FOXBOROUGH - Vince Wilfork anchored a defense last season that ranked near the bottom of the NFL statistically, yet was good enough to help the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl.
Because of last year’s lockout, there were no organized team activities, no minicamp, and an abbreviated training camp. With labor peace comes a normal offseason, which Wilfork said can be especially beneficial.
“OTAs are good for us. They’re definitely good for a young team, especially with us being a younger defense,’’ Wilfork said Thursday at Gillette Stadium after practice. “Not that we’re too young, but at the same time, just being able to get together and get little things out of the way that can make a big, big difference down in the season.
“Every day we’re putting something different in. Have to strive to get better, that’s where I’m at, and hopefully my teammates are trying to do the same thing.’’
Wilfork spent the first part of his media session talking about the Celtics. An unabashed fan, Wilfork was asked about the Game 2 hit in overtime to Rajon Rondo’s head (“Out here that’s a fine,’’ he said) and the similarities between the teams (“We play with a lot of heart, they play with a lot of heart’’) before saying he’ll be at the Garden Sunday. “I still have faith,’’ Wilfork said. “Hopefully we can pull two away at home and get it back to even. I’m pulling for them.’’
With the team currently 11 players deep at wide receiver, highlighted by the free agent additions of Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, and Donte’ Stallworth, competition is expected to be thick from OTAs through training camp.
“That’s part of this business,’’ said Julian Edelman. “Every year I’ve been here, there’s been pretty high competition at every position and I think that makes guys better when you’re competing. And if you’re afraid to compete, you’re probably going to be gone. So there’s definitely a lot of competition and you’re getting better.
“They’re vets. They’ve been proven and they know what they’re doing. It’s great to come in and see how we can become a cohesive unit. So it’s definitely fun to come in and watch and learn.’’
Gaffney, Stallworth, and Lloyd all have at least 10 years of experience in the league. Edelman, 26, said he tells Lloyd, 30, that he was a fan of Lloyd’s growing up.
“All the time,’’ Edelman said. “We’ve got a veteran group and it’s good for me to watch them.’’
Deion Branch was in Gaffney and Stallworth’s draft class. The competition certainly started, he said, but he expects it to be healthy.
“We’re always competing,’’ Branch said. “When we’re going through the bag drills, we’re always competing.
“It’s just now about going out and executing the plays the coach gives each and every one of us to do.
“They’re going to give everybody the opportunity to make plays. Now it’s just time to cash in.’’
The Patriots passed for 5,257 yards last season but only 2,657 came from wide receivers. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez became quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite targets.
“Hopefully, the mix of guys we had last year along with the new guys can create some different options for us,’’ Brady said. “It’s a very competitive position. All of our days have been very competitive. It’ll help our defense out. It’ll help our offense out. The more good players you have, the better you’re going to be.’’
Patrick Chung watched the Patriots select defensive player after defensive player in this year’s draft, an obvious attempt to improve a unit that ranked 31st in yards allowed. Chung had one thought at the strategy.
“I’ll take that,’’ the safety said. “It’s only going to make us better, so it’s all good.’’
Chung is entering the final year of the four-year, $3.98 million contract. He’s shown enough on the field (five interceptions, solid cover skills) to warrant an extension - assuming he can remain healthy. Chung has missed 10 games over the past two seasons with injuries.
During Thursday’s practice, Patriots coaches spent more time observing newer, younger players than a week ago. Ryan Wendell and Robert Gallery switched positions, lining up at left guard and right guard, respectively. Alex Silvestro, a defensive end, got snaps at tight end because of Rob Gronkowski’s absence. Gronkowski was rehabbing on the side, along with Matthew Slater, Tracy White, Brandon Spikes, and Joseph Addai. Rookie defensive back Nate Ebner, not spotted last Thursday, was on the field. During the brief 11-on-11 portion of practice, Brian Hoyer (7 of 9) and Ryan Mallett (2 of 6) handled the bulk of the quarterbacking, with Brady taking one snap . . . Edelman, who played offense and defense last season, said he hasn’t attended any defensive meetings yet . . . Offensive lineman Stephen Neal, who played with the Patriots from 2001-10, will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame this weekend in Stillwater, Okla. Neal was a two-time national champion at Cal-Bakersfield, and won a gold medal at the 1999 world championships in Turkey before signing with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent.