Tomorrow is the last day of Patriots training camp that will be open to the public and from there on out we’ll be left with only game action to dissect.
It’s important not to get too carried away when analyzing the preseason or practices. Offenses especially take time to come together and just because the process is a little choppy at times doesn’t mean it won’t all come together once the bullets are real.
With that in mind, there have still been a lot of interesting and unexpected things that we’ve seen over the last few weeks so let’s take a look at five things that have surprised me most this year in camp.
1. Chandler Jones looks ready to make an impact - This has to be the most obvious one but Jones has shined early and often and looks like the player that Patriots fans have been waiting for ever since Willie McGinest left. While we don’t want to get carried away it’s hard not to get overly excited thinking about what Jones could finally bring to the defense- an edge presence that truly make offenses take note when preparing for the Pats. That said, I’m sure there will moments of inconsistency with Jones, but his performance thus far has to be a surprise to even the Patriots. Coming out of the draft many thought Jones would need a red shirt year to get stronger, but so far he’s looked stronger than expected and has held his own at the point of attack. The fact that he’s also flashed explosion and a variety of pass rush moves are just icing on the cake. It looks like Jones is legit and the benefit should trickle down through the entire defense.
2. Nate Solder struggles - I’m not one to hit the panic button too early but reports of Solder’s consistent problems in camp are a bit worrisome. Matt Light protected Tom Brady’s for a decade and it became easy to take it for granted, but let’s not forget there were plenty of times over that decade that the offensive line looked shaky in the preseason. Perhaps it was foolish to just assume Solder would take over such an important position and it would be a simple and smooth transition, but there’s no question that there’s now a spotlight on Solder and the bar that Light set for him is extremely high. The third preseason game, always the one where starters play the most, will be a chance for Solder to really put the worries of Patriots nation to rest.
3. Ras-I Dowling is still healthy!! - Sorry, had to do it, but Ras-I has made it through three weeks of training camp and hasn’t missed one practice! It’s a miracle!! (Knocking on wood of course). Ras-I looked strong to me against the Saints in the second half, and seems to be putting together a solid training camp where he’s starting to get comfortable and make plays on the ball. It sounds like how the Patriots plan on using him is as the third cornerback, coming in on the outside while they slide Kyle Arrington inside to the star position. Who know, by the opener he might secure the starting outside spot all together. Regardless, he’s healthy and given himself a chance to contribute.
4. Ryan Wendell at Center - Going into camp we all thought it was going to come down to Dan Koppen vs. Dan Connolly for the starting center spot, but lately Wendell has come on and looks to be a real contender for the spot. Wendell has gotten a lot of praise from Greg Bedard and looked solid in the game against the Saints. If Wendell does emerge at center it could mean the end of Koppen who can only play center, and allow a little more flexibility with Connolly and that could be especially important if Brian Waters does not return. Koppen has come on lately so the competition is far from over, but Wendell is someone to keep an eye on in the coming preseason games.
5. Rob Ninkovich to defensive end - We got a glimpse that Ninkopoop might be moving down onto the line from his primary strong side linebacker spot from mini-camp and he’s continued to do so in training camp. I’m sure he’ll be back standing up frequently but it is interesting to see a 260-pound player at LDE in what is probably the base nickel front. I doubt we’ll see him in this spot against run-heavy teams like the Jets and Ravens, but this illustrates that the Pats are not returning to the traditional 3-4 defense as their primary personnel package on defense. They are now more interested in getting as many athletes on the field as possible to challenge the passing game on all three downs. The question becomes how well can this sub-front hold up when teams try to run on it which they most certainly will. Jermaine Cunningham’s solid camp is another surprise and he could be an interesting player at this spot should injuries strike or they want to move Nink back to strong side linebacker.