FOXBOROUGH — In 38 NFL seasons, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has seen thousands of players come and go on the teams he’s been part of.
But no matter how many times he’s had to do it, cutting a player remains difficult.
Beginning Friday, Belichick had to do just that more than 20 times, releasing players to get down to the NFL regular-season roster limit of 53. He cut longtime veterans such as Deion Branch and Dan Koppen, who between them had four Super Bowl rings.
Whether the players are veterans or rookies, informing them of their release is “the hardest part of the job,” Belichick said. “It’s the hardest part of the job to take players that have played for you, won for you, and players that have been with us since the spring, the whole offseason, done everything we asked them to do, worked hard, sweated, been banged up, kept going out there, kept playing, kept trying to do everything they could to make the team. To tell those players they can’t be a part of the team is very difficult.
“On the other hand, we all know when we get into this business that that’s the way it’s going to be. A lot of coaches, including myself, have been through that. A lot of players have been through that. It’s a production business. There’s not too many of us who have been in this game for very long that haven’t experienced that in some form or fashion. It’s part of the business.
“It’s not a great, real happy day as a head coach when you have to give that news to any players, really, certainly those guys, but any players. You could exchange names, but you’re still affecting somebody’s life and somebody’s career and basically somebody who has worked hard and given all that they can to try and earn a spot on your team. It’s disappointing for them and it’s not fun to deliver that news.”
Though at this juncture it’s hard to think of a day when Rob Gronkowski won’t be with the Patriots, the tight end got another reminder of the reality of NFL life on Friday, and knows that will be his fate someday.
“Definitely, I think of that on days like last Friday when you see people go,” Gronkowski said. “It’s like, ‘Man, that could be me one day.’ It’s the business side of the NFL and you have to keep working hard every week, keep working out, keep practicing hard, keep doing what you’ve got to do so you can stay around.”
Free agent signee Brandon Lloyd is now one of just five receivers on the roster.
The Patriots had 10 receivers when camp began July 26, and it was clear that some veterans, such as Branch, Jabar Gaffney, and Donte’ Stallworth, might fall short of earning a spot (all three did).
Lloyd spoke of the challenges all the players at the position faced.
“It was a competitive camp,” he said. “I haven’t been in a camp that was that competitive at the wide receiver position, where guys had so much past experience with the starting quarterback, past experience in the NFL, and then we’re all battling for a couple spots.
“So it was definitely competitive, and that’s the way it shook out. These guys understood what we were competing for by signing here, and it was up to the coaching staff and, ultimately, how we practiced and how we played, to make the team.”
Lloyd is beginning his 10th NFL season, and New England is his sixth NFL team. But he has had his greatest success with Josh McDaniels, and in the offseason made no secret of the fact that he wanted to play for offensive coordinator McDaniels and the Patriots.
The Patriots were on the practice field, not the game field, for likely the last Sunday this year, as their thoughts turned toward the season opener against Tennessee.
Belichick said the session, with players in full pads, covered situational play and points of emphasis.
There were four players not spotted during the media-access period: safety Steve Gregory, running backs Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead, and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.
Aaron Hernandez was on the field, but as media were readying to walk on the field, the tight end came down the stairs in the opposite direction. He was not with a member of the training/medical staff, so it was unknown why he left.
Tackle Sebastian Vollmer returned to practice after not being spotted Friday, and safety Patrick Chung was wearing a red, non-contact jersey. Offensive lineman Nick McDonald observed from the sideline.
Waters not on hand
As of midday, Belichick affirmed that guard Brian Waters still had not joined the team. “I’m just talking about the guys that are here,” he said when asked if there was an update on the veteran . . . Belichick also confirmed that rookie running back/kick returner Jeff Demps is out for the season and is not eligible to be reactivated off injured reserve under the new NFL rule, implemented last week. Any player who was on IR before this Tuesday is not eligible for reactivation . . . The Patriots filled their eighth and final practice squad spot with fullback James Develin. Listed at 6 feet 3 inches, 250 pounds, Develin spent all of 2011 and part of 2010 on the Bengals’ practice squad. The Pennsylvania native was an All-New England defensive lineman at Brown.