Mandatory mini-camp is another step in the early part of the team-building process. For the Patriots that 2018 landmark is now in the books.
The big story out of the three days of practice action on the fields behind Gillette Stadium was the participation of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski after the All-Pro duo had skipped previous OTA and offseason workouts.
But there was much more than just the two stars to take note of during this week's work.
Though it's non-contact action focused on teach rather than competing, PFW still walked away with some assessments – good and bad – of various members of the Patriots current 90-man roster. Here are some that stood out the most, for better or worse.
Passing backs – While there are plenty of questions at the receiver position and behind Gronkowski at tight end, the running back spot is pretty loaded and competitive. James White remains an underrated star as a receiver and looked the part this week. Rex Burkhead was impressive on the practice field and could be poised to very much fill the void left by Dion Lewis' departure. And rookie first-round pick Sony Michel looked every bit like the explosive, versatile playmaker that he was at Georgia. The backfield committee may be stacked with options in 2018.
Rob Gronkowski – Simply put, Gronk was by far the best player on the field for mini-camp practice. He had an obvious bounce in his step as he made plays all over the field. He was quite expressive both physically and vocally after many of his receptions. Whether it was big plays down the seam or fades in the end zone, Gronkowski was practically uncoverable (it's a football word, just go with it) on the practice field.
Stephon Gilmore – The free agent addition finished his first season in Foxborough as arguably the team's best defender down the stretch. Based on spring practice action, he's picked up where he left off. Taking hold of the left corner spot, Gilmore blanketed receivers through the three days of work. There may be questions for the overall defense to answer, but there is no question who the Patriots No. 1 cornerback is.
Pass rush – New England's pass rush and edge play on defense were a major issue throughout last season. Non-contact work in shorts certainly doesn't prove its been fixed, but the additions of Adrian Clayborn and Derek Rivers to the mix showed positive potential this week working in conjunction with Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and the rest. This will be a possible key improvement to keep an eye on come training camp and preseason action.
JC Jackson/Duke Dawson – While Gilmore carried the veteran load at cornerback, the rookies Jackson and Dawson got a ton of high-level reps in camp action. The undrafted Jackson played opposite Gilmore on plenty of reps and more than held his own, showing the ability to run stride for stride with plenty of veteran receivers. Dawson continues to see a lot of action in the slot, a job that he appears to have an opportunity to lockdown as a second-round rookie. It's there for the taking.
Julian Edelman – The slot receiver's paycheck, reputation and 2018 contributions will take a hit if his reported four-game PED suspension stands as he works back from last year's torn ACL. Edelman also appeared to be quite fatigued on the second day of mini-camp when he stayed on the field late to get extra reps with Tom Brady. That said, he did show solid cutting and quickness as he prepares to return to his role as Brady's most frequent target.
Jason McCourty – Devin's twin brother just hasn't gotten many notable reps on defense this spring, either in OTA work or mini-camp action. Could the cornerback be dealing with an injury and just taking mental reps from the sideline? Maybe. Could he be viewed by coaches as a veteran, known commodity while the team gives young players a chance to prove themselves? It's possible. But he might also be in a fight with a group of young defensive backs for roster spots.
Kenny Britt – The bigger outside receiver was having a solid spring until he limped off during mini-camp with an apparent right leg injury. That cost him potentially valuable reps working with Brady and also is a spring setback to his overall development. Hopefully he'll be healthy come training camp and it's not a health issue that lingers into the summer.
Braxton Berrios/Keion Crossen – Speaking of missing key reps, the late-round rookie receiver and cornerback both spent significant time on the lower rehab field during mini-camp rather than on the practice field with their teammates. Those are key reps to lay the foundation for guys like Berrios and Crossen to make a run at a roster spot. Sometimes it's missed time that just can't be made up. Berrios, in particular, is worth watching given the potential Edelman suspension. It would behoove him to get back on the field for every rep as soon as possible.
Brian Hoyer – The veteran journey backup is what he is at the point in his career. Frankly, during mini-camp he struggled. There were some one-hopped throws and late deep balls that seemed to display his simple lack of arm strength, way weaker than that of Brady and rookie Danny Etling. Thursday there was a screen pass that just slipped out of Hoyer's hand for a fumble. Hoyer is a proven professional and has plenty of experience in the Patriots scheme. But his physical limitations are what they are.
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