FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots opened their three-day mandatory minicamp Tuesday morning, and before heading to the field, Bill Belichick met with reporters for the last time this spring.
For the three weeks preceding minicamp, the Patriots were on the field 10 times for organized team activities. Those workouts, like the three this week, were held in helmets but not pads.
Belichick said the Patriots have gotten a fair amount of work accomplished, but there are some things they just haven’t been able to get done without the players in pads.
“We’re just trying to keep moving ahead here, installing some of our plays, trying to get everybody on the same page, with the new players and some of the players that are back, obviously we’ve made some adjustments and changes in what we’re doing from last year,” Belichick said. “We’ll try to keep building on that and try to put ourselves in as good a position as we can to be ready to go at training camp. We’ve certainly made a lot of progress, but at the same time, we have a long way to go.’’
Asked if New England has been able to install the entire playbook, Belichick said, “We’ve got a lot in, but it’s not everything. Without pads on, there’s a lot of things that we’re going to need to do when we get to pads, particularly in the running game.’’
Belichick said he would like to see the NFL move the draft back to April. Because this year’s draft wasn’t held until the second weekend in May, rookies missed out on valuable time assimilating into their team.
“The sooner you have your players, the easier it is to start not only getting them integrated into your team, but also building your team,’’ he said. “There are certain things you get in the draft, and then you have to fill in other areas of the team with veteran players or college free agents.
“With that process going on, you can see every day when you pick up the transactions there are probably 5-15 transactions on a daily basis. Of course, if you have the draft [earlier], you’d be able to move that whole process up.’’
On Armond Armstead, the defensive lineman who has become an enigma since the Patriots signed him more than a year ago — he spent all of last season on the reserve/non-football injury list and has not been on the field this spring — Belichick offered a sliver of insight.
“Armond has really worked hard. He’s had a lot of adversity personally that he’s had to deal with — unusual compared to most other players — but he’s always had a great attitude, worked hard, and really done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
But as to when Armstead might be back on the field and whether the team has reservations about his availability, Belichick said, “We’ll see how it goes.”
Asked specifically about the rehab of Rob Gronkowski after his torn ACL, Belichick lumped the tight end in with all of the team’s recovering players.
“All the players that aren’t participating fully in the OTAs are in their rehab and they’re all in various stages,” Belichick said. “Players that are involved in it, they’re working as hard as they can.’’
Kelly opens up
When the Patriots signed Tommy Kelly last year, Belichick was able to bring aboard a defensive tackle he’d long thought highly of, adding his veteran savvy to a line that needed depth.
But the pairing of Kelly and Vince Wilfork lasted but three full games: Wilfork was injured against Atlanta in Week 4, and Kelly left the Bengals game a week later with a knee injury.
Kelly rehabbed for three weeks, then returned to practice in the days leading up to New England’s game against the Steelers, only to surprisingly be placed on injured reserve during the bye week.
At the time, Belichick said it was “unfortunate” for the team and Kelly that he wouldn’t be able to finish the season. Although Kelly was in the locker room in the weeks that followed, he was not allowed to talk about his injury.
Tuesday, however, he was.
“That was my plan [to return],’’ Kelly said. “That’s what I was hoping and praying for. It just didn’t work out that way. Me and the training staff, we worked hard, trying to get me back to the point where I could get in the game and stuff, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
The 33-year old agreed to a contract restructuring in the offseason that dropped his base salary this season from $1.95 million to the minimum $955,000.
The deal also includes roster bonuses and play-time incentives.
One smart cookie
Rookie offensive lineman Cameron Fleming, who was not able to join the Patriots until Stanford’s academic year ended last week, said he’s been adjusting to things pretty quickly – perhaps not surprising, since the fourth-round pick majored in aeronautics and astronautics.
“There’s tons more work to be done before I step into a preseason game, but I feel like I’ll be ready when the time comes,” he said.
Fleming was asked about being at Stanford, where there are so many elite athletes.
“It’s very humbling. At most schools football is the big sport, and I guess at Stanford we became the big sport,” he said. “But still, you’re in class, you’re at a party, and you’re next to an Olympian or a professional tennis player or professional track player. People do amazing things there.’’
Among the missing
There were six players not spotted on the field Tuesday: WR Aaron Dobson, CB Alfonzo Dennard, DL Dominique Easley, CB Malcolm Butler, LB Darius Fleming, and Armstead. It is believed that Dennard is dealing with an illness. The rehab group included Gronkowski, WR Matthew Slater, QB Ryan Mallett, TE D.J. Williams, and DB Travis Hawkins, among others . . . Rookie RB James White got a fair amount of play time with the top offense (i.e. when Tom Brady was at quarterback), though the red-zone touchdown he caught was from Jimmy Garoppolo. Fellow rookie Jon Halapio also saw time with the top unit, at right guard . . . The Patriots signed rookie free agent DL Seali’i Epenesa. Epenesa, listed at 6 feet 1 inch, 310 pounds, played in 41 career games at UCLA. As a senior, he played in 12 games (seven starts) with 16 tackles and a sack.