The Patriots made their assistant coaches available to the media late in the afternoon on Monday and it offered a chance to hear from the man responsible for putting the offense together. Josh McDaniels spoke about dealing with life without his two talented tight ends.
"Our offense has never been the same two years in a row, really," the offensive coordinator said. "The system hopefully is broad enough where we can use the skills that our players have to the best of their ability. We try to put them in position to be successful with whoever is out there on the field. We've had to do it a lot of different ways in the course of time. Whatever that way is we're not real sure yet."
With Wes Welker in Denver, Rob Gronkowski in shorts on the sideline recovering from back/arm surgeries and Aaron Hernandez gone, the NFL's highest scoring offense last fall is no long at Tom Brady's disposal.
"It's definitely a work in progress," he said when asked about the transition.
In fact, it's quite clear that even when Gronkowski returns to health Brady and McDaniels are going to have to find new ways to get the job done.
The biggest uncertainty is at receiver. Though Danny Amendola has some limited experience working with McDaniels in St. Louis, there really is an all-out competition for rosters spots, roles and playing time on the New England depth chart. Six of the 12 receivers at this point are rookies. Three others are free agent additions who are new to the system and life working with Patriots perfectionist passing game orchestrator Brady.
That's a lot of learning to undergo for a team that's known for having a rather complex, adjustment-heavy passing playbook. Adding new players to that mix over the years – whether they be rookies or veterans – hasn't always been easy.
But Brady is trying his best to understand the process that those young players, and the offense as a whole is going through this summer.
"I don't want to be a grumpy old guy," Brady said. "I understand there's a learning curve and there is a patience [needed]. I think you try to let them know, though, that there's an urgency about it. So it's not like you can afford mistakes. And we all make them. I make them myself. I make more than anybody. So yeah you're patient with certain things. Mental errors you don't really want to tolerate. I think those things are always preventable. But you know they're going to happen."
So far second-round pick Aaron Dobson has had a ton of reps with Brady and New England's first unit in camp practice. The rookie has shown solid route running and reliable hands as he attempts to take advantage of the huge opportunity that's at hand.
According to the two-time Super Bowl MVP, all the young players have been impressive in their early work.
"We have a pretty smart group of guys," Brady said. "That's been a real positive and hopefully we continue to play smart. It's hard to exist in this program if you're not a smart player."
Smart as they may be, they've never played together. Brady will enter the season – assuming Gronkowski isn't ready to go on opening day – without his top five pass catchers from a year ago, a group that collectively hauled in 338 catches.
Sure all NFL teams go through some changes each year and meld the system to the talent on the roster. But this is clearly an extreme case of that with the Patriots.
And it's clearly a work in progress.
"Our offense every year, there is really no one specific identity for it other than we try to use the players' skills that we have and move them around and get them the ball as many ways as we can to allow them to be effective," McDaniels concluded. "Whether that's using two tight end sets as we have in the past few years quite a bit or multiple receivers or one tight end and three … whatever it may be. We're just trying to see what everybody can do at this point, what are our better groupings to do certain things from.
"There are a lot of things left to go through in terms of evaluating. But I think whether that's using some different personnel groupings that we haven't used in the last couple years, that may come into play. Really we're still in a phase of trying to figure out exactly what's best for the Patriots.
"I think whatever we determine that may be – and that's probably going to change quite a bit from week to week, then we'll make those decisions as we go. I think we're still trying to put those guys in spots to see what they can and can't do. Not only at the tight end position, but the receivers, the backs. They all can kind of do different things. Once we kind of settle on the roles that everybody will have and earn, I think our offense will take a more obvious shape as we go on."
Lights, camera, action …
The Patriots practiced inside Gillette Stadium in front of season-ticket holders, residents of Foxborough and South Walpole as well as those who attended the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. The crowd of 20,543 was a spirited group and raised the excitement level of the workout, if not the overall performance.
"It's loud," laughed defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. "You could tell that they love their team. They know the team well and you if it's like this for a practice you know it's going to be loud on game day."
Despite the added potential for intensity, it seemed that only the defense took advantage. The offense was sloppy for the most part, failing to complete passes with much regularity and struggling to maintain much consistency when running the ball during 9-on-7 drills.
The defense came up with most of the big plays, including a pair of interceptions from Aqib Talib on a deep ball intended for Michael Jenkins and later one by Duron Harmon to close out practice.
