Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick is quick to point out at this point in the offseason that mini-camp is about teaching much more than evaluation as new players are integrated into the team and returning veterans begin work on what will be the foundation of the 2006 playbook in all three phases of the game. Jobs are neither won nor lost during non-contact work in June (unless a guy, as Belichick put it, was "bad enough") and that usually leads to a wide variety of personnel groupings and packages throughout the workouts.
That's clearly been the case at a number of different spots through the first half of the Patriots three-day mandatory veteran mini-camp that continued Wednesday morning on the sunny practice fields behind Gillette Stadium. Taking into consideration injured players missing from action and new faces getting a chance to work into the mix, wide receiver, linebacker and the defensive backfield appear to be three major spots where there's plenty of roles and playing time yet to be defined.
The secondary and wide receiver competitions are a bit hard to handicap due to the fact that top wideout Deion Branch isn't in the mix and safety Rodney Harrison is still rehabbing from a severe knee injury that cost him the bulk of the 2005 season. So the personnel groupings at each spot need to be taken with a bit of a qualifier.
But the story at linebacker is a bit clearer. Willie McGinest is now a Cleveland Brown and that leaves a major hole on the outside of the New England defense. All of the remaining linebackers on the roster are healthy and participating fully in camp. Rosevelt Colvin can be penned in as a starter on the outside, as can Tedy Bruschi on the inside of New England's 3-4 base front. And Mike Vrabel will certainly be one of the four starting linebackers, whether it comes on the inside or back to his more comfortable, playmaking position on the outside.
After that there are likely a dozen players fighting for the final starting job. So far in mini-camp Monty Beisel has taken virtually every rep with the unit that includes Vrabel, Bruschi and Colvin. Others, including Ryan Claridge, Dan Klecko, Tully Banta-Cain and Pierre Woods have worked on the outside. And Eric Alexander, Freddie Roach, Don Davis, Larry Izzo and Barry Gardner on the inside.
But the early reps have included Beisel filling out the linebacker foursome. After a tough first year in New England that included an early starting role, defensive struggles and plenty of personal and group criticism, Beisel is trying to take advantage of his second chance.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Beisel said after Wednesday's morning session. "I had the entire offseason to work on some things that needed to be correct last year. The offseason always gives us time to go back, evaluate and make things better.
"It's going pretty good. It's good to get back in the swing of things. It's fun to get out there and get the camaraderie going again."
Looking back on last year, Beisel now clearly feels more comfortable in the system, lining up alongside Bruschi rather than trying to run a front seven from the Mike spot while simultaneously learning a new scheme. A former defensive lineman who converted to linebacker in Kansas City's more aggressive, speed-driven 4-3 front, Beisel is now closer to comfort as a true 3-4 inside linebacker.
"There are a lot of things you see," Beisel said when asked about looking back on tape and learning from last fall. "There are a lot of good things you see that you want to continue to do better and things that obviously you feel that you need to improve."
Speaking in generalities, Belichick himself said players often see a solid advancement in their second year in a new system.
"I think any time a person is in one system and then they have a year in it they can grow a lot. Sometimes that's confidence and experience and just familiarity," Belichick said. "Sometimes it's not as great maybe because the transition isn't as much. I think that second year is important at every level, both to a young player coming in and a guy with some experience."
And Belichick still sees plenty of things to like in Beisel's game in New England.
"He's a smart kid. He works hard. He's in good condition. I think he has a lot of positives, a lot of good traits and a lot of things going for him."
So far this summer that's earned him plenty of reps with what will eventually be the Patriots starting defense. And to some degree it could earn Beisel somewhat of a second chance to make a first impression in New England.
University of Florida Head Coach Urban Meyer was in attendance for the morning session. Meyer and Belichick have become friends over recent years with the New England coach visiting the school each of the last two springs to confer with the Gators coach about his unique offensive system while also scouting the school's players.
While in Foxboro Meyer also has the chance to view a number of his former players that are in camp with the Patriots. The Gator-turned-Pats include second-round pick Chad Jackson, sixth-round pick Jeremy Mincey, rookie free agent cornerback Vernell Brown, rookie free agent safety Jarvis Herring and rookie free agent offensive lineman Randy Hand.
Deion Branch was once again absent from the practice fields for the morning session, continuing his holdout. … Other players not on the field included. Michael McGrew, Randall Gay, Artrell Hawkins, Antwain Spann, Patrick Pass, Rodney Harrison, Raymond Ventrone, Dan Koppen, Brandon Gorin, Nick Kaczur, Daniel Graham and Jarvis Green. … Cornerback Hank Poteat took to the practice field after missing both of Tuesday's sessions. … Fred Baxter, a former Patriot who is helping the coaching staff out this summer, spent some quality one-on-one time working with Benjamin Watson while the rest of the team was working in a special teams segment. Interestingly, Watson currently wears the No. 84 jersey that Baxter filled out at the end of the 2003 season in New England. … Belichick gave Banta-Cain a rare high-five after the linebacker made a play in one drill. … Patriots Director of Pro Personnel and former Div. III quarterback Nick Caserio helped out by throwing passes for a scout offense during a series of drills for the linebackers and secondary. … Tom Brady-to-Watson continued to be a common connection during the practice as it was during the first day of camp. … Rookie running back Laurence Maroney once again looked very comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield and exploding up field. … The team worked kick returns during a special teams segment. Jackson and Maroney took the first kick, followed by Bam Childress and Willie Andrews for the second rep and Reche Caldwell and John Stone in the final deep pairing. … The first group of secondary players in team defensive action included Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel at corner with Tebucky Jones and James Sanders at safety. Guss Scott was the first man in on nickel downs. … Veteran Chad Scott has worked at both corner and safety at times in camp. … Kevin Faulk had the best hands of the morning coming up with a handful of nice grabs. … As he did Tuesday afternoon, Brady opened up a red zone passing drill with a touchdown pass to Jackson, beating Hobbs on a crossing pattern in the middle of the end zone. … Hobbs has drawn the spotlight for continuing the talkative approach he took to the game last year as a rookie. He's also shared his thoughts on the rookie process with this year's crop of youngsters. "I told the rookies that right now you do not play for us, you practice for us. Nobody has gotten into a jersey. Nobody has stepped on the real game field for us so they don't know what it's like. Bill has also established that as well in some of our meetings." … The team hit the field for a second practice session at 3 p.m. All mini-camp practices are closed to the public.