New England Patriots: 2016 training camp, season preview

By Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange
New England Patriots quarterbacks Tom Brady (12) and Jimmy Garoppolo (10) take the field on November 8, 2015. Garoppolo will start at QB for the team for the first four games while Brady serves his Deflategate suspension. Photo by Matthew Healey/ UPI
New England Patriots quarterbacks Tom Brady (12) and Jimmy Garoppolo (10) take the field on November 8, 2015. Garoppolo will start at QB for the team for the first four games while Brady serves his Deflategate suspension. Photo by Matthew Healey/ UPI | License Photo

The New England Patriots begin full training camp with 20 returning starters from a 12-4 team that lost to Denver in the AFC championship game.

That said, the Patriots will have only 19 starters for the first four games as the roster was depleted by one with the suspension of quarterback Tom Brady.


That will put attention on erstwhile backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in training camp. Will Belichick prepare for the season by giving Garoppolo increased snaps with the first team? If so, how many? How will Garropolo look? Will it really matter by the end of the season?

Whoever is passing the ball will have a significant additional weapon at tight end. As if Rob Gronkowski was not significant enough, the Patriots traded for tight end Martellus Bennett, a Pro-Bowl tight end two years ago in Chicago when he caught 90 passes for the Bears.


Despite being docked by the league with no first-round draft pick, the Patriots bartered their way into nine selections and Bennett was one of at least 14 viable veterans acquired in the offseason.

Here is a closer look at the newcomers and key players and how they should factor into the 2016 Patriots team:



Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, MA, 7/24, 7/27

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COACH: Bill Belichick

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209-78 overall; 22-9 postseason

22nd season as NFL head coach

246-123 overall; 23-10 postseason

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2015 RECORD: 13-5



20; 11 offense, 9 defense, kicker, punter

OFFSEASON STANDOUT: Tight end Martellus Bennett.

--Acquired in a trade with the Bears this offseason, the veteran tight end has hit the ground running, and catching, in New England. He's been healthy and on the field getting key reps with quarterback Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots' passers. He's done a good job picking up the offense. He also displayed solid hands and good burst in OTA and minicamp practices. With Rob Gronkowski absent from the practice field more often than not this spring, Bennett has made impressive early strides as he works to bring an added dimension to an already loaded Patriots' passing attack.



The Draft -- A closer look at the Patriots' picks (9):

--Round 2/60 - Cyrus Jones, CB, 5-10, 197, Alabama

Waiting nearly two full rounds to finally get to pick, New England pounced on the Tide cornerback who has the versatility to play outside and in the slot. Beyond filling the Patriots' obvious need at cornerback, Jones will compete immediately for punt-return reps after leading the nation last fall with four touchdown returns.

--Round 3/78 - Joe Thuney, G/C, 6-5, 295, North Carolina State

After trading down, New England added another young body to its evolving offensive line with the selection of the smart, versatile option who was All-ACC at left tackle last fall. In New England, Thuney will compete for playing time on the inside with his early OTA and minicamp reps coming primarily at center. Thuney will battle with a growing group of young interior offensive linemen that includes Bryan Stork (fourth round 2014), Shaq Mason (fourth round 2015), Tre' Jackson (fourth round 2015) and David Andrews (undrafted 2015).

--Round 3/91 - Jacoby Brissett, QB, 6-4, 235, North Carolina State

New England stuck with the Wolkpack for consecutive picks, surprisingly going relatively early for the quarterback position. Brissett adds a needed third body to the depth chart after two years as a starter following a transfer from Florida. Given the uncertainty of Tom Brady's four-game suspension, Brissett could be Jimmy Garoppolo's backup to open the season.


--Round 3/96 - Vincent Valentine, DT, 6-3, 320, Nebraska

With its third-round pick, New England added some real beef to the interior of the defensive line that's already crowded with 2015 first-round pick Malcom Brown and veterans Alan Branch and Terrance Knighton. Valentine struggled with injuries last fall, but was a force in the middle for the Cornhuskers as a sophomore in 2014 and should battle for rotational time.

--Round 4/112 - Malcolm Mitchell, WR, 6-1, 195, Georgia

Though New England has a well-stocked cupboard of offensive weapons, it went with the productive Georgia pass-catcher with its first selection of the third day of the draft. Mitchell finished his career, despite missing all but one game in 2013 with a torn ACL, third in Bulldogs history with 174 catches for 2,350 yards with 16 touchdowns. Coming from a pro-style offense, Mitchell should translate well to New England and is the next developmental outside target, likely replacing disappointing former second-round pick Aaron Dobson on the roster.

