On a day that felt appropriately more like autumn than summer, the Patriots kicked off their 2017 training camp with an energetic morning practice session. Estimates of more than 15,000 spectators jammed the seats and hills surrounding the fields behind Gillette Stadium, as well as the stadium ramps overlooking the area, to watch the reigning Super Bowl champions get back to work. Their presence added to the already high level of enthusiasm of the players.
"This is probably the most fans I've ever seen at a training camp practice," observed linebacker David Harris, late of the New York Jets and in his first appearance as a Patriot. "The crowd's getting into it, gives you that extra boost of energy when you're dragging."
Check out our favorite photos from Patriots Training Camp at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, July 27, 2017.
"I've never seen this many people before," echoed a grinning cornerback Stephon Gilmore, another former AFC East rival (Buffalo Bills) experiencing his first dose of life at Patriots camp. "It's a fun environment, a lot of people out, great teammates. There is a lot of cheering, so it's fun out here. It makes it more fun. Yeah, it's crazy. There are a lot of people here, great fans and great support."
"Nothing surprises you with our fans," wide receiver Julian Edelman declared. "How many people were here? It's a lot. It's certainly more than we had at my [Kent State] college games, so that's pretty cool. We always feel and love the support that we get here in this community.
"The vibe is always good in the beginning…everyone is excited to be back. It's good to come and get to go out and practice in front of the fans, see these guys get all riled up. It brings an energy to practice, so that's always nice."
The first couple of days of camp are conducted without pads, as specified by the players' collective bargaining agreement with the league, but that didn't lessen the intensity or speed of the drills and team periods.
For both rookies and veterans alike, the first practice of the 2017 season stirred up powerful, positive emotions.
"I woke up thanking the Lord," rookie defensive end and top 2017 draft choice Derek Rivers told reporters afterward. "I was just more… eager for the practice, I'll put it like that. I mean, when you walk out here, it's like, 'Wow [look at all the fans],' but once you get on the practice field, you really don't notice because you're so locked in on what's going on on the field and doing your job."
"I've been looking forward to it for a while now, sure. I've been looking forward to just getting back to football," said tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the second half of last season with a back injury that required surgery. "I've definitely had a longer vacation than a lot of the guys. So I would say I was probably the most eager to get going, get rolling."
Ninko among Day 1 newsmakers
While most of the Patriots' 90-man roster took part in the opening session, a few noteworthy names did not. Most surprisingly, defensive end Rob Ninkovich never made an appearance, for reasons that remain unclear. The 33-year-old and occasional co-captain spoke to reporters just last week and declared, "I still feel really good." His situation will be closely monitored in the coming days.
Long snapper Joe Cardona was the only other Patriot not on the field Thursday, although media reports indicate he was fulfilling one of his commitments as a Naval reserve officer and is expected back with the team soon.
With two spots available on the roster, New England added wide receiver Tony Washington, a veteran who began with the Colts in 2014 and spent most of his career since then with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Patriots filled out the roster with rookie defensive end Caleb Kidder, a Montana product originally signed by the Minnesota Vikings earlier this year.
Many outsider observers have posited throughout the offseason that the cornerback duo of Gilmore and Malcolm Butler could be the best such tandem in the NFL today. When asked directly if he thought as much, Butler replied candidly, "Yeah, I do. I do. We're around [the best], but actions speak louder than words. We'll have our time to prove that. Time will tell. We look good on paper, but we haven't done anything.
"[Gilmore]'s a great player. Quiet guy. Like any relationship, it takes a little time, a little building. Great guy. We help each other on and off the field. Glad he's here."
"That's a good compliment," Gilmore smiled when told of Butler's assessment, "but I just try to take it one day at a time. Every year starts over, we have to prove ourselves. It's a grind. We've got to put the work in. It's hard work. I like how you have to prove yourself on this team and make your role on this team, and you do that by coming on the practice field, practicing hard. I've been proving myself my whole life. It's nothing new, just on a new team."
Butler agreed that he and his teammates, on both sides of the ball, need to prove their worth, regardless of how successful they've been in the recent past. He added that his goal for 2017 is simple.
"Be better than last year, work on all my errors from last year, get better in each and every aspect of the game. I just want to be better this year, and I will. Anything to help the team," he maintained. "That's the only way you're going to make it is to focus that way and work hard and expect high expectations of yourself. I think everyone should think that way."
Harris' new home
As noted above, Harris is donning a Patriots uniform for the first time, after 10 previous campaigns with the Jets. He revealed Thursday that it only took "a couple days" to mull New England's offer to join the Patriots after New York let him go this past offseason.
"Whatever happened in the past is in the past. I'm looking forward to coming here and contributing wherever I can. I'm happy I'm here," he added. "I'm just trying to be a piece of the puzzle, that's all. I'm trying to learn from guys like [fellow linebacker and 2016 co-captain Dont'a] Hightower, who's played this position at a high level for a long time.
"The hardest thing is learning the playbook and teammates and putting names to faces. I played against them for 10 years, but a lot of times, you don't see the guy behind the facemask."
Buy: Dwayne Allen – After an up-and-down spring, the veteran newcomer at tight end looked solid running pass routes and catching the ball throughout his first Patriots training camp session.
Sell: Kony Ealy – The veteran defensive end, acquired in an offseason trade, did very little on the field in the spring and started his first camp practice as an out-of-uniform spectator from the sideline.
Play of the Day: In an 11-on-11 period, QB Tom Brady dropped a perfect deep ball into the waiting arms of new WR Brandin Cooks, who'd beaten defensive backs Cyrus Jones and Duron Harmon down the left sideline and into the end zone closest to the capacity crowd of spectators.