With the way the Patriots roster has fluctuated seemingly by the hour in recent days it would be understandable if fans thought the start of the preseason was on the horizon and not the regular season. Despite the constant transactions, and Bill Belichick said there would likely be more in the coming days, 2013 will kick off in less than a week in Buffalo.
Belichick opened his Labor Day press conference in typical fashion, explaining the team's mindset as it prepares for the opening opponent. "We're full speed ahead on Buffalo" was how the coach described things before detailing the changes that have gone on in Western New York.
Former Syracuse coach Doug Marrone is set to open his first season in charge of the Bills and brought offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett along with him from college. The two will try to figure out how to make the offense work with a rookie at the helm.
First-round pick E.J. Manuel missed the last half of the preseason after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee and just returned to practice on Sunday. If he's unable to go, undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel will get the start. Either way, the Patriots will b prepared.
"This isn't the first time we've had to prepare for two different quarterbacks," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Whoever's out there we'll just have to be able to make sideline adjustments."
Manuel is an outstanding athlete but was maddeningly inconsistent at Florida State. He has terrific size, speed and arm strength but had trouble putting those qualities together in college. He was enjoying a strong preseason before getting hurt, and now was forced to miss several valuable practices and preparation days as he healed.
Tuel comes from a struggling program at Washington State and finished his career under former Texas Tech guru Mike Leach. He worked out of the spread attack and made quick decisions with the ball, which is something the Patriots defense will need to take away regardless of whom is at the controls.
While Belichick and the Patriots don't know for certain which player will open at quarterback, they do know how Buffalo will try to keep up with New England's offense. The Bills have three primary weapons on offense, two of which are quite dynamic. Running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson return, as does wideout Stevie Johnson. Spiller and Johnson will look to turn in a big play or two in order to help out their rookie quarterback.
"They have a lot of explosive players. Spiller, Johnson are guys that can hit the home run ball," Belichick admitted.
"Obviously you have a guy like C.J. Spiller, he averaged 6 yards a carry last year. Fred Jackson has always been a hard guy to tackle. They're good backs, they can catch the ball out of the backfield. They're all around backs.
"I've seen the growth of C.J. Spiller from the time he was a rookie till now. He takes the ball anywhere. He'll test the edge, even when the edge is set he'll run up inside. Strong lower body that's developed over the years. He's just a complete back."
Buffalo will likely need some quick strikes in order to keep up with the Patriots attack, and return man Leodis McKelvin is another candidate to get that done. He led the league is punt returns last season and is also dangerous on kickoffs.
The Patriots have had tremendous success against the Bills defense over the years, although the presence of former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is worth noting. Pettine had occasional success slowing down Tom Brady & Co. in the recent past and he understands how New England's offense operates.
"It's always challenging to go on the road to open the season, especially in the division," Belichick said.
Gronk Day 2
Tight end Rob Gronkowski was back on the practice field for the second straight day with his teammates. During the media portion of practice, after stretching and warming up, Gronkowski was with his first-offense teammates jogging through plays.
Though that work is a clear positive step for the Pro Bowler as he returns from offseason arm and back surgeries, it's still a far cry from full-contact, game-day NFL action. Gronkowski reportedly left the practice field shortly after the media did on Sunday, so the degree of his participation in these early season practices is very much uncertain at this point.
Belichick referred to his tight end as "day to day" and deflected the idea that Gronkowski had taken a significant step in his rehab process in the last couple days.
"No," Belichick said. "Just the next step."
Getting better through youth
The Patriots have an abundance of rookies on the 53-man roster to open 2013. As of Monday afternoon the number stood at 14 rookies. That's more than any other season in more than a decade in New England. The previous high in the last 10 years for rookies on the roster to open the season came in 2010 when Belichick carried 11 to open the year.
In fact the average for rookies on the roster at this point over the last 10 seasons is 7.5, slightly more than half the number this fall. And according to the Boston Globe, the Patriots have the most rookies (14) and undrafted rookies (7) of any NFL team at this point.
So, did Belichick have a goal of wanting to get younger as a team heading into the new season?
"No," he responded adamantly, "we want to win. That's what we're here for. We kept the players that we feel give us the best chance to be competitive this year. That's what our job is.
Comings and goings
The Patriots continued to work on their roster on Labor Day. Early in the day that included the release of rookie free agent offensive lineman Josh Kline, coinciding with the re-signing of veteran cornerback Marquise Cole. Cole had actually been cut just a day earlier along with a slew of other moves, but said he expected to be back all along.
"I knew what was going on," Cole said.
Later on Monday New England officially added undrafted rookie free agent wide receiver Quentin Sims to the team's practice squad. Sims had spent camp in New England before being cut Aug. 31 as the team got down to the 53-man roster limit. The young receiver flashed in the preseason finale against the Giants, caching a pair of touchdowns from Tim Tebow. He is officially the sixth member of what can be an eight-man squad.
Finally, rookie free agent offensive lineman R.J. Dill was on the field for practice in New England wearing No. 71 although the team has not yet officially announced his signing to the roster or the practice squad, with the latter seemingly more likely. Dill began his college career at Maryland, where he started 33 games. But after receiving his degree he used a rare NCAA rule to transfer and play at Rutgers last fall while pursuing his graduate studies.
At 250 pounds Patriots backup running back LeGarrette Blount is anything but your typical kick returner. It's also a role he's never held in the NFL and really hasn't done regularly since high school.
But this preseason New England gave Blount a few chances back deep and the veteran not only held his own, but seemed to enjoy himself in the role. He returned his one kickoff 27 yards.
With Leon Washington having been cut on Sunday and the Patriots without an entrenched incumbent at the spot, there's always a chance Blount could get more opportunities in a role that's rare for a man of his size. Belichick said that Blount's overall experience as an NFL runner are some help in his potential new role.
"He's got a lot of experience carrying the ball and he has good vision, he has good running skills. He's seemed to pick it up well," Belichick said before admitting Blount's certainly not the prototype as returner. "Most return guys aren't that kind of size. I'd say that definitely puts him in the above average category, no doubt about that."
Belichick was asked for an injury update on offensive lineman Will Svitek. Not surprisingly the coach wasn't looking to offer up any information as he heads into the first game week of the new season.
"I'm sure the much anticipated injury report will come out on Wednesday and we'll fill you in on everything then," Belichick said with a smile before a playful follow-up query asked for a preview. "I don't want to lose the anticipation that you guys have for that Wednesday report coming out by putting anything in there that you already have early. It's like Christmas morning. You can unwrap all the gifts at once."
Tim Tebow was released on Saturday, but Monday was the first chance the media had to ask Belichick about moving on from his noteworthy third-string quarterback. As he does with pretty much every player, Belichick generically left the door open for a Tebow return.
"I don't know what's going to happen during the year," Belichick said. "Certainly we've had a lot of players that have left here and come back here. I don't think that would be anything – that's already happened multiple times this year."
Belichick smiled and seemed to be impressed as he walked to the microphone for his first press conference in the brand new media workroom inside Gillette Stadium. … The Patriots worked out in helmets, shells and pants for their morning practice. The only player missing from the field during the media's viewing period was the offensive lineman Svitek. The veteran walked through the locker room later in the day wearing a surgical sock and knee brace on his right knee. … Markus Zusevics, the second-year offensive lineman who's on injured reserve, walked through the locker room with his right arm in a sling. … A day after he was cut, Leon Washington still has a locker intact with his name on it in the Gillette Stadium locker room.