FOXBORO – Tom Brady, rookie receiver N’Keal Harry, trade-addition Michael Bennett and the rest of the current of roster of Patriots hit the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium Tuesday morning for the opening of the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp.
Though the bulk of the roster has been working through OTA action for weeks – Bill Belichick termed today simply “practice number six” – things obviously took a step forward with Brady and Bennett joining the fun this week after staying away previously.
For the second straight spring Brady has worked out elsewhere, though some workouts included time with receivers like Harry and Julian Edelman.
Still, Tuesday was a key advancement in the process, especially as TB12 builds a relationship and rapport with Harry, the No. 1 pick and only first-rounder at the position Belichick and Brady have had in their two decades in New England.
While Brady certainly looked the part of proven franchise quarterback, Harry looked the part of the talented young rookie.
Harry made some nice plays – including a pretty one-handed grab in early positional work – and showed impressive effort on a diving attempt late in team action. He also had some balls deflect off his hands and routes where he and the quarterbacks – he took plenty of high-end reps with Brady and backup Brian Hoyer – weren’t on the same page.
“Just working on perfecting my craft and being the best receiver I can be,” Harry told reporters after his first official workout with Brady. “It’s amazing. He just has a lot of wisdom.”
Beyond his reps in group and team action it’s worth noting that Harry had some quality extra time during special teams drills working with Brady, Benjamin Watson, James White and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. His spot in that small group shows just the kind of opportunity he has early on in his professional career and just how much the receiver-thin team may lean on its top pick from day one.
“Just working on our craft,” Harry reiterated of the small group work. “We’re focused on doing everything right, the little things right.
“It was good. Just working hard and trying to improve.”
Beyond Harry’s first day on the field working with Brady in a group setting, here are one man’s observations of a sunny, warm Patriots minicamp practice:
--Though Belichick said that every player required to report had done so, those guys not spotted on the practice field included Patrick Chung, Sony Michel, Nate Ebner, Yodny Cajuste, Nick Brossette, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Deatrich Wise Jr.
Shortly after practice NFL Network reported that the Patriots are releasing the veteran tight end Seferian-Jenkins, the free agent addition who was also previously absent for OTA action with the media present last month.
--Running backs coach Ivan Fears was the first member of the coaching staff/team on the field, while recently signed rookie free agent wide receiver Gunner Olszewski was the first player. On the flip side, second-year backup quarterback Danny Etling was the last player to leave the field at the conclusion of the workout.
--To set the scene, there is construction going on at both ends of the Patriots practice fields this offseason, with some of the heavy equipment making a decent amount of noise at times during the workout.
--The specialists – Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona and Jake Bailey -- began the workout on the lower practice field before coming up to join the rest of the squad later.
--Bennett made his debut on the practice field in his No. 77 jersey and spent time working on the edge of the defensive line. Though it’s by no means live action in helmets, jerseys and sweats/shorts, Bennett did put on a nice inside rush on left tackle Joe Thuney on one team rep.
--Thuney, a mainstay at left guard through his first three seasons, continues to take reps at left tackle with a group that includes David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon. The unit did some rotating, though, with Cole Croston getting reps on the left side as well.
--Isaiah Wynn was on the field in front of the media for the first time after being absent from the previous OTA access. The second-year lineman is coming back from a torn Achilles that ended the top pick’s rookie season before it started last August. Wynn did some position work and extra running late under the watchful eye of trainer Jim Whalen, but did not take part in group or team action.
--Though there are plenty of new faces in new roles on the practice fields, the roster handed out by the Patriots PR department didn’t have any update additions or titles regarding Belichick’s crew of assistants.
--Head coach Kirk Ferentz – whose son, James, is a backup lineman for the Patriots – and other members of the Iowa coaching staff were on hand for the workout.
--Patriots chairman Robert Kraft was on the field for part of the practice, walking onto the field talking on the phone. He did shake hands with both Brady and Hoyer at one point, despite holding the cell phone to his ear.
--Patriots franchise wide receiver legends Troy Brown and Deion Branch joined players and coaches for the workout, spending time working with the wide receivers and punt returners. Brown did similar work during the prior OTA media session.
--A number of veteran players – including the offensive linemen and defensive backs – got a golf cart ride from the Gillette locker room to the base of the stairs that lead up to the practice field for the start of practice.
--Brady’s first words as he walked onto the practice field alongside Pro Bowl fullback James Develin? A friendly “What’s up guys?” to the gathered media and cameramen.
