rookie Tyler Ott of Harvard.
1 p.m. ET -- Ty Law Patriots Hall of Fame jacket fitting
There is no practice today, with players getting the day off after four straight practices to open camp. The last two practices were held in full pads.
But we'll still be making our way down to the stadium in the early afternoon as Ty Law, in a media-based photo opportunity, will be fitted for his Patriots Hall of Fame jacket. Law, of course, will be inducted into the team's Hall of Fame in a ceremony Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET.
The induction will take place at the NRG Plaza outside The Hall at Patriot Place presented by Raytheon, and is free to the public.
Later that night, the team will hold its in-stadium ticketed practice for season-ticket holders and Foxborough residents.
- When cornerback Brandon Browner talked about practicing in full pads for the first time in training camp, he said, "It always feels good to get them pads on and smack a little bit." Browner then backed up his words by flattening rookie running back James White in 11-on-11 drills on Sunday. Overall, the play of Browner and Darrelle Revis has been one of the top early storylines of camp. On Saturday, Revis intercepted two Tom Brady passes and broke up two others. On Sunday, it was Browner establishing a physical edge that reminded us of when safety Rodney Harrison was creating physical havoc in his first year with the team. The Patriots' defense has been practicing with a bit of an edge, and Revis and Browner are a big part of it.
- The Patriots practiced in full pads for the second straight day, which created some physical and mental stress for players. In 1-on-1 pass-rush drills, veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork drove left guard Logan Mankins back into the pocket by keeping his legs churning, which was a good test for Wilfork's previously injured Achilles injury. Wilfork generated sufficient power through his lower body, as we continue to monitor his return to full-contact work. He seems to be passing every test.
- One popular storyline for reporters covering a team is the "player-entering-the-final-year-of-his-contract" story, and it came up Sunday when running back Stevan Ridley met with reporters after practice. Ridley, who led the team with 773 yards on 178 carries in 2013, enters the final year of his deal and was asked how much that weighs on his mind. "I have to be honest about it -- it's there but it's not my first concern," he answered. "My first concern is going out there and being the best player for this team. I think if I go out there and have a productive year and do what I need to do, the contract will take care of itself. I'm not going to put too much thought into it, because if I start thinking about that, it could easily be a distraction. I'm just going to keep working, keep my head in the dirt and keep grinding it out."
- With the Patriots practicing in full pads the last two days, fullback James Develin's hard-charging, lead-blocking presence has been hard to miss. Develin, who graduated from the practice squad to the active roster in 2013, brings an attitude to the running game and was praised by personnel director Nick Caserio for having a "great offseason." Ridley also pointed to Develin when asked about the overall running back group. "Not to single out one guy, but James has come in and done an awesome job," he said.
- The crowds at training camp continue to amaze. On a day in which there were ominous clouds above and practice was cut short by about 15-20 minutes because of a heavy downpour and the threat of lightning, the team announced an official attendance of 13,186. That ups the four-day total to 45,839. "These fans are always there and are always welcoming," receiver Julian Edelman said. "It's just great to have that support and makes coming out here fun when there is a crowd and hollers and all that stuff. It's fun to play in front of people. When you're feeling a little down, you come out and see a big old crowd, it gets you a little amped."
"That's a part of the game [punt return] that gave me an opportunity to make this team," Edelman said. "I love returning punts. I want to do that and if they ask me to do that, I'm going to do it."
Wide receiver Danny Amendola and undrafted rookie running back Roy Finch of Oklahoma also took reps in the return game. Finch had one bobble but still managed to haul in the Ryan Allen punt.
Finch's process of learning punt returns reminded Edelman of his early days with Patriots.
"You guys remember when I was a rookie bobbling the ball around everywhere and getting booed by the crowd," Edelman said of one training camp practice. "But he's just got to get some experience, repetition."
This recollection of how much work it takes to be an effective punt returner fuels Edelman's desire to hone his craft.
"You got to work on catching punts, finding the tip of the ball -- if it turns over, if it doesn't -- what foot punter it is, the trajectory of the punt, what return you have -- if it's a return, if it's not a return -- the situation in the game," Edelman said. "All that stuff. It comes with experience. I still have to try in practice every day to improve what I have to do because it's a craft. If you don't do it every day, it will slip away."
In the past, Edelman has been an elite punt returner -- cutting and juking his way through punt coverage units. Though last season, when he averaged 10.7 yards per return, Edelman was forced to call more fair catches (23) than in other seasons.
"When you get 10 yards that's your goal and when guys are working together you get a little more which is great," Edelman said about the importance of punt returns. "But our number one job on that unit is to get the ball in the offense's hand and make the right decision."