Training camp may have opened on Thursday but according to Bill Belichick football began today. That's because Saturday's workout in Foxborough was the team's first in full pads, and the physicality was noticeable throughout the two-plus hour practice.
Right from the start of the drills early on there was an uptick in intensity. Whether it was wide receiving against defensive backs or offensive and defensive linemen going at it, the contact as apparent.
"You see a run game, finally, not just passing every play. I just think it's real football," safety Devin McCourty said. "We come out here and we get to work on fundamentals and all of those things. We're seeing guys' mentalities, being able to play violently. That's what football is all about."
Unfortunately, the hitting came at a cost as a handful of Patriots did not make it through the entire practice. Right guard Jonathan Cooper was the first player to go down, suffering an apparent leg/ankle injury before being helped to a cart.
Later, defensive tackle Anthony Johnson was carted off with a towel over his head, perhaps an indication that the heat took its toll on the second-year man out of LSU. Rookie running back D.J. Foster also didn't finish practice, although it is unclear the reason for his absence.
Finally, offensive lineman Bryan Stork was sent off the field at one point during some 1-on-1 work with the defensive lineman. The drill took place on the far corner away from the media so it was difficult to determine what happened, but Stork eventually retreated down the hill where conditioning runs take place and wasn't seen for the remainder of the morning.
Despite the casualties, the players relished getting the pads on.
"We're playing football now," wide receiver Chris Hogan said. "This is real football and we look forward to this with the 1-on-1s with the DBs, the blocking drills and all that stuff. It was a lot of fun today."
Rookie tight end Bryce Williams shared that enthusiasm.
"Definitely. I'm sure I can speak for everybody and say I like the pads a lot better," Williams said. "You get to be more physical and I guess just play real football.
"It definitely feels good. Like Coach Belichick said, 'Football starts today.' It's a different mindset that kicks in and you just try to get ready to go out there and compete."
Williams came out of East Carolina with a reputation as a solid receiver. At 6-6, 260, the undrafted rookie tight end certainly has the size to be effective as a blocker as well, and with the pads on Saturday he looked like he relished the opportunity to be more physical.
He seemed to have a lot more passes thrown in his direction and did a nice job of competing for them in traffic. He was particularly impressive during a red zone drill against the defensive backs when he made a difficult grab working against McCourty for a touchdown.
"It's definitely different from when I was in college but I'm putting in the time and adapting well and studying the plays," Williams said. "It's getting easier but I still have a long way to go."
Williams was active in both the running and passing games, catching several passes darting over the middle with impressive agility. His strong hands were also evident on a number of occasions, but it may be his ability to block that could determine his immediate future.
Michael Williams served as the blocking tight end a year ago, but he was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered during spring camps. That development could open a spot for one of the inexperienced tight ends – Bryce Williams, Steve Scheu and AJ Derby. Also, the Patriots signed veteran blocker Bear Pascoe just before camp, and he's certainly in the mix as well.
"I'm confident in everything I do and I'm just going to stick my nose in there and keep working each day," Williams said of his blocking. "I've been really focusing on the playbook and working harder each day."
In a rush
Veteran defensive end Chris Long showed some pop in his first work with pads as a Patriot. He showed a nice burst off the edge during 1-on-1 drills and has also been seen lining up inside as a rusher at times.
"I've lined up all over the place and I'll just do what I'm asked," Long said. "Football's football and it's no big deal. I come to work with an open mind and whatever my job description is that day I'll do that."
Long was asked about the competition as defensive end, which includes the likes of Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, She McClellin, Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom. Coming from St. Louis, which has one of the most talented defensive lines in football with stars like Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald, wasn't ready to make comparisons.
"I haven't really taken the time to rank how competitive the d-end battle is," Long added. "Through my nine years I've played with a lot of great player. I've been lucky to be with some really, really great players. I'm just trying to learn from everyone here and soak it in."
Buy: Ted Karras –The rookie offensive lineman took advantage of his opportunities on Saturday and stepped into the right guard spot. With Jonathan Cooper injured and Bryan Stork out, Karras got several reps and held his own. During 1-on-1 drills he showed solid power and technique while opposing Malcom Brown, which is no small feat.
Sell: Jonathan Cooper –While it's far too early to determine the severity of Cooper's injury, it certainly didn't look great. Tom Brady took the time to check on him as he was carter off, and if Cooper is sidelined for any length of time it could derail his hopes to win a starting job at right guard.
Play of the Day –It's easy to fall into the Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski trap when picking this category but the tandem was doing Brady-Gronk things on Saturday. During a red zone drill late in practice, Brady lofted a perfect corner fade to his favorite target and Gronk angled off tight coverage from Patrick Chung and reached out to make the tough catch. He then added points with some celebration for the fans nearby.
View a collection of the best images from Patriots Training Camp in Foxborough on Saturday, July 30, 2016.
There were some additions to the absentee list on Saturday. The PUP list was the same with Julian Edelman (foot), Tre' Jackson (knee), Sebastian Vollmer (ankle), Danny Amendola (knee, ankle), Clay Harbor and Dion Lewis (knee) remained out. All but Lewis were spotted on the field. Alan Branch (NFI/hip) also was not seen. Wide receiver Nate Washington missed his second straight day and was joined by rookie wideout Malcolm Mitchell, running back Brandon Bolden and rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine. Reports indicated that Valentine returned to Nebraska to attend the funeral of his Cornhusker teammate Sam Foltz, the punter who was killed in a car crash last week. … Kevin Faulk, who will be inducted into the Hall at Patriot Place presented by Raytheon Monday night, attended practice. … Aaron Dobson continued his early camp push and made some nice catches throughout the day. He did lose fumble during a ball security drill, however, when Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon teamed up to strip him. Incidentally, Ryan and Harmon remained in their red, non-contact jerseys. … Tyler Gaffney, LeGarrette Blount and Donald Brown all received plenty of carries during the running game portion of practice. Blount was able to score twice on a pair of live goal line carries while Gaffney managed to find paydirt once in his two attempts. … The Patriots will be back at it Sunday morning with practice set to begin at 9:45 a.m. As always, please check with patriots.com for the latest updates.