Bill Belichick’s Patriots are no longer five weeks behind the rest of the NFL.
That was one of the nuggets from the New England coach’s meeting with the media prior to the Patriots OTA practice Thursday morning on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
With the draft, free agency and the bulk of the offseason roster building in the books, Belichick’s team is now laying the practice field foundation that players build on later this summer and into the 2017 season. The defending champs are just like every other 90-man roster across the league – working to get better at every opportunity.
In the first week of the third phase of the NFL’s offseason program, Thursday marked the first time the media had viewing access to New England’s OTA action that began earlier this week.
Unfortunately the weather may have been the biggest story of the day, with cold, rainy, breezy conditions making for a true wet-ball environment for the two-hour session. That certainly manifested itself with deflected passes and some punt return struggles.
The session took place with players in jerseys, helmets and shorts/leggings/sweats. It included plenty of individual, group and 11-on-11 team action, but no contact.
The good news, though, was that the technically voluntary work included the bulk of the Patriots roster with stars Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Brandin Cooks and others competing through the soggy action.
Here are one man’s blogservations of all the action, seen from beneath a rain-soaked hood and written in the now-blurred ink of a notebook that sadly fell into a puddle:
Andrew Jelks, an undrafted rookie tackle out of Vanderbilt, was on the field in his jersey but did not have a helmet on. He did not appear to take part in the workout, but rather watched from behind the action throughout.
–Veteran linebacker Jonathan Freeny, who finished last season on injured reserve with a shoulder issue, wore a red, non-contact jersey. The three quarterbacks were the only other players in the red jerseys.
–The twin practice fields are currently orientated in an East-West direction for the spring. They generally get repainted and rotated to a North-South setup for training camp.
–Rookie defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. took the practice field with large knee braces on both legs that seem to give him a rather unique gait.
–Despite the red jersey, Freeny took an active role as middle linebacker and playcaller with the defensive huddle in pre-practice, walk-through action.
–The offensive and defensive units went at each other in some three-quarter-speed walk-through action prior to practice in the red zone. The newcomer Gilmore recorded a pair of interceptions on Jimmy Garoppolo passes intended for Julian Edelman in the “action.”
–The early practice form running and warmups had a slightly new setup. The defense, in its blue jerseys, was on the far sideline with players lined up in small groups on each 5-yard line. The white-wearing offense was on the near side in similar lines. The two sides would then do their form running – such as high knees – halfway across the field and then back to their beginning sideline.
–It’s always interesting to see what new pads, dummies and equipment are added to the practice field with the new year. Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot to see on Thursday. The most notable was the use of a pad on end of a stick used in joust-like fashion to poke at ball carriers or receivers. It’s kind of reminiscent of one end of the apparatus used in the joust segment on American Gladiators back in the day.
–During early practice work tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen caught passes with the wide receivers, while the likes of Matt Lengel, Sam Cotton, Glenn Gronkowski, Jacob Hollister and James O’Shaughnessy worked with the running backs. Allen didn’t have a great day catching the ball overall, including a couple drops in the individual work with the receivers.
–The quarterbacks worked on their seven-step drops and then stepping up in the pocket to avoid ball boys with pads in individual work. On one of the first reps Garoppolo slipped down pretty hard as he planted his back foot on the top of his drop. He bounced to his feet quickly and seemed no worse for the wear.
–With the wet conditions, Brady wore a glove on his left hand but had a bare throwing hand. Both Garoppolo and Brissett went without gloves altogether.
–The defensive linemen worked on scooping up fumbles near the sideline and returning them under the watchful eye of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
–The wide receivers and running backs caught passes and then turned up field through a gauntlet of pads in a drill. The ball carriers were then poked with the joust sticks as they exited the gauntlet.
—Brandon Bolden, Dion Lewis, James White and James Develin worked with Brady on some short throws in group work. Interesting that the fullback was included with the passing backs. Lewis made a nice, one-handed grab on an out in the drill.
–Later the running backs caught passes in the back of the end zone. The coaches reminded the backs to focus on keeping their feet in bounds, something that Rex Burkhead failed to do on his first chance in the back left corner.
–During some group work between the pass catchers and the defensive backs, the defenders did pushups after allowing completions in the end zone. All the players and the coaches did the pushups as a group.
