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Mini-camp: Pats make special adjustments

The new kickoff rules will lead to some changes on special teams as Matthew Slater prepares to make some adjustments.

Check out our favorite photos from Patriots Mini-Camp at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday, June 6, 2018.

Wednesday's mini-camp practice in Foxborough brought a couple of changes from the workouts the media has watched previously this spring. First, there was a handful of officials in uniform that took part in the practice, and Bill Belichick also decided to turn things up a bit by having some music blaring from the speakers during the latter part of the session.

The officials came in handy throughout the afternoon but seemed to have a particular focus on the special teams work. The Patriots spent some time on kickoffs, and with the new rules that will be in place this year there will be an adjustment period for everyone involved.

There were times when individual players talked to the various officials – Chris Hogan had a lengthy chat during some kickoff work – and it's possible the new rules were a product of those discussions.

"We've got a long way to go. We'll experiment with some things and take a look at it but I think it's a long way to go," Belichick said of the kickoff rules before practice. "There are things that come up every year, some bigger than others. But whatever it is, it is."

Belichick was asked if the changes, which involve changes to the alignments on both the coverage and receiving units, make the kickoff almost like a completely different play.

"No, I wouldn't say that," he said. "I'd say there are a few modifications but there are a lot of things that are consistent to technique-wise. We'll see. We'll see how much of a change there is or isn't."

Matthew Slater has made his living on such plays and he grateful the league didn't legislate kickoffs out of the game completely.

"I am thankful — thankful that the play is still here," Slater said Tuesday. "Obviously, that was something that probably was going to be up for grabs, but I am glad that they worked it out and were able to keep the play."

Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the greatest kickoff returners in NFL history, doesn't see much of a difference in terms of his approach.

"Every kickoff you have to read different blocks, regardless of what of the coaches are looking for," Patterson said. "There's no change for me. I'm going to approach it the same way as I have the last couple of years."

Slater admits there will be some adjustments to be made but wasn't certain how that would impact things for either side.

"Well, it's going to open the game up a little bit," Slater said. "You don't have two-man wedges. It's going to give more space for coverage players and for returners, so it's going to open the play up. Hopefully it makes the play more exciting and hopefully makes the play safer.

"It's going to be a little bit of an adjustment. The spacing is going to be different. The timing is going to be different. I think there's going to be some new techniques put in that we need to get used to. We're going to take our time, try and figure things out. Try and get comfortable with the new techniques and kind of go from there."

Hercules checks in

Tight end Troy Niklas, a free agent from Arizona, was given the nickname Hercules during his college days at Notre Dame. He said former Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te'o was the one who gave him the moniker upon his arrival on campus.

Back at Notre Dame, I was a California kid, on a nice diet, nice and cut with a tan when I came in and Manti Te'o just said 'Look at this guy. Hercules.' And it just kind of stuck," Niklas said with a laugh. 

Niklas is not known as a receiver and has just 19 receptions in his four seasons with the Cardinals under his belt. During mini-camp work this week he's shown some agility and fluidity in his route-running and looks comfortable being used in the passing game, although most players fall into that category in shorts.

"It's not my job as an athlete to say whether I should get more catches or not," Niklas said when asked if he'd like to see a role in the passing game evolve. "That's up to the coaches. I'm just going to keep grinding and hopefully I can grind out a role in the passing game here. We'll see."

In the meantime, he's enjoying life sharing a meeting room with Rob Gronkowski. 

"He's just such a dominant player out there. Everything he does is to dominate his opponent," Niklas said. "That's something that anyone can emulate in our game. I'm just looking to get some of that. He's freakin' hilarious. Awesome guy. Guys like that are great to have in the locker room. You have to love guys like that. That's what brings up the energy from everybody else on the field."

No passing zone

After the passing game was razor sharp in Tom Brady's return to practice on Tuesday, things weren't quite as efficient a day later. Brady failed to connect in any of his first three passes during some 11-on-11 work, missing Chris Hogan on an out and misfiring on a deep ball toward Jordan Matthews. 

Things weren't all smooth on defense, either. With the music blaring there seemed to be some communication issues in coverage, one in which there was some confusion in the slot between the linebackers and secondary. The pass was ultimately deflected anyway and nearing picked off by a diving defender, but there would be no such fortune later.

Working in the red zone, Sony Michel broke wide open toward the back corner of the end zone and easily hauled in a touchdown pass as Devin McCourty came chasing well after the damage was done.

Extra points

Stephon Gilmore has been solid in the four practices the media has been able to attend. He's been a fixture at cornerback while his partner has generally rotated among a number of players including Eric Rowe, Ryan Lewis and more recently J.C. Jackson. Rowe was in the lineup at the start on Wednesday but Jackson got plenty of reps as well.

But it has been Gilmore who has stood out. He made a terrific deflection of a Brady pass after effectively working underneath Chris Hogan in coverage. It's a play he's made on a few occasions over the spring practices.

Meanwhile, Jason McCourty continues to suit up for practice but takes no reps during the full team work. 

The Patriots will close out their three-day mandatory mini-camp on Thursday with another practice in Foxborough. The workout is open to the media but closed to the public.

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