For the first time in six months the Patriots took the field as a full team Thursday morning. And while there were a noticeable number of new faces, Rosevelt Colvin, Rodney Harrison and seemingly deep crop of rookies, as well as guys in new places such as Roman Phifer working out at inside linebacker and second-year defensive lineman Jarvis Green working at nose tackle, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick was quick to point out that the mandatory three-day mini is camp more of a learning time than anything else.
"First let me say that I wouldn't read too much into where anybody is practicing right now or who is with which team," Belichick said when asked about the players in various places. "I mean this guy is first string and that guy is second string and all that. Again nobody is going to make the team in this camp. Nobody is going to be a starter in this camp. This is more about a teaching camp, getting everybody the information, getting them some looks at it and letting them familiarize themselves so that when they do get to training camp they can compete for a spot. That is really when that will be decided."
But while Belichick might warn not to read too much into the various notable positional changes, there are some factors that could play a definite role in which players are where when training camp and the regular season roll around. For example the only two legitimate options the Patriots had following last season at inside linebacker were veterans Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi. With Bruschi's injury troubles last year and Johnson's oft-injured history it is unrealistic that New England could go through a season with those as the only two answers at inside linebacker in the 3-4. Therefore taking the versatile Phifer from the much deeper outside backer spot, at least to give him some experience on the inside during these camps, seems to be logical.
"Roman, like a lot of our players, has some versatility," Belichick said of the move. "He can play outside and he has also been working a little bit inside. I think overall the linebacker position is one that has looked pretty good all spring. We've had good competition there. We have a good group of veteran players that have played well not for one year, but for a number of years. They've been consistent players that can rush the passer, they can cover and they can play the run. So I think that overall that looks like a pretty solid group and hopefully they can be a productive group this year. But basically Colvin, [Willie] McGinest, [Mike] Vrabel and Matt Chatham are working outside. We know Phifer can go out there and he's had a lot of work out there in the last couple years. Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Don Davis, [Larry] Izzo and Phifer give us good depth inside as well."
Another noticeable spot with the first defensive group belonged to second-round pick Eugene Wilson. Wilson manned the corner spot opposite Ty Law for most of the day. That spot though is likely due at least in part to the fact that veteran Otis Smith did not participate in practice as he recovers from his late-season pectoral muscle injury and subsequent offseason surgery, as well as the fact that veteran free agent Tyrone Poole has not participated in the offseason program this spring. For the time being anyway, Poole is likely behind in learning the system, as the rookie from Illinois has had the benefit of rookie mini camp as well as more time in the offseason program. But Wilson's work with the first group has to say something for what the coaches have seen from youngster in the short time they have worked with him, in that there are a number of other corners on the roster who have more experience in the system that could have worked with the first unit.
The third interesting positional switch was Green's work at the nose. Since draft day much of the speculation around New England has revolved around the team's possibilities at what many consider the most important spot in the 3-4. While rookies Ty Warren, Dan Klecko and Ethan Kelley have been the subject of a great deal of speculation, Green's move to the nose is a bit of a change up.
Green played in 15 games as a rookie including three starts, with all his work coming on the outside. He finished the season with 21 tackles and 2.5 sacks, as well as seeming to impress most of his teammates and coaches alike. But as with most of the candidates at nose, he comes with questions. At 6-3, 285 it remains to be seen whether he has the size, strength and technique to succeed at the thankless and difficult position.
But in the end, as Belichick said, all the questions that surrounded the team entering this camp will essentially remain questions when the camp concludes on Saturday. While the players will be expected to make great strides in their knowledge of the system and lay the foundation for future work, these three days amount to very little in terms of evaluation.
"It's not an evaluation camp," Belichick said. "It's a teaching camp. We are not going to come out of here and say here is our starting guard, here is our starting end or this guy is our starting safety. That is really not the purpose of it. We can see where the competition is going to be and that competition will manifest itself in training camp when we are out there practicing repetitively in a strenuous environment and we'll see how the players respond to that. But in terms of this camp, everybody's getting about the same amount of reps. Everybody is getting about the same opportunity. When the guys aren't' in there they should be paying attention and learning from the other players who are seeing new situations as well so that when they do get those opportunities at camp they are ready to make them count. That's really what this camp is about. It's not about trying to establish who is going to be our third receiver and that kind of thing."
