New England's offensive line will be under considerable scrutiny this season following a 2015 campaign that saw the unit struggle with consistency. Between injuries to key starters, an influx of young, unproven players, and a designed rotational system at guard, the o-line became a weekly guessing game of Who Will Line Up Where?
For some positions and personnel groups in football, variety can be beneficial, even a strategic or tactical advantage, but not so the offensive line, where continuity is key to that unit's success.
Settling on a regular starting five – and keeping them healthy – will be the top priority this season for Patriots o-line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who's back on the sidelines after a two-year retirement. So far this spring practice season, however, Scarnecchia has not had a full complement of players to instruct.
The trio of guards who played virtually every combined snap for the Patriots in 2015 – veteran Josh Kline and second-year players Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason – have been unfit to take part in on-field activities. This has given newcomers like veteran Jonathan Cooper and draft choice Joe Thuney more opportunities than they might otherwise have received.
"Any rep I get, I'm going to make the most of it and do what I can. I am appreciative for those reps and just continue to work," Cooper told reporters Wednesday. "With the reps we're getting and the great group of guys we have in the room, it hasn't been too hard to gel and get that continuity."
Cooper arrived in Foxborough earlier this year as part of the trade that sent DE Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals. His change of scenery marks a second chance to prove that Arizona's initial investment in him – he was the seventh choice overall in the 2013 NFL Draft – was worth it.
So, getting extra work on the field and in the huddle with Tom Brady is helping Cooper learn and adapt to his new system.
"I'm trying to be in the present, not look back," he continued. "It's a daily grind. That's one of the major focuses every day: do what's necessary, do your job. And you can't look too far ahead. Each day, make sure you improve from the day before."
And how has it been working for the famously fiery Scarnecchia?
"He definitely hopped right back into it full-speed ahead," Cooper smiled.
"I feel like he's just like any other great coach. He's going to coach you hard, he's going to love on you when the time is right, and he's definitely going to teach you some great techniques.
"You come in and work hard every day and know that things are going to be all right."
I thought this was 'no-contact'
The o-line brought attention to itself late in Wednesday's session when center Bryan Stork and undrafted rookie defensive lineman Woodrow Hamilton got entangled in a fistfight during a live-action team period play.
Teammates quickly converged on the brawling pair to separate them before head coach Bill Belichick kicked them off the field. It's unclear what or who might have sparked the incident, but each player was clearly admonished by various coaches and teammates before they exited separately for the locker room.
While it's not uncommon for teammates to tussle in August during the hot, humid days of training camp, when full pads and full contact are allowed, it's almost unprecedented to see players grapple like this during the milder temperatures of spring, in non-contact practices.
As he often does, co-captain Matthew Slater put the episode in perspective.
"Football's an emotional game and your emotions are going to get the best of you at times, especially when we're out here competing," he explained. "Everyone's competing for a job. We like to see the competitiveness of practices, but we have to be smart. We all know that [roster] numbers are limited at this level and we have to take care of one another as we practice. So, we have to be smart about that, but at the same time, you like the competitive nature of practice. It's a double-edged sword."
Thankfully, most of the session took place under the auspices of friendly competition and lifting teammates up, rather than beating them down.
"You have to embrace it. There's always competition," observed running back James White. "It makes people better players. You learn from it, compete, and try to give it all you have."
"It's good," added veteran free agent wideout Nate Washington. "These guys in our group have done a tremendous job of coming out here all camp and working hard. We push each other. We're not in a playing-numbers game, we're just carrying out our assignments and doing what we can to help our team right now."
While almost no position or job on the roster is guaranteed, the competition at wide receiver might be among the fiercest and most intriguing once training camp gets underway late next month. For now, though, Washington says he and his fellow pass-catchers are doing their best to make sure no one is left behind in the classroom or on the field.
"It's still a learning process. The spring is a huge learning process for us. Without the pads, the physical banging, right now you have to make sure you're in the right place at the right time. Nobody's in competition with each other, attitude-wise. We're still helping each other out and teaching each other the intricacies of the routes and the offense.
"I definitely embrace [competition]," added Washington. "These guys have pushed each other to the limit. To see some of the plays they can make, it shows you that you have to come out here every single day and make plays. That's what I'm trying to continue to do. All the guys are trying to pick each other up. It's a brotherhood at the end of the day."
Gronk still absent
TE Rob Gronkowski remains a notable no-show for the on-field portion of mini-camp. According to media reports this week, Gronkowski is purposely being held out by the coaching staff for either precautionary reasons or to let him nurse an unspecified "physical ailment."
When asked if he could elaborate on those reports, head coach Bill Belichick offered a one-word response.
Meanwhile, mini-camp resumes Thursday morning.