After a productive offseason that saw the team acquire as much talent as any in the league, the Patriots were back on the practice field on Thursday for their first organized team activity session open to the media. Bill Belichick explained that the team has been at it all week and there was plenty of work to be done on the cold and soggy practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.
"We're into Day 3 here, so moving along," the coach began. "I think we've got a lot of, obviously, new people on the team working hard. I feel like we're moving ahead every day here. This will be a good day for us to continue to build on the first two days and then take a little break here over the weekend, come back and tee it up again next week.
"[We have a] long way to go, a lot of work to do, but moving in the right direction, so it's good."
Belichick was talking about the work being done but he also had to be happy with the attendance. Unofficially there were just six Patriots missing from the workout including a few notable names. Among those absent were Don't'a Hightower, Malcolm Mitchell, Alan Branch, Stephen Gostkowski, Joe Cardona and undrafted rookie tackle Max Rich. Given the sloppy conditions it's possible that Gostkowski and Cardona got some work done inside the bubble, but neither was spotted during the two-hour workout.
A steady rain fell throughout the morning and a stiff wind also contributed to some issues with ball security. Several passes bounced off receivers' hands and even Tom Brady was victimized on one rep when he attempted a pump fake and had the ball fly out of his hand to the ground where Devin McCourty scooped it up for a would-be touchdown.
Despite the less-than-ideal weather, it was an opportunity to see the various newcomers in Patriots uniforms for the first time. Some were quite noticeable, such as Brandin Cooks, Rex Burkhead and Stephon Gilmore.
"Seeing the new players, how they're doing and also how they're doing relevant to the rest of the other players that I'm a little more familiar with," Belichick said when asked where his focus might be during such practices. "Again, each year is a new year, so even though we've seen some of these guys multiple years, it's still starting all over again, seeing where they are, how they're progressing in their training and preparation for the season."
Check out our favorite photos from the Patriots organized team activity on Thursday, May 25, 2017.
Throughout the Patriots busy offseason there was one underlying concern and that was the future of Malcolm Butler. The Pro Bowl corner appeared to be disgruntled after the signing of Gilmore, and he was courted for a time by New Orleans as he tested the market as a restricted free agent.
Ultimately he wound up staying put, and he was on the field with the rest of his teammates in Foxborough on Thursday.
"I can't control any of that," Butler said of the past or his future with the Patriots. "Everything's a day at a time. Take it one day at a time. You can't predict the future. Whatever happened, happens so you've just got to go with the flow."
Butler added that he holds no bitterness toward the organization despite not receiving a long-term contract to remain in New England.
"I'm just here to do a job and do anything to help the team win," he said. "I'm just moving forward, and whatever happens, happens. You've just got to come here and just play football. You've got to earn everything you want. You've just got to come here and work hard every day. Nobody's going to give you nothing, just come here, work hard and play."
As for attending OTAs, which are voluntary, Butler offered some insight as to his decision to attend. "Wasn't gonna hurt anybody but myself if I missed this," he said. "This is extra time to get better, and that's what I'm out here to do. To get better and have another great year. Anything to help the team. Present a positive image."
While Butler will play the 2017 season on his $3.91 million restricted free agent tender, Gilmore landed a five-year, $65 million deal to leave Buffalo for New England. Butler paused for a moment when asked what went through his mind when he learned about the Gilmore signing.
"Nothing much, really. We got a better player. We got another player. We got another good player on this team," he said. "Anything to help the team win, I'm down with it." Interestingly, he referred to Gilmore as "underrated" and "one of the best guys in the league."
On Thursday Gilmore took most if not all his reps on the right side while Butler manned his normal left spot. Jonathan Jones entered as the third corner and worked in the slot depending on formations and offensive personnel groups.
"Wherever they put me, I'm going to play that role," Butler said. "I'm ready to play the slot if that's what it is."
Gronk in the house
These OTAs have been the first chance to see Rob Gronkowski was back in uniform for the first since Nov. 27 when he left the Jets game with a back injury and ultimately wound up undergoing surgery after landing on IR. The tight end caught a bunch of passes, many in the end zone during some red zone work, but he did appear to do some extra stretching at times, seemingly working some kinks out.
Gronkowski declined to speak to reporters after practice so he was unable to provide any comment on his recent contract restructuring that saw him gain the ability to earn several million in incentives.
"He looks like Gronk," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said before practice. "He's involved in everything. He's doing a good job of being a leader and a positive influence."
At lacrosse roads
Gillette Stadium is hosting the NCAA men's and women's lacrosse championships over the weekend and the Boston College women's team is among those participating. The group was welcomed on the field and spent time chatting with Belichick on the sideline.
They watched the latter portion of practice, which included some 11-on-11 red zone work, and then they were part of the team's post-practice breakdown. Belichick's daughter Amanda is the head women's lacrosse coach at Holy Cross and was with the BC contingent.
The NFL recently relaxed some of its restrictions on player celebrations, but mimicking the use of a weapon is still prohibited. That came into focus late in practice when Cooks caught a TD pass and began to do his signature bow-and-arrow routine that has led to fines in the past. He started to reach for the arrow but then stopped.
"I didn't want to shoot it," the affable wideout said. "Just having fun out there with the guys, competing every day. That's what it's all about."
"No, I'm gonna be respectful. If it's a penalty, it's a penalty. I'm not going to do anything to hurt the team. I think it still will be [a penalty]."
Cooks says the action is actually Biblical in origin and not meant as a sign of violence.
"I've been doing it for three years now, and there was never a complaint about it. Now, all of a sudden, there is," Cooks said. "It's almost as if they try to take so much away from us, but for something like this, that means so much to someone that has nothing to do with violence, it's frustrating. I'll definitely continue to speak my opinion about it, and if they have a problem with it, so be it.
"It's for God," he added, "so if that's threatening, then I think we've got a problem."
The Patriots officially signed wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. He was on the field wearing No. 16 while DeAndrew White, who was listed on the roster with that number, donned 17 instead. … Undrafted rookie offensive lineman Andrew Jelks was on the field but did not wear his helmet and watched the proceedings. … Jonathan Freeny donned a red, non-contact jersey during practice. Without Hightower not present he was running the defense for much of the morning workout.