With the first game of the season fast approaching, the impact of not having any preseason contests is about to be felt.
There are always unknowns entering a season, but this year they're compounded. Between a roster featuring many first- and second-year players likely to be playing important roles and the lack of competition outside their own roster, the Patriots have no choice but to jump in like all the other teams and find out what they got.
"We'll just have to take the information that we have, the competition that we've had on the field, both in one-on-one drills and group drills and team drills," said Bill Belichick on Wednesday morning via Webex of evaluations, "and also there are some things that we do that our opponents don't do as much of. So, a player may look a little better or maybe a little worse against our team based on what he's working against and what we do than maybe what the norm is out there. We have to take that into consideration, as well."
Each position coach will have their own sets of challenges, from Ivan Fears, who has a mostly veteran group, to Nick Caley, whose group of tight ends and fullbacks have a collective 10 games of NFL experience.
"I think the hardest part about that is holding onto the damn ball in traffic, understand what I'm saying?," said Fears of his running backs being ready for a game. "We're almost full speed up front, so the blocking schemes, guys making their reads and doing the right things, that's there. The thing you're missing is someone actually tugging at the ball when the guy's going down to the ground or trying to break a tackle."
For Caley, trying to balance getting his players for a game while also evaluating them is done by tossing them all in the deep end and finding out who can swim.
"You put a lot on their plate and that starts in the meetings, first and foremost," said Caley. "Whether that's the installation of scheme, the addition of different fundamentals and techniques that we're going to add on their plate.
"The way that we practice, just trying to make things as tough as you possibly can, putting them all in as many pressure situations as you can, moving them around and seeing how much value they have in a multitude of roles and doing that day after day after day after day."
Troy Brown's returners are as inexperienced as Caley's group, with Brown tapping his own experience as a young returner in the league for what they can expect coming at them off the leg of NFL punters and kickers.
"One of the biggest things I had to teach the guys was the fact that all these rugby kicks and stuff like that, shank kicks, a lot of that stuff goes out the window," said Brown. "Now, you gotta deal with guys who do this as a job. This is a profession and they have a lot of time to perfect their craft and they can put all kinds of different spins on the ball and kick them in different spots. Getting them used to seeing different types of punts and being able to get up there and field them and get set on the ball and make sure they can get for possession of it."
Belichick acknowledged the returners were particularly difficult to evaluate outside of game action.
"Can they make the first guy miss? Can they gain extra yards in the open field with their return skills? How do they handle the ball with the decision making with guys on them or fair catching or sort forth, setting up blocks and showing their strength, their quickness or run instincts in a live setting as opposed to a team setting where generally we are tagging off?"
For wide receivers coach Mick Lombardi, getting his younger unit ready to tackle the Patriots complicated offensive system started this spring.
"You try to do [film work] in the preseason and talk about all your rules, and look, there's a lot of different rules on specific routes and everything like that," said Lombardi. "We talk through and try to cover a great deal. Something happened this time, something different might happen the next time. It's all a learning experience, whether they get it right or wrong."
Despite all the variables, Belichick maintained the short-term focus that he's built the organization on when it comes to the unknown.
"It's a little bit of projection, and other teams have kind of the same conversation," said the head coach. "We're all playing on the same field, we just have to do the best we can with the information and knowledge that we have and make the decisions that we feel are best for the team."
Webex Quotes of Note
Bill Belichick on Deatrich Wise's improved size:
"I think his play has improved. I think some of that is due to technique and experience, but he is a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger. I think that's a good thing, not a bad thing, but in the end, I think the major improvement in his play from what I've seen so far this year in training camp has been his technique, how quickly he reads and reacts and recognizes plays and just improving in some of the fundamentals. He's a very hard worker, and he's the type of kid that when you ask him to work on something, he really goes all in and makes a strong commitment to try to improve it and make it better."
Ivan Fears on wishing he could see J.J. Taylor see some live action:
"The guy I miss seeing is J.J.. What the hell's he going to be able to do when he's one-on-one with a guy and he's got to make a play? Yeah, I miss that. I would really love to see him get some live action before you have to make a big decision on him. Is he gonna make the play? Is going to hold onto the damn ball? All those things are really important to see and you only got what you got from college and but that's not the NFL."
Troy Brown on leadership with the Patriots:
"You don't have to be a real vocal person to be a leader. It's just about how you prepare as a professional and get ready for your job each and every day. Are you consistent with it and can you also grow as a player even after you've been around the league for a while?"