Training Camp Tour: All eyes on QB Jimmy Garoppolo in Foxborough
On Day 2 of the PFF training camp tour, Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo traveled to Foxborough, Mass., to take in the New England Patriots’ first day of camp.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Over 12,000 Patriots fans came out for Day 1 of training camp, bringing their first-day enthusiasm in the 90-plus degree heat. Quarterback competition hasn’t been a story in New England in years, and while there’s not a true competition at the position this season, backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be the most important player to watch during training camp. He looked strong in his work with the first team and he’ll be the hottest topic in New England throughout the preseason.
Spotlight on QB Jimmy Garoppolo
With an unprecedented start to the regular season ahead for the Patriots due to quarterback Tom Brady’s looming four-game suspension, all eyes are on the quarterback reps in training camp between Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Both quarterbacks saw their fair share of first-team action in what amounted to a solid day for Patriots’ quarterbacks. Brady showed his usual red-zone accuracy, putting the ball on the money on a number of throws, including a strike to TE Rob Gronkowski to kick off team drills. Garoppolo was efficient, as well, working to his second read to find free-agent WR Chris Hogan for a touchdown during red-zone work and finishing seven-on-seven drills with touchdowns to Hogan and Gronkowski on two of his last three throw.
While there is no controversy in New England and Brady is already slated to start upon his return in Week 5, Garoppolo’s development during the month of August is crucial for the Patriots to get off to a good start during their first four games. With only 31 passes to his name in two years, last year’s preseason action may be the best look we’ve had at Garoppolo’s potential. He saw extended action in the first two games last season against the Packers and Saints, respectively, and the results showed both the potential pitfalls of a young quarterback, but also the possibility for improvement.
Against the Packers, Garoppolo graded earned a negative overall grade, taking seven sacks and averaging only 5.3 yards per attempt. Fast-forward to the next week, and he completed 28-of-33 passes for 269 yards (8.2 yards/attempt) against the Saints, good for a positive overall grade in an effort that showed what Garoppolo is capable of in the Patriots’ system. The biggest difference? Garoppolo was much more decisive against the Saints, making good, quick decisions and getting the ball out of his hands more efficiently than the seven-sack effort against the Packers.
Patriots fans will be watching Garoppolo closely this preseason, and keeping an eye on his decision-making will give great foresight into how the first four games of the season will play out.
Replacing Chandler Jones
Coming into the offseason, the Patriots were faced with the tall task of re-signing a number of talented defensive players who are in line for big contracts within the next year or so. They resolved one such issue by trading DE Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for a second-round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper, but who will replace Jones’ production? Despite posting 13 sacks last season by PFF numbers, Jones has always been a good—but not great—pass-rusher, as he’s ranked in the top 30 in the league twice in his four years as a pro. Still, he’s been one of the best pass-rushers on the Patriots’ roster, and replacing his every-down role will be a tall task. He played 963 snaps last season (including the playoffs), after an injury-riddled 2014 that kept him at only 756 snaps and a ridiculous 2013 season that saw him play 1,281 of 1,308 snaps (97.9 percent, playoffs included). Jones was also versatile enough to move around the defensive line, whether playing on the edge, kicking inside to rush the passer, or even playing 3-4 defensive end at times in base sets. So, who will replace Jones’ production?
Chandler Jones’ pass-rush grade rank among by season
As is often the case in New England, it looks like they will take a “see-what-sticks” approach to training camp and beyond. It starts with DE Jabaal Sheard, who was New England’s most efficient pass-rusher a year ago when he finished tied for 16th among the league’s edge rushers, at 83.8. Throw in his 89.7 run-defense grade, and a duplicate season from Sheard will be a great start for New England. On the other side, DE Rob Ninkovich has been a consistent face on the Patriots’ defense, bouncing through multiple roles since he first saw extended playing time in 2010. He’s played even more snaps than Jones the last few years, but a downtick in production may be cause for concern—making it perhaps even more important to find depth on the edge.
Here’s a look at the other options on the edge:
Signed as a free agent after the Jones trade, Long has been a solid pass rusher throughout his career, but like Ninkovich, his production has taken a downturn the last two years. However, given Long’s career-long struggle against the run, it may be best to deploy him as more of a pass-rush specialist, and that limited role may allow him regain his disruption off the edge that peaked from 2010 through 2013.
A PFF favorite coming out of Arkansas in 2014, Flowers was the No. 2-graded edge-rusher that season, and the top-graded option against the run. As a rookie, Flowers only saw the field for four snaps in an injury-riddled “redshirt” season. Not only was Flowers extremely productive his last year in college, but he was excellent on his 73 preseason snaps last year, grading positively against the run and as a pass-rusher where he picked up a sack, four QB hits, and five hurries on only 40 rushes.
Another rookie last season, Grissom played 132 snaps, grading negatively against both the run and as a pass-rusher. He was deployed mostly as an undersized (265-pound) interior pass-rusher, but he is better-suited to play on the edge. Grissom posted a strong grade his last year at Oklahoma on his limited 541 snaps, as he played a variety of roles for the Sooners.
Listed as a linebacker on the Patriots’ roster, Johnson is also listed at 280 pounds, so he’s more of an edge-rusher than pure linebacker. Since entering the league in 2013, Johnson has played only 13 snaps, but he had a dominant preseason for the Patriots last year, finishing with a strongly-positive pass-rush grade on only 55 rushes (two sacks, four QB hits, four hurries). Another huge performance could put Johnson in line for a role as a pass-rush specialist.
Joe Thuney with a chance to start as a rookie at guard?
New England has a plethora of interior offensive line options, and despite all of the talent that has been drafted the last two years, the Patriots still grabbed NC State guard Joe Thuney in the third round back in April. With a number of the guards banged up early in camp, Thuney is seeing time with the first team and he has a chance to state his case to start as a rookie. He was incredibly productive at NC State, finishing as a top-20 guard in 2014 before moving to left tackle last season and finishing fifth overall in the nation in our grading. Thuney’s versatility playing multiple positions is one of the things we liked most about him coming out, but it may be his work at guard that allows him to stand out and see early playing time. There’s still a long way to go, but Thuney is getting his chance early in camp and his preseason development will be one of the stories of Patriots’ camp.
– Star linebacker Jamie Collins was not present at practice, leaving most media colleagues to wonder about his whereabouts.
– Undrafted free agent running back D.J. Foster showed his wide receiver-like skills (he played both positions in college) during red-zone drills, often getting open against linebackers and safeties. Foster has the skillset to stick as a third-down back in New England’s system.
– Patriots fans have heard this one before, but WR Aaron Dobson had a few nice catches during team drills. The 2013 second-rounder is facing an uphill battle to make the roster in a crowded group of wide receivers, but week-to-week consistency has always been his downfall, and a full camp of strong days are needed to state his case for a roster spot.