The Patriots eased into their first fully padded practice with a one-hour and 30-plus minute session that was the closest we've gotten to real football since last January on Monday at Gillette Stadium.
After holding four non-padded practices to kick off training camp, the Patriots are out of the league-mandated five-day acclimation period and into the full contact portion of camp. With non-contact practices focusing primarily on the passing game, Monday's session was an opportunity to assess offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's run-game installation.
New England had competitive periods featuring the screen game, one-on-one leverage drills that pitted blockers against defenders, open-field team drills where the Pats sequenced run plays with play-action throws, and a competitive 11-on-11 period on the goal line to end the practice.
Taking care of some housekeeping items first, it was great to see live football for the first time since this season, but it came without several frontline players on both sides of the ball. Patriots edge rusher Matthew Judon, starting left tackle Trent Brown, and running back Rhamondre Stevenson didn't participate in Monday's practice. Unfortunately, starting left guard Cole Strange also appeared to injure his left leg during a blocking drill, sitting out the rest of practice.
With right guard Mike Onwenu still on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), Brown and Strange's limited participation stressed the Pats were down three starters along the offensive line. During competitive drills, New England mostly rolled with an offensive line combination of Riley Reiff, rookie Atonio Mafi, David Andrews, Bill Murray, and Conor McDermott.
Although it bears watching over the next few days, it was a good sign that Strange, who went to the training area and was being looked at by head trainer Jim Whalen, appeared to want back into practice after testing out the injury. The Pats smartly played it safe this time of year, and reports indicate that the injury isn't serious for the 2022 first-rounder.
It goes without saying that there's zero reason to press the panic button yet, but these next few practices should give us an extended look at New England's offensive line, edge rusher, and running back depth.
Here are seven takeaways from in the trenches following the Patriots first padded training camp practice of the summer:
1. First Padded Session Offers Glimpse Into Run-Game Installation
As we mentioned in the opening, the Patriots main focus in the spring and first four non-padded practices was the passing game, so Monday was the first extended exposure to O'Brien's master plan to move the ball on the ground. Featuring a heavy dosage of two tight end sets, the Pats drilled mostly zone runs from under center, building in half-bootleg actions and ways to horizontally stretch the defense using motion and perimeter screens. O'Brien may install these styles of runs first before moving onto the downhill gap schemes now that the blockers up front can rep power runs in pads. But that's what we've gleaned with only one real run-game practice to get a feel for O'Brien's plan.
2. Conor McDermott is the Early Frontrunner to Win the Starting Right Tackle Job
One of the early developments from a position battle perspective is McDermott appearing to have the inside track at right tackle over 14-year vet Riley Reiff. To be fair to Reiff, he was at left tackle for most of Monday's session since Trent Brown wasn't available. Still, McDermott began leading off team drills as early as Friday's practice while the two continued to cycle in with the other frontline offensive linemen. Free-agent addition Calvin Anderson also remains on the non-football injury list, so this is far from a done deal for McDermott.
From this viewpoint, McDermott was the Pats best participating offensive lineman in Monday's padded practice. He's a sturdy, large body who can anchor against power in pass protection, maintain his leverage on base blocks, and move defenders off the line of scrimmage when working combination blocks. Listed at 6-8, 310 pounds, McDermott's run-blocking film was solid in six starts last season. McDermott was serviceable with the Patriots desperately searching for a steadying force at right tackle. Although he can handle power, McDermott still needs to be more consistent with his footwork to protect the edge in protection and doesn't have Reiff's experience or Anderson's athletic profile. With only one padded practice to make a judgment, McDermott is the frontrunner at right tackle.
3. Surprise Camp Standout Bill Murray Brings Snarl to First Padded Practice
Another way-too-early observation about the offensive line is that practice-squadder Bill Murray has been taking reps as the top right guard in Onwenu's stead through five practices. Murray, who started his NFL career as a defensive tackle, switched to the offensive line last season. The 26-year-old has been praised multiple times by head coach Bill Belichick and is currently ahead of mid-round draft picks Atonio Mafi and Jake Andrews on the interior. Early in camp, Murray sometimes had issues keeping better interior pass-rushers in front of him. But he's a mean dude who plays through the whistle, blocking with impressive power in his lower body and knee bend to get underneath defenders' pads on a few occasions. He was one of the standouts among the offensive linemen in the one-on-one leveraging drills, holding his ground against Christan Bamore on one notable rep in Monday's practice.
4. Patriots DT Davon Godchaux, DE Deatrich Wise in Mid-Season Form
The good news for the Patriots defense is that two-thirds of their starting defensive line was in mid-season form on Monday. The Godchaux and Wise duo broke into the backfield rushing as a tandem in an early 11-on-11 period for a would-be sack and then stuffed back-to-back runs later in practice. Godchaux's been putting the Pats interior O-Line on skates by pushing the pocket with his bull rush, while Wise is picking up where he left off in a breakout season a year ago. These two will headline the Pats defensive line, which played practice out of a 3-4 alignment, on early downs, likely with veteran Lawrence Guy at the other defensive end spot, but that isn't necessarily a lock for Guy. The Pats have given Barmore, second-round pick Keion White, and second-year defensive end Sam Roberts looks in their base defense. It wouldn't be a huge surprise to see the younger, more dynamic upfield players push Guy for playing time, while White could also carve out a role as a standup edge rusher.
5. Patriots Young Edge Rushers Getting Extra Reps With Matthew Judon Limited
With Judon slowly ramping up his participation this summer, the Pats Pro Bowler's limited participation has opened the door for his younger teammates to see more reps in practice, mainly Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche. The Pats have also experimented with Ja'Whaun Bentley on the edge. Plus, rookie Keion White has gotten looks as a standup rusher and third-year pro Ronnie Perkins has been in the rotation as well. Jennings remains the sturdiest edge-setter out of this bunch, with Uche still looking like a situational player. There were a few times where Uche struggled to post-up on his edge during the one-on-one drills referenced earlier, while White has the physical composition to make a good edge-setter once he gets more reps under his belt.
6. Patriots TE Matt Sokol is Making a Strong Early Push for the Roster
The Patriots theoretically have an open competition for the third tight end spot behind Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki, and blocking ability will be a big part of that position battle. Gesicki certainly leans more toward receiver than tight end, while Henry's run-blocking took a step back last season, and he was never an impact player in that sense. Sokol, who made a pair of highlight-reel catches in non-padded sessions, has worked his way into more base reps alongside Henry in 12-personnel situations. The Pats tight end also cleared out linebacker Jahlani Tavai in one-on-ones. At 6-5, 258 pounds, Sokol has the body type to be the valuable in-line blocker in the running game that the Pats might need in certain situations.
7. Patriots Offense Experimenting With Goal-Line Packe in First Competitive Sequence
The Patriots wrapped up practice with a competitive goal-line period following a long pep-talk from head coach Bill Belichick. With second-year running back Kevin Harris as the primary back, my view was that the Pats offense went 2-for-4 in terms of punching the ball in the end zone, with an impressive defensive stand on the final play. More notably, the Pats also experimented with six offensive linemen and linebacker Jahlani Tavai at fullback. It's not the first time a Patriot linebacker has played offense as a lead blocker, but we'll see if it's just summertime experimenting or something they plan on using in games.
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