Who’s Turning Heads at Pats’ Training Camp?
By Kevin Duffy
FOXBORO -- We’re five practices into New England Patriots training camp, and several key position battles have started to take shape.
Who’s the second cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore? Which pass-catchers look poised to carve out significant roles? Any breakout players on the front seven?
Here are five camp standouts who have made early impressions in their respective competitions:
CB Eric Rowe: Rowe has maintained his lead in the race for the No. 2 cornerback job. Veteran Jason McCourty and rookie J.C. Jackson haven’t received many opportunities opposite Stephon Gilmore. A mainstay at that position, Rowe has come through with daily highlights, including a pass-breakup Monday night on a pass intended for Rob Gronkowski.
On Sunday, Rowe denied Chris Hogan on a slant route in the end zone.
Rowe was a spot starter a year ago, but a groin injury interrupted his season and he missed Weeks 5-13. When he returned, Rowe played a major role in crucial matchups, including the Week 15 win over Pittsburgh (he deflected the ball that landed in Duron Harmon’s hands for the game-clinching interception) and the Super Bowl (he started in place of Malcolm Butler, as you might recall).
Entering his third year with the team, Rowe has the requisite length and athleticism to become an every-week starter.
He simply needs to prove it.
TE Jacob Hollister: The second-year tight end won’t become a traditional “starter” for the Patriots. That designation belongs to Rob Gronkowski.
Through five days of camp, though, Hollister’s value to the team is obvious. The Pats like him. He’s going to play, and he’ll potentially fill a significant role even if he’s not technically a starter.
“He has a lot of football in front of him,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “He didn’t have a lot of experience -- had some -- but has gained a lot and will gain a lot more. I think he’s got a great future.”
One of the things that stands out about Hollister is that he moves fluidly for a tight end. He can run seam routes down the middle of the field, but he also has the quickness and agility to contribute on quick-hitting underneath routes. His skill set complements Gronkowski.
The Pats have long been searching for a second fiddle to Gronk.
Martellus Bennett was by far the best No. 2 tight end they’ve had in recent years, but Bennett and Gronkowski were rarely healthy at the same time during the 2016 season.
Hollister isn’t quite Bennett -- he’s about 30 pounds lighter -- but the upside is there.
On several occasions last week, Hollister worked closely with Tom Brady and a few skill position players (notably James White and Phillip Dorsett) as Josh McDaniels observed. That’s a great sign for the 24-year-old tight end.
DE Deatrich Wise: Each summer, Belichick discusses the “Year Two” jump.
Wise seems like the perfect candidate to take a major step forward.
A fourth-round pick out of Arkansas in 2017, Wise played 51 percent of the defensive snaps, utilizing his freakish length to become a disrupting force on the edge.
According to Belichick, Wise and fellow second-year pro Derek Rivers are already showing signs of progress.
“Nobody works harder than Deatrich and Derek,” Belichick said on a Monday interview with Sirius XM NFL radio. “Those two kids are here all the time. They’re the first ones in and the last ones out. They’re extremely diligent, hard workers in the weight room, in the classroom (and) on the field.”
Wise was all over the field in the Patriots’ first padded practice of the summer. He wrecked running back Jeremy Hill in a live contact drill, excelled in one-on-ones, and batted down a Danny Etling pass in 11-on-11s.
Wise will be pushing for a starting spot opposite Trey Flowers. He’s battling veteran Adrian Clayborn, who has also enjoyed a strong start to camp.
Worth noting: Wise and Clayborn could see plenty of time together. As the Pats offense ran a two-minute drill to conclude Monday’s practice, the defense went with a front line of Flowers, Wise, Clayborn, and Adam Butler.
WR Cordarrelle Patterson: The Pats could have selected Patterson at the end of the first round in the 2013 draft, but they traded out of the No. 29 pick for a package of picks that eventually netted them Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, Josh Boyce, and LeGarrette Blount.
Five years later, Belichick gets a chance to work with Patterson, who has been an exceptional kickoff returner -- statistically, the second-best in NFL history to Gale Sayers -- and an effective gadget-type player on offense. At his previous two stops, Minnesota and Oakland, offenses manufactured touches for Patterson on wide receiver screens, reverses, and traditional handoffs. There’s little doubt the Patriots will use similar tactics to get the ball in Patterson’s hands.
Patterson averages 2.6 touches per game (between receptions and rushes) thus far in his NFL career. Can the Patriots double that number?
And can Belichick and Josh McDaniels turn him into an every-down receiver?
Early on, Patterson has flashed promising signs. He makes a highlight catch per day. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Patterson came down with a one-handed touchdown grab on a deep ball from Tom Brady on Friday. Gilmore was in coverage.
On Sunday, Patterson came down with an impossible grab along the sideline on a back-shoulder throw. He reached over Rowe, who had near-perfect coverage, and double-clutched the ball as he fell to the ground.
It remains to be seen if any of this will translate to production in the regular season, but for now Patterson is taking advantage of extra reps as receivers Kenny Britt, Jordan Matthews, and Malcolm Mitchell deal with injuries.
Depending on what transpires the rest of the summer, Patterson could open the season as one of the team’s top three wideouts.
OT Trent Brown: This is an easy one.
The 6-foot-8, 380-pound Brown is the talk of camp. Teammates marvel at his size. Belichick seems impressed with Brown’s athleticism. If he stays healthy, Brown should be in position to start at left tackle in Week 1.
Brown has displayed power as a run blocker. He’s also been surprisingly nimble in space; on a red zone carry during practice, Brown hunted second-level defenders as running back Rex Burkhead bounced outside. He did the same on a wide receiver screen to Chris Hogan, moving quickly enough to block a cornerback.
He’ll be fun to watch when the regular season rolls around.