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Key observations for day 8 of training camp included Wes Welker getting physical for the first time at camp, Julian Edelman working as a running back and the passing game getting a tuneup.
As the end of the first week draws to an end, we will examine specific areas that the Patriots have focused on so far. Thursday's key point is the variety of tight ends and how they've been utilized so far.
Welker Takes a Few Hits
It's hard to believe that only a few days into camp, barely recovered from his season-ending knee injury, that Wes Welker would have no problem getting knocked down twice by teammate Jerod Mayo. That was exactly what happened on Thursday morning causing the crowd to hold their collective breath when Welker took a hit after a reception over the middle.
"That made me a little nervous," one spectator in the crowd whispered to his family. Understandably so, it has been just six months since Welker's injury in Houston and his miraculous return is comes to bit of a surprise to everyone. Team doctors and coaches have officially cleared Welker fit for practice, which now includes testing his ability to take hits the way he used to. Initial results should be reassuring to many, both on the team and in the stands.
There are still many questions to be answered in regards to the wide receiver position. Interestingly enough, most of the answers depend on the how well Welker can maintain his health.
Some of the other top contenders for a role at receiver include second-year stand-out Julian Edelman, rookies Taylor Price, Brandon Tate and Massachusetts native Buddy Farnham. Farnham signed as a free agent from Brown University and has been making a notable showing on the practice fields this week.
When asked about his chance to play in the NFL for his hometown team, Farnham stated, "Luckily enough I was able to get this opportunity with the Patriots in my own back yard."
Edelman Continues to Show His Versatility
Kick returner, wide receiver, quarterback and perhaps a running back? That's exactly what Julian Edelman is doing in camp.
Edelman has literally been all over the field since the beginning of training camp as he continues to show his versatility. The former Kent State quarterback was drafted by the Patriots as a wide receiver and has since been able to show his ability to play many other roles.
For the second day in a row, Edelman was going through drills with the running backs. The 5-foot-10 receiver led Kent State in rushing yards with 1,551 averaging 114.5 yards per game. It would not be surprising to see Edelman line up in some third down scenarios and even picking up the job to block some defensive ends should the need arise.
Number 11 isn't difficult to spot on the practice field. He has been involved some of the more memorable plays, including a bobbling catch made just enough for a first down in the midst of coverage. Many plays, Edelman resembles Wes Welker with his quickness in making cuts and his ability to keep control of the ball.
Edelman simply put, has proven to be an all-purpose weapon for the offense.
A Passing Phase
The Patriots passing game received much of the attention on Thursday. Tom Brady was clearly frustrated at points with blown opportunities, letting the offensive line hear it all. Last season, the Brady-led offense was not nearly as effective in the red zone as they were in 2007, culminating with the debacle against the Ravens in the playoffs. In addition to injuries affecting the roster, and the struggle of the offense to mount a credible running attack, a major issue was that Brady just wasn't on the same page as his receiving squad.
For Thursday's two-minute drills, Torry Holt struggled to make a catch down the center field allowing the ball to slip right through his fingers. Throughout camp, veteran tight end Alge Crumpler has continued to have his own difficulties, including Thursday's disconnect with backup quarterback Brian Hoyer who overthrew the veteran end time and again.
Brady has been seen on several occasions breaking down offensive schemes for rookies such as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. With the return of Welker, the emergence of Edelman and the continued superior performance of Randy Moss, the Patriots' offense should see more red zone success this year despite the new faces on the roster.
Kisha's Key Point: Variety in Tight Ends Adds Offensive Strength
During the offseason, Patriots Insider analyzed the recent struggles of tight ends in the New England Patriots offense. Despite being the preferred target for the group last season, the reality was that Ben Watson was underutilized. The few plays that Watson was thrown a pass, his inability to control several potential game-changing catches led to many believe the team either wrote him off, or that the Patriots just didn't care for the tight end position.
This past offseason, the team's increased focus on tight ends was evident with the signing of veteran Alge Crumpler and the drafting of Arizona's Rob Gronkowski and Florida's Aaron Hernandez. Grownkowski had a staggering 75 receptions for 1,197 yards along with 16 touchdowns. Hernandez also considerable success and concluded his 2009 season with 68 receptions for 860 yards and five touchdowns. The trio is an obvious upgrade to what was left from last year.
Crumpler looks slimmer now from when he originally signed with the Patriots and it has definitely improved his mobility on the field. Still not as quick as the young tight ends, Crumpler has been utilized mostly as stolid blocking tight end with making a few short catches mixed in during the 1-on-1 drills. Crumpler's veteran leadership is something else not to overlook.
Gronkowski towers over the defenders covering him, and for that matter, nearly everyone else on the field. That height has enabled him to become an easy target for Brady. Despite those advantages, Gronkowski, like several of the other rookies, is still struggling to get a solid understanding on the playbook. Dropped balls and missed scoring opportunities are crucial issues to correct during training camp and Gronkowski needs to improve in both areas to become a viable weapon. Despite his struggles, the rookie has made numerous difficult catches over the defense during man-on-man coverage, displaying traits that had him graded as a first round pick by some NFL scouts.
Hernandez was a fourth round pick in the Draft and the Patriots have already seen some positives from him. The former Gator adds variety to the tight end group with his slimmer, shorter frame. He's also considerably faster than Crumpler or Gronkowski. Hernandez has been used in training camp as the prime receiving tight end. He is quick to adjust to coverage and can maneuver around larger defenders. Not completely comfortable with the playbook yet, Hernandez has also dropped numerous balls and has had to hear from Brady.
The renewed focus on tight ends in the offense, with increased reps in team drills, will only help.
Kisha Tapangan is a contributing writer for PatriotsInsider.com She also maintains her personal blog Necessary Roughness and can be found on Twitter @KishaT. Be sure to check in all camp long for regular updates by Kisha from Foxboro