FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick considers offseason practices more of a “teaching camp” than a pure competition. The Patriots coach uses this time to mix and match his personnel and get his players comfortable with having to play with different teammates and in different scenarios.
On one play at Wednesday’s mandatory minicamp, Tom Brady broke the huddle with Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Dwayne Allen, and James White as his five eligible receivers. On another play, it was Edelman, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, James Develin, and Mike Gillislee. Then Jimmy Garoppolo subbed in, and he ran a play with Hogan, Cooks, Gronkowski, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead.
And as Garoppolo ripped the ball down the field, it got us thinking . . . the Patriots backups are pretty darned good, let alone their starters.
“We’re very fortunate,” Garoppolo said the other day. “Having weapons around you like that always makes the quarterback’s job a lot easier.”
Last week, my editor posed a question: How good would a team consisting only of the Patriots’ backups perform in a 16-game schedule?
It seems ridiculous on its face, almost cocky. A team of Patriots backups would have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, and would struggle with depth and injuries. Even with Belichick coaching, the backups would no likely win more than seven or eight games.
But the question didn’t seem so crazy while watching Wednesday’s practice, when it was nearly impossible to distinguish between the starters and backups at the offensive skill positions.
“I think that’s how it’s been here for years, as far as the competition,” eight-year safety Devin McCourty said.
Yeah, but it’s different in 2017. The Patriots are absolutely stacked on offense, possessing their deepest arsenal in years.
They always strive to build great depth, but a change in roster-building philosophy has given them their deepest corps of weapons in years, at least on paper.
Brady turns 40 in August, and the Patriots are done waiting for the Aaron Dobsons and Shane Vereens to develop. They haven’t used a first-, second-, or third-round draft pick on a receiver, running back, or tight end since 2013.
This year especially, the Patriots have targeted veterans instead of youngsters, trading away all but four draft picks and opting for players that have NFL experience, such as Cooks, Allen, and Burkhead (all between the ages of 23-27).
The rest of the NFL has become the Patriots farm system. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell is the only significant player on offense to have less than two years of experience.
“Obviously this year we have a lot of guys that have played football, either here or other places, played at starter level and played a lot of snaps,” McCourty said.
And their depth chart is the envy of 31 other teams.
The receiving corps is led by Edelman, who had 98 catches last year, and Cooks, who has 17 touchdowns the last two seasons. Hogan, now the third receiver, was second in the NFL in yards per reception last year (17.9). Mitchell, the No. 4 receiver, had six catches for 70 yards in the Super Bowl. Amendola, the No. 5 receiver, had eight catches for 78 yards, a touchdown, and a 2-point conversion in the Super Bowl.
Not many teams in the NFL can get that type of production from the bottom of the roster. And compare that depth chart with that of, say, the Jets, who have discarded Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker this offseason. Only the Jets’ top receiver, Quincy Enunwa, would even crack the Patriots roster.
At tight end, future Hall of Famer Gronkowski is back fully healthy, and should be a dominant force again. The No. 2 tight end, Allen, was the Colts’ No. 1 tight end last year and caught six touchdown passes.
The running back position is stacked. Gillislee, replacing LeGarrette Blount as the first-down back, led the NFL in yards per carry last season (5.7). White, the primary third-down back, caught a record 14 passes and scored three touchdowns in the Super Bowl. Lewis took a kickoff 98 yards to the house against Houston in the playoffs, and now that he’s in his second season coming off ACL surgery, he should be the dynamic home-run threat we saw in 2015.
Burkhead, the No. 4 running back, finished his 2016 season by rushing for 119 yards in the Bengals’ finale against the Ravens. He can run, he can catch, and he can play special teams. Burkhead is this year’s answer to the annual question, “Which random player will Brady and Belichick turn into a star?”
And then, of course, we get to the quarterback position. Brady’s presence alone pretty much guarantees the Patriots a spot in the AFC Championship game each year. But in a league with only 18-20 legitimate quarterbacks, the Patriots have two.
Watching Garoppolo throw darts to Gronkowski and Cooks and Edelman, there’s not much dropoff. Just ask the Dolphins, a 2016 playoff team that watched Garoppolo march up and down the field and stake the Patriots to a 21-0 lead in the first 18 minutes of their game last September.
The question about Garoppolo is whether he can stay healthy. He’s already proven that he can play.
“Jimmy can go out there and run everything that Tom can run; we’ve seen that,” Belichick said in November. “And when we put Jimmy in there, it’s really seamless.
“Unless you were actually looking at the position, if you just could block out that position and say which guy was in there at quarterback, I don’t know if you would know a lot of times.”
The Patriots were so deep in 2016 that they lost Gronkowski to injury and won the Super Bowl anyway. Now they’re even deeper and even better prepared to withstand an injury or two on offense.
And as the Patriots mixed and matched their personnel at Wednesday’s practice, it was difficult to tell which players were the starters and which were the backups.