The New England Patriots wrapped up their fourth consecutive training camp practice on Sunday.
The team opened up the first two days in shorts and t-shirts, followed by the last two days in pads to start the 2015 training session. Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, NFL clubs are not allowed to wear full pads until the third day.
Here is what we learned from the first week of practices. —
– The first day was almost a “soft” open. No pads, a little slower tempo during and between drills. Bill Belichick also threw a curveball to the media and fans in attendance with the players not wearing any numbers on their equipment.
– Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo both looked sharp Thursday. Garoppolo had an early interception, but recovered nicely. He looks much improved from the last time I saw him live, which was last summer. He looks more confident under center and has command in the pocket.
Brady looked strong as well, picking up where he left off. He had a few beautiful passes, finding Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Josh Boyce regularly.
In a lighter day, mostly quarterbacks and pass catchers are going to stand out. But I was happy with the development from Garoppolo and Brady’s strong showing with everything going on.
– The most impressive player on the field Thursday was Edelman. I don’t want to overstate it, but it was noteworthy. He looked crisp in-and-out of his breaks, ran precise routes and had some very nice catches.
Last summer it looked like he took a step forward and took his game to a new level, that carried over into the season. With nearly 90 players and coaches on the field, he separated himself.
– We didn’t see much of them, but it was good to have linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo on the field coming off injuries. Hopefully both will be ready to go for the opener. Along with Jamie Collins, the Patriots will have a very talented group in the middle of the defense.
– One of the biggest takeaways from Friday was the perceived first unit offensive lineman. Sebastian Vollmer was dressed, but spent the afternoon watching the group. There are questions if he is fully healthy and definitely something to monitor as we continue on.
As for the unit that saw the most “first team” reps, Nate Solder (left tackle), Shaq Mason (left guard), Bryan Stork (center), Tre Jackson (right guard) and Marcus Cannon (right tackle).
– With wide receiver Brandon LaFell absent — on all four days to start camp — Aaron Dobson was taking advance of every opportunity. Danny Amendola stood out, running crisp routes and adjusting to the ball well. Brandon Gibson is facing an uphill battle to stick on the roster, but don’t count him out. He made some terrific catches Friday morning.
– Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo were sharp Thursday, but both took a small step back in the second session Friday. A few more incomplete passes, but no interceptions on the day.
I like what Garoppolo has shown thus far, but he does hold the ball for too long at times.
– The front seven showed a few different looks Friday, lining up in 4-3 and 3-4 alignments. It was interesting to see Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones line up at linebacker, with Ninkovich dropping into coverage a time or two. Jabaal Sheard looks solid, moving all over the formations.
– While the top-tier linebacker depth chart is very talented — Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo — the team has some serious depth questions. James Morris got a lot of reps Thursday and Friday. He could find a contributing role if he’s able to stay healthy, a problem early on in his young career.
Just a hunch, but I expect the Patriots to keep an eye on linebackers across the league that become available until now and the start of the season.
– Running back LeGarrette Blount passed his conditioning test and was taken off the Non-Football Injury list as he participated in full pads Saturday. Also, 2014 first-round pick Dominic Easley was taken off of the Physically Unable to Perform list and also was in full pads. Both great signs.
– It’s weird to say, but despite Blount failing his condition test to start camp, he looks to be in phenomenal shape. He’s dropped a few pounds and it’s showing up in his agility. He looks more explosive and poised for a strong season.
– Rookies Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson got a lot more reps at guard Saturday, just like the first two days. Mason stood out with a few strong blocks, once pancaking second-year DL Zach Moore. Both are considered strong run blockers, but need more time to develop pass protection. These reps should help.
– Rob Gronkowski is always a man amongst boys, but new team-mate Scott Chandler has stood out a lot from the get go. Chandler shows smooth hands and good routes. I’ve noticed the team running a lot of crossing routes, perhaps to help give Jimmy Garoppolo a big target to find quickly if he starts the year under center.
