The Patriots were out in full pads and looking good in all aspects of their practices. A Bill Belichick practice covers so many aspects of the game from detailed fundamentals, to game situations, to cross training players at different positions that it really is a sight to behold. As I pulled in to the Gillette Stadium parking lot at 8:30am for the morning practice there were close to 5,000 fans already surrounding the field and they kept coming for the next hour. Every time Tom Brady threw a completion the crowd roared. Every time he connected with Randy Moss they acted like the team just won the AFC Championship. Expectations are high in New England and for good reason. This is a very good football team loaded with veterans. From high on the top of the stadium I got a chance to watch every aspect of the practice sessions. Moss was leading every receiver drill, Junior Seau was running around like he was 25 years-old, Adalius Thomas was learning the defense with lots of help from Tedy Bruschi, and coaches were shouting 'run it again.' It was real football at its finest.
1. Asante Samuel. Will he or won't he? He's not in camp, so the battle for his spot at corner is red hot and needs to be watched closely over the next few weeks. In typical Patriots fashion, especially after the Deion Branch hold out last year, this team is treating this hold out like they have an injured player. As one player said, "wish he was here because he's real good but we can't wait around for him, we gotta get ready to go." I think the longer the club likes what they see from Randall Gay, Tory James and even first round pick Brandon Meriweather the less likely they will bend for Asante. I think he will be back for the season on the franchise tag but it may be a few weeks before he walks in. There's no way he's leaving weekly game checks of $423,000 a week on the table. Tory had a real nice interception in the morning practice and Gay made a good play when Randy Moss ran a slant route.
2. Randy Moss. All the right moves. Moss passed his conditioning test, he's first in line at all the drills, and he's playing for a QB who will look elsewhere if the coverage dictates he should. On one deep ball Randy had to shift gears and close on a ball and there is plenty of life left in those legs. But when the offense had to take a lap together for a mistake they made he was back with the linemen. I think by opening day he will be the force he once was in the NFL and he'll be totally committed to the Patriot way. Bill Belichick told me Randy still has the passion to play and is a very smart player, I agree.
Well, besides the obvious situation with the addition of Randy Moss, which I already covered, there are a few other newcomers who jumped out at me during practice.
1. Adalius Thomas, linebacker. Thomas is another "Joker" for the Belichick defense. He can rush the passer, play outside linebacker and don't be surprised to see him take some game reps at inside linebacker. Sunday morning was dedicated to working him at inside linebacker and learning the concepts of this defense. When he lines up over a guard at 270 LB he can thump the guard and play the run. His drops in coverage need some work but he's probably going to be outside more than he's inside. I saw one very interesting blitz call when the nickel corner blitzed off the slot receiver, the outside linebacker dropped in coverage and Adalius came around from the inside linebacker spot as a trail blitzer behind the corner. Belichick is going to love scheming this guy into the defense.
2. Wes Welker, wide receiver. Wes reminds me so much of Wayne Chrebet. He is the perfect slot receiver to work the underneath routes while Moss, Stallworth and Ben Watson stretch the field. I envision big gaps in the underneath coverage and Welker taking the short pass and hurting teams with his run after the catch. Don't be surprised to see Wes catch 65 passes and move the chains 35 times this season. His return skills will also give the Patriots 2-3 hidden first downs on special teams.
3. Sammy Morris, running back. He looked great as the back up running back to Laurence Maroney, especially when it came to reading the scheme on the zone run play. Coach Belichick told me "we tried to sign him last time he was available and we are very pleased to have his skills on this team." I think before this season is over he will make a big contribution.
OFFENSE - The Patriots are more capable of mixing up personnel groupings to create match up problems for defenses than I have ever seen before. They worked on their four wide receiver package, spreading out the defense. They can run a power offense with Kyle Brady, Watson and one of the many versatile fullbacks they have on the roster. That will come in handy when they're trying to eat up some clock protecting a lead. In the end, the most dangerous package they have is three wide receivers, one tight end and one back. If a defense plays nickel they can run the ball, if they play base defense the match ups favor New England. I really like the way the tight end wham play looked at practice. The formation makes the defense defend pass and then Ben Watson wham blocks the defensive tackle and opens up a big running lane.
DEFENSE - The Patriots front three is second to none as a group in the NFL. Wilfork commands a double team on the nose, Seymour didn't practice but he can beat a double team and Ty Warren is starting to play like a pro bowler. The linebackers are old but Belichick will ask most of them to play part time as he develops his game plans. The secondary could use Samuels but they can win without him. The defense gave up 14 points a game last year and they look better this year.
SPECIAL TEAMS - The kicker and punter will be fine, there are lots of choices for the returner position but age could effect the coverage units. Most special teams around the NFL are made up of the young back up linebackers and secondary players. As Coach Belichick said to me after practice, "we will have to take into consideration who we keep based on special teams." Scott Pioli said weighing the player who can play 8-10 plays versus a guy who can play 25-30 special teams plays will be an issue.
The age of the defense is a concern if the injury bug hits. Older players don't usually heal as fast as younger players. The backup quarterback situation has young, promising Matt Cassel but the veteran isn't on the roster. It's possible Vinnie Testaverde is the answer but he is getting old. And finally handling expectations could become an issue. Most of the fans are convinced it's the year of another super bowl. Heck, I had a caller on my radio show after the morning practice try and convince me the Pats were headed for a 16-0 season.
1. Bill Belichick sat down with me for 25 minutes and he was fantastic. We talked about matchup issues in the modern game, the process of selecting the final roster, and even a little bit about fishing.
2. Ty Warren got into his weightlifting work and impressed me when he told me he has power cleaned 400 LB. This young star is powerful.
3. Junior Seau talked with me about why he hustles so hard on the practice field in his 18th season. On one play he dropped into his short zone. The ball was thrown deep outside away from him. He ran all the way to the receiver (40 yards away) and tagged the receiver. Then he turned and passed everyone of his teammates and was the first guy to the huddle for the next play. His answer as to why all the effort was, "I don't just go to practice, I want to be at practice. I lead by example."
Seau told me no one escapes Belichick. Any player, including Tom Brady, can make the dreaded 'low light tapes' shown after bad performances. This is a group that doesn't let the individual overrule the team. This team really does believe they can get better at every practice. When the offense was told to take a lap around the field, Tom Brady won it. I don't agree with the fans who believe 16-0 is a possibility but I do think 12-13 wins is attainable in 2007. Can they handle the San Diego running game, the Colt spread passing attack, and the other tough teams in the AFC to get to the Super Bowl? Barring injury, they should get that chance in the AFC Championship game.