View images from Patriots OTA practice at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, May 26, 2016.
The calendar may say May but you'd have a tough time convincing the 83 players taking part in organized team activities in Foxborough on Thursday that it wasn't the start of training camp in late July.
The Patriots took the field for their third OTA session, first open to the media, under bright sunny skies and hot and humid conditions. Most of the 17 players not spotted at practice were starters but most of those are coming off injuries or offseason surgeries.
With the players not in pads the focus was obviously on the passing game and there were some performers who stood out, specifically Martellus Bennett, who got the bulk of the work with Rob Gronkowski among those missing the practice.
Bennett was not alone, however, so here are one man's blogservations from our first look at the 2016 Patriots:
-The 17 players not seen at practice were Julian Edelman (foot), Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, LeGarrette Blount, Duron Harmon, Dion Lewis (ACL), Nate Ebner (rugby), Joe Cardona (Navy), Tre' Jackson (knee), Josh Kline, Shaq Mason, Frank Kearse, Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder (biceps), Danny Amendola (ankle, knee), Rob Gronkowski and Alan Branch.
-Former Patriots running back Sammy Morriswas on the field helping Ivan Fearsworking with the running backs.
-It's always interesting to observe the practice fields to start every season and assess some of the subtle changes the team has made in terms of equipment and overall routine. The first such thing to stick out Thursday morning were some large orange equipment balls, used mostly during some of assistant special teams coach Ray Ventrone's drills.
As the team began its warmups for practice there were some changes that were evident. Moses Cabrera took over the lead strength and conditioning coaching duties after Harold Nash left in the offseason and put his stamp on preparations. The offensive and defensive players were separated on different sidelines and moved toward each other as they conducted calisthenics. The various lunges and other stretches would continue until the players met halfway across the field and would reverse course and continue back to the sidelines.
-Evidently the new routine is not quite in midseason form because as it appeared the stretches were complete and the players set out to start the first drill, Bill Belichick blew his whistle and had the group return to the calisthenics lines. Once the players were back and finished a final stretch, the team then went to their first drills to start practice. Call it a false start.
-There was another addition to the fields in terms of equipment. On the far field at midfield there was some sort of apparatus on wheels that resembled a ship in the form of a Boston Whaler. There was a camera in the middle and it's possible the equipment was part of some virtual reality camera. It was tough to tell but it was certainly an addition to the on-field equipment.
-Ventrone conducted a lot of drills with a handful of players, one of which involved gunners. Brock Vereen, E.J. Biggers, Jonathan Jones and Cre'Von LeBlanc all were part of the drill. Later when the vice guys got some work it was interesting to see wide receiver Chris Hogan with Ventrone. Normally there are a lot defensive backs in those drills so to see Hogan there caught my eye. Perhaps his lacrosse background played a role in the Patriots decision to use him in that capacity.
-Tight end AJ Derby was a sixth-round pick a year ago and never really got on the field to show what he could do. Derby took part in some early OTA work but never was healthy enough to suit up in a preseason game and ultimately wound up on injured reserve. On Thursday Derby was an active participant and made some plays. He showed some athleticism in the red zone and made several catches. The tight end depth chart is obviously a crowded one but Derby definitely has some ability and perhaps could make a run at a roster spot.
-Several assistant coaches donned T-shirts with the old Pat Patriot logo on the front and the word "FINISH" on the back.
-Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich lined up together at defensive end with Sheard operating on the defensive right side in the spot that Chandler Jones used to occupy.
-The Patriots conducted some red zone drills midway through the workout and Jacoby Brissette worked with a group of receivers that included Aaron Dobson, Keshawn Martin, Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, James White and Nate Washington. At the same time Tom Brady was with Bennett and Clay Harbor working in the opposite end zone.
-Adding to the list of new elements to Patriots practice, Ventrone had some of his special teamers wrap their hands with some sort of straps around their hands. The vice guys wearing the wraps had their hands resembled boxers without gloves and only the tape underneath. This was likely an effort to have the players use their hands while concentrating on not holding. Darryl Roberts, LeBlanc and E.J. Biggers all donned the wraps.
-With so many frontline offensive players out of the lineup it was hard to determine which quarterbacks got the most reps with the regulars. Brady opened most of the drills, followed by Jimmy Garoppolo and Brissett. Brady was his typical sharp self but both backups seemed to struggle a bit, although with Gronkowski, Edelman and Amendola all out of action that is perhaps understandable. Garoppolo threw the ball well for the most part but seemed to be late with his reads at times and certainly would have been either forced to throw sooner or to scramble under game conditions. Brissett was like most of the rookie quarterbacks we've seen in Foxborough over the years, holding the ball for long periods before eventually tucking the ball and running. At times he forced the ball into traffic, and on one such occasion he was picked off by fellow rookie Cyrus Jones. But with the emphasis on learning and not necessarily the results the play of the quarterbacks was not concerning.
-First-year wideout DeAndre Carter made a strong first impression. The 23-year-old out of Sacramento State, alma mater of former long snapper Lonie Paxton, showed great quickness out of the slot as the 5-8 speedster's quickness was apparent. Carter caught virtually every pass thrown in his direction, beating Jones on several occasions including once down deep down the right sideline.
-With several potential starters out of action along the offensive line there was some mixing and matching going on up front. From left to right the group that opened one team period included LaAdrian Waddle, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Jonathan Cooper and Marcus Cannon. It was interesting to see Andrews ahead of Bryan Stork, who was the center for the next group. With Solder, Vollmer, Mason, Jackson and Kline all not on the field, the other four spots were less noteworthy.
-During a team drill midway through practice, Brady seemed to develop a nice rapport with Bennett. The two connected several times, some for touchdowns in the red zone. One of the highlights also turned into a egative for the tight end, however. Bennett showed the ability to create space when he got between bracket coverage from Jamie Collins and Patrick Chung and caught a pass in stride for about a 20-yard gain. But Collins was able to poke the ball loose as the tight end was heading upfield and Chung scooped up the fumble. Bennett then took a lap for his miscue.
-Geneo Grissom and Roberts also were forced to take laps later in practice. Grissom appeared to jump offside during a drill while Roberts was likely sent packing after he surrendered a catch from Dobson and took the wideout to the ground shortly thereafter. It was an overly physical play but the coaches may have wanted to make sure there was no contact whatsoever and sent him for the lap.
-Stephen Gostkowski did plenty of kicking on the near field as the action took place on the far side. At one point Gostkowski kicked field goals from the back left corner of the end zone and seemed to be trying to kick the ball as straight as possible to the opposite corner while a ball boy waited the catch it. The kicker may have been trying to hit the far upright during the drill but never did. Most of the kicks landed right in the arms of the ball boy.
-Chris Harper, Jones, V'Angelo Bentley, Martin and Carter all took reps as punt returners, handling every kick from Ryan Allen flawlessly. Jones looks real fluid with the ball in his hands and had no trouble fielding the kicks throughout the morning.
-Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels donned headsets at times during the practice as the team worked on some communication. There was some loud music blaring through the speakers throughout the second half of the session with "Welcome to the Jungle," "Living in America," "Living on a Prayer" and "Beautiful Day" among the selections heard.
-Biggers and Justin Coleman lined up at corner with a group that had safeties Devin McCourty, Chung and Jordan Richards. Mitchell did a nice job getting deep for a would-be touchdown, grabbing a 25-yard lob from Brady after Jonathan Jones replace Biggers at right corner.
-The Patriots will continue their OTA work June 1-2 and then it's on to mini-camp June 7-9. Only the mini-camp will be open to the media.