Rookie mini-camp is finally here and while it doesn't have the flare and excitement of training camp, it's a way for football-crazed junkies to pass the empty void known as summer. Not much goes on during the rookie camp but here are some of the things fans should keep their eye on:
· How are the Patriots using David Thomas and Garrett Mills? Is Mills lining up at tight end or are they moving him around a lot? This will be one of the more intriguing stories this summer because a lot of fans want to know just how the team plans on using Mills.
· Is the next Willie McGinest in this group? The Patriots selected mostly offensive players in the draft but two guys – Jeremy Minceyand Pierre Woods – have a chance to contribute as edge pass rushers. Mincey played defensive end at Florida and Woods played both end and outside linebacker at Michigan. It will be interesting to see if either, or both, players can make the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL.
· Just how polished is Chad Jackson as a receiver? It takes most receivers two or three years before they really start producing but the word is Jackson is a polished player and great route-runner. The Patriots are hoping that Jackson can come in right away and contribute so we'll get our first glance at how far he needs to go in this mini-camp.
· Is Freddie Roach a diamond in the rough? Most draft publications had Roach rated as one of the top five middle linebackers but he went undrafted. No one knows for sure why a player doesn't get drafted but past injury problems had to be a factor with Roach, who has injured his right knee twice since high school. As far as on the field goes, Roach was a very productive player for a dominant Alabama defense last year. Roach doesn't have great speed but he has the instincts and work ethic that could make him a real find for the Patriots.
· Just how strong a leg does Stephen Gostkowski have? We've been hearing about Gostkowski's booming leg since he was drafted and this will be the first time it will be on display. Obviously, kicking in rookie mini-camp is a lot different than kicking in an actual game but it's going to be interesting to see how deep Gostkowski's kick offs go and how accurate he is in his first stint as a Patriot.
· How much do the Patriots like quarterback Corey Bramlet? It was reported that the team gave Bramlet a three-year deal, which could mean he is more than just training camp fodder. Bramlet didn't have a great senior year – throwing 16 touchdowns and 18 interceptions – but like Matt Cassel last year, perhaps the Patriots see something in Bramlet they like. Tom Brady is set as the starter and one would think Cassel's spot on the roster is secure as well. The team will probably bring in a veteran once Doug Flutie lets them know if he's retuning or not, which means Bramlet could end up on the practice squad as a developmental quarterback. He'll get his first chance to state his case for a roster spot this weekend.
· Finally, which player will make the early impression with coaches and the media? We all know Chad Jackson and Laurence Maroney will make the team but there's always that one player who seems to come out of nowhere and surprises everybody. I'm going to throw a name out there: Sam Smith out of Delaware State. Smith played linebacker and safety in college but at 200 pounds, he's too small to play linebacker in the NFL. However, he's a physical player with a lot of speed and his versatility will help him in New England. Smith could be a solid developmental prospect in the defensive backfield, so watch out for him over the next couple of months. He's my early choice as an undrafted free agent who could find his way onto the Patriots practice squad but you never know who will surprise. That's part of the fun of mini-camps and training camp. Check back with Patriots.com all weekend long as we report from mini-camp. We'll let you know who looks good and which players could be possible surprises once training camp starts.