FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – With the conclusion of organized team activities this week, the New England Patriots have officially wrapped up the third phase of their offseason program. The next time the team officially takes the field will be at the start of training camp in late July.
Here is one view of the 10 things we learned in OTAs:
1. Tom Brady still on top of his game. If an onlooker closed his or her eyes and was told these practices were taking place in 2007, there wouldn’t have been any reason to question it based on Brady’s work. He looks the same as he has over the course of most of his career, which is a credit to his year-long dedication to his craft. His arm strength in particular is still there.
2. Dont’a Hightower, among others, not yet 100 percent. Players who didn’t fully participate included linebacker Hightower, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and safety Duron Harmon, which makes them possible candidates for the physically-unable-to-perform list at the start of training camp if their status doesn’t change. Also, defensive end Kony Ealy, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and offensive tackle Andrew Jelks missed practice time, so their situations bear monitoring as camp approaches.
3. No restrictions for Rob Gronkowski. He didn’t miss a practice, was a full participant and called himself 100 percent. That was arguably the most significant news of all.
4. Emphasis remains on teaching. Bill Belichick clearly stated that no players will be making — or not making — the team based on the camp. The goal was to teach players what they will be working on at the outset of training camp, which hopefully gives them a chance to be competitive in that setting when they are truly evaluated. Still, coaches were hard on players for mental mistakes, as the offense and defense were both made to run multiple laps over the course of camp. Common mental mistakes that led to laps included substitution errors, having too many (or too few) players on the field and botched center/quarterback exchanges.
5. Brandin Cooks makes a good first impression. As one would expect in a no-pads setting, players with speed stand out. Cooks, who on one occasion stayed after practice and worked closely with Brady on the deep passing game, is right near the front of the line in all drills. While the Patriots mix up their combinations, it was commonplace to see him, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan in the three-receiver package.
6. Alan Branch the lone absentee at OTAs. While the Patriots had 100 percent attendance at their mandatory minicamp, Branch was the only player who stayed away from voluntary OTAs. This was expected, as Branch regularly hasn’t attended voluntary offseason work over his career and chooses instead to be with his family in Arizona. Branch’s physical condition upon his return, and his ability to pass a conditioning test, will be watched closely.
7. Jonathan Jones a leading candidate as nickelback. With Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler locked in as the top two cornerbacks, the Pats are in need of a third corner to play the slot in nickel and dime packages. Jones, who made the team last year as an undrafted free agent out of Auburn, initially looks like a leading candidate. He has a nice opportunity ahead of him.
8. Interior offensive line depth bears watching. With second-year player Ted Karras getting significant work at center behind starter David Andrews, Chase Farris and Jamil Douglas are left as the top backup guards. Both were on the practice squad last year, and their development is critical in the event of injury to starters Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. The Patriots seem a bit thin on the inside.
9. Belichick loves the unpredictable New England weather. On the first day of mandatory minicamp, it was barely 50 degrees with heavy rain and winds, and Belichick was smiling under his blue hood. Seven days later, it was 93 degrees and humid, and players finished practice on the hills doing conditioning drills. “Instant summer,” Belichick joked. The extreme weather change was a good reminder of Belichick’s affinity for practicing in all conditions, since he figures the team will be playing in all of them at some point over the course of the season.
10. Guest list expands each year. Spring practices featured a variety of visitors, from Chip Kelly to the coaching staffs at the Universities of Florida and Vanderbilt, among others. It was a good reminder of how Belichick opens his doors to many. “We’ve had a lot of coaches come through here,” Belichick said. “We go to see them, they come to see us. We have good relationships with a lot of the colleges, and the colleges do a great job of accommodating our scouts and coaches in the offseason into their programs, give us information about their players, and we reciprocate.”