–The first offensive line to take reps in most drills was, from left to right, Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon. The group got some work in the running game working against scout defenders holding bags.
—Devin McCourty stood out on the field as the only player wearing bright red shorts.
–During the middle of practice the entire team lined up on the sideline. Three different coaches then rolled a ball out on the field and one player would run after and dive on each ball for a fumble recovery. Brady was initially standing to the side watching before he strapped his helmet on and took a turn. Gronkowski actually failed to recover the ball on his rep and had to take a second turn to complete the work to the satisfaction of his coaches. Can’t be said that the Patriots star players don’t do all the drills and dirty work of their other teammates.
—Danny Amendola, Cyrus Jones, David Jones, Cooks and Edelman took reps returning punts at various points throughout practice. It was admittedly a tough day for the work and all had issues at one point or another. Amendola had a drop. Cooks had a drop. Edelman had a rare bobble. But Cyrus Jones struggled the most, allowing a number of balls to hit the ground. After one muff he kicked the ball, seemingly in frustration.
—David Jones is an interesting guy to see back deep, given a 6-3, 210-pound build as a defensive back that’s not exactly traditional of a punt returner. Jones did have a few kick and punt returns in his career at Richmond.
—Ryan Allen was booming the ball throughout the workout. He was driving the punt returners back on most attempts, though he did seem to have a wind at his back. Still, he was hitting the ball very well.
–The receivers/cornerbacks and tight ends/linebackers took turns working on catching passes over their shoulders during one drill. The action took place under the watchful eye of Belichick, who emphasized specific fundamentals with each rep for each pair of players.
–There was a minor scare at one point in team action in the red zone. Chris Hogan ran to the back right corner, was bobbling the ball as he continue to run out of bounds and ran into a golf cart that was parked at the edge of the field. He sat in the back of the cart for a second before bouncing up and jogging back to finish practice showing no signs of injury.
–During team action in the red zone late in practice the intensity of the rain picked up a bit. So, too, did the number of deflected passes and balls hitting the turf. Some passes seemingly zipped right through the wet hands of otherwise open receivers.
–Brady had one play where he tried to pull the ball down but lost control, with McCourty scooping it up for a would-be return.
–Throughout the workout it seemed that Butler took his normal spot as the left cornerback with big-money newcomer Gilmore manning the right side. Second-year man Jonathan Jones got reps in the slot working with the two Pro Bowl veterans.
–Things got a bit competitive between the offense and defense late in practice. Amendola beat Cyrus Jones for a touchdown pass and threw the ball in the air in celebration.
–Brady also got into it with the defensive sideline as a whole. He seemed to talk a little trash to the group after throwing a touchdown to Gronkowksi in the back right corner of the end zone. Shortly thereafter, though, the sideline got payback on an incompletion thrown behind the big tight end. The sideline made kicking gestures to signal that the offense would have to settle for the field goal after the incomplete third-down throw into the end zone.
—Nate Ebner dropped a sure interception of Garoppolo in the end zone.
–The Boston College women’s lacrosse team made its way onto the practice field late in the workout. The team was on hand for a practice leading up to this week’s NCAA lacrosse championships at Gillette Stadium. Later in practice Belichick called the team on the field, shook hands with a few members of the group and allowed them to watch remainder of the workout on the sideline directly next to the practice action. The Eagles then joined the entire Patriots squad in the middle of the field for its, “Team!” breakdown to conclude practice.
–Cooks made a gesture like he was reaching for his arrow from his quiver after catching a touchdown at one point in practice. In the past the receiver has used a mock bow-and-arrow celebration on touchdowns. Despite the loosening of the celebration rules by the NFL this season, Cooks said after practice he would not be bringing back the celebration and risking a potential penalty.
–Burkhead, who had a very good practice overall, made a nice touchdown reception to beat Jordan Richards in the back left corner of the end zone.
—D.J. Foster also had a solid day, highlighted by a strong hands catch on a slant from Brissett for a touchdown very late in practice.
–At the conclusion of practice the entire team did some conditioning work on the hill on the far side of the field.
–Those players meeting with the media after practice included Butler, Gilmore, Edelman, Cooks and McCourty. Prior to practice Belichick and his assistant coaches met with the media. Read