New England Patriots Training Camp: Week 3 Stock Report
Now that preseason games and ample training camp practices have provided a meaningful amount of tape to evaluate, our evaluations of players should become more precise. One-off flashes are no longer intriguing, as the increased sample size has allowed players to build a portfolio of impressive (or discouraging) play.
After resting most of their starters against Washington, the New England Patriots got an invaluable extended look at the middle class and back end of their roster. While statistical measures are still meaningless, the 60 minutes of game film provided an important extended look at individual development.
Most of the players on this list are not expected to contribute significantly to the 2014 Patriots, but that does not mean they are irrelevant. New England has never hesitated to lean on internal depth when attrition hits. By distinguishing themselves during preseason, certain fringe roster hopefuls can earn the coaching staff's trust in the fall, if needed.
With three more preseason games and joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles this week, the evaluation process is far from finished. But entering the third week of camp, let's take a look at the players who have seen their stocks shift noticeably in recent days, for better or worse.
Stock Down: Nate Solder
Nate Solder was one of the few projected starters to receive playing time against Washington, yet he may have been the Patriots' most harmful offensive player. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Solder at minus-2.3 overall, the lowest grade of any New England offensive player.
It's obviously far too early to overreact. But in an eye-opener, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss reported that Solder had been demoted to the second team in the two practices immediately following the game, with Marcus Cannon filling his spot with the starters.
That's likely a temporary demotion, and considering the circumstances, perhaps a message to Solder after he surrendered a sack and a quarterback hit and committed a holding penalty over just 29 snaps. There have been no rumblings about any injury or conditioning issues, as Solder has yet to miss a practice.
Consequently, we should not expect his struggles to linger. Solder will receive an immediate opportunity for atonement during the joint practices this week, as the likes of Trent Cole and first-rounder Marcus Smith should provide a stiff test on the heels of Brian Orakpo. Based on his three-year track record, expect Solder to reclaim his first-string role and assuage concerns.
Stock Up: Malcolm Butler
Cornerback Malcolm Butler has seen his stock rise as dramatically as any Patriot over the past week. An undrafted free agent, Butler's plus-2.2 coverage grade was seventh-best among all cornerbacks during the first week of preseason.
Juxtaposed against the struggles of more established defensive backs like Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, Butler's fearlessly tight man coverage was arguably New England's most impressive defensive performance. After the Pats' first practice of the week on Monday, Boston.com's Erik Frenz relayed Bill Belichick's measured praise of the rookie:
He's learning every day, he works hard, and he's gotten better on a daily basis. Still has a long way to go. We'll see how it goes this week against Philadelphia. It'll be another big week for all of our young players, and then Carolina, and then at some point we'll have to start making some type of evaluation of whether some of these younger players, whether their performances are escalating, leveling off, or declining.
Belichick's last point is important, as the standard around Foxborough expects players to grasp and apply coaching points to build consistently upward momentum. Error repeaters are not tolerated, and for an undrafted rookie like Butler, the margin for error is slim.
But with Brandon Browner suspended for the first four games of the season, Butler has a prime opportunity to earn a roster spot. The cornerback foursome of Darrelle Revis, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Ryan are locks for the final 53, which may leave room for one more at the position.
That does depend on how other positions shake out, and there may not be room for a fifth corner if New England decides to go heavier at somewhere like safety or defensive line. But if Butler sustains his tight coverage, he may force the Patriots' hand come cutdown time.
Stock Down: Michael Buchanan
At the beginning of the offseason, Michael Buchanan appeared primed to carve out a sub-package role as the Patriots' third defensive end. However, following a disappointing debut in which he demonstrated the same gap-discipline issues that sent him to the bench in 2013, it is unclear if he will earn increased responsibilities in his second year.
At first, Buchanan's stat line of one sack and four tackles does not appear worth condemning. However, the sack was actually rather discouraging, as it occurred only after he took a long, indirect path to the quarterback. Those "loop sacks" were commonplace in 2013, but they are unsustainable and depend on excellent coverage.
With the Pats lining up in a 3-4 base defense, Buchanan played the majority of his snaps at outside linebacker. His inexperience (and apparent discomfort) in coverage contributed to a minus-3.1 overall grade, worst among all 3-4 outside linebackers last week. Considering that containment discipline is vital to the position, Buchanan seems ill-suited to fulfill that role on a regular basis.
