There's always an air of excitement on the opening day of Patriots training camp – even when the air is stiflingly hot and humid like it was on this day. For backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, there is even more to look forward to than usual.
Now that starter Tom Brady's four-game NFL suspension is no longer being contested, Garoppolo knows that he'll be called upon to lead New England's offense during Brady's September and early October absence.
"Excited, man. I'm excited for Week One," the third-year player admitted after practice, "That's why we play the game. We play to get out there and get your opportunity, and when it comes, you've got to be ready for it."
That being said, Garoppolo added that he's not changing his approach to preparing for the upcoming regular season.
"Nothing has really changed. When they put me in for the reps I'm in for I'll go out there, do my best and do whatever the coaches ask. But my mindset is basically the same. Rookie year, I had the same mindset… I've been preparing to be the starter since the first day I walked in here. Every competitor has that mindset.
"I'm just trying to go out there and get my game right, trying to get the offense ready as much as we can. We've got a long way to go. Training camp is a grind, but we got to get through it. Training camp is a long process. So for Week One, we've got a long way to go. We've got four preseason games until we get there, so we'll take it one step at a time."
Brady and Garoppolo appeared to receive an equal amount of snaps during Thursday's session, with rookie Jacoby Brissett also seeing plenty of action. It remains to be seen how the breakdown will look in two weeks, when the Patriots host the New Orleans Saints in the first preseason game.
Garoppolo maintained he's not worried about when and how much he plays during the preseason contests, or about the amount of work he gets with the expected first-team offense.
"Can't worry about that. It's not my call anyways. I'll do my best either way. It's a great opportunity… You don't get many opportunities in this league, you might only get one, so you've got to make the best of it."
A day earlier, head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels indicated that New England's offense under Garoppolo could look a bit different than what we're used to seeing with Brady, in order to utilize the different skills that Garoppolo possesses.
That may have been difficult to detect after just one non-padded practice session, but what was clear was that when he was on the field with the likes of gifted tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, Garoppolo looked to use those weapons as much as possible.
"It's awesome [playing with those guys]," the QB acknowledged. "It makes my job a whole lot easier that's for sure. There are some big-bodied guys out there. Martellus had a nice catch today; Gronk had a couple [of] nice ones, so when you have guys like that it always makes throwing a lot easier.
"We don't have the pads on yet, so we're not in full swing, but things are moving pretty well."
No sign of Collins
The Patriots had nearly perfect attendance on Thursday, with 88 of the team's 90 players taking the field and participating in one form or another. A notable exception: linebacker Jamie Collins.
The 2015 Pro Bowler was not placed on any of the training camp lists (physically unable to perform, non-football injury, etc.), and with Collins entering the final year of his contract, some observers have speculated that he could be looking to resolve that issue before the end of this season.
However, shortly after practice, CSNNE.com reported that Collins' absence Thursday was expected by the team and was not contract-related. Regardless, his status will be monitored until he returns to the field.
Camp process motivates Gronkowski
If there was a theme to Thursday's practice, it was dropped passes. No one was immune, including several defensive players during passing drills. Even the normally sure-handed Gronkowski saw one touchdown pass slip through his fingers.
"Definitely frustrating for those couple of seconds," he conceded, "but you definitely have to move on to the next play. But I've got to definitely limit those. Hopefully, those just happen today and they don't happen in games. Getting them out now, that's what I'm doing.
"Obviously, a lot to work on, a lot to improve on. That's the game of football. Everything's not always perfect."
In his defense, he was far and away the most effective pass-catcher on the field Thursday, snagging nearly everything thrown to him. He looked in mid-season form, but insisted he's still not where he wants to be, conditioning-wise.
"I felt good out there today. I just had to work hard throughout the summer. It's always tough to get back into football shape. I'm not going to lie and say I'm in top notch shape, no chance. I've still got a long way to go. I don't feel like anybody can be in top notch football shape when you first get out there, and that's what training camp is for and that's why it's a long process.
"It's cool just seeing everyone get back on the same page, working hard together, seeing what you have to improve on, going in now and watching [practice film] and then coming back out tomorrow and improving."
Fans turn out in force
Despite the muggy weather, thousands of fans showed up for the first day of Patriots camp. According to the Patriots media relations department, more than 12,000 people were in attendance – not a record, but still a significant amount for a weekday morning.
Players took notice of the large crowd and appreciated their often enthusiastic participation from the sidelines.
"I love coming out here to these fans," Garoppolo told reporters. "It makes practice so much better. It's just exciting, makes everyone compete harder and makes for a fun atmosphere."
"The fans add a lot," echoed Gronkowski. "We [have capacity crowds at] all these practices, which is super cool. You've got to give huge credit to our fans. They're always there during practice, during games, during tough times, during the good times. You've got to give them huge credit… they're always cheering. Even if it's a dropped pass they're cheering, which makes it funny and gets you through practice. Hopefully, they keep on staying loud and proud."
Buy: Aaron Dobson – Continuing where he left off in the spring, the veteran receiver had a strong start to training camp with a number of nice catches in 7-on-7 and full team periods in the red zone.
*Sell: *Dion Lewis – Off all the players on injury-related lists, Lewis was the only one who didn't make an appearance on the field this first practice of camp, which was somewhat surprising after the running back, coming off left knee surgery, took part in the final practice of the spring.
Play of the Day: During a red zone, full team play, QB Tom Brady thought he had tight end Rob Gronkowski on a fade pattern to the right corner of the end zone. However, second-year safety Jordan Richards came racing over just in time and leapt to swat the ball away just as Gronkowski was about to secure it in his hands, nullifying a would-be touchdown.
View a collection of the best images from Patriots Training Camp in Foxborough on Thursday, July 28, 2016.