--Round 6/208 - Kamu Grugier-Hill, SS, 6-2, 208, Eastern Illinois

A productive, All-Missouri Valley Conference linebacker at Easter Illinois, Grugier-Hill projects more as a hybrid safety and special-teams option in New England. The Hawaii native was a late riser in the draft process after an impressive Pro Day at Northwestern that included a 4.45 40. Grugier-Hill joins his former quarterback, 2014 second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo, as the second Eastern Illinois player drafted by the Patriots in the last three seasons.


--Round 6/214 - Elandon Roberts, LB, 6-0, 235, Houston

The Patriots went with an undersized linebacker on consecutive sixth-round selections adding the All-AAC Houston standout. Roberts led the FBS with 88 solo tackles in 2015, a breakout senior season. Described as a coach's dream and leader, he adds depth to the New England linebacker corps, but his best chance to make the team will be as a special teamer.

--Round 6/221 - Ted Karras, G, 6-3, 307, Illinois

New England closed out its trio of sixth-round selections with the great nephew of the late former Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras. A four-year starter for Illinois, Karras joins a very crowded interior offensive line in New England and would seem to be a developmental prospect at best.

--Round 7/225 - Devin Lucien, 6-2, 195, Arizona State

The Patriots used their final pick on the graduate transfer from UCLA who broke out with 66 receptions for 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns in his only season with the Sun Devils. Many considered Lucien a real sleeper in this draft class, but he faces strong competition on pretty crowded New England depth chart.



--TE Martellus Bennett: Set Bears record for catches by a tight end in 2014, with 90; previously with Cowboys, Giants.

--CB E.J. Biggers: Has four career interceptions in seven seasons with Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia.

--RB Donald Brown: Led nation in rushing as junior at UConn in 2008, racking up 2,083 yards and 18 touchdowns.

--G Jonathan Cooper: A highly-regarded prospect out of college; injuries have hampered his development.

--TE Clay Harbor: Has come out of Missouri Stare to play six NFL seasons.

--WR Chris Hogan: Played four seasons of lacrosse at Penn State before turning to football at Monmouth.

--LB Ramon Humber: Expected to provide depth while contributing significantly on special teams.

--DT Anthony Johnson: Played in seven games for the Dolphins in 2014, making two tackles and recovering a fumble.

--DL Frank Kearse: Pats are sixth NFL team for this journeyman; played in four games in 2015 for Redskins.

--DT Terrance Knighton: Nicknamed "Pot Roast," veteran can gobble up ball-carriers trying to run up middle.

--DT Markus Kuhn: Along with Sebastian Vollmer, he's one of two players born in Germany to play for the Pats.


--DE Chris Long: Son of former Raiders star and Hall of Fame DL Howie; he's a standout when healthy.

--LB Shea McClellin: Former first-round pick started 31 games over past three seasons for the Bears.

--WR Nate Washington: Rare pro to come out of tiny Tiffin U., he won two Super Bowl rings with Pittsburgh.

KEY LOSS: DE Chandler Jones (15/15)*

--Jones led the team in sacks last season with 12.5 and averaged nine per season in four years with the Patriots, who traded him to Arizona with one year left on his contract.


--WR Josh Boyce (0/0), CB Tarell Brown (3/2), TE Scott Chandler (15/4), DL Dominique Easley (11/1), LB Darius Fleming (6/0), LB Dane Fletcher (0/0), WR Brandon Gibson (0/0), DT Akiem Hicks (13/0), RB Steven Jackson (2/1), CB Leonard Johnson (4/3), DT Chris Jones (0/0), DT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen (1/0), WR Brandon LaFell (11/7), LB Eric Martin (4/0), LB Jerod Mayo (16/8), DT Sealver Siliga (13/4), WR Brian Tyms (0/0), LB Dekoda Watson (3/0), C Ryan Wendell (2/0), S Tavon Wilson (9/0)*

Total games played/started lost: 128/45


*Number in parentheses is games played/games started in 2015

Total games played/started lost: 156/111

-- Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. TSX's network of NFL insiders provided information for this report.

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