I visited Patriots training camp on Thursday last week and here are some of my observations;
-- This Patriots defense may even be better than advertised. They were ranked a lousy 27th in total yards allowed last year. Typical of their "bend, but don't break" philosophy of the last decade, they ranked a respectable 10th in points allowed. But just going by the "eye test," anyone who has watched the Patriots defense of the last decade knows that they can be frustrating. They haven't come up with the big third down stops. They haven't been able to seal victories in the fourth quarter. They haven't been ball hawkers. That's about to change.
-- Brandon Browner has brought a new attitude to the defense. The guy looks like a linebacker playing cornerback. He plays like one, too. He's listed as being 6'4", but when he is lined up against small wide receivers, he looks like a seven-footer. Darrelle Rivas gets all the attention -- and rightfully so -- but Browner could have equally as big an impact on this defense. Browner is going to bring a toughness to this defense which has been sorely missing. He practices as hard as he plays and he expects everyone around him to do the same. He has been unrelenting on wide receivers and running backs alike. The former Seahawk will miss the first four games of the season due to serving out a suspension.
-- Darrelle Rivas may be the best player on the team. Yes, that means he may be even better than Tom Brady at this point. He toyed with Brady all day long. Revis -- positioned out wide on one scrimmage play -- eyed Brady from the snap and slowly leaked off his receiver and shot to the middle of the field to pick off a little dump off pass and raced into the endzone for a pick-six. It was a thing of beauty.
-- Chandler Jones may emerge as the emotional leader of the defense. He was very vocal and demonstrative-- pounding on the shoulder pads of his teammates every time they made a big play. He gave out primal screams every time he got close to sacking Brady. It is very uncharacteristic of a stoically Belichick-coached team. Jones may be the beneficiary of an improved secondary. He knows it. Watch for him to have double-figure sacks this year.
-- The offense will struggle. Maybe it's more of an indication how good this defense is, but, right now, the offense is light years behind the defense. Without Gronkowski on the field, their most explosive receiving option may be running back Shane Vereen.
-- Wide receiver will be a problem. I think Danny Amendola will surprise people this year. He will "surprise" people by staying healthy and playing in a majority of their games. Julian Edelman won't have the same kind of year he had last year (105 receptions, 1056 yards). If he even puts up 75% of those numbers, I'd be happy. But where are the Patriots going to when they need a big play. Gronkowski is the obvious answer, but what if he is not 100%? Second-year player Kenbrell Thompkins has been impressing people early in camp, but, then again, he did that last year, too, before disappearing midway through the season.
-- James White may be starting for the Patriots sooner then we think. The rookie running back has been turning heads. If Stevan Ridley's fumbling woes resurface, watch for the Pats' fourth round pick to be the beneficiary.
-- Justin Jones is a big man. The undrafted rookie tight end is quite the physical specimen. I was struck by how big (6'8", 275 pounds) he was when he stood next to Gronkowski. He made Gronk look like Shrunk. That's the extent of my scouting report as he didn't catch my attention when he was on the field. If he can run and catch, he will be quite the goal line target.
-- It was nice to see Rob Gronkowski, a slimmed down Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo back on the field. All three missed huge chunks of last season and were unavailable at the end. If all three remain healthy, the Patriots have a legitimate shot at making another Super Bowl. If not, it may be another AFC Championship Game defeat.
The Patriots' first preseason game will be on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m.when they play the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. The Patriots return to Foxboro next week. They will have be having joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday and Wednesday. The practices are scheduled to start at 2 p.m both days and are open to the public. It's a great opportunity to get close to the players and the best part is that it is free.