--Veteran tight addition Matt LaCosse had a solid workout. The former Bronco has good size, seemingly solid hands and moves well, at least in a non-contact environment. He’ll likely compete with Ben Watson for the No. 1 tight end job in the first year post-Rob Gronkowski. Watson – who will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season – had a solid practice, though he did have one ugly drop, an issue that plagued him during his first tour of duty in New England as a first-round pick more than a decade ago.
--Second-year receiver Braxton Berrios – who spent his rookie season on injured reserve – was one of the most active, impressive performers on Tuesday. Berrios got a lot of reps working with Brady, Julian Edelman and Harry. He had the play of the day on a diving reception of a deep ball down the right sideline from Hoyer, beating second-round rookie Joejuan Williams. He celebrated the catch with a lot of energy and a spike. He later had a nice toe-tapping touchdown from Hoyer in the back of the end zone that had the veteran backup running over for a high-five celebration. Berrios also got a lot of work on punt returns during the two-hour practice. He certainly looks to be very much in the competition for a roster spot on a somewhat thin wide receiver depth chart.
--Brady took the lead role at the quarterback position and looked very good throughout the workout. Hoyer took his veteran backup reps and had his ups and downs, the latter including a near pick-six interception on a nice break by J.C. Jackson on an out in late team action. The ball hung in the air too long and Hoyer was lucky Jackson couldn’t quite hang on.
After the two veterans, rookie fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham got the bulk of the rest of the reps. He threw the ball well at times and seemed slow in his reads at other points. But, he certainly appears to be slotted ahead of Etling, the returning practice squader who traveled with the team a year ago. Many drills had Brady, Hoyer and Stidham working together while Etling was elsewhere on the field working with smaller groups or even doing punt team work with reps at personal protector.
--Stidham did have an Andrews shotgun snap go off his hands and over his head during a team drill late in practice, causing the two players to run a penalty lap.
--During the punting work, the rookie Bailey showed off his strong but pretty inconsistent leg. Some “wow” boomers were balanced out with shorter wobblers. Bailey also dropped a snap on one punt rep.
--Brady did wear a new model helmet during the practice, as the model he’s worn for the bulk of his previous 19 years of NFL action is no longer allowed under league safety and equipment rules. He spent time using the newer model helmet last summer and preseason as well.
--While McDaniels wore a headset to call plays during various drills it did not appear that a member of the defensive coaching staff did the same. It will be interesting to see how that evolves this summer as the team looks to replace playcaller Brian Flores, who is now the head coach in Miami, and deal with almost total overhaul of the staff on the defensive side of the ball.
--Rookie third-round running back Damien Harris had a solid practice and very much looks the part of a well-built, athletic NFL runner. He stood out on one play in particular in which he tripped up releasing up the middle, falling to the turf only to pop up, catch the pass from Brady and turn up field for the first down in some down-and-distance work. Pads and pass protection change everything for a rookie running back, but Harris looks to be off to a solid start to his pro career.
--Kyle Van Noy left the field for a portion of the workout. He later walked back up from the lower practice field with members of the training staff.
--Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Ja’Whaun Bentley took a lot of reps working together at linebacker. Bentley seemed to lead the huddle and call the defense most of the time.
--With Chung absent after suffering an arm injury in the Super Bowl, Obi Melifonwu took a lot of reps working next to Devin McCourty in the back end of the secondary.
--Though many speculated on draft weekend that Joejuan Williams might be a matchup corner used on bigger opponents, he seems to be working a traditional cornerback role in practice at this point. He got a lot of reps lined up across from the likes of Berrios and Phillip Dorsett, both of whom might be considered bad matchups for the 6-4 corner.
--With Thuney at left tackle, Ted Karras and Brian Schwenke took reps at left guard. Schwenke also did some work at center.
--McDaniels expressed some displeasure with the look he was getting from members of the scout defense at various points in practice. He had to run plays multiple times to get the look he wanted that would allow his offense to get in the work it needs at this early point in the process.
--The quarterbacks threw some passes working with wet balls straight out of a Gatorade cooler late in the session.
--While the bulk of the team retreated to the far hill for conditioning work at the conclusion of the practice the punt returners and punt coverage players stayed on the field for extra reps. The returners included Edelman, Dorsett, Harry and Rex Burkhead while Matthew Slater led the group of coverage men.
--Those talking to the media after practice included Belichick, Bennett, Harry, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, LaCosse and a number of others.
--The Patriots will return to the Gillette practice fields for day two of the mandatory minicamp Wednesday morning at 11:15 a.m.