BC's Cloud gets a tryout
Former Kansas City Chiefs and Boston College running back Mike Cloud was on the practice fields with the Patriots offensive players Thursday. Cloud, a Rhode Island resident, is currently an unrestricted free agent and is in the mini camp for a three-day tryout with the team.
In his four NFL seasons with the Chiefs the 1999 second-round draft pick has played in 56 games (6 starts). He has 121 career attempts for 381 yards and four touchdowns. A key factor hanging over Cloud's future though is the fact that he was suspended for four games by the NFL in March for violating the league's substance abuse policy on anabolic steroids. While the player claims the violation stems from substances he unknowingly ingested through a protein drink made by a well-known supplement company, he will have to serve the suspension when he eventually signs with a team and is put on an active roster.
While Cloud did not wish to the discuss the suspension on Thursday, he did say that he has received essentially no interest in the free agent market and is happy to have a chance to showcase his abilities for the Patriots.
"[The lack of interest] was kind of frustrating, but given my situation I can understand why," Cloud said following the morning session. "I am very excited being back home, being close by. It is very exciting. Like I said I got the phone call yesterday morning and they said, 'Do you want a tryout?' So I came down yesterday, met with a few people, did my physical and now I am here.
"I am here trying to learn the plays and get myself ready. I am just learning the system as quickly as possible so when I am put in a situation I can respond and I am not out there guessing what I have to do so I can let my talent come through. In order to do that you have to know your plays. I am here for the next couple days. When mini camp is done I should know where I stand."
Aside from the four quarterbacks, other players that wore red jerseys for the practices included linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, defensive lineman Rick Lyle and tight end Daniel Graham. While there are no pads and no contact during the mini camp, the red jerseys generally signify in training camp an injured player who is not cleared for contact, although most of these players wear the red as a precautionary measure as they recover from offseason injuries or surgeries. Players that did not participate in the practices included cornerback Otis Smith, guard Joe Andruzzi, tackle Kenyatta Jones, rookie free agent receiver Chas Gessner, rookie free agent receiver Rob Milanese and rookie outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. Belichick spoke generally about all the injured players saying that all of them are expected to be ready by or during the very beginning of training camp. … Patriots owner Robert Kraft took in the second half of the morning practice, watching the team perform numerous special teams and 7-on-7 type drills. … Former Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach Steve Szabo was on the practice fields Thursday working with the New England defense, although he has not been hired or added to the team's coaching staff. Szabo is an eight-year NFL coaching veteran who has been out of work since Tom Coughlin and his staff were let go in Jacksonville this winter. … While Belichick held strong to the idea that at this point things like a depth chart and positional rankings don't carry much weight, there were two very distinctive first units on both offense and defense as the players went through the various team and group drills. Defensively the group consisted of Bobby Hamilton at left end, Jarvis Green at nose tackle, Richard Seymour at right end, Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel at outside backer with Roman Phifer, Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi rotating through at inside linebacker in the 3-4. The secondary consisted of safeties Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison with Ty Law and rookie second-round pick Eugene Wilson as the corners. On the offensive side of the ball the usual list of skill players rotated through most of the drills, while the first line unit consisted of Damien Woody at center, Stephen Neal at right guard, Mike Compton at left guard, Adrian Klemm at right tackle and Matt Light at left tackle. … Aside from the eight players that are currently in NFL Europe all players on the Patriots roster were at Gillette Stadium for today's camp, including players like Law, Phifer and free agent cornerback Tyrone Poole, guys who have not participated regularly in the offseason program. … The team will continue the three-day mini camp with practices over the next two days at Gillette Stadium. The practices are closed to the public, but check out Patriots.com and Patriots Video News for the most up-to-date information on all the action.