Patriots observations

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FOXBORO, Mass. – Quarterback Matt Cassel, a seventh-round pick in 2005, continues to show strong skills in his second season with the New England Patriots.

Stuck behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC, Cassel has learned many of the subtle nuances that helped starter Tom Brady become one of the NFL's top quarterbacks. Cassel is decisive and gets rid of the ball quickly, and, like Brady, his greatest attribute is his ability to hit receivers in stride and in easy places to catch the ball.

On throw after throw during two practices last Wednesday, Cassel put the ball in very tight spots for his receivers. Cassel was intercepted once, but that was when a defensive back correctly anticipated a quick hitch pass that the Patriots use as a bread-and-butter play.

"He has all the talent," New England coach Bill Belichick said of Cassel. "What he lacks is experience and that's what we're trying to get him whenever we can."

The Patriots are so confident in Cassel that they have not signed a veteran to compete for the backup job. Behind Cassel at No. 2 are Corey Bramlet and Todd Mortensen, a pair of undrafted players who spent much of Wednesday seeing who could throw the most interceptions.

Perhaps the best part for the Patriots is that they can play Cassel in enough exhibition games to show off his talent to future bidders in the trade market, much like what the Falcons have done with backup quarterback Matt Schaub. At this rate of development, the Patriots should be able to get at least a first-day draft pick for Cassel in a year or two when they decide to trade him.

  • For the past few years, the Patriots have been leading a trend away from lots of hard hitting in training camp. The Patriots don't tackle very much and spent most of the past week not even having the linemen hit each other.

Many years ago, Belichick bought into the theory that players don't need to hit very much in training camp and that the best way to avoid injuries is to keep players from diving or hitting the ground very much. Belichick isn't the first coach to try this method. Coaches such as Bill Walsh and Marv Levy did the same thing in San Francisco and Buffalo, respectively, as their teams got older.

However, Belichick has done it almost to an extreme. For rookies such as running back Laurence Maroney, New England's first-round pick, it will be interesting to see how he reacts when he gets hit in exhibition games and the regular season.

  • Speaking of Maroney, it's obvious the Patriots will use him to spell veteran Corey Dillon. The question about Maroney since college is whether he can stay healthy.

The team lists Maroney at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, but he is an unusually high-cut running back for that size. He has very broad shoulders and sometimes players with his type of build have a hard time running low to avoid the hard hits from linebackers.

Maroney did have an impressive run during his days with the University of Minnesota in the Big Ten. He gained more than 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons there, becoming only the third back in conference history to do so (the others being Ron Dayne of Wisconsin and Sedrick Irvin of Michigan State).

  • Patriots second-round pick Chad Jackson, a wide receiver from Florida who is trying to break UF's run of inconsistent players at that position, isn't off to a good start because of a hamstring injury.

Jackson was hurt in June when the Patriots did a surprise 40-yard dash test where all the players were timed. Jackson told friends that he wasn't training for the 40 and didn't warm up properly before running and getting hurt. Jackson re-injured the hamstring during the first two days of training camp.