Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski remained absent from Patriots OTA action on Thursday at Gillette Stadium, but fellow captain Dont'a Hightower did make his spring workout debut in front of the media.
Reporters got their second chance to watch New England's OTA workouts as the team moves through the voluntary sessions, but it was the first look at Hightower as the Pro Bowler returns from a pectoral injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season.
Though he looked a bit lighter in terms of weight, Hightower seemed to take part fully in the two-hour, non-contact session in shorts and helmets.
At one point in the practice during team action Hightower rushed off the right defensive edge and was "blocked" by fullback James Develin, the duo engaging in some light hand fighting. The linebacker, a key cog absent from the front seven down the stretch a year ago, also spent plenty of time in coverage in the pass-heavy workout.
Beyond Hightower's presence, one of the more notable aspects of the day was the continued looks that young cornerbacks are getting working with guys like Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty in the back end of the defense. Rookie Keion Crossen was one of the talks of the first OTA session open to the media last week. This time around it was notable that undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson took reps opposite Gilmore in 11-on-11 work.
While guys like Crossen, Jackson, Jomal Wiltz, Duke Dawson and Ryan Lewis are getting a lot of early run in team work, it's also worth noting that veteran newcomer Jason McCourty hasn't gotten a lot of snaps in the same drills. Though the former Titan and Brown stands out for his bright red cleats and undershirt, he seems to spend the bulk of the time during 11-on-11 work standing on the sideline. This could be a case of the veteran who is somewhat known commodity taking minimal reps while the team throws the young players into the mix to see what it has. Or, it could just be a first step toward the young cover men competing for roster spots, including against some veterans like McCourty.
Beyond the Hightower action and early competition at cornerback, here are one man's blogservations of a beautiful sunny day on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium:
--Those players not seen on the practice field included Brady, Malcolm Mitchell, David Jones, Brandon Bolden, Cyrus Jones (ACL), Nate Ebner (ACL), Joe Thuney (foot), Cody Hollister and Gronkowski.
It's interesting that while Julian Edelman, Derek Rivers and Cyrus Jones all tore their ACL last preseason, Jones is the only one of the three recovering players not taking part in OTAs at this point. Edelman seemed to do more in Thursday's session than he did in front of the media last week, though he's still not a full participant in 11-on-11 work, while Rivers doesn't seem to have any limitations on the defensive side of the ball.
--The group of players down on the lower rehab practice field early in practice included Malcom Brown, Marcus Cannon, Crossen, Braxton Berrios and Jonathan Jones. Berrios came up to the main fields later in the work to return punts.
--A number of college coaching staffs are taking in Patriots OTA work this week including Boston College, Ohio and N.C. State, among others. The B.C. contingent included head coach Steve Addazio.
--The rookie cornerback Dawson took to one knee at the corner of the practice field at the top of the steps from Gillette and appeared to pray for a period of time before making his way out for the start of the workout.
--Former Arkansas and Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema was again on the practice field working for the Patriots, though any role he has with the team has not been made official.
--As he probably should be, rookie quarterback Danny Etling was one of the first players on the field for the OTA work. The former LSU passer was also one of the last players on the field to conclude the workout, staying late to throw to Berrios.
--I've said it before and will say it again, Kenny Britt very much looks the part of a big NFL receiver. The veteran had his jersey tucked under his pads for pre-practice work and fills out the uniform. The Patriots actually have a group of pretty unique physical specimens this spring, including newcomers such as Danny Shelton, Cordarrelle Patterson and Trent Brown.
--Veteran Eric Rowe continues to get reps opposite Gilmore as well in both group drills and team action.
--During early group drills ball boys wore boxing gloves while they punched at the ball carried by the running backs. One such gloved punch dislodged the ball from rookie running back Sony Michel, earning the first-round pick a yell from coach Ivan Fears. Michel has already talked about the need to improve his ball security in the NFL, a minor issue he dealt with at Georgia.
--During other early drills the receivers caught passes with a tennis racket waved in front of their face just prior to the grab and a small bag thrown at them just after the catch.
--In another drill, receivers coach Chad O'Shea used pad looking like an oversized Q-tip (or the joust from American Gladiators) to poke at the ball after the tight ends and fullback James Develin made a reception.
--While the various offensive skills players were going through drills, the running backs at the bags, veteran Jeremy Hill worked on the other end of the field as a wing on a punt team.
