It’s always dangerous to draw any conclusions from what you see in an NFL training camp. We are after all talking about practice, PRACTICE (cue: Allen Iverson voice).
No matter how well coach Bill Belichick is able to simulate game conditions training camp is not the real thing. Neither are the glorified scrimmages the NFL passes off as “preseason” games, one of the great sports euphemisms (and rackets) of all-time.
If you want a disclaimer on why it’s unwise to draw finite conclusions from camp then harken back to 2007. The now-retired Randy Moss went more than a month without practicing after tweaking a hamstring early in camp. There were rumors swirling on cut-down day that Moss was going to be sent packing. Obviously, that did not happen. The rest is NFL history.
With that camp caveat out of the way, let’s look at five players who have the most to prove or gain during the summer session:
1. Jermaine Cunningham, outside linebacker/defensive end – Regardless of what defensive alignment the Patriots use this season – 3-4 or 4-3 – the pressure is on Cunningham to bring more pressure this season. The one sack and four quarterback hits in 15 games he had as a rookie don't conjure up visions of a young Andre Tippett.
However, putting Cunningham in a 4-3 defense, which he played in during college, could allow him to play more instinctively and enable his natural pass-rush ability to manifest. It better.
The Patriots passed on Cunningham's more celebrated University of Florida teammate, Carlos Dunlap, who went one pick later in the second round (54th overall) to the Cincinnati Bengals. It doesn’t help Cunningham’s cause that Dunlap notched 9.5 sacks in just 12 games playing defensive end.
Rushing the passer in the NFL is an innate ability. The good ones usually display it early in their career if given ample opportunity. Willie McGinest had 11 sacks in his second season.
2. Albert Haynesworth, defensive tackle/defensive end – Both Haynesworth’s ability and his baggage are immense. He is a man-child and a problem-child. In Washington he was a recidivist complainer and quitter who created more havoc for his own team than opponents. But Haynesworth is uncommonly nimble for a man who stands 6 feet 6 inches and weighs 335 pounds, and there are only so many men on the planet with his physical gifts.
If the Patriots are serious about switching to more four-man fronts then Haynesworth is a key part of that plan. As a penetrating defensive tackle he can be dominant -- when he feels like playing. He did in 2007 and 2008 and was an All-Pro. But in Washington he was an All-Con. He conned the Redskins out of $41 million and was a major distraction and disappointment.
Haynesworth is off to a decent start here. He passed the conditioning test – no sure thing with him -- and practiced yesterday. He has yet to be sued or accused of a crime here, which is always good for him. If Haynesworth can’t be rehabilitated by Belichick then NFL stands for Not For Long.
3. Brandon Tate, wide receiver – The Patriots had to bring Chad Ochocinco in as a third receiver in part because Tate was inconsistent in the role last year. He averaged 18 yards per catch (24 receptions for 432 yards) and caught three touchdowns, but struggled to serve as a reliable deep threat after the Patriots jettisoned Moss. His longest catch of the season – a 65-yard touchdown against the Vikings – came on a broken play.
Tate has the blinding speed to be a big-play threat, as evidenced by his two kickoff returns for touchdowns last season. But is he just Bethel Johnson 2.0 or a Santonio Holmes-like talent? Hard to tell. Sometimes Tate looks like the Joey Galloway of old and sometimes he just looks like the old Galloway who was on the receiving end of as many obscenities from Tom Brady as passes.
There is nothing the Patriots value more than consistency. Tate has to prove he can display that because the Patriots still lack a defense-scaring deep-threat. That's not Ochocinco's game.
4. Darius Butler, cornerback – Last year started as a potential breakout season for Butler, a 2009 second-round pick, after a strong rookie year. Instead, it was a breakdown season. Butler lost his starting job and his confidence just two games into the season, after Braylon Edwards taught him how to Dougie in the New Meadowlands end zone. In the offseason, the Patriots used the first pick of the second round to take cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Former Patriot Shawn Springs thought Butler possessed the physical skills to be among the best corners in the league if he mastered technique. But now he's fighting for a job. The Pro Bowl play of Devin McCourty as a rookie, the return of Leigh Bodden, the emergence of Kyle Arrington last season and the selection of Dowling have pushed Butler to the background. He needs to turn the corner this camp to re-establish himself as part of the Patriots’ long-term plans at cornerback.
5. Kevin Faulk, running back – It seems odd to see Faulk, one of the most clutch playmakers for this team for the last decade-plus, in this spot. However, at 35 and coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament is his right knee he has to re-establish his place on the roster. In Faulk’s absence, folk-hero Danny Woodhead took over the third-down back role and excelled, averaging 5.6 yards a carry, catching 34 passes and scoring six touchdowns.
Belichick already told Faulk, the team’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards (12,247) and receptions by a running back (424), he wants him on his team, and Faulk’s classy comportment and professional attitude are valuable in the locker room.
But running back is a young man’s position, and Faulk has a lot of tread on his tires. He needs to show he has his trademark quickness back to break away from a crowded field of running back competitors.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.