FOXBOROUGH - As you look over the Patriots offense at mini-camp, you see a lot of players wearing numbers like 13, 14, 18 and 19. Those numbers belong to the receivers Tom Brady has been throwing to the past two days. As a matter of fact, with Deion Branch not participating in mini-camp, only one receiver on the Patriots roster has ever caught a pass from Brady in an NFL game. That player is 14-year veteran Troy Brown.
Physically, Brown looks like he's entering his third year in the NFL. He's still in great shape and seems to have as much energy as any player on the field (except maybe Ellis Hobbs). The veteran isn't only impressive physically but he's almost like having another coach on the field. Brown has been instructing the younger receivers during drills and giving them advice on how to run their routes correctly. While the Patriots certainly have question marks surrounding their receiving corps, Brown is the one player Brady and Bill Belichick know they can depend on and trust in crucial situations.
"Troy has been here a long time and he's a great technician," Belichick said. "He's a great example for the younger players. He's an inspiration to us all."
Brown – who ranks second in franchise history in both receptions (514) and yards (5,982) – isn't taken anything for granted un regards to making the team, even though he's one of the most productive offensive players to ever suit up for the Patriots
"I feel like I'm going to make the team every year but I don't come to camp thinking I've got a job," Brown said. "That's when you think you get into trouble – when you think you've got it made.
"That's what keeps me driving and pushing hard. It's that competitive nature in me that makes me push myself. I would never say that I'm not going to make the team. I wouldn't be out here if I felt that way."
Although his work ethic and dedication are a breath of fresh air, Brown's roster spot looks to be pretty secure. He still runs crisp routes and knows how to get open. Plus, with all the young receivers the Patriots have on their roster, there's no better role model to learn from than a guy who has proven to be the ultimate team player over the years.
"He's a great guy to watch and learn from," rookie receiver Chad Jackson said. "Troy knows what to do in every situation out on the football field. I'm picking up a lot just being around him."
Other than Brown, free agent acquisition Reche Caldwell and Bam Childress are the only other receivers on the team to ever catch a pass in an NFL game and in Childress' case, it was in last year's season finale against Miami when the Patriots were resting most of their starters for the playoffs.
Assuming Branch returns, that would mean him, Brown, Caldwell and Jackson have a good chance to be the Patriots top four receivers. That leaves players like Childress, Erik Davis, Michael McGrew, Rich Musinski, Matt Shelton, Zuriel Smith, John Stone and Jakari Wallace battling for the last one or two roster spots. And that's assuming the team doesn't bring in a veteran, which they very well could do if a player they like becomes available.
Out of that group of young receivers, Childress and Stone have been the most impressive at mini-camp up to this point. They have caught the ball well and both players have been back returning kickoffs, adding to their value and increasing their chances of making the team.
Not to be outdone by his younger counterparts, Brown closed the afternoon practice by making the play of the day - an acrobatic one-handed catch in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. While some things in New England are changing, some things still remain the same.
More notes from Wednesday's afternoon practice:
· The rookies continue to impress. Granted they're just in shorts and none of the players have actually participated in an NFL game yet, butLaurence Maroney, Chad Jackson and Dave Thomas all look like the real deal. Jackson and Thomas catch virtually every ball thrown their way. Thomas sucks the ball in like a vacuum and Jackson hauls in any pass he gets his big mitts on. Maroney is very explosive after he catches the ball out of the backfield and while returning kicks. As far as football speed goes, he looks to be one of the fastest players on the field. It's still way too early to speculate but the Patriots top three picks are off to an impressive start and this looks like it could be another strong draft class for the Patriots under Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli.
· Receiver Rich Musinski made his debut at mini-camp, wearing the No. 5.
· Jakari Wallace looked really good in passing drills, catching the ball well and getting out of his breaks quickly.
· Eric Alexander has been getting a lot of reps at linebacker and looks fluid and athletic on the field.
· Tom Brady threw a perfect touchdown strike to Ben Watson in the corner of the end zone, just over the reach of safety James Sanders. Despite giving up the touchdown, Sanders has played very well over the last two days.
· Willie Andrews, Chad Jackson, Bam Childress, Vernell Brown, Reche Caldwell, Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk took turns returning punts. Jackson appeared to be the least comfortable fielding punts out of the group.
· Patriots owner Robert Kraft stopped by and watched practice for about an hour.
· Brady hit Caldwell for a long touchdown on a beautifully thrown ball. Caldwell beat corner Ellis Hobbs on a post route.
· Virginia head coach Al Groh addressed the team once practice was over.
· For the second day in a row, Dan Stevenson and Billy Yates stayed a little longer after practice to work on their long snapping.