But the piling on Buchanan stops here, because he still appears likely to find his way onto the final roster. Projections from both Reiss and Ben Volin of The Boston Globe had Buchanan edging out veteran Will Smith, who has been inconspicuous throughout camp thus far.
The rest of Buchanan's competition consists of the raw sixth-round rookie Zach Moore and the uninspiring Jake Bequette. Winning a spot by default is never particularly encouraging, and Buchanan will find residence in Belichick's doghouse if he repeats his mistakes from 2013. So, while safe at the moment, Buchanan could use a bounce-back showing in the near future.
Stock Up: Darius Fleming
After Brandon Spikes' departure, it appeared that Dont'a Hightower would bear the brunt of New England's run-stuffing duties from the second level. And while Hightower will remain a base-package fixture, it appears the Patriots may have uncovered some early-down insurance.
Darius Fleming entered training camp with little fanfare but impressed in his first extended look as a "Sam" linebacker. A former fifth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2012, Fleming lost his first two seasons to ACL injuries. However, as Reiss noted in his film-review notes, Fleming demonstrated a grasp of different gap responsibilities based on alignment, which could ultimately aid his roster hopes:
Third-year linebacker Darius Fleming’s potential versatility showed up as he played an off-the-line role in the nickel for a few snaps. Most of Fleming’s action in the game came in an end-of-the-line role, and although still a linebacker role, the responsibilities are different between the two. While playing off the line, Fleming didn’t shed a block while playing downhill on Lache Seastrunk’s 19-yard run before making up for it on the next play by attacking the line of scrimmage and tackling Seastrunk on a 3-yard run. Fleming’s potential to back up both spots could give him an edge for a roster spot.
It wasn't all positive, as he appeared stiff in coverage at times and bit on a pair of play-action fakes. Still, his plus-4.2 run defense grade was easily the best among all 3-4 outside linebackers last week, highlighting his potential as a physical edge-setter.
If he can contribute on special teams, Fleming should have a leg up on most of the other reserve linebackers. In particular, his preseason debut appeared particularly impressive when contrasted with one of his main competitors.
Stock Down: Steve Beauharnais
After a redshirt rookie season in 2013, Steve Beauharnais stood out as a potentially intriguing option among the morass of Patriots backup linebackers. However, as the Pats continue to search for viable depth at the second level, Beauharnais did little to separate himself from his competition.
It wasn't all bad for the Rutgers product against Washington. Beauharnais did produce a pair of run stops and generally demonstrated solid stack-and-shed ability in controlling the interior gaps against the run. It's unclear what the Patriots are seeking from their depth linebackers (besides the requisite special teams ability), but Beauharnais could stick if he continues to demonstrate potential as an early-down option.
However, the aforementioned Fleming was even more impressive in that department. More importantly, Beauharnais appeared just as hapless in coverage, especially in diagnosing play action. One particular fake in the second quarter caused Beauharnais to vacate his middle-hook zone responsibilities, leading to a 23-yard slant route that flipped field position when Washington was pinned deep.
Beauharnais' struggles in pass coverage were not isolated to that single play, as he conceded seven receptions on eight targets for 71 yards. Much of that yardage reflects after-the-catch scampers that running backs accrued when they outleveraged Beauharnais in the flat—a distinct no-no for linebackers.
We should not admonish Beauharnais too severely, as he remains a relatively inexperienced linebacker who has never possessed the fluidity to become a sub-package asset. Despite his apparent leadership and mental acuity, that hard cap on his athleticism could make Beauharnais less appealing than someone like Fleming or Cameron Gordon.
Stock Up: Brian Tyms
While poor blocking and turnovers marred most offensive players against Washington, receiver Brian Tyms may have been the brightest and most surprising Patriots star that night. The 6'3", 204-pound Tyms wound up with five receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown, as well as what likely would have been a second touchdown if reviewed.
As Reiss detailed, the 25-year-old Tyms has made four stops over his two-year NFL career, with his only time on an active roster coming in Cleveland last season. However, the Browns released Tyms in February after he violated the league's substance abuse policy, resulting in a four-game suspension.
