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Here’s the schedule for the training camp previews:
Monday: Tight Ends and Wide Receivers
Tuesday: Quarterbacks and Runningbacks
Wednesday: Special Teams and Coaching
Key Departures: Kyle Brady
Key Arrivals: Marcus Pollard
The tight end unit is still led by the big and speedy Ben Watson. Though he hasn’t exactly lived up to the high expectations of New England fans – whether it’s because of his work ethic, hands or the system – Watson is still a valuable commodity and has blossomed into a pretty decent blocker. He will get the majority of snaps at tight end and may take a slot position at times.
The picture gets a little more foggy after that as the Patriots welcome into the fold former Colt Marcus Pollard and welcome back oft-injured David Thomas. Thomas showed signs of brilliance in his limited action with the Pats so far and could provide a little backup for Watson, who had pretty much no help in 2007. Pollard will primarily block, filling the void left by Kyle Brady. The Patriots have also used OL Ryan O’Callaghan as a blocking tight end in 3 TE sets. With New England using more and more multiple tight end sets, the play of Pollard and Thomas will be important when it comes to the running game, especially on the right side of the line.
It all starts and ends with Watson as Patriot fans still hold out hope that he can develop into an Antonio Gates type of TE. I just don’t see that happening in New England with all the other weapons around him. One thing he has to improve on is his hands and yards after catch, which have both been abysmal and holding his progress back. I see him having most of his impact near the goal line. If he stays healthy, Thomas should have a breakout year in the backup position and I see Pollard as a distant third stringer.
Key Departures: Donte Stallworth
Key Arrivals: None
Re-signing Randy Moss is as important a move the Patriots have made in the past few seasons. His 2007 numbers were just silly (1,493 yards, 23 touchdowns) and no one can expect a repeat performance. His playoff numbers (94 yards, one touchdown) almost were null and void as he caught what was nearly the Super Bowl winning touchdown (…nearly…). Look for him to put up another 1,100 yards with 15 or so touchdowns and save a little for the playoffs. He can still stretch the field as good as anyone in the game and is an invaluable asset to the offense.
Wes Welker also showed he can play (112 catches, 1,175 yards, eight TDs) and should still be able to dominate the slot for another century mark in catches in 2008. He’s a younger and better Troy Brown and should not be affected by the absence of a solid No. 2 wideout.
Speaking of that, Donte Stallworth jetting for Cleavland leaves a little cloud of the No. 2 slot on the outside. It basically comes down to Chad Jackson, Jabar Gaffney and Kelley Washington. Gaffney has shown his worth since signing with the Patriots but it’s unknown how he would do in a starter’s role against top flight corners. Washington is extremely valuable on special teams and will play there most of the time.
Then, of course, is Jackson, the trump card of the offense. The Pats traded up to get this guy in the second round and so far he’s been a bust. I still have faith in him but there’s only so long you can hold out for a guy. He has the size and speed, it’s his football IQ and work ethic which have been questioned. He would fit in perfectly as the No. 2 WR in the set, and this is basically his last chance in a Pats uniform to show he belongs on the field.
Moss will have another big year, but save some for January/February. Welker will once again own the slot and catch 100 balls, even with the upgraded attention he will receive from defenses. I’m still very skeptical about Chad Jackson, but I think he will know this is his last chance and show at least glimpses that he understands what’s going on. Gaffney will fill in nicely again, but he’s not a top flight receiver. The offense will once again revolve around Moss and the only question is whether opposing defenses try to rough him up a little more ala Philly and the G-Men.