View a collection of the best images from Patriots Training Camp in Foxborough on Wednesday, August 3, 2016.
It's often difficult for rookies to make an immediate impact on the Patriots roster. Job openings are scarce and the perennial playoff/Super Bowl contenders are usually loaded with talent at most positions.
On the offensive line this year, though, there might be an opportunity for third-round draft choice Joe Thuney. Thus far, after six training camp practices, he's made the most of his chances. During team periods, the N.C. State product has been lining up regularly at left guard between left tackle Nate Solder and center David Andrews. He's also acquitted himself nicely during the daily 1-on-1 pass rush drill against nearly every defensive lineman he's faced.
"Yeah, it's been going well," the affable rookie acknowledged after Wednesday's session. "I'm just trying to take it day-by-day, not trying to look too far ahead. Just make small improvements every day, work hard, and go on to the next day."
When the Patriots selected Thuney in Round 3 of this year's draft, versatility was a word frequently used to describe his college career, where he saw action at various positions on the o-line. Most recently, he was a left tackle, where he earned all-conference honors as a senior in 2015. As a Patriot, Thuney has been used almost exclusively at guard, although he's taken some snaps at center as well.
Thuney said his transition from tackle to guard has been smooth so far.
"The [veteran] o-line guys here have been really good helping with the details of the position. Nate's a really smart guy, really tough football player. He's been in the league a bunch of years and offers tidbits of wisdom.
"It's been a lot of film study, understanding the playbook and what each position does. So, film and paying attention to details has helped me a lot. Here, it's such an elite level. Everyone you play against is among the best, so you have to be on top of your game every day."
Thuney's performance in the 1-on-1 drill has been particularly impressive. He's been beaten just once, and that came from a speed-move off the edge Wednesday from second-year DE Geneo Grissom. In a half-dozen or more other opportunities, Thuney has stuffed his opponents.
"For sure, it's an intense drill, but it is really valuable," he explained. "You're just working on pass [protection] technique. It's a live, quick-tempo rep. I don't focus on the wins or losses [in each rep], I just focus on the technique. I don't worry about the outcome as much as the process."
A process that is further aided by Thuney's position coach, Dante Scarnecchia.
"He makes practice tough," the rookie admitted, adding, "He's a really good coach. Very detailed. Tries to push each player to be their best. I think we all really appreciate that."
Belichick: Patriots tight ends 'as good... as we've ever had'
Head coach Bill Belichick isn't one for tossing out compliments arbitrarily. So, when he does offer words of praise, it's worth noting.
Before Wednesday's camp practice, Belichick held a press briefing, where he was asked about several of the younger tight ends on his current roster. His response?
"It's been probably as good of a tight end situation, overall from top to bottom, as we've ever had here."
Of course, All-Pro Rob Gronkowski and veteran Martellus Bennett are the unquestioned top, but even less heralded guys like Bear Pascoe, second-year player AJ Derby, and rookie Bryce Williams have caught Belichick's eye early in camp.
"Bear's an experienced player. The guy has had quite a few snaps in this league," Belichick noted, "primarily as a run-blocker, short-intermediate type of receiver, but a tough guy that's got some length, and size and toughness in the running game. I'd say similar to a Mike Williams role."
Williams is out for the season after suffering an injury in spring practices. Meanwhile, free agent Clay Harbor has been laboring on the PUP list since camp started, giving youngsters like Derby, who spent 2015 on IR after an early camp injury, and Williams some extra chances to impress.
"Bryce has come in and done a good job," continued Belichick. "[He's] got a lot to learn. It's a big adjustment for him. I think all three of the tight ends, including [AJ] Derby, who really had very few snaps last year, but AJ, and [Steven] Scheu and Bryce have all done a good job. The guys are all competitive; they can all do enough things to be competitive. But Bryce has done a good job catching the ball well. He's got good ball skills, has a receiver background, but you can kind of see that watching him play. It shows up out there.
"Derby… I'd say he's ahead in some ways. He has heard it before. He has been through a season. He just has a little bit better idea of what to expect the second time through, even though he didn't execute very many plays last year; he heard them. He was in the meetings. He saw how it all kind of fit together and he's a smart kid. I think that all benefited him and so he has definitely had more exposure to what we do than Steven and Bryce have, so it gives him a little bit of an edge there."
Bennett has proved a nice complement to Gronkowski as well, having made numerous big plays during team periods and in drills against defensive backs. He said "it's been a pleasure" playing alongside Gronk, yet Bennett still feels like he hasn't reached his own full potential yet.
"It's a process. This is my third offense in four years. So, I'm learning, still thinking a little bit [on the field]," Bennett pointed out. "The more repletion I get, the easier it'll be. I study the game every single day. Always have my iPad open. I've seen every catch that Aaron Hernandez made in this offense, all the 12 personnel [one running back, two tight end packages] with him, I watch big receivers, all the tight ends in the league because I'm trying to add to my repertoire."
When told about Belichick's plaudits for the tight end group, Bennett replied, "I'm not surprised, because he's a very nice guy."
Clean slate for Harper
Chris Harper's rookie season of 2015 may be remembered most for one play – a muffed punt in snowy Denver last November. But summer's here now, and Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola on PUP and Nate Washington and Keshawn Martin out of commission recently, Harper has seen a lot more action on the practice field.
"It's extremely competitive," he said Wednesday. "We all come to work and we're all pushing each other. The better the competition level, the better it makes all of us.
It's really unfortunate for the guys who aren't out here, but it's a huge opportunity [for me]."
Belichick asserted that Harper has come "a long way" since arriving as an undrafted rookie last year.
"He had a real good spring [this year] and he's built on that here in training camp. [He] shows good quickness, he's caught the ball well. He's doing well but he has come a long way. He has probably made as much progress as any player has in the last calendar year."
Buy: Markus Kuhn – It's been a good start to his first Patriots training camp. The veteran free agent has seen plenty of action with the first defensive line group since camp began.
Sell:Bryan Stork – After leaving practice on Day 3 of camp for unknown reasons, the veteran center has not returned to the field.
Play of the Day: During goal-line/down-and-distance work in the team period, the Patriots offense faced a 4th-and-goal from the 1. QB Tom Brady handed off to running back Tyler Gaffney, who was almost immediately met in the backfield by second-year cornerback Darryl Roberts. Several more Patriots defenders swarmed Gaffney for a loss of several years, but it was Roberts' initial contact that made the play a success for the D.