Now that mini-camp is over, here are some of the things – good and bad – from the three days of practice:
· The rookies were very impressive. Laurence Maroney looked good catching the ball and has a burst that no Patriots running back has had in quite some time. He will be a nice complement to Corey Dillon's bruising running style. Chad Jackson and David Thomas simply don't drop the football. Both players catch virtually every ball thrown their way. We still have to see how they beat jams at the line and run routes but one thing is for sure: Jackson and Thomas can both catch the ball. After a slow start, Garrett Mills came on late in mini-camp. Mills is adjusting to learning some new things at the moment, so he doesn't look as polished as Thomas. However, Mills made some nice catches on Wednesday and Thursday and I expect to see a big improvement in him once training camp rolls around. After an early read on this rookie class, it looks like Tom Brady is going to be a happy quarterback for years to come.
· Ben Watson looks like he's ready for a breakout season. Brady looked his way a lot and it appears he is going to be a focal point when the team gets down in the red zone. If the Patriots give Watson a bigger role in the offense, he has the ability to easily catch 60-70 balls this year.
· Expect the Patriots to possibly bring in a veteran quarterback in the near future. Brady is Brady and Matt Cassel looked good but there was a big drop-off after those two. Corey Bramlet looked good at rookie mini-camp and Todd Mortensen did well in NFL Europe but both struggled this week. Cassel will probably end up being the backup this season but look for the Patriots to explore brining in a veteran as an insurance policy. Cassel has a cannon for an arm and looks more and more comfortable on the field every time I see him.
· Reche Caldwell had a solid camp. The former Charger showed good hands, the speed to get down the field and he seems to have developed a nice chemistry with Brady already. The Patriots have a lot of question marks at receiver but if Caldwell and Jackson can continue to develop in this offense, they may be stronger at that position than most people are projecting.
· Two young receivers that played well were Bam Childress and John Stone. Both players got a lot of reps with Brady and caught the ball well. The Patriots are going to need one of these young guys to step up and after mini-camp; Childress and Stone appear to have the advantage over the rest of the receivers on the team. The two were also used as punt and kickoff returners.
· Ellis Hobbs always has the most energy of any player on the field. He's like the Energizer bunny; he just keeps going and going. People always talk about "it." I don't really know what "it" is but appears Hobbs has "it." He was all over the field making plays and helping out some of the first-year guys. With Hobbs going into his second season, the Patriots don't have to overpay for Ty Law because the youngster may be on his way to a Pro Bowl soon himself.
· Eric Warfield really struggled. He looked slow and didn't react well when the ball was in the air. I hate to say it but wearing No. 23, he looked like a taller version of the player who wore that number last season. Just in case you forgot who that player was, it's not meant to be a compliment. After watching him at mini-camp, I would say Warfield's roster spot on this team is far from secure.
· James Sanders and Tebucky Jones both got a lot of reps and looked good. Eugene Wilson dressed for all the practices but didn't participate in most of the drills. Sanders and Jones lined up all over the field – including outside linebacker in some packages – and were around the ball a lot. There is speculation that Wilson may play some corner this year. If that's the case, these two will have to play well until No. 37 returns to the lineup. I wrote a story on Sanders last week because I thought he had a chance to be a surprise this year in the Patriots secondary. After what I saw at mini-camp, I feel even stronger about that possibility.
· Johnathan Sullivan needs to work on his conditioning but he wasn't as out of shape as some people have suggested. Actually, standing next to Vince Wilfork, Sullivan looks like a shrimp. After the first day of practice, Sullivan walked off the field all by himself but Wednesday he left talking with Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Wilfork. That was good to see because some of the new players the Patriots brought in last year never really seemed to fit in with the rest of the team.
· Martin Gramatica kicks the ball extremely low. He had a similar problem towards the end of his career in Tampa Bay that led to some of his kicks getting blocked. Both Gramatica and rookie Stephen Gostkowski hit a majority of their field goal attempts but Gostkowski clearly has the stronger leg of the two kickers.
· Willie Andrews was the cream of the crop at returning kicks. If the rookie can show some promise at defensive back during training camp, he could earn his way onto the team as a return specialist and backup cornerback. Andrews has great speed and it doesn't take him long to find the crease and explode through it. Once he's in the open field, Andrews in gone.
On a final note, the Patriots public relations department has confirmed that training camp will begin on July 28.