The Patriots kicked off 2021's training camp on Wednesday, starting in wet conditions that gradually improved during the session, but the gloomy weather did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the first practice in almost two years in front of fans.
"It's great having fans out here, getting that energy back," said James White after practice. "It was a little different last year, having nobody out here. It just felt like regular practices out here every day, but it's good to have that energy. It was definitely good to see the fans out here."
Lawrence Guy put it even more succinctly, "Playing without fans sucked," said the newly re-signed defensive tackle. "Having fans out here for training camp is a big motivation that everything is going back [to normal]."
"There's a different type of energy out here," said new addition Jonnu Smith. "It's really real, everything they talk about in Foxborough, the love and the energy. It was a great feeling coming out here. Guys are making 1-yard catches and they're going crazy."
Smith and fellow signee Hunter Henry were hard to miss at the tight end position as the two athletic players were frequently involved during team sessions. Henry, called "The Beast" by Adrian Phillips who was also a former teammate on the Chargers, showed little hesitancy to join the Patriots after Smith had signed a day prior, giving the Patriots the two best tight ends on the market.
It's hard not to remember the dynamic effects that Daniel Graham and Ben Watson or Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez had on the offense and wonder if Smith and Henry might produce a similar return.
"This offense is built for tight ends," said Henry, while Smith echoed his sentiment, as the potential is there for the duo to help redefine the offensive attack. "We're completely different players than the guys in the past... we're not trying to be those guys, we're going to be ourselves but this offense has a tradition with two tight ends.
"[Jonnu and I have] spent a limited amount of time together, that's only going to build as we get in the trenches together."
"Boston 'TE' party, let's bring it back," said Smith, adding of his new teammate and position partner Henry, "Hell of a player. Hell of a tight end. Hell of a man. We're going to do great things together."
Hightower sees no time to play around
Tight end wasn't the only position to receive somewhat of a makeover this offseason, with a number of new players also added to the defensive front seven. After opting out in 2020, Dont'a Hightower has returned to a collection of new faces, like second-year linebacker Josh Uche and new signee Matt Judon, not to mention the return of former Patriot Kyle Van Noy, who won two Super Bowls aside Hightower.
"It's been good, all those guys coming in, they work, it's not something that has to be pushed or echoed throughout the locker room," said Hightower following Wednesday's opening practice. "Whenever you have guys like that who have extra energy and motivation to push themselves it kind of feeds off on other guys."
Despite the year off, Hightower looked fresh and active during Wednesday's practice with a notable pass breakup, as he mentioned the sense of urgency is already there for the team.
"Knowing how soon the turnaround is from training camp to preseason and then to the actual season kind of lights a fire under your ass because there's no time to play around, there's no time to take plays off or practices off. Guys are just trying to learn and trying to get better."
Check out photos from the first day of Patriots Training Camp on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.
Coaching staff noted
On the paper rosters handed out by the Patriots PR staff, the 2021 coaching staff and their titles were noted at the bottom. Some changes to highlight include Troy Brown shifting to the wide receiver group from where he spent last year, with the running backs, while Brown will also maintain his role as the returner coach. Vinnie Sunseri will now be helping out with the running backs after being a defensive assistant in 2020. New arrivals Bo Hardegree (Quality Control, Quarterbacks), Billy Yates (Assistant Offensive Line) and Evan Rothstein (Research and Analysis/Coaching) had their roles clarified, while Matt Patricia's title is listed as Senior Football Advisor. After the departure of Jedd Fisch, Josh McDaniels will once again add Quarterbacks to his Offensive Coordinator coaching title.
Short stint on PUP for two vets
Less than 24 hours after reportedly landing on the PUP, both Trent Brown and Kyle Van Noy were present at practice but still appeared to be limited with Van Noy appearing in a red practice jersey. Three rookies remain on NFI -- Rhamondre Stevenson, Cameron McGrone and Joshuah Bledsoe -- while the veterans remaining on PUP include Jarrett Stidham, Brandon King, Dalton Keene, Stephon Gilmore, Byron Cowart, Terez Hall and Chase Winovich. Devin Asiasi was reportedly placed on the Reserve/Covid-19 list earlier this week. Those still on PUP and NFI made up all but one of the absences, with Anfernee Jennings being the only other player not spotted.
Report: PS QB returns
According to a report from Ian Rapoport, the Patriots claimed quarterback Jake Dolegala off of waivers from the Packers. Dolegala was on the Pats practice squad from September 2020 until April 2021, when the team released him after drafting Mac Jones. With Jarrett Stidham starting the season on PUP the signing gives the team a fourth training camp arm and one who is familiar with the operation.