During the 2019 offseason, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that much of his 2018 rookie class remains effectively an unknown collective commodity because so many of them were injured early on and missed most of last season.
Two players who fall into that category are linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley and wide receiver Braxton Berrios. While the latter wound up being placed on injured reserve immediately following the 2018 preseason, Bentley actually found himself in the starting lineup for two of three games last September, including the season opener. However, a biceps injury sustained in Detroit in Week 3 brought Bentley's promising debut to an abrupt halt.
Today, as 2019 Patriots training camp opened in Foxborough, both Bentley and Berrios are fit and sounding anxious to show Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff what they can do.
"I feel good, man," Bentley remarked to reporters after Thursday's opening practice session. "We get just as excited [to suit up and play] as you [in the media] do to interview us.
"It's always good to get back out here, be with your guys. We've got a lot of new guys, a lot of guys we're still trying to build some camaraderie [with] around here. It's going great right now."
While the players recovered and rehabilitated from their respective injuries last year, they did their best to take advantage of the opportunity to be in the Patriots football facilities and absorb as much as they could as rookies in this system. They may not have been able to contribute much on the field, but they made the most of their situation by focusing on classroom learning and bulking up in the weight room.
As a result, they say they strengthened not only their bodies and minds, but also their personal relationships with one another. They're now approaching camp with both eagerness and a measure of confidence.
"I wouldn't say it's a great experience to bond over," Berrios grinned, "at least not the one we would choose. But yeah, I think we're a pretty close-knit group. We helped each other out along the way because there were some ups and downs. I'm taking a rookie mentality to [camp this year], absolutely. Being around last year, there's a base knowledge that I have coming in, but yeah, there's definitely the sense of urgency there."
"In everything you do," added Bentley, "I feel you have to have some type of confidence, some type of swagger about yourself, but everyone has a role to play. I'm just looking to find mine and do it well… Coming out here, being prepared, getting ready to do whatever the coaches ask you to do. You can't do much if you're not prepared."
As the players compete for jobs on the 2019 Patriots roster, Bentley may have a slight advantage given his albeit limited playing experience last season. Berrios, meantime, is looking to showcase his talents both as a receiver and potentially as a return specialist.
When asked before practice what role he envisions for Berrios, Belichick cut right to the chase, replying, "Whatever he earns."
The second-year player seems to have gotten the message.
"When I get in there [on offense]," added Berrios, "it doesn't matter if I get 10 [reps] or two. When I get in there, I have to execute. I was back there fielding [kickoffs] today with a slew of guys. So, that's something that has to be earned. We'll see."
Work in progress
Belichick saw a significant number of his assistant coaches depart during the offseason for jobs elsewhere in the league. Although this was an anomaly for the head coach, it gave him the opportunity to promote several people from within and even bring in some new faces to the coaching staff.
This fact prompted one reporter to ask Belichick how the new-look staff is learning to work with one another as individuals and as a group when it comes to organizing and overseeing practices.
"Not everything will be exactly the same as it's been," Belichick admitted. "I'm sure a lot of things will be the same. There may be a few differences. I mean, we've had however many practices it was in the spring. We're doing the same thing today as we did all spring, but there's always a few bumps in the road in training camp. That's part of training camp.
"There are things to work out with a large group of people, but overall it gets run well and we have a lot of people in the organization that work hard on those operational aspects of it, and I think it goes pretty smooth. I've been in a lot of training camps, but overall I think it functions pretty smoothly. It's never perfect, but it's functional."
Check out the best photos from Patriots Training Camp at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, July 25, 2019.
Fans fuel the fun
As has become commonplace around Foxborough in late July, Patriots fans by the thousands showed up to watch training camp on Thursday. The comfortable weather allowed them to enjoy a morning of lively action on the double gridiron fields behind Gillette Stadium.
"It's amazing. We have good fans. Every year, they support us and we always notice it," cornerback Jonathan Jones commented afterward.
"It's really exciting to get back out and play football. We've been away from it for a long time," observed wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.
Of course, it's still a job to the players and the on-field competition can become intense, the daily routine monotonous.
"Camp is camp. They're all hard, no matter how many times you do it," linebacker Jamie Collins pointed out. "It's just a grind, getting your mind right, coming out here, and getting it done."
So, how do players try to keep camp interesting for themselves?
"Make plays," cornerback Stephon Gilmore responded with a smile.
"I think you just have to be relaxed every day," wide receiver Maurice Harris suggested. "I mean, yeah, it's very serious, but you also have to have fun. I try to treat every day the same – come grind and work and have fun out here playing football."
Buy: Jonathan Jones – With an interception of QB Tom Brady in the end zone and a touchdown-saving pass defensed at the goal line, the fourth-year cornerback had a strong first day of camp.
Sell: Dontrelle Inman – The veteran wide receiver, in his first training camp practice as a Patriot, made a nice catch at one point in drills, but often struggled to separate from some of the younger defensive backs.
Play of the Day: During a red zone 11-on-11 period, Brady found 2019 first-round draft choice N'Keal Harry on a nice quick-slant for a touchdown that elicited a considerable cheer from the assembled crowd in the bleachers surrounding the practice field.