--Michel had some pretty short shorts on, seemingly practice pants that had been cut rather high up his thigh. Between Michel and Celtics star Jaylen Brown short shorts are apparently popular with athletic first-round picks in Boston these days
--There are plenty of lines painted on the Patriots practice fields this spring outside of the traditional markings, though the exact uses of each line is not totally clear. There are red lines painted approximately 5 yards from the sidelines the length of the field, as well as a red line across the middle of the end zone from sideline to sideline. There are rectangular boxes at the numbers between the 10- and 20-yard lines with slashes painted diagonally across the box. There are also white lines on both sides of the field, one between the numbers and the hashes and one about 10 yards in from the sideline. They are clearly landmarks or reference points for drills.
--At one point in practice, Develin and rookie tight end Shane Wimann were alone together in the far corner of the field hitting a small sled.
--The linebackers struggled as a group in coverage during some 7-on-7 work, drawing the ire of position coach and presumed defensive playcaller Brian Flores. Marquis Flowers actually appeared to be replaced at one point.
--For what it's worth, Flores and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wore headsets to call plays during team action.
--Jacob Hollister had a nice catch over Jordan Richards from Etling in 7-on-7 action.
--Both punters booted the ball relatively well working with just the long snapper and returners. Incumbent Ryan Allen was more impressive than a week earlier, while undrafted rookie Corey Bojorquez wasn't quite as good, although he still appears to have the stronger leg.
--Bojorquez got his first reps in front of the media working as the holder for Stephen Gostkowski's PAT/FG attempts near the end of the OTA session. Though the first, shortest kick hit the flag blowing just inside the left upright, all the attempts appeared go smoothly. Gostkowski gave the rookie a strong low-five after his final, longest attempt sailed through cleanly. The punting battle may be one to watch this summer and job of holder is obviously a part of the decision process.
--During the first reps of team action on defense, the defensive lined included Trey Flowers at left end, Lawrence Guy and Shelton at defensive tackle and Adrian Clayborn at right end. The group of linebackers was Hightower, Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy, while the secondary had Jackson, Gilmore, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty. Rivers and Deatrich Wise later rotated in at the end spots.
--During one 7-on-7 rep Lewis jammed Britt so well at the line that he ran the veteran out of bounds.
--At one point in practice potential left tackle options Brown and top pick Isaiah Wynn were on the far end of the field drive blocking a sled. Both are coming back from shoulder surgery.
--Vincent Valentin took a lap for an infraction at one point, likely being offsides.
--Wiltz and Riley McCarron both muffed punts in group work.
--Shelton has a habit on short pass plays of turning and running down field toward the receiver, continuing to show a pretty high motor, energy and athleticism in his first couple weeks of OTA action.
--The offensive line from left to right in the initial reps of team action had LaAdrian Waddle, Jason King, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Ulrick John. The second group consisted of Matt Tobin, Luke Bowanko, James Ferentz, Ted Karras and Cole Croston, with Andrew Jelks also working in at left guard.
--Returning practice squad safety Damarius Travis picked off a deflected Brian Hoyer pass intended for Patterson. Jackson had a near interception of Hoyer in an earlier 7-on-7 rep.
--Mike Gillislee retreated to the Empower Fieldhouse at one point but returned a few minutes later. Nature called?
--Richards served as the personal protector for team punt action.
--Those working as gunners during the punt work included Matthew Slater, Jordan Matthews, Dawson, Lewis, Patterson and A.J. Moore.
--Roberts appeared the pull up a bit lame on one 7-on-7 rep and then walked off the field with a minor limp.
--Hoyer threw a touchdown to Rex Burkhead on one of the first reps of 11-on-11 work, splitting coverage of Chung and Richards.
--Rowe had a pass defense on a Hoyer throw for Phillip Dorsett. The receiver had a tough practice with the throws in his direction falling incomplete with regularity.
--Lewis had a tough three-play stretch in 11-on-11 work in which the young cornerback gave up a touchdown to Chris Hogan crossing the back of the end zone, collided with Patterson sending both players to the turf and then gave up another score on a pretty spot throw from Hoyer to Matthews in the back corner of the end zone.
--Wise and Develin served as the wing blockers for the PAT/FG work.
--Late in the practice Hoyer ran a two-minute drill up and down the field, yelling out some interesting one- and two-word play calls.
--While the rest of the position groups had a "cool down" session at the end of the workout, defensive line coach Brendan Daly put his troops through some hand drills against the padded cover of the goal post.
--Along with Etling and Berrios, other players spending extra time on the field included Wise and Develin.
--Players meeting with the media after practice were Hoyer, Gilmore, both McCourty brothers, Hightower, Slater and others.
--The media's next chance to view practice will be all three days, Tuesday through Thursday, of next week's mandatory veteran mini-camp. The exact schedule for those workouts, which remain closed to the public, has not yet been announced.