OTA's have already been compared to watching grass grow. Or something similar. The start of mini-camp, however, is at least a step in the right direction toward the next football season.
This is where the action begins. Rookies learn the ropes that veterans hold. Coaches can turn, twist and shake those ropes. Which rookies appear adept at picking up the playbook? Since the Patriots didn't hold a specific rookie mini-camp in May, plenty of eyes will look their way to see who stands out early...and who might be ready to contribute. Of the vets, which players look prepared...and which players appear to need some fine-tuning?
Check out a selection of photos from Patriots mini-camp on Tuesday, June 17, 2014 on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.
And...are there any that could soon find their fan mail arriving at another address?
One of the top questions to start a camp has to be "which injured players look to be recovered, and which ones need more time?" Making a judgment on whether injured players are ready to go - or not - is an impossible task, really. As you may know, injury information isn't exactly forthcoming in Foxborough...and the players aren't outspoken on the subject, either. Why are we so attracted to the injured, when they can't help the team because of their injury?
Perhaps because we're always looking at what things should be - not what they are.
I understand the philosophy here in keeping injury cards close to the vest - but in a league where every move is scrutinized, talked about, even videotaped...it seems disingenuous to think you're letting a state secret out of the bag when speaking (or not) about an injured player. But that's part of the Patriot Way of doing business. Overall, the injured are among the questions that will define just who the Patriots of 2014 will become.
Who will they be? Having won the AFC East Division title five years running, it's a safe bet at this stage to say they can be a playoff contender, sure. Injuries, however, can cut short any premature celebration. I've always thought it odd to say that "injuries aren't an excuse" for a poor performance by a team, yet injuries are EXACTLY the reason why championship seasons are derailed most of the time. Hard to overcome injuries to star players when there's so much parity in the NFL and your opponent is just as talented as you are. It's a war of attrition, really.
He who has the most toys at the end, wins.
Ultimately, to get over the hump of three straight AFC Championship game appearances - and no SB trophies to show for the effort - there simply needs to be attention paid toward personnel. Quality, healthy personnel. Building depth is one thing, but building quality depth is another. Quality depth can help overcome the inevitable injuries that can plunge a team's prognosis from hopeful, to hopeless. There's been some attention paid to this on the defensive side of the ball during the off-season, certainly. And a little on the offensive side, too, during the recent draft.
There was no dominant running back last year, although LeGarrette Blount's performance over the last half of the season was noteworthy. With Blount moving on, that doesn't necessarily mean there can't be quality this year. Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden spent time on the sidelines hurt, but the running game overall was 9th best in the NFL. Can healthy players make a difference? It's something to watch for. Julian Edelman, with his breakout season, became a valuable player in terms of reliability...something that other players will undoubtedly work toward. Consistent line play will be a key, explosiveness from skill players, and eventual good health from a guy like Rob Gronkowski should help Tom Brady stay among the elite in the game. If Gronk and Danny Amendola can stay on the field, so can Brady and the offense...much to the dismay of opposing defenses.
Defensively, injuries took their toll on Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo in particular. But the emergence of guys like Jamie Collins and Logan Ryan were bright spots that might not have shined had they not had the chance to do so in place of the injured vets. There were big games last year where big names were missing in the secondary, too. Enter Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to try and change that pattern, allowing quality depth to begin building in the backfield. Keep in mind, however, Revis is only a year removed from coming back from his own major injury. James Anderson's recent signing at linebacker is another example of adding depth - quality depth - as he led Chicago in tackles last season.
Injuries, unfortunately, are a way of life in pro football. Players and coaches know they'll happen. The fans and media know they'll happen, whether they're talked about or not. Which teams are best prepared to handle this inevitability? Mini-camp is where the determination begins.
John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and has been the Patriots' stadium voice for 22 years. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" during the season on Patriots.com Radio for 13 years, and broadcasting college football and basketball for the past 26 years, Rooke is also a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame.
Follow him on Twitter - @JRbroadcaster