Tom Brady returned. Rob Gronkowski did too. And suddenly and offseason of questions and turmoil seemed to disappear – at least for one day – on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.
The two headliners were present and accounted for as New England opened its three-day mandatory mini-camp in Foxborough, and the pace and tempo of the festivities seemed to pick up right from the start. The quarterback was his typically vocal self while Gronk was, well, Gronk – high-stepping his way to touchdowns with his trademark enthusiasm spreading all over the fields.
Those two weren't the only welcomed additions to the action on Tuesday however. Julian Edelman, who has been with his teammates rehabbing from the torn ACL that kept him out of action all last season, was once again in uniform. But unlike the two OTA sessions open to the media in which he took part on a limited basis, Tuesday saw Edelman going against defenses in both 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work throughout practice.
At times he was with some of the secondary groups but he also caught plenty of passes from Brady, which was one of the more positive developments of the day.
"Anytime you get to go out and see the fellas and play with them and talk with them and be in the huddle and look at guys and participate in drills – I mean, that's what you play the game for, ultimately," Edelman said after practice. "It was tough to watch it all on the sideline last year and to come out here and just to do little things, strap on the helmet, puts in perspective how lucky you are to get to play the game."
Edelman said he continues to improve physically each day and was happy to have his quarterback back in the fold. He was not wearing a knee brace and told reporters that he didn't plan on wearing one during the season.
As for Brady, Edelman was asked about the presence of his vociferous QB. "It's always loud with 12 out there," he said. "He's an intimidating S.O.B."
Obviously the arrival of Brady and Gronkowski dominated the day, but there was plenty of action to focus on that didn't necessarily involve the two stars. Here are one man's observations of the first day of mini-camp.
-There were several members of the Iowa coaching staff present at practice. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a former Hawkeye, spent some time chatting with the group before practice. Brian Ferentz, who was a member of the Patriots staff from 2009-11 and coached tight ends the final two seasons, had an extended talk with director of player personnel Nick Caserio. Ferentz is now the offensive coordinator at Iowa under his father, Kirk.
-The pre-practice drills continue to have some different looks to them with the running backs, tight ends and wide receivers working on ball security running through a gauntlet of ball boys wearing boxing gloves trying to punch the ball out. The quarterbacks worked on dropbacks that led to stepping up in the pocket while absorbing some hits with pads as the kept their eyes downfield. The receivers also caught passes while taking hits and often were forced to find the ball behind the pads as they flashed in front of them.
-Most of the players were seen at one point or another during the practice but there was a handful of Patriots not spotted. That group included Malcolm Mitchell, David Jones, Brandon Bolden, Nicholas Grigsby, Joacob Hollister and Joe Thuney. Several others were present but did the bulk of their work on the lower rehab fields, including Jonathan Jones, Nate Ebner, Malcom Brown, Marcus Cannon, Eric Lee, Braxton Berrios, Cyrus Jones and Cody and Hollister.
-James Develin and rookie Shane Wimann spent some time hitting a blocking sled at the beginning of practice. Wimann appears to be a physical tight end who excels in the blocking department.
-Rookie Danny Etling connected with Jordan Matthews on a fade in the end zone early on in a red zone drill. Matthews did a nice job of high-pointing the ball behind Eric Rowe in the back corners of the end zone.
-Speaking of tight ends, it was hard not to notice Troy Niklas. The former Cardinals tight end moves fluidly and cuts in and out of his breaks smoothly. He has not been much of a factor as a receiver during the early part of his career but he was on Tuesday, catching several passes down the seam and running away from defenders consistently throughout the afternoon. The Notre Dame product could be a surprise addition to the receiving corps based on Tuesday's work.
-The offense ran some high-tempo plays in 7-on-7 work with Brady and Brian Hoyer alternating quickly from snap to snap. The plays were run with very little time in between, although there were a few gaffes along the way. Mike Gillislee failed to hold onto one catchable ball in the flat and fellow running back Jeremy Hill lost his bearings on another and caught a short pass out of bounds on the near sideline.
-Phillip Dorsett may have had his best day of practice on Tuesday as he broke free several times on crossing routes. He caught a bunch of passes from all the quarterbacks, including Brady, and was consistently open, particularly in some hurry-up/no huddle work toward the end of practice. Dorsett came in the fold just before the start of the season last fall and was forced to play catchup from the start. Perhaps a year in the system has eased his mind a bit.
"I learned a lot last year coming in having to learn this offense on the fly," Dorsett said. "It's difficult, but I think I did a lot last year to help this team. I'm a lot more comfortable now obviously coming in, taking advantage of extra reps and everything that's been thrown at me."
-The offensive line also got some players back that had been limited in earlier sessions. The group that opened some drills included Trent Brown at left tackle next to rookie Isaiah Wynn at left guard, David Andrews at center, Shaq Mason at right guard and LaAdrian Waddle at right tackle. Brown and Wynn took several reps against a defense, marking the first time they'd done so in front of the media this spring. Waddle moved to the left side to replace Brown while Luke Bowanko took Wynn's spot and Cole Croston took over at right tackle with Mason and Andrews remaining in place.
-The Patriots did a fair amount of work in the kicking game with kickoffs in focus. It was interesting to watch the coverage team starting from a standstill as part of the new rules recently instituted. The return team also has some adjustments to make with eight players now required to be within 15 yards on the restraining line. Matthew Slater talked about it after practice and explained how the changes are going to take some time to get used to, particularly dealing with just three players back deep for returns. Cordarrelle Patterson, Riley McCarron and Patrick Chung took some reps as returners with Slater, Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel working as blockers in one group and Chris Hogan, Develin and James White with another. Michel and White served as the up men in the drills. It was interesting to watch the Patriots having some of the coverage players start well downfield in an effort to simulate where blockers would start to pick up their men. New looks all around in the kicking game.
-Robert Kraft was on the field and watched most of the practice.
-Rookie punter Corey Bojorquez continued to work on holding with Stephen Gostkowski. There did not seem to be any issues in that department on Tuesday.
-Gronkowski was his usual dominant self throughout the practice, taking some time to point toward his old position coach Ferentz after one big play. His best catch may have come when he split safeties Jordan Richards and Damarius Travis deep down the left side and made a terrific catch with his hands outstretched just outside the end zone. That grab drew some reaction from several teammates and certainly added some spice to the festivities.
-The 11-on-11 work involved down and distance with the defense including Adrian Clayborn, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton and Trey Flowers up front, Dont'a Hightower and Elandon Roberts at linebacker and Stephon Gilmore, J.C Jackson, Duke Dawson, Devin McCourty and Chung in the secondary. Jackson continues to garner attention, not only by his inclusion with the presumed starters but for his play. He ran stride for stride with Kenny Britt down the left sideline on a deep ball and prevented Brady from making the connection.
-While Jackson and other young DBs have flashed this spring, the same cannot be said of Jason McCourty. The corner hasn't really taken any reps in the three practices open to the media but has been dressed and standing on the sideline at all times. Perhaps Jason McCourty is dealing with an unknown injury but thus far it seems he hasn't been involved. Even though he is a veteran it would seem to make sense for a newcomer to get more work during these practices but so far that hasn't been the case.
-Britt made a few plays during practice but was shaken up late in the practice with an apparent right leg injury. He came up gimpy after a play and was attended to behind the end zone for a moment before he limped back to the sideline in between the practice fields.
-The first play of full team work in each practice has featured a strong showing by Clayborn. The defensive end has flashed coming off the edge in all three practices and on Tuesday he forced Waddle to grab hold of his jersey to prevent a sack. Clayborn followed that by blowing up an end around to Hogan on the next snap, drawing some praise from the coaches.
-Edelman, Gronkowski, Slater, Matthews, both McCourtys, Dorsett, Hoyer and Hightower were among the players who spent time chatting with the media.
-The Patriots will hold two more practices as part of their mini-camp on Wednesday and Thursday – both closed to the public but open to the media.
Check out our favorite photos from Patriots Mini-Camp at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday, June 5, 2018.