Two years into post-Gronk life, void at tight end still looms for Pats – NFL Nation

Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Possible trouble spots: Through 11 practices of training camp, here are five areas I view as most vulnerable:

  • Tight end: Different year, same story. The Patriots have been without Rob Gronkowski since the 2019 offseason, but still don’t have a clear-cut replacement. Matt LaCosse‘s decision to opt out has been overshadowed by bigger names such as linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, but without him, the Patriots are relying heavily on rookie Devin Asiasi (third round, UCLA). It might be asking too much. When Asiasi didn’t take part in team drills late last week after appearing to roll his ankle, there was a notable void.

  • Defensive tackle: Free-agent signing Beau Allen, a projected starter replacing Danny Shelton, hasn’t practiced in camp. The Patriots have asked a lot of 2019 fifth-round pick Byron Cowart. If Lawrence Guy suffers an injury, the foundation of the defense could crumble. Even so, the run D has been gashed at times in camp.

  • Swing offensive tackle: Jermaine Eluemunor has been locked in at right tackle in place of Cannon, and the best-case scenario is he holds down the fort and the Patriots won’t need to rely on 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste (in and out of practice), Korey Cunningham and 2020 sixth-round pick Justin Herron.

  • Playmakers at WR: There isn’t a pass-catcher who is a threat to take it to the house at any moment. After having one of the slowest receiving corps in the NFL last season, and struggling to create consistent separation, the Patriots don’t appear much different. (Unless Gunner Olszewski or Devin Ross is on the field.)

  • Inside linebacker: There’s promise with draft picks Josh Uche (second round, No. 60) and Anfernee Jennings (third round, No. 87), and sometimes the only way to find out about it is to throw them into the fire. With Hightower’s opt-out, and free-agent defections, it’s a decisive youth movement not seen at the spot since 2008-09.

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Stephen A. Smith expresses concern about the Patriots because of the handful of key players they lost.

2. Rohrwasser running out of time: It was notable that in the same week the AFC East rival Bills released veteran kicker Stephen Hauschka, effectively giving the job to sixth-round draft pick Tyler Bass, the Patriots went in the opposite direction — they brought in competition for fifth-round pick Justin Rohrwasser by signing veteran Nick Folk. That seems like an ominous sign for Rohrwasser as far as making the 53-man roster. Over the years, when the Patriots have considered turning things over to a young specialist, the importance of consistency was stressed — they wanted to see it over an extended period of time. When I asked coach Bill Belichick if Rohrwasser might simply run out of time to prove himself in a condensed camp with no preseason games, he hinted Rohrwasser might have previously been dealing with an injury. My read: With teams allowed up to 16 practice-squad spots, it would hardly be surprising if that’s where Rohrwasser lands initially.

3. Cam and Harry: Second-year wide receiver N’Keal Harry might be the player who benefits most from the Patriots’ signing of quarterback Cam Newton, as one play from camp — and what came after it — sparked that thought. Newton was scrambling to keep a red zone play alive, and Harry, after being initially well covered on an in-cut by cornerback J.C. Jackson, shook free with an excellent route along the back line of the end zone as he headed toward the sideline. Newton delivered him a strike, and while Harry was actually out of bounds as he lost awareness of the field of play, they still engaged in a jubilant celebration by leaping into the air and touching hips. There is a strong connection between them, and the fact they’re closer to the same level in terms of knowledge of the Patriots’ system — compared to Harry trying to measure up to Tom Brady‘s 20 years — seems to further cement it.

4. Stidham’s hospital visit: Second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham referenced multiple times last week how fortunate he felt to have the support of the Patriots’ medical staff and team doctors, in addition to the athletic training staff, which was notable to me. It has been assumed that whatever led Stidham to visit a Boston hospital on Aug. 20 was injury-related (tests were negative on his leg), but he has been practicing with no restrictions in recent days. “Sometimes you can’t control everything,” Stidham said. “All of us are very fortunate to have a great medical staff here, so I’m feeling good, and I’m just excited to be out there with the guys.”

5. Gilmore’s contract: What a difference three years makes. When the Patriots signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract in March 2017, it was viewed as a “big splash” — paying at the top of the market — that the team usually doesn’t make in veteran free agency. But since that time, the cornerback market has grown to the point that players not on Gilmore’s level, such as Byron Jones, are making $17 million per season. So Gilmore, the NFL’s reigning defensive player of the year who is scheduled to earn a base salary of $10.5 million this season, has a compelling case to ask for a raise. Some wondered if Gilmore’s absence for a five-practice stretch earlier in training camp was contract-related, but when asked point-blank, Gilmore said it wasn’t.

6. Cam in command: Perhaps the most notable part of the Patriots’ “game simulation” inside Gillette Stadium on Friday was that Newton led the blue team, while Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham split repetitions leading the white team. Bill Belichick might consider not publicly naming a starter before the Sept. 13 opener against Miami, but Friday further cemented the direction it has been heading since the end of the first week of training camp.

7. Hoyer’s journey: Hoyer has played for 25% of the teams in the NFL since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2009 out of Michigan State. He has spent parts of five seasons with New England. That gives him a unique perspective, which was profiled in the Patriots’ “Do Your Job” series, in which he made a notable point about something that makes New England unique to him: The valuable presence of veterans who have 10 or more years of background with the franchise. Hoyer, who is from North Olmsted, Ohio, is one of the all-time good guys to come through the Patriots’ locker room, and he and his wife, Lauren, have made New England their permanent home.

8. Belichick on rules: Often when asked his thoughts on a rule, Belichick will say something along the lines of, “It doesn’t matter what I think, but it’s our job to understand the rules and coach the players within the rules.” So when he breaks course and shares a definitive opinion, it’s notable given his standing as one of the game’s top/senior coaches. Such was the case last week when Belichick was asked on the “Rich Eisen Show” what rule he would change if given the chance to do so, and responded by sharing his viewpoint that it would be beneficial to align the pass interference rules between the pro and college games. Belichick didn’t come right out and say it, but he seems to like the college rule better, noting in the NFL “it’s a big penalty.”

9a. Brady’s dig at Colts: Patriots-Colts games in the 2000s, which featured the great Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry, will never be forgotten. Brady certainly hasn’t forgotten them. Asked about practicing inside Raymond James Stadium for the first time Friday, when artificial crowd noise was played, Brady said, “I thought it was one of the Colts’ old tapes when they used to pump all that sound in the RCA Dome.” Zing! Brady was smiling as he delivered that line, saying he was joking with Buccaneers quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen — the former Colts assistant — that he must have pulled the crowd-noise tape out from his basement.

9b. Cam close to Brady’s locker: Newton isn’t just the top candidate to replace Brady on the field, he’s among the closest to taking over Brady’s old locker. In a behind-the-scenes peek of the locker room on the latest episode of “Patriots All Access,” Newton’s locker is shown between receiver Mohamed Sanu Sr.’s and Hoyer’s, close to the exact spot where Brady’s used to be. The biggest thing is that it’s an every-other-locker setup to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

10. Did You Know: Since 2000, the Patriots are the only team in the NFL to start the same quarterback for at least 12 games in every season, which includes Brady (18), Drew Bledsoe (1) and Matt Cassel (1).

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