FOXBOROUGH — The intensity of practice definitely picked up a notch Sunday as the Patriots went full pads and full contact for the first time since January. Offensive and defensive linemen finally went through one-on-one drills, cornerbacks finally were able to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, and running backs finally slammed into defenders as they attempted to stuff the ball over the goal line.
A couple of special visitors were on hand — former Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown and actor Robert Duvall, who is in the area to shoot a movie. After practice, Tim Tebow and Ryan Mallett signed autographs for about 25 minutes, long after the rest of the team headed to the locker room, which was pretty neat.
With that, let’s get to Sunday’s practice report:
Physically unable to perform: Rob Gronkowski (back); WR Julian Edelman (foot); WR Mark Harrison (foot); OL Nick McDonald (undisclosed); DE Armond Armstead (non-football illness).
Red jersey: S Devin McCourty.
Missing: DL Cory Grissom.
G Dan Connolly, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, sat out the second half of practice. He has been running behind Marcus Cannon at right guard.
Full pads (including knee and thigh pads).
■ CB Aqib Talib made a beautiful one-handed deflection of a deep fade pass intended for Matthew Slater.
■ Mallett threw a nice deep out to Kenbrell Thompkins in one-on-one drills.
■ WR Aaron Dobson absolutely faked CB Ras-I Dowling out of his cleats in one-on-one drills.
■ WR Josh Boyce made a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch on a fade from Tom Brady with CB Logan Ryan in coverage.
■ Tebow threw a perfect 50-yard bomb to Thompkins over CB Stephon Morris for a touchdown to end practice.
■ CB Kyle Arrington intercepted Brady in the end zone on a badly underthrown deep pass. Brady was not happy with himself.
Thompkins: Undrafted rookie sat out the first day but has been impressive the last two practices, earning repetitions with the starting unit and catching everything that comes his way.
Will Svitek: Valuable swing tackle took a few reps at left tackle, likely in case Nate Solder goes down.
Arrington: Intercepted Brady on that deep pass and has looked strong playing both outside and slot cornerback.
Connolly: Hard to make the team when you can’t practice, and Connolly appears to be clearly running behind Cannon now.
Dowling: Never made a play on the ball in any of the one-on-one drills, and overall had a pretty brutal day in coverage working mostly with the second team.
WR Michael Jenkins: Had a bad drop in team drills, and appears to be running behind Thompkins, Kamar Aiken, and rookies Dobson and Boyce.
Another up-and-down day for Tebow throwing the ball. While a deep ball to Thompkins was nice, he again struggled to pull the trigger in the pocket, often waiting 5-7 seconds before finally dumping the ball off. He also threw a bad pass over the middle in seven-on-seven drills that should have been picked off by Steve Beauharnais but was dropped. Fans got on Tebow a little bit when he overthrew Boyce on a throw in the flat. Tebow once again participated briefly as a receiver in the catch-and-run drills.
It was interesting to see offensive assistant Brian Daboll, who had been mostly with the offensive line, working personally with Tebow during some drills. Daboll got a lot out of Colt McCoy in Cleveland and Matt Moore in Miami.
At the end of practice, Tebow and Mallett stayed after to sign autographs. Every time Tebow tried to escape to the locker room, someone would ask him for a picture, and he always would oblige.
ODDS AND ENDS
We finally were able to watch the offensive and defensive linemen engage in one-on-one drills. Here are our observations:
■ Jermaine Cunningham made a nice speed rush move around Svitek and blew right past Markus Zusevics, but got dominated by T Elvis Fisher. Fisher also did a nice job slowing down Justin Francis.
■ Logan Mankins stoned Vince Wilfork on one attempt, but Wilfork got the better of Mankins throughout the rest of practice. One of the more fun one-on-one battles we’ve ever watched.
■ T Kevin Haslam absolutely stoned Jake Bequette, hardly giving up an inch. Haslam also stonewalled Marcus Forston.
■ Solder completely whiffed on Chandler Jones, who blew right past him.
■ LB Dont’a Hightower participated in the pass rush drills, and got completely stuffed by Sebastian Vollmer.
■ TE Zach Sudfeld did a nice job slowing down Rob Ninkovich.
■ Dobson is really great at getting off the line of scrimmage, and was wide open throughout the practice. He completely schooled DB Justin Green on one play, was able to shake free from Alfonzo Dennard, and badly faked out Dowling. Thompkins showed good shake while eluding Talib on a bubble screen. Arrington did a nice job jamming Danny Amendola at the line of scrimmage.
■ Based on three days of camp, the top four performers at wide receiver have been Amendola, Boyce, Thompkins, and Aiken. Boyce is starting to come on. Jenkins is falling behind. Rookie Quentin Sims also shows some flashes and could be a candidate for the practice squad. Amendola, meanwhile, has shown impressive technique as a route-runner and is clearly the most polished receiver on the field.
■ RB Stevan Ridley fumbled four times last year, and he had a bad case of the butterfingers Sunday. He fumbled twice, including once in a goal-line drill in which he was stripped by Wilfork. Each time, Ridley was forced to run the length of the field as punishment. LeGarrette Blount was the only other running back to participate in the goal-line drill, and he scored a touchdown with a nice second effort.
■ Pretty horrible day for Dowling, who is competing with Arrington and Dennard for a spot opposite Talib. Right now Dowling is clearly third in that group, and may also be behind Ryan as well, although the rookie third-rounder hasn’t looked great so far.
■ S Steve Gregory continues to take a few reps with the top unit, although Adrian Wilson is the favorite to start.
■ DE Jones took some snaps as a stand-up rusher, which he didn’t do last year. Francis, Forston, and Cunningham took some snaps with the first unit, although it may just be so the coaching staff can take a better look at them against the top competition.
Monday’s practice (in stadium, season ticket-holders only): 6:30-9 p.m.
Tuesday’s practice: 1:30-4 p.m.
Thursday: TBD.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.