There are just two more days of organized team activities for the Patriots. And in those two days, we’ll get one last snapshot of where the team is before the start of minicamp next week.
While it still may be early to start setting expectations for individual players or projecting a depth chart, there are a few of things to watch that have piqued our interest.
1. Where is Armond Armstead? — The last time I snuck in a “hello” to Armstead was somewhere around Week 15 of the 2013 season. He just so happened to be strolling through the Patriots locker room and shot back a quick nod before exiting stage left. He hasn’t materialized for an interview yet. The running joke, of course, is that he doesn’t exist. The Patriots signed him to much fanfare last offseason, expecting him to fill in as defensive tackle along with Vince Wilfork and then-newly signed free agent Tommy Kelly. But Armstead was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list Aug. 26, 2013, after undergoing surgery to treat an undisclosed infection. While he has been sighted at Patriots OTAs (he was even supposed to make an appearance at Kevin Faulk’s celebrity softball game), he has not spoken with the media since training camp of last year. From observations at OTAs, the former Canadian Football League player hasn’t been able to fully participate. So a closer evaluation of Armstead and maybe some pointed questions directed his way are kind of necessary at this point. It would be good to help determine what kind of role he could have on the team, if any at all, and if he can even compete at a high level right now. So much about Armstead is unknown and how his presence may affect the defensive tackle group.
2. Rookies, rookies, and more rookies — We’re in that time of year where Bill Belichick doesn’t want the rookies to speak to the media. So this is a perfect opportunity for us to closely observe how these young players are learning on the field, how they’re interacting with their teammates, and how they may contribute in the regular season. Much like Armstead, there is some anticipation building to finally get a look at first round draft pick Dominique Easley. The defensive tackle has not participated in the other sessions open to the media. He has been recovering from his second ACL tear, which occurred in September 2013, and may not be ready to compete until training camp. But there are eight other rookies to check in on. Running back James White joins a crowded position group. Does he really look like Shane Vereen? (Running backs coach Ivan Fears says no.) Linemen Bryan Stork, Cameron Fleming, and Jon Halapio could all fill vital roles, either as backups or starters. Where do they stand? Defensive lineman Zach Moore has a huge upside but maybe even a larger learning curve out of Concordia St. Paul. How is he adjusting? Where will defensive back Jemea Thomas and wide receiver Jeremy Gallon fit? And which undrafted rookie will stick? Who will be this year’s Zach Sudfeld? And then there’s that quarterback fella, Jimmy Garoppolo.
3. Missing, but not forgotten players — Alfonzo Dennard and Aaron Dobson have yet to make an appearance at OTAs. Dobson is suspected of still recovering from a March 10 surgery on his left foot to repair a stress fracture. He returns in his second season with a ton of competition on hand, including Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell. Dennard, who was in jail for 35 days for felony assault on a police officer in Nebraska, doesn’t have the same excuse. So we’re awaiting word of his return, what he has to say for himself, and how he will be inserted into the secondary with so many new players. There’s a new dynamic for both the wide receivers and cornerbacks group, and with these two out, it’s hard to get a grasp of how things will shake out ahead of the regular season. So, we wait.
4. The second year jump? — There’s going to be a lot expected of Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon, both penciled in starters for the team’s base defense. But other second-year players are also going to be dealing with some heightened expectations, Dobson probably more than others because of his position and the team’s inability to successfully draft it well. But then there are players like Josh Boyce, Michael Buchanan, and Steve Beauharnais who will essentially have to prove themselves in crowded position groups. Every single one of these guys will have to be monitored.
5. Decision year for some — We’re getting to the point in which third-year and fourth-year players are going to pressed about their contributions and their ability to compete with younger players, particularly those that eventually make up the underbelly of the team’s roster. Defensive back Nate Ebner, defensive end Jake Bequette, and safety Tavon Wilson are all from the 2012 draft class and each has only played in a supporting role. They will be scrutinized more closely with so many new faces this year. The same goes for Marcus Cannon, who was drafted in 2011 and has at times competed for a starting position, but has never been able to wrestle one away from his comrades. Other fourth-year players like Nate Solder, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, and Ryan Mallett have a place on this team. It’ll be interesting to see how the Patriots view these select veterans from OTAs to training camp based on their snaps in practice.