"Anytime anybody gets and interception it's good," said safety Devin McCourty. "Aqib had one and then Duron … that's how you want to end a period on defense."
The Patriots hoped to get a surprise boost from Armond Armstead after signing the former USC product out of the CFL this offseason. But it doesn't look like that will be happening anytime soon.
Armstead has yet to practice after being placed on the non-football illness list before camp and the team released the following statement about his status after practice Monday night:
"Armond Armstead had surgery to treat an infection. Armond is in good condition and is expected to make a full recovery. A timetable has not been set for his return to football."
Armstead dealt with a heart condition during his college career and that caused him to go undrafted in 2012. After playing in Canada last season he earned a contract with the Patriots in an effort to jumpstart his NFL career. Now it appears as if that's on hold for at least the short term.
Pats have 'em cornered
The Patriots had a chance to lose two of their three starting corners from 2012 via free agency but both Kyle Arrington and Aqib Talib re-signed with the team in the offseason. That allowed that pair to remain with Alfonzo Dennard, and therefore cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer has the luxury of working with the same group he closed out last season with.
Boyer, who is in his eighth season with the Patriots and fifth working in the secondary, feels a comfort level working with familiar faces. But in addition to the experience, Boyer believes having the two re-signed free agents back in the fold has helped in other ways as well.
"Aqib and Kyle in particular – those guys have been really good leaders – they've done everything we've asked them to do," Boyer said. "Both of them are very coachable, they've worked very hard in the offseason, they've come back in good shape, they're doing good things in practice, there's a comfort level with those guys out there with the safeties, we're getting the same group working together there as well, so that's been good for us."
Linebackers coach Pepper Johnson always has an interesting way of putting things and he offered a unique take of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins. The second-round pick has shown some athleticism at times during the early days of training camp, in particular working in space in pass coverage.
Johnson explained how important it is for linebackers to be versatile in today's NFL, where constant personnel changes and formation shifts have become the norm.
"In today's football, it's hard for a guy to just play one position because the offense, with Josh and those guys, they would transfer the tight end, move him over and get you in different formations and he would end up playing [Jerod] Mayo's position anyway," Johnson said.
Then he broke out some typical Pepper-speak when describing Collins' game.
"I think Coach Belichick did a great job of getting a linebacker in here. It's just a matter of getting him to understand the game, which he does. So, he came ready with a lunch pail – it's just a matter of us putting the sandwiches and the milk and all that stuff in the lunch pail. He's a guy who understands football so that makes it easier for me to guide him."
Buy – Michael Hoomanawanui – The versatile tight end is getting additional opportunities and is enjoying a solid start to camp. On Monday night he turned in a couple of blocks, lined up in the backfield and took a handoff during some down-and-distance work and later came up with a terrific one-handed grab in a one-on-one drill against Tavon Wilson.
Sell – Ryan Mallett – The backup quarterback was off target for much of the night. During a no-huddle drill using down and distance, on consecutive plays he threw high and behind Leon Washington underneath and then missed Kamar Aiken on consecutive plays when the wideout was open for potential big gains.
Play of the Day – With the offense operating out of the no huddle, Tom Brady moved the ball methodically down the field. Facing a first-and-10 from near midfield, Brady executed an effective play-action fake and found tight end Daniel Fells deep down the seam from right to left. Big Smooth, as Team PFW has dubbed him, caught theball in stride and would have been off to the races for the touchdown.
Quote of the Day – "Athleticism, if it doesn't transfer out there on the football field then we'll start hiring male football cheerleaders or something and have them do flips." – Pepper Johnson, explaining how athleticism is only useful if it translates to the field.
The Patriots had one addition to their injury list as running back Brandon Bolden was not in attendance. Bolden missed some time during the spring with a reported ankle problem so perhaps his absence was related to that. Other than Bolden the Patriots were without the same group of six players who have missed all of camp thus far. Wide receivers Julian Edelman (PUP/foot) and Mark Harrison (NFI/foot), offensive lineman Nick McDonald (PUP/unknown), tight end Rob Gronkowski (PUP/arm, back) and defensive linemen Cory Grissom and Armstead all missed practice. McCourty remains in his red, non-contact jersey and continues to be an active participant in every element of practice.