Monday, August 11, 2014

Patriots' Dobson, Easley off the shelf; Gronkowski participates in 7-on-7 drills

In consecutive seasons, New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick has taken his lumps from both the fan base and the media for some of his top draft picks.

Last season, Belichick selected speedy Marshall University wide out Aaron Dobson in the second round, just seven picks after he made Southern Mississippi linebacker Jamie Collins the team's top draft choice - and while the arrow is universally considered to be pointing straight up for Collins after his monster push at the back end of last season, Dobson endured a season filled with criticism and pain.
Dobson in 2013

In fact, no one draft pick showed up consistently all season - save part-time starter in cornerback Logan Ryan - so in the minds of the Foxborough faithful, the jury is still out on the draft class of 2013...

... so it goes to figure that when Belichick spent first-round draft capital this past May on Florida Defensive Tackle Dominique Easley, he of ACL tears in both knees since 2012, the boo birds wondered aloud if a twice damaged defensive tackle who hardly played any football at all in the last two years was such a great idea.

And why not?  Dobson played the second half of last season on a fractured foot - a vital piece of equipment for a guy that runs a sub 4.4 - while many of his teammates found the shelf at various points of the season, names like Wilfork snapping tendons, Mayo tearing muscles, Vollmer snapping legs and Kelly and Gronkowski shredding knee ligaments, Dobson played on...

...clearly limited as he was, and he was never a factor down the stretch - eventually having surgery in the offseason to insert a screw to hold his broken bones together - so Patriots' fans had every right to be skeptical of the Easley selection in the 2014 draft as he joined the litany of Patriots' players on the mend, already a list longer than many care to think about.

But while Wilfork and Mayo, et al, managed to start training camp with certificates to participate from the team's medical staff, Dobson and Easley started the annual right of passage on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list, respectively, and there was growing concern as the days passed that both would be doomed for the regular season PUP.

But that speculation ended on Monday.

Both Dobson and Easley participated in their first practice with the team on Monday afternoon - a Shorts-and-Shells affair on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, the sight of them both amping up the crowd on hand to a fever-pitch and causing beat writers to send out many gleeful tweets - and though they didn't finish their practice with the full team, the news is certainly welcome... is the fact the tight end Rob Gronkowski - himself a member of the New England chapter of the Dr. James Andrews rehab club along with Easley, Kelly and free agent Will Smith -participated in 7-on-7 drills for the first time this season, hopefully in advance of being cleared for full contact in the coming days.

Though Gronkowski is the biggest can of whoop-ass coming off the shelf, the return of Dobson sparks hope that the deep threat can help stretch the field for the real targets underneath while hauling in 50 or so throws himself, while a healthy Easley causes the defensive line to become more dynamic, to the point that his selection could become the steal of the 2014 draft - even as a first rounder.

It is unclear to what extent that any of these three participate in the joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, or if they will suit up for Friday night's game - but those things can't dampen the growing excitement about the monstrous team that Belichick is assembling, of which those three could have a vital role.

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