Bill Belichick was asked Wednesday morning, at his second-to-last practice before summer vacation, about the Patriots’ new crop of wide receivers.
“I think the ones that are out there are making progress,” he said.
It was important to make that distinction: “the ones that are out there.”
Because during this three-day minicamp, Tom Brady has mostly been throwing with the JV team. And the offense isn’t getting much out of this minicamp, except a look at which players might be able to grab the last few spots on the 53-man roster.
Media members used to seeing Brady throw to Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Julian Edelman have been forced to keep their rosters handy, just to figure out who is on the receiving end of Brady’s passes.
“Really, there hasn’t been anyone that we’ve thrown to in any game action,” Brady said Wednesday.
Yes, that was Kenbrell Thompkins, an undrafted receiver from Cincinnati, working with the starting offense Wednesday. Kamar Aiken, a practice-squad player who has bounced around the league the last two years, looks like a Pro Bowler compared with some of the players he is competing against. And Michael Jenkins, released by the receiver-starved Vikings this year, has been thrust into the starting lineup for now, too.
That’s because Brady’s top seven targets from last season are nowhere to be found during practice this week. Yes, seven.
Welker obviously is gone, and Gronkowski is on the shelf with back and forearm injuries, likely until the start of the regular season, if not longer. Brandon Lloyd (74 catches) was released in March, Hernandez (51) is rehabbing a shoulder injury, Danny Woodhead (40) was allowed to leave for San Diego via free agency, Edelman (21) is still rehabbing a foot injury, and Deion Branch (16) was not asked to return.
The Patriots knew they would have major changes at wide receiver, but a slew of injuries hasn’t helped matters.
Joining Gronkowski and Hernandez in the triage unit this week are second-round receiver Aaron Dobson, fourth-round receiver Josh Boyce, and undrafted rookie Mark Harrison.
A big reason the Patriots were comfortable moving on from Lloyd and Branch is that they felt they could upgrade at wide receiver in the draft. On paper, they did; Dobson, especially, has excellent hands and could develop into a great playmaker.
But the three rookies are falling behind by not being able to throw and practice with Brady this week. And so the Patriots are forced to use castaways such as Jenkins, Donald Jones, and Lavelle Hawkins with the first-team offense.
“Any player that’s not out there is behind,” Belichick said. “The fact that they’re not out there is the best thing for them, because they need to get physically healthy and rehab whatever condition they have. So that’s more important than being out there.
“But if they were healthy and they could be out there, they would gain more from being out there than not being out there.”
Patriots fans shouldn’t be too worried about Gronkowski and Hernandez. They know the playbook cold, have elite skills, and should return to their dominant selves once they get 100 percent healthy.
But fans should be a little concerned that Dobson and Boyce are falling behind. Both will be on the team this fall — second- and fourth-round picks never get cut their rookie year — but it’s a big transition from Marshall and TCU to the NFL, and they won’t get a chance to work with Brady again until August.
“I don’t think it’s a death sentence,” Jenkins said of the rookies missing minicamp. “All of us are taking notes and kind of taking mental reps when they’re not in.”
But mental notes can’t replicate live game speed or develop chemistry with Brady.
The good news is that Danny Amendola, the heir apparent to Welker, looks as good as advertised. His routes are crisp, and he is deceptively fast — just ask the two defensive backs he burned for an 80-yard touchdown Wednesday.
And Amendola, the only receiver consistently playing with the starting offense during minicamp, certainly seems to be developing a rapport with Brady. In Tuesday’s practice, Brady got unusually excited after completing a pass to Amendola.
“We talked about something and the first time he didn’t quite get it,” Brady explained. “And the second time he got it a little more, but not quite. And finally, we nailed it.”
That’s what happens when a receiver spends two months working with a quarterback, as Amendola has with Brady.
“I’ve developed some great chemistry with receivers over the years,” said Brady. “Body language is really important — when to sit, when to move, when to give me your eyes, when to give me your hands. All those little cues that you’re using to try to anticipate things as players are very important.”
The Patriots might end up having a great receiving unit this season, with Amendola, Edelman, Dobson, Boyce, and either Jenkins or Jones complementing Hernandez and Gronkowski (whenever he eventually returns).
Having Brady can minimize any damage done by not having a full crop of receivers during minicamp, too. He’s so advanced in the offense, he’s like a coach on the field.
But the Patriots won’t be making any real progress on offense until they can get their top weapons healthy and back on the field.