The road to success in the NFL begins each year with the hard work and wide-open possibilities of training camp. As teams around the league gear up for the 2015 campaign, NFL Media reporters will be checking in from all 32 camps around the league. For our next stop, Jeff Darlington visits the New England Patriots.
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While Tom Brady's continued off-the-field concerns lingered, the Patriots' iconic quarterback might have been especially appreciative of this week's joint practices with the Saints. After all, he literally got to escape the noise in the quiet hills of West Virginia, spending three nights at The Greenbrier resort, where the Saints train. It wasn't exactly a vacation -- but it certainly seemed like a nice change of pace.
1) No doubt, it should be promptly pointed out that New Orleans practiced Thursday without many of its top defensive backs, including Keenan Lewis, Brandon Browner, Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Nonetheless, Brady looked absolutely brilliant during all portions of his practice, dropping one gorgeous touchdown after another into the hands of his receivers. As Matthew Slater put it, "He was throwing dimes all day." It shouldn't be a surprise that Brady looked good. But it was still so fun to watch -- and more proof that Brady's offseason distractions could indeed morph into incredible motivation.
2) The departure of cornerback Darrelle Revis has left plenty of wonder about how Bill Belichick's defense can prosper without him. And while those questions aren't likely to yield answers until the regular season starts, there's been an interesting development in training camp: Devin McCourty, who signed a new five-year, $47.5 million contract, has been seeing time lately at cornerback -- in addition to maintaining his responsibilities at safety. During joint practices, McCourty was working with corners during the individual period. So what exactly does it mean? With Belichick, who knows? But McCourty's leadership should not be understated -- and apparently neither should his versatility. The attention at cornerback will remain squarely on Malcolm Butler and Tarell Brown, but Belichick clearly wants to make sure he's getting his best defensive backs on the field no matter what position they're playing.
3) This has been a very important week for backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. First, he saw extensive preseason action. Then, he got rare first-team repetitions in practice Tuesday while Brady spent time away dealing with settlement talks. And then, he got to spend two practices working against the Saints, who provided him with plenty of fresh looks. This is especially critical, since the biggest challenge for a second-year quarterback is often learning the intricacies of reading an opposing defense. So while there might have been some concern in the wake of Garoppolo's struggles in the preseason opener, these are exactly the types of reps he needs to better prepare himself for the first four games of the season (when, as things stand right now, he's in line to start for the suspended Brady). It is much better for him to get the chance to struggle and learn now than it would be once the score actually matters. Garoppolo, to his credit, seems to be taking these developments in stride. He looks very capable of handling the pressure, and continues to develop into a more polished NFL quarterback.
Jabaal Sheard, DE: The Patriots snagged this pass rusher in the offseason, signing him to a two-year, $11 million deal, with the hope that he'll prove capable of quickly learning the Patriots' defensive system. It won't be a small task, but after quietly succeeding in Cleveland, Sheard is confident he can make the transition. So far, so good. Sheard says he feels very comfortable in the Patriots' culture, and it doesn't sound like it will take long before he's fitting into the on-field scheme, either.
Scott Chandler, TE: Although Chandler missed this week's joint practices because of a knee injury that is not believed to be serious, New England might've scored big with a player who will allow the Pats to go back to the two-tight end success they had when Aaron Hernandez was on the team. Chandler is not the same player as Hernandez was, but he's a big-bodied target who still has gas left in the tank at age 30. Watch for Chandler to emerge in the red zone, as he has done during training camp, since it's one more option Brady can use rather than simply handing it off or throwing to Rob Gronkowski.
After another successful set of joint practices with the Saints, Belichick said it's certainly possible New England will schedule a similar trip in the future, which would mark the fourth time since Sean Payton joined the Saints. Belichick also added, however, that he isn't prepared to make any such decision at this time. While he praised The Greenbrier's facility and hospitality, he also pointed out that the logistical challenges of traveling to West Virginia make for something they'd need to consider in the future.