FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots have had an eventful start to training camp. There were the questions about Malcolm Butler’s benching, more probing into the relationship between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and Julian Edelman talked about his PED suspension.
Oh, and there was some football, too.
The first five days of practice, two of which were in pads, offered our first look at the veteran newcomers, the rookie crop, and how Brady is fitting in with his new weapons.
Here are our first impressions of the 2018 Patriots:
■ Edelman looks terrific 11 months after ACL surgery. He looks like he has his old burst, has been able to stop and start on a dime, and has even run with impressive power. In a one-on-one tackling drill, Edelman trucked right through safety Eddie Pleasant for several extra yards.
Edelman has been playing without a brace, though former Chargers team doctor David Chao told me that skill players (other than quarterbacks) almost always refuse a brace, because they believe it limits their mobility.
■ Edelman’s four-game suspension to start the season is probably going to be good for him — giving him an extra four weeks to get ready, and reducing his wear and tear by four games — but the Patriots’ receiving corps is going to be undermanned in those weeks.
Chris Hogan will become the No. 1 receiver, and he has been getting dominated in practice by cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe. Hogan is great as the fourth option, but he can’t create separation against physically superior cornerbacks.
Phillip Dorsett has actually had a good start to camp and looks like he has the inside track to replace Brandin Cooks on the outside. But the rest of the group is unproven or underwhelming.
Jordan Matthews is already hurt with a hamstring pull, Kenny Britt can’t get on the field, Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios are unproven, and Cordarrelle Patterson often lets the ball come to his body rather than catch it with his hands and doesn’t run the sharpest routes.
The Patriots are facing three tough defenses to start the season in Houston, Jacksonville, and Detroit. (The latter two are road games.) With Edelman gone, and this decidedly average group of receivers, I’d be concerned about the offense getting off to a slow start.
■ We haven’t seen a ton of energy from Brady or tight end Rob Gronkowski through the first stretch of camp. We haven’t seen Brady barking at any of his receivers or trash-talking the defensive backs. And Gronkowski, who spent all of minicamp high-stepping and whooping it up, has barely made a peep so far. Training camp is a grind and not fun for anyone, but Brady and Gronkowski usually wear their emotions on their sleeves.
■ Rookie Sony Michel is an explosive runner, and there’s no doubt the Patriots want him to take on the Dion Lewis role as the first-down running back. But his ball security is something to monitor, as he already has had a case of fumble-itis. Michel had a bad fumble inside the red zone Saturday (ball knocked out by safety Damarius Travis), and colleague Jim McBride noted that Michel had the ball punched out during a ball-security drill.
Fumbles happen, and it’s early. But it’s definitely something to monitor. Michel had 12 fumbles in four years at Georgia, or one for every 54.6 offensive touches. Lewis had one fumble in 261 touches for the Patriots last season.
■ As for the other first-rounder, it has been interesting to see Isaiah Wynn — who started 21 games at left tackle in college and 19 at left guard — line up strictly at left tackle so far, and strictly with the second team.
Wynn’s size — 6 feet 2 inches, 310 pounds — projects him as a guard in the NFL, but he does have long arms, and excelled at left tackle last season, starting 15 games and earning second-team All-America. Trent Brown has been the early plug-in at left tackle, and Joe Thuney has maintained his spot at left guard for now.
Wynn playing left tackle is also interesting given his injury history. Shortly after January’s Senior Bowl, he opted for surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
Wynn didn’t have to start the season on the physically unable to perform list. But Chao explained that Wynn’s left shoulder is more vulnerable at left tackle because he is on an island and has no one next to him for support.
A left shoulder injury would be easier to protect at left guard because he has a teammate next to him for help and has his good shoulder protecting the “A” gap, which is the guard’s top responsibility.
■ Seventh-round pick Danny Etling definitely has a big arm — probably the strongest among the three quarterbacks — and he can throw a nice deep ball. He had the best throw of the night Monday, a 50-yard dime to Devin Lucien for a touchdown. But he needs to work on his touch. He threw one pass nearly into the stands Saturday and overthrows receivers in every practice.
■ On the other side of the ball, the most noticeable defender has been Gilmore, who has consistently dominated receivers. Remember that backward diving pass breakup Gilmore had to seal the win over the Jaguars in the AFC Championship game? He did it again last weekend. The Patriots are mostly playing one-on-one coverage so far, and Gilmore can’t be shaken.
■ Rowe also appears to have the early lead for the No. 2 cornerback job opposite Gilmore, which would give the Patriots two tall, lengthy cornerbacks on the outside. It’s good to see Jason McCourty back on the field after he missed all of the offseason program, but he is clearly running behind Rowe right now and is lumped in a cornerback group that is young otherwise.
Rookie second-rounder Duke Dawson has been getting early reps as the top slot cornerback, while youngsters Jomal Wiltz, Ryan Lewis, and J.C. Jackson have shown flashes. And don’t forget about Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones, both starting the season on the PUP list. McCourty is certainly no lock for the 53-man roster.
■ Newcomer Danny Shelton has been getting the early first-team reps at defensive tackle alongside Lawrence Guy, who was a nice find for the Patriots last year and one of their most consistent defenders. Maybe the Patriots are just giving Shelton an extended look, but Malcom Brown, who started 12 games last year, has moved back to the second pairing with Vincent Valentine.
■ Second-year defensive end Deatrich Wise has definitely entered the Belichick circle of trust after a promising rookie season with five sacks and 46 percent of the snaps. Wise is being treated like a veteran, working with starters Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers, and Wise always seems to be making plays. He had the biggest hit of training camp when he popped Jeremy Hill Saturday.