FOXBOROUGH — With the Patriots expected to start the season with almost an entirely new receiving corps, getting those players in training camp and catching passes from Tom Brady couldn’t come early enough.
The top five receivers from last season, both in catches and yards, weren’t on the field when camp began on Friday morning under a cool, steady rain behind Gillette Stadium. Of the five, only tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is recovering from offseason surgeries on his back and forearm, is even on the roster. The other four — Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Woodhead — are no longer with the team.
Leading the group of incoming pass-catchers is Danny Amendola, who spent his first four NFL seasons with the Rams after brief stints with the Cowboys and Eagles. Amendola signed a five-year, $31 million contract with the Patriots in March, not long after Welker had decided to join the Broncos.
Welker was one of the smallest offensive players for the Patriots, but he probably leaves the biggest shoes to fill. He took a number of franchise records, including career receptions, with him to Denver.
“Welker’s a great player, done a lot of great things,” said Amendola, who played at Texas Tech, the same school as Welker. “I’m excited to get the opportunity to play here, and show my teammates and whoever that I’ll try to be the best I can be.”
With only one training camp practice under his belt in Foxborough, Amendola cautioned that it’ll take time for he and Brady to click, although they appeared to get off to a solid start on Friday, connecting on a handful of sparkling plays in slippery conditions. Amendola laid out near the sideline for one catch, drawing a loud reaction from the crowd.
“It’s going to be a while,” he said of developing chemistry with Brady. “We’ll work out the kinks from here on out until the end of the season. We’ll try to improve every day, that’s just the way football goes.
“We’re all just trying to get on the same page. He’s been here for a long time doing a lot of great things, I’m trying to adapt and trying to learn the best I can to get ready to play for him and for our team.”
Joining the Patriots reunites Amendola with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who held a similar position with the Rams. In his four seasons in St. Louis, Amendola caught 196 passes for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns, numbers that pale in comparison with the rugged, productive, popular player he’s replacing. Slighter taller than Welker, and five years younger, Amendola is hoping to become Brady’s go-to option as the slot receiver.
He’s spent time studying his new quarterback — “He’s very demanding; he’s like a coach on the field” — and has also watched game tape of when other receivers, such as Welker and Deion Branch, were catching passes from Brady.
Now, barring something unexpected, Amendola will become one of those receivers targeted by Brady.
“I watch a lot of game film, I’ve seen every game, last year, year before,” Amendola said. “I knew what to expect coming in here, it’s why I wanted to come here. I’m excited to be here, excited to work.”
He’s keeping his eyes and ears open, listening when some of the holdover receivers such as Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater offer helpful words about how things are done in New England. There might still be a No. 83 on the roster (receiver Lavelle Hawkins), but Amendola is hoping fans will have more reason to cheer for No. 80, previously worn by Troy Brown. That worked out pretty well.
“Just a lot of reps, that’s what camp’s all about, to get as much reps as you can,” Amendola said, when asked how he’ll gain Brady’s trust. “You’re going to be dead tired after each day, but that’s what it’s about, getting as much reps as you can and working on what you need to work on.
“That’s why we come out here and run all the routes, do all the drills and cones and stuff like that, because it’ll all translate into the games, preseason, into the season, late into the season. That’s why we do it.”