Across the AFC East: Observations from Opening Day of New England Patriots Training Camp

Will Tim Tebow be on the New England Patriots roster when they play the Buffalo Bills in Week 1? He was unimpressive in his first training camp practice Friday. (Photo: Stew Milne — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

The Buffalo Bills don’t have their first training camp practice until Sunday, but training camps are already underway for the other three AFC East teams. The dominant team in the division, the New England Patriots, began their practice schedule at 9 a.m. Friday.

A Massachusetts resident myself, I made the trip to Foxborough, Mass. to observe the opening day of Patriots practice. The practice was inundated by rain and cool weather, and was not fully padded, but it provided a first glimpse to the 2013 season for Patriots players, coaches and fans.

While it’s never a good idea to make major conclusions off of one practice, here are some observations I noted from the first day at Gillette Stadium.

Who will catch passes from Tom Brady?

The biggest question surrounding the Patriots heading into training camp is to figure out who will the void of the team’s many departures among their wide receivers and tight ends, including Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd, along with Rob Gronkowski coming back from back surgery.

On Day 1 of Patriots training camp, it appeared rookie second-round pick Aaron Dobson will be among the players immediately stepping into the lineup. Dobson took many repetitions with the Patriots’ first-team offense on Friday, and made a number of downfield receptions during drills. His combination of size and athleticism stood out on the field.

A more surprising standout among the receivers Friday was Kamar Aiken. A third-year player who played in two games for the Bills in 2011 and spent time on the Patriots’ roster last season, he has never made an NFL catch. He remains a significant longshot to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster, but he did make a couple of very impressive deep receptions on Friday.

As a whole, the Patriots’ receivers had a good amount of drops throughout the practice, but that was to be expected given the conditions. It rained consistently throughout the 2 hour, 20 minute practice.

A first look at the New England first team

The Patriots’ depth chart can and likely will shift throughout training camp, but the first team looked mostly as expected on Friday. The same players did not always make the first units on offense and defense, but the following players were mostly consistently with the starting units.

Offense:

QB – Tom Brady

RB – Stevan Ridley

WR – Dobson, Danny Amendola

TE – Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells

LT – Nate Solder LG – Logan Mankins C – Ryan Wendell RG – Marcus Cannon RT – Sebastian Vollmer

Defense:

DE – Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich

DT – Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly

LB – Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower

CB – Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington

S – Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory

Most notable was the rotation at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where Kyle Arrington, slated to be the team’s nickel cornerback this year, took the majority of first-team reps. The Patriots primarily ran a 4-3 base defense Friday, with Arrington working as the No. 2 cornerback. Expected starter Alfonzo Dennard, who could potentially face a suspension following a recent arrest, worked mostly as a nickel cornerback and second-team cornerback opposite Ras-I Dowling.

Starting right guard Dan Connolly did not participate in practice. Neither did defensive tackle Armond Armstead, who could challenge Kelly for a starting defensive tackle alongside Wilfork.

Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins also saw a good amount of first-team work Friday, and got off to an impressive start. He was often used in looks as a rush linebacker on the edge, and also has a pass breakup versus tight end Michael Hoomanawanui on a pass over the middle.

Safety Adrian Wilson, who was signed as a free-agent this offseason, took some first-team reps from Gregory.

On special teams, the Patriots had six players who went deep for kickoff returns: Leon Washington, Matthew Slater, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Lavelle Hawkins and LeGarrette Blount. Washington and Slater took a majority of the repetitions, with Washington looking to be the more explosive and quick returner (though it is almost impossible to take away anything significant from kickoff returns in a non-contact practice).

Tim Tebow

If I’m going to write about the first day of Patriots camp, then writing about Tim Tebow is a must, correct?

Tebow did catch my attention on Friday morning, but not for the right reasons. Seeing him in person for the first time, his awkward mechanics and lack of zip on his throws were noticeable, especially in comparison to the Patriots’ top two quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Ryan Mallett. His throws often came out low, including one that was swatted down at the line of scrimmage by Patriots rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan.

Even in an unpadded practice situation, Tebow looked uncomfortable under pressure. He showed that his first instinct when the pocket collapses was consistently to take off and run, unlike Brady, who is one of the NFL’s best at standing in the face of pressure and making a throw.

Not all Patriots fans, however, saw his shortcomings. I overheard one Patriots fan telling a group of boys that the Patriots “should trade Tom Brady for two first-round picks and start Tebow.” His logical argument included the point that Tebow won two national championships at Florida while Brady won none as a collegiate quarterback, apparently choosing to ignore the fact that Brady has won three Super Bowls.

While Bills fans would love to see Brady get the Drew Bledsoe treatment and be shipped to Buffalo in favor of Tebow, I’m sorry to ensure you that the Patriots will not be taking that fan’s advice anytime soon.

Tags: AFC East, New England Patriots, Tim Tebow, Training Camp

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