'The NFL Beat': Saints and Patriots Camps

Lots of win, from North to South

'The NFL Beat': Saints and Patriots Camps

Let's kick this Beat off in Foxboro, Mass., before spinning the globe south to the Big Easy.

We sent up our wicked-smaat Boston correspondent, Mike Loyko to take in Patriots practices early in the week and report back on some of the news and notes that you NFL Beaters have been craving. Also keep your eyes peeled in the Chronicle for his exclusive interview with Ryan Mallett.

On former TCU Horned Frog, Patriots RT Marcus Cannon:

Marcus Cannon, who is in his second season out of TCU, looks fully recovered after a scary cancer diagnosis last year. As Cannon told the Chronicle, he isn't "looking backward and only looking to the future." But, did say that he felt fully healthy.

With the Patriots missing three starters on the offensive line due to various ailments and situations, Cannon has gotten all of his reps at RT with the first team offense. Cannon is massive, measuring six-foot, five-inches, 350 pounds, but moves very well for his size.

The thing that stands out most about Cannon is his strength at the point of attack and his ability to stop a pass rusher in their tracks. Regardless if all of the Patriots linemen come back, Cannon is going to be an important figure on the offensive line as the first tackle off the bench.

On his most important mission: Finding out who is going to be the Pats' primary ballcarrier in 2012:

It's gonna be Stevan Ridley.

Ridley is the overwhelming favorite to receive first team carries. Ridley posseses a good mix of power and speed. Ridley doesn't waste time in the backfield, instead he gets the ball and goes, never wasting any motion. He runs with good pad level and isn't afraid of contact.

Although he had some ball security issues at the end of last year, he hasn't fumbled yet in camp. Fellow second-year running back Shane Vereen looks good catching the ball out of the backfield and UDFA Bradon Bolden has turned some heads with his overall running ability.

On Tom Brady's newest receiving toy, a player we like to call "Spider-Man," WR Brandon Lloyd:

Brandon Lloyd has been the most impressive player through the first week of camp.

His chemisty and rapport with QB Tom Brady is light years ahead of where Chad Ochocinco and Brady were at any point last season. Lloyd makes the tough catches look easy. His body control is among the best in the league and the ball makes a different sound when he catches it.

Thus far, Lloyd has been nearly uncoverable in camp, often making catches in tight spaces and even when coverage is good. Based on how he looks in the offense, Lloyd will add another dimension to what is already a potent Patriots aerial attack.

On the biggest impression he came away with at camp:

The most impressive thing taken away from practice is just how many weapons this Patriots team has.

Last year they ranked No. 2 in the NFL in total yards per game, with Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, and Aaron Hernandez as the feature pieces in the offense. All three of those players return and the Patriots have added WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Jabar Gaffney, and other weapons to the mix. The offense is going to put up some scary numbers.

It's hard to imagine a defense being able to shut down all those offensive weapons, and instead will have to "pick their poison." Based on what I have seen, the 2012 Patriots offense is deeper than the record-breaking 2007 New England offense.

Now, on to another winning group of individuals, the New Orleans Saints. We love winners at "The NFL Beat," and these two teams are full of win.

Speaking of winners, let's talk about losers:

My RosterWatch co-host Byron Lambert and I charted each first team offensive play during 11-on-11 drills for two contact practices at Saints training camp early this week.

The formation, the personnel and if there was pre-snap motion. We then broke down who was the recipient of the ball on each play. In the case of a rush, we noted the rusher and his gap assignment.

On passing plays we would note the receiver who the ball was thrown to. If the recipient of the ball was not QB Drew Brees' first read, we noted a target for the first-read receiver, even though the ball was not thrown to him.

Yes, we are a fun group to hang around, can't you tell? Here's how it broke down:

RB Pierre Thomas appears to be the lead back in New Orleans:

While RB Darren Sproles is a dynamic weapon, and the most electrifying player on the field at Saints' practices, it looks like veteran Pierre Thomas will be handling a significant portion of the rushing load coming into 2012.

Byron asked the guy who would know. Saints OC Pete Carmichael was not bothered by our sideline nosiness. In the wake of BountyGate, Carmichael will be interim coach for the interim coach for eight games, until the "real" interim coach, Joe Vitt, gets back from suspension. Jeez.

Through the coachspeak, the writing is on the wall. Second-year RB Mark Ingram looks the best of the group but it is a consistent battle to keep him healthy. I asked Joe Vitt about Ingram's health at Saturday's practice. As you can see here, "bringing Mark along slowly" seems like old hat to the Saints by now.

Thomas lined up with the first group for approximately 45% of the snaps in basically every formation. Sproles was used in approximately 35% of snaps, generally when TE/robot freak Jimmy Graham was sent in motion out of their flexed two-tight strong set.

They will be trying to get the field opened up to use Sproles as a dynamic rushing and receiving weapon in the same ways they always have. Ingram received 15% of the snaps, almost exclusively out of two-back, one-tight end sets. Chris Ivory and Tarvarus Cadet fought over the scraps for leftover reps.

WR Devery Henderson will be a much bigger part of the offense:

Carmichael told us that WR Devery Henderson was the starter and "the incumbent" at the Z position opposite WR Marques Colston. Henderson was thrown to and targeted almost as much as Colston during the reps we witnessed, and it is clear that he will be taking for himself the role that was previously shared with Robert Meachem who is now a Charger.

Colston echoed this sentiment when I asked him how the dynamics of the receiver group had changed with the loss of Meachem. He basically said what we had observed in practice: Henderson is more than capable of picking up the slack, and now is his time.

The offense will run through Jimmy Graham:

Graham is the most dangerous tight end weapon in the league. Considering that tight ends are becoming more and more dangerous with league adaptations, you do the math. He's one on the NFL's deadliest weapons. The Saints know it, too.

We asked Drew Brees about Graham's development, and it's hard to understate Drew's respect for Graham. He was by far the most targeted and thrown-to receiver on the roster, and when you see him in person you understand why. How can a 6-foot, seven-inch 270-pound man run, jump, and catch like that? How can he cut like that? He is a matchup nightmare for linebackers and is poised for his biggest year ever.

This is business as usual:

I asked Drew Brees, "Drew, this doesn't even look like install on offense."

He told me it wasn't. Business as usual in New Orleans. The Saints offense did not look like they were learning, or really even practicing. That offense is operating on another level right now, and if there is one person to lead a team who is facing the adversity they are, they have him on board. This is not a distracted, rambling wreck. This is a well-oiled machine.

[Alex Dunlap (follow on Twitter) is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America, the host of RosterWatch on 104.9FM ESPN Radio Austin and San Antonio, founder of Rosterwatch.com, and NFL Columnist for Bleacher Report.]

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Saints Training Camp 2012, Patriots Training Camp 2012

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