FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots just completed their first of four weeks of offseason organized team activities, and Thursday's practice was the first time the media got to see the 2016 team on the field, lining up for football-type activities.
There was plenty to be learned, but first, a disclaimer: These are just OTAs. No pads, no one-on-one drills, no contact, per the league's collective bargaining agreement. It's glorified flag football, with not much real work for the big guys on the offensive and defensive lines.
So we temper our observations a bit. We're not going to rave about anyone who plays well, because we've seen how that works out around here (Zach Sudfeld, anyone?). Just because a guy was running with the first or second unit doesn't necessarily mean he's rising or falling on the depth chart. We don't keep detailed quarterback stats, because it's pretty meaningless without knowing the play called or the correct read, without having a pass rush, and so on.
And the Patriots were basically missing half of their team. Among those not spotted on the field were Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Dion Lewis, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Danny Amendola, Duron Harmon, Shaq Mason, LeGarrette Blount and Alan Branch. Phew.
That said, we still took away some valuable observations:
■ We’ll start with the most important topic, the quarterbacks. All three were present: Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jacoby Brissett.
It's too early to start taking away practice reps from Brady and giving them to Garoppolo in case Jimmy G has to play the first four games of the season, but I thought the Patriots did a pretty good job of giving Brady and Garoppolo an almost equal amount of reps with the ones and twos, while Brissett played almost strictly with the threes. All three took a lot of snaps.
■ The drill I found most interesting came early in practice, with the quarterbacks working only with the coaching staff. The QBs practiced their dropbacks and play-action fakes, and practiced throwing 10-, 15-, and 20-yard outs, as well as some deep seam throws.
I found this to be an enlightening drill, because it highlighted which throws each one does well and doesn't do well.
Brady was typical Brady: He excelled on the sideline throws, throwing nice, tight spirals with great pace and accuracy, and he underthrew the deep ball. Garoppolo spins a beautiful ball on the 10- and 15-yard throws and has the best accuracy of the three on the short and intermediate passes.
But Garoppolo starts to struggle when he has to push it deep. His accuracy dipped noticeably on the 20-yard outs, as he often threw too high, and his deep seam throws were all over the place. Garoppolo looks best suited for a short-passing, timing-and-rhythm-based offense, which fortunately is what the Patriots run.
This was the first time we got a look at Brissett, the rookie third-round pick. Brissett throws a good-looking ball as well, with a little more wobble than Garoppolo but still with good pace and accuracy on the medium throws. He struggled with the 20-yard outs — arguably the most difficult throw in football — but throws a really nice deep ball, with good trajectory.
He'll need to work on his deep accuracy, but Brissett can sling it.
■ With so many top receivers missing, there were plenty of opportunities for Chris Hogan, Keshawn Martin, Aaron Dobson, and Martellus Bennett. Hogan was a frequent target of Brady and Garoppolo, and made a really nice one-handed catch in traffic in a seven-on-seven drill.
Bennett made some competitive catches in tight coverage, but landed awkwardly after catching one touchdown pass and getting tangled up with Patrick Chung. He walked off gingerly but returned to the field a few plays later.
■ The first-team offensive line was LaAdrian Waddle at left tackle, rookie Joe Thuney at left guard, second-year center David Andrews, recently acquired Jonathan Cooper at right guard, and Marcus Cannon at right tackle. Andrews played center over Bryan Stork and received a lot of reps, but I don’t think we should read much into it at this point. Keavon Milton, a converted tight end, took reps at left tackle with the second team.
■ Another player who received a lot of action with the first team was tight end Mike Williams. A converted offensive tackle who last year was strictly a blocking tackle and struggled to get his weight below 300 pounds, Williams looked noticeably slimmer and ran a lot of passing routes, even coming down with a nice touchdown grab over safety Cedric Thompson.
Another tight end who was easy to notice was A.J. Derby, who spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve; he had a couple of nice touchdown grabs and showed athleticism.
■ On defense, the starting line was Rob Ninkovich, Terrance Knighton, Malcom Brown, and Jabaal Sheard, with Chris Long and Shea McClellin working as the second-team ends. With both starting cornerbacks missing, Justin Coleman and E.J. Biggers took a lot of reps with the starting defense, as did Darryl Roberts and safety Jordan Richards.
■ It was a hot day in Foxborough, in the low 90s, and it was interesting to see several guys wearing sweats, including Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and, of course, Bill Belichick in his trademark hoodie. All three quarterbacks remained on the field after practice to do extra work; Garoppolo threw mostly with Hogan, while Brady worked on his conditioning with a trainer.
■ Belichick wasn’t pleased with everything that happened on the field. During the stretching period, the coach dropped several F-bombs that were easily heard by reporters from across the practice field. Belichick wasn’t pleased that his players had forgotten a part of the warm-up routine.
■ Returning punts: rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones, Martin, wide receiver Chris Harper, wide receiver DeAndre Carter, and undrafted rookie cornerback V’Angelo Bentley.