That caveat makes Tyms an even longer shot to stick on the final 53-man roster. Still, his plus-3.8 overall grade was easily the highest among all receivers last week, as his size and speed made him a frequent perimeter target on Thursday. At the very least, that could preserve Tyms' roster spot during the first cutdown to 75 players on August 26.
He also remains practice-squad eligible, since he was active for less than nine games during his only accrued season. Tyms' age might hurt his cause in that department, as the Pats could opt to keep one of their priority rookie free-agent receivers like Wilson Van Hooser or Derrick Johnson.
It would be a stretch to imagine Tyms sticking around during the fall. Ultimately, it seems more likely that he will fall into the annals of past Patriots preseason sensations like Taylor Price. But on the off chance that Tyms continues to impress against stiffer competition, he could earn more serious consideration in the event of an injury.
Stock Down: Ryan Mallett
In fairness, it is difficult for quarterbacks to shine when hung out to dry by their offensive line. And while Ryan Mallett showed glimpses of improved pocket presence under pressure, his overall performance against Washington was underwhelming.
Mallett's overall 45.5 accuracy percentage was fourth-worst among all quarterbacks last week; his performance was highlighted by a poor skipped pass to Brandon LaFell in the first quarter. Under pressure, that mark dipped to 33 percent, which ranked 45th out of 52 quarterbacks.
Given how impressive Jimmy Garoppolo appeared in contrast, the interminable trade winds surrounding the fourth-year quarterback have increased. CSNNE's Tom Curran told Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio that the Patriots "would like" to trade Mallett. But even if true, NFL.com's Albert Breer relayed an opinion from an anonymous AFC executive that illustrates Mallett's illusory value:
I know what I saw last year on tape. Hearing from media he's lighting up training camp, so I need to see that first myself. I'd assume they ask high, would probably try for a 2, settle for a 3, and maybe take a 4...And anyone giving that kind of pick, I think a team would want to do some sort of extension. But it would be a little leap of faith because no one has seen the guy do anything vs. varsity opposition, only the JV. And in those exposures, I never saw an outstanding player.
Indeed, it's hard to even imagine a team surrendering a fourth-round pick at this stage of the offseason. Perhaps a team with a shaky long-term outlook at quarterback, like the Tennessee Titans or St. Louis Rams, would be interested in taking a flier on Mallett to compete for the 2015 starting job.
But it's hard to imagine New England extracting anything more than a conditional late-round pick. That's hardly a palatable price for Brady's insurance policy, especially given that Garoppolo came advertised as a long-term project. Mallett may not have performed well, but he remains a trusted commodity.
Stock Up: Jimmy Garoppolo
One impressive half against second- and third-stringers hardly equates to definitive long-term success. And yet, considering his well-reported struggles over the first two weeks of training camp, Jimmy Garoppolo's 157-yard preseason debut was undeniably a step forward.
Garoppolo's reputed strengths, such as his quick release and deep-ball touch, were consistently evident on Thursday night. More importantly, though, he demonstrated pocket poise as intermediate and deep routes developed—a stark departure from the one-read offense he played at Eastern Illinois. Garoppolo has the mental acumen to handle New England's playbook, and for one game, it appeared he had the patience as well.
Again, it's not entirely fair to directly compare Garoppolo to Mallett, given the disparity in competition. But Garoppolo's plus-3.0 overall grade was the best among all quarterbacks last week, in part because of his deep connection with the aforementioned Tyms.
Strictly speaking in terms of their skill sets, Garoppolo seems like a better fit than Mallett for New England's option-based horizontally oriented passing game. The latter's arm strength has evoked comparisons to Drew Bledsoe, but memoirs like David Halberstam's The Education of a Coach revealed that Bill Belichick strongly preferred Tom Brady's skill set, even before Bledsoe's career-altering injury.
Consequently, it's not surprising to see that observers like NESN's Doug Kyed have speculated that Mallett could still be cut at the end of the preseason, given the Patriots' preference to keep two quarterbacks rather than three. Facing a similar situation in 2012, it was Mallett who supplanted incumbent backup Brian Hoyer.
Garoppolo would need to sustain his precocious start for that reality to manifest. While it is ultimately more likely that he serves as the third quarterback in 2014, Garoppolo's impressive start has added unexpected intrigue to a seemingly established quarterback depth chart.
*All stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).