Some have said a dark cloud has hung over the Patriots offseason and if that's the case, that cloud opened up Friday morning for the first practice of training camp 2013 in Foxborough. New England took to the field for the first time this summer wearing helmets, jerseys (with numbers, thank you Coach!) and sweats in rainy, cool conditions.
The weather didn't dampen the spirits of the respectable number of fans in attendance, but it did challenge players to deal with the wet ball, especially quarterbacks and receivers. With that in mind, the Patriots passing attack that is undergoing a major overhaul of talent this summer put forth a solid opening effort. The group struggled mightily in a similar practice setting this spring during OTAs/mini-camp, but Friday saw more crisp, consistent connections between the passers and their targets.
Maybe the best sign for the passing attack was that rookie draft picks Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce were both on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium for the session that lasted for just about two hours and 15 minutes. Dobson got a lot of reps working with the likes of Tom Brady and Danny Amendola, and had an impressive day in terms of running his routes and making plays on the football. There is a long ways to go for the second-round pick, but it was a very nice first step on the same day that Bill Belichick opened his morning by commenting that the proverbial treadmill is moving and his team was looking to jump on and start running. Dobson certainly did that on Friday.
In the end the first look at the new-look Patriots was a solid one, a competitive first step in what will be a long process.
Beyond that, here are one man's observations from afar through the at times heavy rain:
--Seven of the 90 players currently on the roster did not take part in the first workout of the summer. Wide receivers Julian Edelman (foot) and Mark Harrison (foot) both watched the session in sweats. Undrafted receiver Kenbrell Thompkins – who some in the media already believe has a very good chance to make the roster – did not practice, but watched from the sideline while wearing a jersey for the latter part of the session. Nick McDonald, who's on PUP, did a lot of running work with assistant strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera.
Rookie defensive lineman Cory Grissom, tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm/back) and first-year defensive lineman Armond Armstead (NFI), were not spotted on the field.
Devin McCourty wore a red, non-contact jersey to open camp as he comes back from shoulder surgery. McCourty appeared to take full reps at his free safety spot throughout the practice, something he was unable to do earlier this spring.
--Brandon Bolden, who was absent from the practice field due to a reported ankle injury this spring, was a full participant on Friday to open camp.
--Taking a leadership role early, free agent additions Amendola and Michael Jenkins took the first spots in most wide receiver drills early in practice. Those drills are always enjoyable to watch. That's especially true when receivers coach Chad O'Shea brings out the ball boys with taped tennis racquets to screen/distract the players as they run routes.
--The racquets were put to new use on Friday, though, as they were used in seven-on-seven drills. A pair of ball boys each held two racquets and used them to simulate the defensive line pass rush/batting-balls ability throughout the passing segment. I'll call this the J.J. Swat effect.
--Young receiver Quentin Sims struggled catching the football early in receiver drills. Sims signed with the team as an undrafted rookie just prior to the start of camp.
--Jake Ballard was on the field thanks to earning his way off the PUP list earlier in the week. Ballard still seems to run with a limp, although as I've said previously this could very well be his gait after deal with a torn ACL and microfracture surgery. He seemed to get a full load of reps in the workout. He also had a couple drops as he tries to get up to speed with Brady.
--Adrian Wilson lined up next to McCourty at strong safety on defense in pre-practice work and then throughout group and team work in the session. Steven Gregory then rotated in with Wilson, earlier than players at other spots seemed to rotate through. It looks like Wilson and Gregory could be in a pretty good battle for time next to McCourty, although both players could be used in varying situations thanks to their very different builds and skill sets.
--At cornerback Aqib Talib took his reps on the left side, with Kyle Arrington lined up on the right for the most part. The next group included Alfonzo Dennard on the left side and Ras-I Dowling on the right.
--Not long after Belichick left the door open in his morning press conference for the idea that Tim Tebow could play positions other than quarterback, the third-string passer took some reps in special teams drills as a ball carrier. During the segment for open-field tackling, ball carriers caught passes and then turned upfield to beat would-be tacklers. Tebow caught one such throw from Ryan Mallett and then one from Tom Brady.
Aside from his special teams work, Tebow had a terrible day throwing the football. He threw an interception that hit Nate Ebner between the ol' 4 and the 3. He had a number of other potential interceptions that were dropped. He had slow reads and had to pull the ball down to run on other occasions. He also had one ball toward the flat that wobbled so terribly it didn't make it halfway to the intended receiver. Not a good first showing for his New England fans, although he still got a number of cheers from the crowd in attendance, including his very first rep of the day in pre-practice team action.
--LaGarrette Blount had a couple bad drops in drills with the quarterbacks. As the group the running backs didn't catch the ball especially well, as Stevan Ridley had a pretty bad drop too.
