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OTAs underway minus Brady, Gronk

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The Patriots held their first 2018 practice in front of reporters Tuesday, and as many media observers had predicted, there was no sign of quarterback Tom Brady or tight end Rob Gronkowski. Both players are believed to be healthy, but choosing not to partake in the voluntary portion of New England's offseason program. A number of other players of note were not on the field for today's session, although their reasons are medical in nature.

Meanwhile, TB12's absence gave backups Brian Hoyer and rookie Danny Etling more opportunities at practice than they otherwise would have received. In Hoyer's case, as a veteran entering his 10th NFL season, taking snaps with the first group is not unfamiliar to him.

"For sure. I mean, I look at it as a great opportunity," he remarked after today's workout, "obviously to get to know the guys that were here last year a little bit better and obviously get to know the new guys, too. I've been in other places where I've been the guy that's responsible for leading, being that guy. So, for me, I come out every day and look at it as a great opportunity to get better."

Getting better is, of course, on Etling's to-do list, but first, the 23-year-old draft choice from LSU needs to digest New England's massive playbook and translate that knowledge into results on the field.

"It's been a fun time to just sit there and learn and continue to progress," he told reporters. "I'm just trying to take it one day at a time, one step at a time, continuing to learn the system and keep trying to work hard and become the player that I want to be. That's going to take a lot of hard work. The main thing is being more consistent… just learning how to be a pro and then learning, ‘Okay, what's the system? What's going to be asked of me? How can I become more consistent and how can I learn what I'm supposed to do as fast as I can?'"

Certainly, notable players like Brady and Gronkowski - widely considered two of the best in the NFL at their respective positions - were conspicuous in their absence Tuesday. However, when asked directly by one TV news hound if that was proving a distraction to the Patriots, Hoyer responded with an unequivocal, "No."

"I mean, I'm focused on myself," he added. "I know my teammates, we're all focused on getting better each day. And that's all we can do. I don't think it's a distraction in any way at all."

Both Brady and Gronkowski are expected to be back on the field when practices become mandatory for all players during June's mini-camp (the 5th through the 7th). In the interim, the tight end position saw more reps given to returning veteran Dwayne Allen, veteran free agent Troy Niklas, second-year player Jacob Hollister, and 2017 practice squad regular Will Tye. Rookies Ryan Izzo and Shane Wimann also saw some opportunities as they continue learning the system.

Etling's development would surely benefit from having a close working relationship with Brady. The rookie passer eluded a question about whether he's had a chance to speak with Brady yet. For the time being, though, he said he's been leaning heavily on Hoyer for tutelage.

"He's been great so far. He's pulled me aside when he can, and when we want to rap or go over a play or have a meeting, he has given me helpful advice and is continuing to do so on how to operate the system, become more consistent, and do my job better."

HARMON COMES CLEAN

Safety Duron Harmon is looking forward to a clean slate in 2018. After a heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl LII, the incumbent co-captain experienced turbulence off the field during the offseason when he was involved in a customs incident while trying to enter the Central American nation of Costa Rica.

Authorities had reason to believe Harmon was attempting to transport unlawful items into their country and denied him entry. He was not charged by law enforcement.

Harmon apologized via a written statement at the time and do so again in person with reporters Tuesday. Calling it "dumb" on his part, the 27-year-old reiterated his contrition for putting himself and the Patriots organization in an embarrassing position.

"Obviously, it was a disappointment. As a captain of this football team, that's not how you want to represent this team. So it was a lot of disappointment. But the good thing from my standpoint was [the Patriots] were supportive of me. They never turned their back on me. It's an incident I've learned dramatically from, and continue to show growth and leadership from."

Harmon revealed that, to this point, he has not heard from the league office in New York regarding any potential discipline for his actions overseas.

Meanwhile, he's undergone an on-field change, switching jersey numbers from 30 to 21. The timing worked out for Harmon because veteran free agent Jason McCourty was looking to continue wearing the No. 30 he's had during two other NFL stops. The 21 became available when cornerback Malcolm Butler signed with Tennessee this offseason.

"After the Super Bowl, I was just looking at where I was as a player, as a person, and I felt like it was a point for me to change," Harmon explained. "I think once Jason got here, it was just kind of a voice that just let me know it was certain to be. So, I just went on, gave the number to Jason, and literally, 21 was the best-looking number that we had to offer, so I just went with that."

11 TURNS 32

Taking the field Tuesday, Julian Edelman looked like he hasn't missed a step since tearing up his right knee last August. The wide receiver had reason to celebrate not just because he was able to practice with teammates again, but also because he turned 32 today.

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