FOXBOROUGH – Patriots training camp is in full swing.
New England has practiced nine times through two weeks, putting the pads on for four of them. Some of the likely suspects have performed well so far in camp, like Matthew Judon and Christian Barmore. On the flip side, there have been some areas of concern, such as the offensive line’s overall performance during the padded practices.
There are also some players who have stood out that didn’t seem likely entering camp. As the Patriots are set to begin their first game week of the preseason, here are three players who have surprised in a positive way through the first two weeks of training camp.
Patriots training camp surprises
It’s no secret that the veteran tight end’s first season didn’t go the way he or the team wanted it to. Smith only had 28 receptions for 294 yards and a touchdown (a career low). He also played just 51 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps, which is the lowest percentage of a team’s snaps he’s played in over his five-year career.
Entering Year 2 of his four-year, $50 million deal, it’s evident that Smith needs to be much better going forward to make the contract worth it for the Patriots. He’s gotten off on the right foot so far.
On the third day of Patriots training camp, Smith might have had the best practice of his two seasons in New England. During the 7-on-7 portion of that day’s practice, Smith caught a pass from Mac Jones over third-year emerging safety Kyle Dugger in the back of the end zone. The play got a huge ovation from the crowd. He caught another pass for a touchdown from Jones over Dugger again later in the session. He did the same thing again in 11-on-11s that day, too.
Here’s Jonnu Smith’s leaping TD grab over Kyle Dugger pic.twitter.com/jpUThlgLMM
— PGS NEST (@NestPgs) July 29, 2022
Smith had another standout practice on Thursday. With the pads on, Smith was Jones’ top target that day, catching six passes on eight targets. Many players on the Patriots’ offense have said the new streamlined offense has helped make them play faster. Smith, who’s been one of the league’s best tight ends in yards after catch since entering the NFL, could be a beneficiary of that, especially if Jones uses him as a safety valve.
While the contract over him looms, Smith isn’t letting it dictate how he plays.
“I love football. I got here by just loving football, loving my teammates, loving the guys around me. All that stuff just comes with it,” Smith said. “We didn’t grow up playing in our backyards thinking about contracts. We just played because we love the game. I think the reason why so many of us in this game have had success is because we worry about just playing the game and playing it with love. Everything else will take care of itself.”
One of the top players in the first week of camp was second-year safety Joshuah Bledsoe. The Patriots’ 2021 sixth-round pick practically spent his entire rookie season on some injured list, dealing with a hand injury.
During team drills in the first week of camp, Bledsoe had five pass-break ups and was in the vicinity of a few more incompletions. As the week went on, he started to get some reps with the first unit as a safety and a nickel corner. That didn’t last for too long though because slot corner Jonathan Jones and safety Jabrill Peppers both returned from the physically unable to perform list (PUP).
Even on the second unit though, Bledsoe has continued to impress. During Friday’s scrimmage, Bledsoe made a good jump on a Jones pass to Smith in the end zone for an interception.
Joshuah Bledsoe steps in front of a Mac Jones pass and comes down with the INT.
— Brandon Carr (@bcarr_13) August 5, 2022
As he’s impressed so far in his first training camp, Bledsoe said he’s just “glad to be out there on the field” after missing all of last season.
“Just feels good to be out there on the field with my teammates,” Bledsoe said. “Obviously, you make plays that just build the confidence. Now, I’m just trying to take it play-by-play and just give my all each play.”
And while Bledsoe’s getting good feedback, he’s not letting it get to his head.
“[The coaches] say I’ve been doing pretty good. I’m just taking it day-by-day though,” Bledsoe said.
Here’s a nice rep by #Patriots safety, Joshuah Bledsoe on Jonnu Smith.
Bledsoe had a nice day for the #Pats with three PBUs.
— Brandon Carr (@bcarr_13) July 29, 2022
Entering training camp, the Patriots’ 2020 third-round linebacker likely needed an impressive training camp and preseason to make the roster. Jennings has done that so far.
Working as an edge rusher, Jennings has been able to get pressures and would-be sacks in both the padless and padded portions of practice. In the fourth practice of the summer, Jennings had at least three plays in which he was able to get into the backfield before the quarterback got rid of the ball. During one of the 1-on-1 drills this past week between defensive linemen/edge rushers and offensive linemen, Jennings went 3-for-3.
Jennings’ performance so far in camp has gotten him rewarded, too. With Judon missing the last couple of practices, Jennings got his spot on the first unit for Thursday and Friday’s practices.
Like Bledsoe, Jennings missed all of last season, too. He’s happy to be back on the field.
“Honestly, it was difficult,” Jennings said of missing last season. “Not being able to play football for the first time in 17 years. It was hard, but I’m blessed and I got the opportunity to be back out here and I’m making the most of it.”
He also credited the veteran players on the roster for helping him get through the struggle.
“We had a lot of veteran guys in the room that took the time to break the game down for me and slow the game down to a more mental side of it,” Jennings said. “I took that time to kind of develop mentally. Being away from the game and working out all the time, it helped physically. I had a lot of veteran guys around me and they kept me motivated and kept me in tune and helped me a lot.”
Bill Belichick is also pleased with what he’s seen from the third-year linebacker.
“Yeah, the big thing with Anfernee is he’s out there,” Belichick said. “So he’s been out there every day. He’s working. Of course, if you’re working, you’re improving. It’s good to have him out there and he’s made progress every day. He’ll get some good opportunities coming up in the near future along with some other guys in that position and we’ll see how it turns out. But it’s good to have him out there.”
Now, it’s time to see if the pleasant surprises can carry their performances into real games. The Patriots will practice on Monday and Tuesday before playing the Giants for their first preseason game on Thursday.