The Patriots rookies were thrown into the deep end of the pool this summer and coach Bill Belichick is pleased with how the group has treaded water so far.
“They’re in deep water, turbulent water, and it’s going to get rougher, just in terms of the volume, the level of competition, becoming a professional athlete, and the full days and the consecutive days that get strung together,’' Belichick said before Friday morning’s practice. “The very high demands both physically and mentally, rest and recovery and all that, so I think all of the guys are adjusting to it, they’re all working hard at it — it’s a really hard-working group. They haven’t been any problems — they’re just doing the best they can.‘'
New England has 19 rookies — a number that likely will fluctuate throughout camp — and several could be counted on to contribute right away given the significant losses to free agency and opt-outs.
The league’s top defense from a year ago will be without standout linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts. In addition, versatile safety Patrick Chung won’t be around.
Top pick Kyle Dugger could help fill the void left by Chung, and linebackers Josh Uche (second round) and Anfernee Jennings (third) may be counted on to take on a larger role than first-year players are accustomed to in New England.
On the other side of the ball, tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, both third-rounders, could find themselves at the top of the depth chart for the opener Sept. 13.
Belichick reiterated how overwhelming the acclimation period can be, and said he has been impressed by the resiliency of the group, which he called conscientious and diligent.
“They’re swimming — they’re in deep water,’' he said prior to Friday’s practice. “Their eyes get opened every day as we move up in the process and we’re still a long way from anything close to real football … I think they’re just trying to keep their head above water and try to swim or paddle in the right direction knowing that they’re not really able to keep up but they’re doing the best they can and they’re way, way ahead of where they were a week ago, two weeks ago, a month ago, two months ago.‘'
Belichick said the club has put the NFL’s decision to fine the organization and dock it a draft pick for a team television crew taping the Bengals sideline last December behind them.
“Obviously the league had a long investigation on that,’' he said. “But really, we’re just looking ahead and we have a lot of things in front of us here, especially getting ready for the season and all that. We’ve moved on and we’ll deal with what we have to deal with in front of us here and just let everything go in the rearview mirror and move ahead.”
The Patriots were fined $1.1 million and forfeited a third-round pick as punishment.
Friday represented what Belichick called the “first team practice” as the club continues its ramp-up to the first padded practice, scheduled for Monday.
“We’ve had endless Zoom meetings, then in-person meetings [and] walkthroughs since training camp started, some individual drills the last couple of days, and [this is] the first opportunity we get to really have any full-speed or high-tempo drills.‘'
For veterans John Simon and Jason McCourty, the increase in intensity was a welcome change.
“We’ve come a long way in the past week, week and a half,’' said Simon. “We just have to keep stacking days, putting in good days of work. It was nice to go against the offense today, get a little friendly competition in there. Everything starts moving a little faster. It’s a step by step thing, if we keep stacking days, hopefully we’ll be there.‘'
McCourty sounded more like a rookie than a 12-year veteran.
“This is when it’s most exciting. You’re excited to go out there and compete with your guys on your side of the ball to compete against the guys on the other side,” he said. “We’re not in those dog days of camp yet. Right now, it’s just fun to go out there and compete.‘'
McCourty began his video call by thanking the many people in the organization for the work they’ve done throughout the pandemic. “Throughout this COVID, it’s been awesome to be back in the building and it kind of goes unnoticed but different people in our building, from our football operation to the people in our dining room to the people in the equipment room and trainers, there’s been so many people that have gone above and beyond to kind of make this season happen.” … New running back Lamar Miller’s deal calls for a $1.05 million base salary with $200,000 guaranteed and $1.5 million in achievable incentives.