The Patriots wrapped up their ninth and final practice of training camp Monday before flying to Philadelphia to crank it up a few notches during joint practices with the Eagles. There’s more than enough of a sample size to get a good feel for the team as it really gears up for Friday’s preseason opener. Obviously, the battle for those 53 roster spots will intensify when the Patriots can showcase their talents against opponents, but here’s a list of superlatives through the early run.
Most necessary: QB Tom Brady
The 36-year-old wasn’t about to let this young offense off the hook. Stevan Ridley and Danny Amendola praised Brady for pushing the team after the first practice of camp, and the quarterback has been every bit as vocal as any other year. There’s not much time for Brady to get his young receivers up to speed, so he has kept them on point. Though they still have a ways to go, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins are developing because of Brady.
Best performance: CB Aqib Talib
Talib has been the Pats’ best player in camp. Don’t mistake him for Darrelle Revis, but Talib has shut the lights out with his ability to shadow receivers. He has intercepted Tom Brady several times, including a pick-six during Monday’s in-stadium practice. The Patriots paid Talib $5 million to be their top corner, and he has absolutely given them that so far.
Most dominant: DT Vince Wilfork
This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Linemen don’t get many chances to rip it during training camp, but given the opportunity, Wilfork has made it count. He has mauled Logan Mankins a handful of times during one-on-ones, and he blew up two plays in 10 minutes to help force a pair of Stevan Ridley fumbles last week. With less depth at defensive tackle this season, the Patriots need their lone first-team All-Pro from 2012 to keep it going.
Most reliable: WR Danny Amendola
The Patriots’ new slot machine has looked the part since offseason workouts, and it has continued in training camp. Amendola runs terrific routes, displays nice speed and absolutely provides Tom Brady with some comfort. These practice trends once occurred with Wes Welker, and if Amendola can play all 16 games — obviously, his greatest challenge — he should catch 100 passes.
Most confusing: DB Devin McCourty
Just when it seemed like McCourty was all set to make the full-time switch to safety, Bill Belichick had to plant a seed of doubt Thursday by inserting McCourty into cornerback drills. It could be a tactic to confuse opponents, but more than likely, it’s a way to keep McCourty ready if he ever needs to switch positions mid-game. McCourty has the tools to be an impact, playmaking safety, so the back-and-forth tactics are a bit curious.
Biggest breakout candidate: DE Chandler Jones
The pass-rushing force looks even better already, and his attention to detail this offseason — concentrating on his nutrition, focusing on upper-body strength to take stress of his ankles — shows the dedication of a player who wants to improve. If he gets enough reps on the edge of a four-man front, he should get double-digit sacks. Otherwise, if he’s a defensive end in the 3-4, his worth still will be there, even if it can’t be calculated by the stat column.
Best rookie: WR Aaron Dobson
The Marshall product has the tools of a flashy, successful outside receiver, and he gradually has improved each day in camp. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder has athletic catching ability, plus-speed and some interesting swagger. Tom Brady has gone to him plenty throughout camp. If Dobson keeps working to remain in Brady’s good graces, he’ll have a chance for a really nice rookie season.
Most to lose: CB Ras-I Dowling
The 33rd pick of the 2011 draft deserved all the credit he received for a strong run of offseason workouts, but he hasn’t been as consistent in training camp. The tools undoubtedly exist, but injuries are the issue. He tweaked something again Thursday, so his recovery time will be analyzed closely. With Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and Marquice Cole on the roster, there’s not a lot of time for Dowling to mess around.
Most surprising performance: DE Marcus Benard
Benard, who turned 28 on the first day of camp, has shown some explosive pass-rushing skills, to the point where he could be Mark Anderson 2.0. Benard even lined up as a defensive tackle in four-man fronts, just like Jermaine Cunningham did last year, so the coaches already are maximizing his usage. Benard had 7.5 sacks with the Browns in 2010, so the tools exist. Honorable mention certainly belongs to wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Kamar Aiken.
Most ready to emerge: LB Jamie Collins
The Pats’ first pick has forced at least three fumbles and shown nice coverage skills in camp. Collins might only be a part-time player as a rookie, but expect him to make the most of his opportunities. That, as always, is the best way to work up a depth chart, and it could happen sooner once the preseason gets under way.
Most Tebow: Tim Tebow
Because, why not?