Each day in training camp, one aspect of special teams is emphasized throughout practice, and it varies from day to day. On Sunday, the punt return unit was the focus of special teams work.
In the beginning of the workout, coaches help the players develop their techniques for setting up blocks for the returners, and later, when the full squad goes against a scout punt team, the blockers and returners get to put it all together.
As has been the case the past several years, Julian Edelman was the first player to take reps as the punt returner. He was followed by fellow wideout Danny Amendola and rookie running back Roy Finch.
Edelman has emerged as one of the most electric punt returners in the NFL, after having never done it before he arrived in Foxborough, although last season was a bit of a down year for him statistically in that category. While his receiving numbers went up, his punt return numbers declined. Particularly in the fair-catch department. Those went up astronomically.
He admitted after Sunday's practice that taking a fair catch isn't always his first choice, but that sometimes it's the right one.
"It all goes with the situation, what's going on at that time in the game, the trajectory of the punt, being a little smarter [now] with not taking unnecessary chances when the most important thing for that unit is to get the ball back in the offense's hands safely. When you get 10 yards, that's your goal, and when guys are working together and you get a little more, that's always great."
He also admitted that there are times when he fair catches and then realizes he could have easily picked up a good amount of yardage if he hadn't raised his right arm.
"Oh, yeah. Definitely. On the opposite end of that, there's times when I said, 'I should've fair-caught that, and I got licked.'"
Edelman now finds himself in the role of tutor, helping the youngster Finch develop his game as an NFL returner.
"You guys remember when I was a rookie, fumbling the ball everywhere and getting booed by the crowd," Edelman recalled with a grin, "but he's just got to get some experience, repetition. You just got to work on catching punts, work on finding the tip of the ball – if it turns over, if it doesn't – what foot punter it is, the trajectory of the punt, what return you have – if it's a return or not – the situation in the game. All that stuff. It comes with experience. I still have to try in practice every day to improve what I have to do because it's a craft. If you don't do it every day, it'll slip away."
In the offseason, Edelman inked a lucrative, long-term deal with the Patriots, based largely on his performance as a wide receiver last season. However, he still hopes to remain the team's first choice when the defense forces punts.
"I love returning punts. That's a part of the game that's given me an opportunity to make this team. I love it. I love [special teams] Coach [Scott] O'Brien, I love the scheme, I love all that stuff," he emphasized. "I want to do that. I would love to do that, and if they ask me to do that, I'm going to do it, with a smile on my face."
Before practice Sunday, the Patriots made a few transactions. First, they released first-year wide receiver Greg Orton, who was injured during Friday's practice. Having two open spots on the 90-man roster (with the earlier release of veteran tight end Nate Byham), the club added a pair of young receivers: second-year man Brian Tyms, who was with San Francisco last year, and rookie Cole Stanford from Cal Poly.
Director of player personnel Nick Caserio told reporters that he ultimately expected Orton to wind up on the team's injured reserve list.
During a pre-practice briefing, Caserio – a college quarterback at Division III John Carroll – was also asked about the development thus far of rookie passer Jimmy Garoppolo. His answer was more circumspect that specific.
"I think everybody is at the same stage right now. We've been out there one day in pads. You want to talk just about the quarterback position. That position gets magnified because they touch the ball on every play. The ball is in their hand, they're making a decision, they're making a read. There are a lot of other people that are involved in the play. So, part of it is are they doing their job as well? It all has to fit together. There are a lot of moving parts in every play.
"It's a step by step process," Caserio added. "You establish a foundation, build on that, go out there execute it. Hopefully if you make a mistake, eliminate the mistake or figure out why you made the mistake and then move forward to the next play."
Caserio also noted that the team would take Monday off from practicing before resuming activities on Tuesday.
"It's good to be in training camp. We got off to a decent start there yesterday, the first day in pads. We'll just try to start stringing a few things together. We'll practice a few more times next week before we head down to Washington [for joint practices with the Redskins]. Hopefully it will be a good week, make some progress."
Throughout the spring, James Develin had been lining up and working on position drill as a tight end. Since camp started last week, though, the second-year man from Brown has been taking more reps at his customary fullback spot.
Yet, before and after practice, Develin is usually seen with the tight ends, not the running backs. Regardless of where he's listed on the roster, Develin's versatility and flexibility is moving around in the offense has endeared him to the team's coaches and staff.
"James is very smart, works very, very hard. He had a great offseason," Caserio gushed. "From day one that he entered the program to where he is now, he's really improved. A lot of that, he's put in a lot of time. It's a credit to him. He can block the force in the running game, he can put his hand on the line of scrimmage and block the force on the line of scrimmage. James has done a lot of good things since he's been here. He's earned all of his opportunities with his performance and his work ethic."
"I'm just trying to go out there and do what I'm called upon to do and make some plays here and there," Develin said for himself after Sunday's session. In particular this camp, Develin has been showing up as a lead blocker in goal line and short-yardage running situations.
"Yeah, goal line's always a great play," he smiled. "Both the offense and defense know what's coming and it's really just a fun play, because you're getting in there and smacking heads and trying to get those one or two yards you may need."
It may seem as if Develin has secured a spot on this team, but he refused to get lulled into a false sense of security.
"It's never good to be comfortable in football. You're always trying to learn and get better every day. Work hard, work on your weaknesses, work on your strengths. Comfort's something I never really think about. I'm trying to add value to my game."
Buy: Tommy Kelly – He's not completely back at full strength, but having practiced partially in pads the past two days, the defensive tackle is off PUP and working his way back into playing shape.
Sell: Aaron Dobson – Unlike Kelly, the second-year receiver's activity on the field has been limited to rehab work and tossing the football on the sideline with fellow injured man Alfonzo Dennard.
Play of the Day: In 11-on-11 team period action, cornerback Brandon Browner darted into the backfield on a running play to engage rookie ball carrier James White. Coming from the right side, Browner buried his left shoulder into White's chest, causing a loud snapping sound, and White went down on his back like a boxer who just took a left hook. That got the entire defense's juices flowing, and Browner celebrated by standing over White, tilting his head back, a letting out a primordial scream as he thumped his chest.
The Patriots will take a break from camp practice on Monday, July 28. The next scheduled practice is on Tuesday morning. Check patriots.com for the latest dates and times, as camp practices are always subject to last-minute change.