NFL training camps are officially underway, as thousands of Patriots fans flooded the team’s practice fields to get a glimpse of team today. I was in attendance to take on the aurora of a new season, and to give my readers some notes and observations from the first day of camp. Here are my thoughts:
- It’s not news at this point, but judging by the last decade or so, and the turnout to training camp in recent seasons, it’s apparent that Boston (and New England) are now a Patriots-first community. The Red Sox owned the city for years and years, sharing the title with the Boston Celtics during Larry Bird’s tenure in the 1980’s. Even during the Patriots first three Super Bowl wins from 2001 to 2004, it was the Red Sox who still had a stranglehold on the region, especially after their magical run to a World Series title in 2004. But by 2007, the Patriots officially took over Boston’s top spot. They are the most important team in the most important sports city in the world. It’s amazing what Robert Kraft has done with the team since purchasing the franchise in 2004. Of course, he’s had a little help from his friends, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
- Brady looked sharp, per usual, hitting a few corner-of-the-end zone lobs in goal line drills against the defense.
- As of now, Brian Hoyer is the clear No. 2 quarterback, with rookie fourth-round pick Jarret Stidham occupying the No. 3 position. Stidham often struggled to find an open man in 11-on-11 goal line drills, but that’s nothing for concern. Stidham has a lot to learn. It appears the Patriots may keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster this season. That’s something they’ve done only once (2016 — Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett) in the past decade.
- Danny Etling, the team’s practice squad quarterback and seventh-round pick from last season, did not have a red jersey (designated to quarterbacks) on. Instead, he wore a white No. 5 practice jersey and practiced with the wide receivers, running routes. Belichick could be allowing Etling to prove his versatility to the team, or other teams, in hopes of making a 53-man roster with some NFL franchise this summer. Etling’s thoughts on himself are what you want to hear from a team player. “I really loved being a part of this team, and I’m willing to do whatever I can to continue that,” Etling stated after practice. He also commented on his level of experience at wide receiver — “I’ve not really played it, per se.”
- On two different occasions, Brady and Brian Hoyer migrated to a seperate field with Benjamin Watson and rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry to work on some routes. With Julian Edelman sidelined, and the uncertainty surrounding Josh Gordon, the Patriots could be looking to maximize the rapport between Brady and his top available targets. But remember, Watson will serve a four-game suspension for a banned substance once the regular season begins, likely leaving Matt LaCosse at the team’s starter in his absence.
- Speaking of Edelman, the Super Bowl LIII MVP was in attendance, just but just to observe. Braxton Berrios understandably has taken the top slot receiver role ins absence. In fact, Berrios was running with both Brady and the first unit and with Brian Hoyer and the second group at times. And although a long shot to make the roster, undrafted rookie Gunner Olszewski out of Bemidji State looked quick in receiver drills. He’s a slot receiver stashed near the bottom of the depth chart. He’ll have to do a lot in both the coming weeks, and in August, to make the team.
- Although he’s been working with the team the entire offseason, it was cool to see Troy Brown working with the wide receivers in person. With special teams coordinator Joe Judge having the additional title of wide receivers coach at the moment, it appears the Patriots may be grooming Brown to take over the role after the preseason. That would be a phenomenal story. Brown is the original Edelman. He’s one of the greatest Patriots of all-time who excelled on both offense and defense. That is unheard of. New England would be lucky to have him aboard full time. At one point during practice, Brady and Brown had an animated chat in which Brady seemingly was talking to Brown about certain routes by waving his hands. Maybe they were just reminiscing about their beautiful connection they had from 2001 to 2006.
- For a roundup of goal line passing drills (with the defense present) — Brady hit Harry on a nice slant in the end zone, in coverage. As mentioned before, Harry had some 1-on-1 work with Brady, but seemingly works mostly with the second team. Phillip Dorsett and Berrios logged the most receiver snaps with the first offense in goal line drills. Brady also hit Rex Burkhead out of the backfield on several occasions, as well as Dontrelle Inman on two different, tightly-contested situations. It was initially reported that Inman would miss the beginning of camp due to personal reasons, but the wideout was in attendance, and looked pretty sharp after a few errors in earlier drills.
- The top cornerbacks in the team’s likely base nickel package right now are Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones (slot). J.C. Jackson, second-round pick Joejuan Williams and Duke Dawson Jr. (slot) are the second-team guys. After Jackson’s breakthrough 2018 campaign as a undrafted rookie, Bill Belichick could be looking to humble Jackson by keeping him motivated throughout training camp. Jackson should do enough to become the team’s No. 2 cornerback opposite Gilmore on opening day.
- Jerod Mayo continued to fill the role of defensive play caller in just his first season as a Patriots coach, earning the praise of former teammate-turned student Dont’a Hightower: “Some coaches, it’s easy for them to say “X’s and O’s” but they don’t really understand what you actually see. With him, he has a different perspective and he’s able to give us a lot of knowledge,” Hightower told NFL Network’s Michael Giardi.
- In addition to Mayo, Ja’Whaun Bentley has surprised many by picking things up quickly. Bentley had the green dot on his helmet in practice today, meaning he was the lone player on defense in communication with coaches (Mayo, etc.) for play-calling purposes. Bentley is in position to serve as the team’s starting middle linebacker, as a bigger, ‘thumper’-style backer in the middle of the defense. This should allow the Patriots to move Hightower to the edge more often. Judging by Hightower’s slimmer figure at the moment, it appears that’s the move. The most likely candidate in Bentley’s ear on the mic is Mayo.
- More on the defense — Patrick Chung was present in a red, non-contact jersey. He did play with the starting defense. Michael Bennett, the Patriots prize offseason acquisition on the defensive side, was not present.
- Some personal, non team-related thoughts — it was HOT today at camp. So hot that I had to take my watch off because my wrist was sweating. Additionally, I wrote this notes piece in the CBS Sporting Club, the bar/restaurant overlooking the stadium, that has since been re-branded and remodeled since my last visit to Gillette Stadium in 2017. The restaurant’s bar seating now overlooks the stadium.
Stay tuned for more Patriots and NFL coverage from me in the coming weeks. I will attend training camp on Saturday for the team’s first full-padded practice. I also have columns on the evolution of the Patriots offense as well as Ty Law and the history of the team’s No. 1 cornerback. Enjoy the season! FOOTBALL IS BACK!