FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick probably would prefer to hold his offseason practices on some remote island, away from all the prying eyes. But fortunately, NFL rules require teams to open a certain number of offseason practices to the media, including the three minicamp practices that the Patriots held this week at Gillette Stadium. So we’ve gotten a decent look at the early composition of the 2016 team — minus about half the starting lineup sitting out with injuries, of course.
The offseason program winds down next week, with just three more practices before summer vacation. The Patriots have held eight full-team practices, and reporters have been able to view four of them, including all three this week.
Taking into account that several key players were missing — Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, four-fifths of the offensive line, and others — and that these are padless, noncontact offseason practices, we still got a good look at some of the key pieces and the intriguing roster battles heading into training camp.
Here are our big-picture observations:
■ Jimmy Garoppolo still is an unknown, and Jacoby Brissett has some football smarts. Garoppolo, now in his third year as the Patriots backup quarterback, got plenty of work with the starting offense, ripped plenty of good throws, and looked to have a good command of the offense.
But every quarterback looks good in the offseason program without a pass rush or contact. Garoppolo’s time to prove himself won’t come until the preseason games, when the pads come on and the pass rush is live. And even then, Garoppolo won’t face any exotic blitzes or defensive game plans.
Despite how he looked out here in June, we won’t know whether Garoppolo is a real NFL quarterback until he plays in those first four regular-season games (assuming he does).
Same goes for Brissett, this year’s third-round pick. He made some great throws during the week (including some beautiful deep balls) but was erratic at other times, particularly in the two-minute drill Thursday.
But Brissett looks like he has a good head on his shoulders. In Wednesday’s practice, he showed football intelligence by noticing his receivers lined up in an illegal formation, and corrected their positioning before taking the snap. It’s good to see Brissett notice the little things while also getting overwhelmed with a new playbook and lots of other information.
■ An underrated position battle: tight end. The top two are obvious — Gronkowski (who may or may not be in a contract squabble) and Martellus Bennett, who looks motivated and in great shape as he enters a free agency season.
But the battles for the backup spots are wide open, and several guys stood out, thanks to the extra reps from Gronk’s absence. The competition was fierce, but one of the key contestants was lost early when Mike Williams, last year’s blocking tight end, tore his ACL on a noncontact play in Wednesday’s practice, likely ending his season.
Williams, the former offensive tackle who was acquired in a trade last year and switched to blocking tight end, reported to offseason workouts 20 pounds lighter and made several red-zone touchdown catches. But he will go on IR and potentially open up a spot for a younger player.
Seven-year veteran Clay Harbor is the presumed favorite to be the No. 3 tight end after signing a two-year, $3 million deal in the offseason. With only $400,000 guaranteed, Harbor still will have to earn his spot, but Williams’s injury certainly will help his cause.
Second-year tight end A.J. Derby, a sixth-round pick last year who missed the entire season with an injury, is big and athletic and at minimum should be a practice squad candidate. And two undrafted rookies have been hard to miss — Bryce Williams, with his long, flowing hair, catching touchdowns, and Steven Scheu catching passes out of the backfield as more of an H-back.
This looks like one position that won’t be decided until the end of training camp, and injuries should play a big part.
■ Cornerback is also wide open. Three spots are settled: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan (who has been missing from offseason workouts for an undisclosed reason), and second-round pick Cyrus Jones. But the competition for the final two spots is wide open, with a couple of second-year guys as the early favorites: Justin Coleman, last year’s No. 3 corner, and Darryl Roberts, who spent all of last year on injured reserve.
Veteran E.J. Biggers and undrafted rookies V’Angelo Bentley, Cre’von LeBlanc, and Jonathan Jones are the other players in the mix, with LeBlanc the early standout.
The Patriots probably aren’t done searching for cornerback depth, either. They could use more experience and should be looking for one in training camp, be it through a trade or waiver-wire pickup.
■ Will Belichick trust rookie Cyrus Jones as a punt returner? Jones had four punt-return touchdowns for Alabama last year, but speed and vision are only part of the equation when returning punts in the NFL. The decision-making aspect is far more important — when to fair catch, when to let it bounce, how to direct teammates away from the ball — and one mistake can cost a game or the season.
With the Patriots loading up for another Super Bowl run, will Belichick entrust those responsibilities to a rookie? Jones had difficulty fielding punts in swirling winds Wednesday — conditions that are common for late-season games. On Thursday, he muffed a very catchable punt for the second day in a row.
Although Belichick surely would like to reduce the wear and tear on veterans Edelman and Amendola, I expect them to be the punt returners in the season’s most important and high-pressure situations.
■ The defense is loaded with versatility. Patrick Chung lines up as a safety or a linebacker. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower can rush the quarterback or drop off into coverage on any snap. Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, and Shea McClellin play defensive end and outside linebacker. McClellin plays inside linebacker, too. Devin McCourty can play safety or cornerback. Sixth-round pick Kamu Grugier-Hill was drafted to be a safety/linebacker hybrid.
Not to mention the Patriots look to have enough beef up front — Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Terrance Knighton, Vincent Valentine, and others — to have an effective run defense out of their nickel package, a necessity in today’s three-wide-receiver NFL.
■ Training camp is going to be more important than ever. Tom Brady knows more than anyone how important it is to build a rapport with his receivers. But most of his top targets sat out offseason workouts. Plus, Brady stands to miss the first four weeks of regular-season practice because of his suspension (assuming it sticks). The five weeks of training camp are going to be incredibly important for Brady to get in a lot of work and develop a rhythm with his top receivers.
Video: Minicamp Day 3 report