On Friday Bill Belichick cautioned the media about reading too much into practice performances that take place without pads. True evaluations can't take place, he said, until the equipment is in place and the intensity is turned up a few notches.
On Saturday the former took place but the latter didn't necessarily fall into place.
The Patriots third practice of training camp indeed took place with the team in full pads but the overall competition and intensity weren't always evident. With the exception of a few drills here and there, most of the practice did not feature many competitive situations. The focus instead seemed to be on execution and for the most part it seemed to be pretty solid throughout the unseasonably chilly morning in Foxborough.
With temperature hovering in the 60s and a persistent wind blowing throughout, the Patriots spent about two hours working out in full pads for the first time since walking off the NRG Stadium field in Houston as Super Bowl champions last February.
Tom Brady wasn't fazed by the odd weather as he continued his fine start to camp with some more impressive throws. He fired several passes into some tight windows and was sharp throughout. On the rare occasions when his throws didn't connect with receivers, it usually took a strong individual effort from a defensive player.
One such occurrence came in a 1-on-1 drill when Jordan Richards made a terrific dive in front of Jacob Hollister near the sideline. Otherwise, Brady was in midseason form.
The assistant coaches spoke to the media on the eve of training camp and running backs coach Ivan Fears spoke about answering some lingering questions he had regarding his group. While fielding a question about his group's overall depth, Fears responded by wondering which of his talented backs would be able to "play big."
"We have enough guys who can play finesse football," he said, "but somebody's got to play power football for us so we have to find out who's going to do that."
One practice isn't going to definitively answer any lingering questions, but Mike Gillislee took a step in that direction with an impressive effort during a pair of live goal line runs late in practice.
With the ball on the 2 and needing just one crack to get in, Gillislee easily slammed into the end zone on both of his attempts. The first was an old fashioned run up the gut that ended with the offense, led by Brady, celebrating wildly as Gillislee found pay dirt. The second went off left tackle and again resulted in an impressive score.
"Nothing fancy, just a power run right up the A gap. The second one I followed the fullback off left tackle and [James Develin] did a great job along with the offensive line and I was able to finish it. You just want to get north and south and make sure you don't bounce too quickly on the goal line."
Gillislee's work was impressive, as is career total of 11 touchdowns in just 154 career carries. LeGarrette Blount was obviously a huge part of the red zone offense a year ago with a franchise-record 18 touchdowns, but based on the admittedly early returns from Gillislee his absence doesn't look like a big deal.
"This is the most talented group of running backs that I've ever been a part of," Gillislee said, which is saying something considering he shared a backfield with LeSean McCoy last year in Buffalo. "These guys are not only great football players, but great human beings as well. I'm just blessed to get this opportunity to be here.
"It's not just one guy. All of these guys got something special about them and all these guys work hard. They don't take any days off. That's what's up with these guys."
Another newcomer, Rex Burkhead, got the call on the next two goal line attempts but didn't fare as well. Operating behind the second offensive line, the former Bengal was stuffed soundly on his attempt up the middle before being belted on his try to find the end zone off left tackle. This time it was the defense celebrating.
Even among some of the world's greatest athletes, Brandin Cooks has been a step above. Cooks' footwork and quickness are outstanding, and judging from the amount of times he and Brady have connected already there appears to be a lethal combination developing in Foxborough.
Cooks shot past Justin Coleman for a long catch on one play, then hauled in a Jimmy Garoppolo deep ball after splitting safeties Nate Ebner and Duron Harmon later.
Cooks has the type of athleticism the Patriots offense has lacked for the last few years, and considering how productive New England's attack has been without it, the possibilities for this year's version appear to be endless.
Buy: Jordan Richards – The third-year safety hasn't been much of a factor on defense thus far in his career but his play early on has opened some eyes. After an active spring, Richards is making the most of his reps in training camp as well. In addition to an interception in drills, the safety came up with a strong play to rip the ball away from Rob Gronkowski to prevent a touchdown in 11-on-11 work.
Sell: Ryan Allen – Nothing to worry about here but this was not a day the punter will look back on fondly. He sent several wobbly kicks into the windy air and the finished things off with a horrific shank to the right that sailed all the way into the stands well past the sideline. Allen was visibly frustrated with himself throughout practice.
Play of the Day: Tom Brady has been sharp so far in training camp but there's something special about watching him fit passes into tight windows, especially against zone coverages. That's what he did early on Saturday when he found Chris Hogan on a long, deep crossing route that saw the wideout catch the ball in stride just behind Stephon Gilmore and Patrick Chung.
Rob Ninkovich continues to be missing from camp. Belichick said on Friday that the veteran defensive end is away for personal reasons but three days into camp it has reached the point of concern. There has been wide speculation that Ninkovich may be retiring, which would be unfortunate because the Patriots could use his presence at a position that lacks depth. … Duron Harmon appeared to dodge a bullet late in practice when he went down with an apparent injury to his right knee. The medical staff spent some time with him and he walked to the sideline gingerly, but he remained on the fields throughout and then spent a lot of time with his family after practice rather than retreated to the trainers' room for treatment, which would seem to be a good sign. … Brandon Bolden left practice early on and did not return. No word on the reason for his departure. … Rookie wideout Cody Hollister was not seen after suffering an apparent shoulder injury on Friday. Dont'a Hightower (PUP), Alan Branch (PUP) and Andrew Jelks (NFI) remained out of uniform while Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell and David Jones suited up but did not take part in practice. All six spent most of their time working on conditioning on the lower field. … Long snapper Joe Cardona was also back in uniform and took part fully. … Celtics coach Brad Stevens was a guest at practice and spent several minutes speaking with Belichick and Nick Caserio before the workout and Josh McDaniels and Caserio after practice. … The Patriots will be back at it on Sunday with practice set to begin at 9:15 a.m. The workout once again will be open to the public.