Jake Bequette continues to try tight end as he transitions from defensive line. I’ll say this for him, he doesn’t look out of place. He had a strong day Saturday with some quality catches. He recently switched his jersey number from no.92 to no.85.
– During one drill the linebackers were practicing dropping into coverage, then moving laterally to try and intercept a football thrown by the coaches. Jamie Collins showed why he’s one of the best athletes on the team, leaping to the right and making an incredible one-handed grab.
While the team has run a combination of alignments in the front seven to start camp, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich spent a lot of time standing on the edge Saturday. Trey Flowers has been given some quality reps, as well. He brings an intriguing skill set to the table as a rookie.
– Malcolm Butler had a second very good day of practice, a few nice pass break ups and showing a lot of confidence. He was beaten a few times, but still competitive.
– One name to keep an eye on: rookie safety Jordan Richards. He’s flashed each of the first few days. He’s been making defensive calls, showing good closing ability and also competitive in coverage. He had a great pass deflection defending Chandler down the seam Saturday.
Tarell Brown had a few pass break-ups on Sunday, including this one against Julian Edelman.
– Aaron Dobson continues to stand out, having another strong practice Sunday. He’s looked good catching the ball and building a stronger chemistry with Tom Brady. After practice he talked about earning Brady’s trust, it’s clear he’s made that a priority this summer.
– Tarell Brown had a terrific day. He’s been limited during a lot of team drills, but Sunday Brown was more active. He had a few pass break ups, one great play against Edelman and even took some reps as a punt returner.
– Young players from the interior line stood out Sunday. Malcom Brown and Dominique Easley both stood out during drills. They won their fair share of battles in drills, Easley was able to get into the backfield on a few occasions.
On the flip side, center Bryan Stork has been a steady force in a young, talented group of interior offensive lineman. The coaching staff absolutely loves what he brings to the table.
– Edelman went down during Sunday’s session and was looked at by a member of the team staff. It appeared to be a lower right leg (ankle) or foot injury. He watched practice from the sidelines, walking gingerly. For what it’s worth, he had a smile on his face and was having fun signing for fans afterwards.
– A spirited end to practice during goal-line drills. A lot of energy and passion from the players. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Tom Brady were jawing back-and-forth. After the offense punched it in for a touchdown Brady screamed, “Yea! Yea!” looking at the defense, pumping his fist.
The crowd, of course, loved it. Also, Brady walked onto the field to a standing ovation every day to start camp. “Brady! Brady! Brady!” and “Free Tom Brady!” chants broke out throughout the weekend.
On Saturday evening the Patriots released veteran cornerbacks Derek Cox, Justin Green and rookie linebacker DJ Lynch. Lynch was hurt during Saturday’s session and did not finish.
Justin Green announced his retirement on his Facebook page Sunday. According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, Green informed Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio he wanted to retire from the NFL. After that conversation Friday, it led to his release.
The Patriots claimed offensive lineman Harland Gunn off waivers from the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, a source told ESPN’s Field Yates. Once the reported signing becomes official, New England will have two open roster spots.
Gunn, listed at 6’2 310, signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent tin 2012 out of the University of Miami. He also spent time with the New Orleans Saints before joining the Falcons. The 25-year-old (soon to be 26 Aug. 30) will be thrown into the mix at guard.
Overall, it was great to see the team back on the field as they gear up for the upcoming season. There was a ton of energy from the crowd all week, which was definitely noticed by the players.
Every session was in the morning under sunny skies and hot temperatures. The intensity, tempo and competition level rose a little each day, something that will continue as roster cuts loom.
The Patriots will take a day off Monday from practice, but return to the field Tuesday at 1:45 PM. The team will hold and in-Stadium session on Wednesday evening at 7 PM for season-ticket holders. On Thursday, they are back to the field behind the stadium at 1:45 PM.
Looking forward to the upcoming week. Be sure to stay tuned for more news, notes and analysis as we roll into the season.