--Robert and Jonathan Kraft walked onto the field in the middle of the session with a group of VIPs from Alex and Ani. The Rhode Island-based lifestyle brand is now the title sponsor of the Patriots cheerleaders.
--Rutgers rookie linebacker Steve Beauharnais must have missed the memo, as the draft pick was the only player wearing actual practice pants for the workout. Oops.
--Love watching Zoltan Mesko during practice. Always does something entertaining. Friday he worked as the scout running back for the defense and showed his fancy footwork with a few runs around end.
--Kickoff return was the focus of special teams work. The first group of returners consisted of Leon Washington and Shane Vereen. Next up came Matthew Slater and Blount followed by Lavelle Hawkins and Ridley. Washington should add a boost to the return game after ranking second in the league in that area for Seattle last fall. Interesting to see him lined up next to Vereen as the off returner. That spot generally belonged to Slater in the past as the lead blocker for the return man. In his reps Slater actually worked as the returner on Friday following Blount's blocks. Also of note that McCourty, the primary returner for parts of the last two years, isn't a part of the group right now.
--At one point in offensive group work on three consecutive snaps the unit lined up with two backs, then two tight ends followed by three wide receivers. There were a lot of various formations throughout the practice, as their likely will be all summer as coordinator Josh McDaniels gets a handle on his personnel.
Will be interesting to watch Michael Hoomanawanui in that area. Officially a tight end, he spent plenty of reps as a fullback on Friday just as he did at times last season.
--Newcomer Hawkins seems to be very much a slot receiver based on his reps on Friday.
--The rookie Boyce saw reps inside and outside. He didn't have as impactful a first practice as his draftmate Dobson. Boyce double-caught one ball and saw more reps with groups down the depth chart. Still good to see him out there and a full go by all appearances as he works back from a foot injury suffered at the Combine and subsequent surgery.
--Ridley had an especially tough go in the special teams tackling drill, when the ball carrier dropped one pass and then fumbled after a reception a short time later. Vereen also dropped a pass in the drill as the runners seemed to want to turn and run past the would-be special teams tacklers before actually securing the pass.
--One play in particular that stood out for all the wrong reasons came in seven on seven when Ballard ran past Adrian Wilson to get open, only to drop the pass from Brady. The drop was bad, but so was the fact that the big tight end returning from injury was able to easily get by the veteran safety. People will be watching to see if the former Pro Bowler Wilson has lost a step. One play doesn't prove anything, but it continues to be worth watching.
--Kamar Aiken had a couple really nice catches on the day. One of note came after a Brady pump fake when Aiken beat Dennard down the right sideline and stayed in bounds to make the acrobatic reception.
--Mallett didn't have the best of days. He seemed to throw a lot of balls either on the back shoulder of his targets or all together behind them. This accuracy and timing is the biggest factor that will decide whether he can develop into a competitive NFL passer. Entering his third season, it's still very much in question.
--Former Patriots and Saints fullback Heath Evans was in attendance as a correspondent for NFL Network.
--Brady got away with one especially bad throw when a pass intended for Dobson tipped off the hands of both Arrington and McCourty before falling to the wet turf.
--Brady's best completion of the day was a hookup on the left sideline to Amendola, who caught the ball almost lying on his back to beat Dennard. Amendola continues to impress with his quickness, hands and playmaking ability early in his time in New England.
--Marcus Cannon had to take a penalty lap during the team segment late in practice. It came shortly after the entire defense seemed to indicate that an offensive lineman had jumped offsides. That may have been Cannon.
--Tavon Wilson had the chance to make a play, but dropped a Mallett throw that him in the chest late in team action.
--The offense and defense split groups into two practice fields late in the workout. While this is usually the time for "opportunity reps" for the young players, it was interesting that Tebow stayed on the same field with Brady while Mallett went to the other field. Also, Jenkins was on the field with Mallett that seemed to include younger players.
--Chandler Jones may have had the athletic play of the day with an interception of a Tebow screen pass in the final segment. The quarterback tried to loft the ball over the defensive end, but the 270-pound athlete faded back toward the line of scrimmage and dove to pick off the pass. Jones showed good bursts at other points in practice as he put "pressure" on the quarterback. Will be interesting to see how he looks in a couple days when the pads go on and he tries to get things rolling on his second season.
--The Patriots Jimmy Dee-led film staff is using a new camera angle, with a camera being positioned on the top of a tall ladder just a few yards behind the offense during certain team drills.
--Those players conducting interview with the media in the rain after practice included Tebow, Dennard, Slater, Washington, Amendola, Hawkins and a handful of others.
--The Patriots will return to the practice fields in Foxborough again on Saturday morning at 9 am for another practice. The practices are being held early because Taylor Swift has a pair of concerts at Gillette Stadium on Friday and Saturday night. After that, the workouts will move to the afternoon.