Through two days of mini-camp, the Patriots have shown solid progress and plenty of competition, two things pleasing to the eyes of Head Coach Bill Belichick.
Despite being forced into the practice bubble by rain for the morning session, Belichick had the team back outside in the afternoon. The focus of the day was multi-receiver sets and nickel and dime defenses. The packages shown provided a glimpse of how competitive some of the competitions for jobs will be, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
New England has serious depth chart battles at just about every spot, which is creating a higher level of play, even in the short span of the last two days.
"I think we made a little progress between yesterday and today," Belichick said. We have got some space limitations in [the practice bubble], but guys running around and trying to mesh some things together in all areas. We are cramming a lot into a short amount of time here, but I think that relatively speaking things are plugging along."
Among the new faces making a solid first impression is wide receiver Donald Hayes, who returned to the team after missing Thursday for personal reasons. Easily the biggest of the veteran receivers, Hayes worked with Troy Brown and David Patten when the offense went into a three-receiver formation. Brown and Patten have worked with the first offense, while Hayes and Jimmy Farris have been with the second group.
Belichick is impressed with what Hayes has brought to the team this offseason.
"He has been here since before the off-season program even started and he never missed a day," Belichick said. "He had a personal thing yesterday. It is the first day that he hasn't been here in three months, but Donald is an experienced receiver. Some of the things that they did at Carolina in kind of the West Coast offense are a little bit different for us, but there is some carryover, but Donald has worked hard."
In the morning session, Hayes made an impressive diving catch in the end zone during seven-on-seven drills. However, for the second straight day the defense usually had the edge. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi made a nice play to break up a Tom Brady ball intended for Troy Brown. Leonard Myers had back-to-back showings when he knocked away a deep ball from Damon Huard to Deion Branch and then broke up a Huard throw for Farris over the middle.
When the defense worked in the nickel packages in the afternoon, Myers was the third corner, joining Ty Law and Otis Smith along with safeties Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones.
The offense did have a bit of success in the late session. Brady found Farris over the middle for one score, and Hayes made a spectacular catch in the back of the end zone on a throw from Huard. He managed to get his feet inside the end line after going up to haul in the pass.
Optomism on Phifer front
Belichick was a bit coy when asked if there was anything to report on the subject of linebacker Roman Phifer and whether the veteran would be re-signed.
"No, but I am always optimistic," Belichick said as he smiled. "If we could add a player at that position that we think could strength us and I don't know whether or not we would be able to, but if we could you bet, we would do it."
Take this for what it's worth: Phifer wore jersey No. 95 last season, and there is an empty locker space left between No. 94 Jace Sayler and No. 96 Rick Lyle.
Graham catching on fast
Just to throw the disclaimer out there again, it's impossible to get a true gauge on a players progress until the pads are on and bodies are flying everywhere. That said, first-round draft pick Daniel Graham has caught everything thrown his way through two days of mini-camp.
Veteran Christian Fauria has handled the work with the first unit and has also performed well, but Graham's hands appear to be very soft.
"I think that he has picked up things fairly well," Belichick said of the rookie. "We have thrown a lot at him and I think that he has started to make the adjustments into a new style of offense and some new techniques.
"My sense of it is a couple of our routes might have more options then maybe some of his other college routes where you just pretty much run the pattern. This could be an either or depending on the defense, how they are playing it and that type of thing. There are some adjustments there, but Daniel seems to be working hard and has picked things up at a decent pace like we have seen with [fellow rookies] Deion [Branch] and Rohan [Davey] for that matter."
For Graham, working with a veteran like Fauria has been beneficial.
"He has helped me out with learning the offense," Graham said. "Whenever I have a question I know I can go ask him and he can help me out."
Notes: Competition is no problem
He is working with the first offense now, but Patten knows that nothing is promised, and there is a possibility that the postseason hero may not be a starter when the season opens.
Obviously Patten is conceding nothing, but the arrival of veteran free agent Donald Hayes, a two-year starter in Carolina, gives serious competition for the top job opposite Troy Brown. Patten has been competing for a job since he first came into the league. He knows he has a role on the team, and he'll fill it, whatever it is.
"I don't care about that," Patten said. "Bottom line, put the best guy on the field. No hard feelings. Hey, if I am No. 1, support me. If I am No. 3, I'm supporting the guys in front of me. That makes us a better team."… When the defense worked in a 4-3 set, the first line had Anthony Pleasant and Rick Lyle at the end spots with Steve Martin and Richard Seymour inside. The linebackers were Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Mike Vrabel, while the secondary had the four usual starters from last season… Cornerback Brock Williams had an unspecified injury. He spent time running laps during both practices. In the afternoon he rode a stationary bike for a while… The team will have one practice session open to the media Saturday morning.