The Patriots have been through various stages of preparation over the past several days as they get ready to put on the pads next week. The last two workouts featured a lot of positional drills, individual work and a slower tempo with an emphasis of teaching.
On Friday, Bill Belchick's team took another step toward a return to actual football as they took part in what the coach called the first team practice of the summer.
After donning just helmets on Wednesday and Thursday, Friday's practice saw the players add shells to their attire for the first time. The tempo was clearly higher as Belichick and his staff continued to prepare the team in this strange COVID-19 environment.
"The first team practice is today," Belichick said in his opening remarks before Friday's practice. "So, we've had endless Zoom meetings, then in-person meetings, walk-throughs since training camp started, some individual drills the last couple days, and then today will be the first opportunity we get to really have any full-speed or high-tempo team drills.
"That's good. I think we're all looking forward to that. I'm sure we have a lot of work to do, both coaches and players, getting back into coaching at that level and certainly the players playing and reacting at that level and so forth, so this will be a good experience for all of us there."
While shells and helmets is still a far cry for the real thing, Friday's practice did offer our first chance to see the offense and defense work against one another, both in positional groups and in some situational goal line passing drills. The competition was raised slightly as a result, particularly with the defensive backs and receivers going against one another.
"We'll get through the weekend and then start padded practices on Monday, so that will be another phase in the ramp-up process, but I feel like we're taking those steps as we're allowed to take them and the players are ready to move forward at the appropriate times. We'll continue to do that, and as they say, take it as it comes."
As we inch toward to the official start of camp next week, here are some observations from Day 3.
*With the step up in competition came an opportunity to watch the quarterbacks throw against coverage and all four did so throughout the practice. Both Jarrett Stidham and Cam Newton threw the ball effectively during the drills while Brian Hoyer seemed to struggle at times. Brian Lewerke made a nice connection with Gunner Olszewski, who worked nicely with Devin Asiasi on a combination route near the goal line. Asiasi also made a nice catch on a pass from Newton, and later Stidham connected with Mohamed Sanu as well Asiasi and Ryan Izzo as the tight ends were heavily involved in the red zone passing work.
*There were plenty of impressive moments for the secondary as well, particularly safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. The rookie was quite active throughout, notching some impressive pass breakups with some tight coverage. Phillips had an excellent break on a ball intended for Izzo in the end zone and both safeties notched interceptions later in practice. Again, no pads but still the added competition was notable on Friday.
*The daily first player on the field note had a bit of a twist on Friday. Justin Rohrwasser was the first to appear, but the rookie kicker soon turned back toward the stairs and disappeared briefly. In the meantime, rookie linebacker Cassh Maluia made his way out to the field before Rohrwasser returned.
*The Patriots officially announced the signing of Lamar Miller on Thursday and the running back was on the field wearing the No. 35 but did not participate on Friday. Miller joined fellow running back Sony Michel on active/PUP and therefore is ineligible to take part in practice. Miller spent some time chatting with Belichick before the workout.
*A Patriots tradition of sorts continued on Thursday when news of rookie Dustin Woodard's retirement hit the NFL's transaction wire. Woodard, a seventh-round pick out of Memphis who was vying for a spot as a backup center, opted to call an end to his career rather than begin his battle for a roster spot. Woodard's decision likely had something to do with the signing of Tyler Gauthier earlier in the week. Gauthier, who spent time on the Patriots practice squad last year, joins Hjalte Froholdt as the likely top candidates for interior backup spots.
*Training camp retirements for offensive linemen is nothing new in Foxborough, going back to Joe Panos way back in 2001 and continuing last year with Jared Veldheer with many others in between. Veldheer's situation was even more unique in that he eventually chose to return, signing a deal with Green Bay where he finished the 2019 season.
*The special team period saw the kickoff team get some work as Jake Bailey sent some kicks toward undrafted rookies J.J. Taylor and Isaiah Zuber. Still haven't had any opportunities to watch Rohrwasser kick on the main fields. Toward the end of practice it appeared as if there would be some field goal work but instead the blockers lined up and simulated their assignments while on the other field a group of players ran around obstacles before diving on pads to work on blocking kicks.
*During the special teams work, Asiasi spent some time working on goal line routes with a small group of receivers and backs. Tight ends coach Nick Caley spent several minutes explaining some of the intricacies of the routes to Asiasi, who continued to work on his technique.
*One of Julian Edelman's trademarks during practice is the beat up yellow Kent State jersey he always wears under his uniform. Generally the yellow T-shirt is visible, as it was on Thursday, as he works his way around the practice fields. On Wednesday and again on Friday, there was no Kent State attire to be found. Yes, these are the things that get noticed at camp.
*It will be interesting to see if Belichick makes any noticeable changes to practice during in the coming weeks in order to overcome the loss of the preseason. Camp generally involved almost no live tackling, but with no games to get the players used to one of the game's most fundamental requirements, some have speculated that practice will feature some more contact. The players worked on breaking down in space during a drill on Friday where receivers caught passes while absorbing hits from blocking pads before going one-on-one against defenders. It was a drill Belichick runs every year and there is no hitting involved, but the simulated tackling made me wonder if it was a sign of more physical things to come.
*Nick Coe, an undrafted rookie defensive lineman out of Auburn, was released on Thursday. Coe was not present at either of the workouts on Wednesday and Thursday.
*After not finishing with conditioning runs on Thursday, the entire team was back on the hills to close things out on Friday. The work done on the hills during the offseason allows the players to have more of a sprint on flat ground before reaching the incline. Also seemed to be more space for the players to work in what was once a pretty confined area.
*John Simon and Jason McCourty spoke via video conference call after practice.
*The Patriots will be back to work on Sunday before things begin in earnest on Monday when the pads go on for the first time this summer.