Five things we learned at Patriots minicamp
’It’s really a teaching camp’
FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick stood at the center of a swarm of cameras and microphones on Thursday, the final day of Patriots minicamp, when he was asked if any players stood out to him after three days of mandatory practices.
He shrugged his shoulders and cocked his head to the side.
"It's really a teaching camp," he said.
Those five words summed up the essence of this particular week of spring work. It wasn't necessarily about evaluation, though coaches and scouts paid close attention to the minicamp performances that players put together. It was more about implementing a system, and making sure everyone grasps the principles they're expected to execute.
It's about teaching.
Still, for the media members who were able to take in all three days of Patriots minicamp, there were some preliminary takeaways worthy of note:
WILLIAMS SUFFERS SERIOUS INJURY
Though players did not wear pads during minicamp practices, and though contact is extremely limited, the Patriots weren't able to make it to the weekend without seeing a contributor from last year's squad suffer serious injury.
Tight end Michael Williams walked off the practice field on Wednesday with a serious knee injury. After arriving to New England at the end of last year's training camp, Williams transitioned from tackle to tight end, making this offseason his first full offseason spent training as a tight end since his rookie year in 2013.
Williams was active for 15 games last season and seemed a decent bet to make the 53-man roster due to his understanding of the offense, his skills as a blocker and his special teams ability. If Williams lands on injured reserve, it may open up a roster spot for another member of the tight end group, which includes Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Clay Harbor, AJ Derby and fullback James Develin.
A few more quick-hitting injury notes: Bennett endured a scare on Wednesday but quickly returned to practice after having his left knee examined, and he looked to be moving without issue. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard was sidelined and tended to by trainers briefly on Thursday, but he was back on his feet and appeared OK soon thereafter. Undrafted rookie running back DJ Foster tweaked a hamstring on Thursday, which kept him out of action for the remainder of the practice.
BUTLER BACK TO WORK, GRONKOWSKI HELD OUT
Because minicamp is the lone mandatory week of work for NFL teams, attendance was a primary focus for media in attendance this week.
Thirteen Patriots missed all three sessions: Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, Tre' Jackson, Shaq Mason, Josh Kline, Nate Solder, Sebatian Vollmer, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and Nate Ebner, who is training with USA Rugby in the hopes of making the Olympic roster.
Though Gronkowski did not appear on the field, he was at the Patriots facilities during minicamp.
Rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell missed Wednesday's session, as did running back Brandon Bolden and Harbor.
Patriots corner Malcolm Butler, who made headlines when he missed a practice during the first week of OTAs, was present and accounted for during all three minicamp sessions. Named a Pro Bowler for his performance last season, Butler is scheduled to make $600,000 in base salary this season. He called his OTA absence a "big misunderstanding."
We'll have one more chance to track attendance this spring when the Patriots hold an OTA practice on Monday that is open to reporters.
ROOKIES MAKE AN IMPRESSION
Minicamp served as an opportunity to get a close look at some of the Patriots rookies and how the coaching staff views their skill sets. Here are a few quick notes on a handful of the first-year players.
* Second-round corner Cyrus Jones saw plenty of reps opposite Butler during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills with Ryan absent. He showed impressive quickness at times, and he picked off Jimmy Garoppolo during a 2-on-2 session on Thursday. Jones was also consistently deployed as a punt returner during practices. Outside of one muffed punt during Thursday's windy workout -- which earned him a quick tutorial from Troy Brown -- he showed dependable hands in the kicking game.
* Quarterback Jacoby Brissett had a strong three days of work behind Garoppolo and Tom Brady. He showed good chemistry with fellow rookie Malcolm Mitchell, connecting with Mitchell on one of the most impressive completions of camp on Thursday. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder clearly has the arm strength to get the ball down the field, and he was generally quick and accurate on his attempts underneath in team drills.
* Mitchell came back on Thursday to put together what was his best day of practice on Thursday after missing Wednesday's session. Though he didn't have to deal with NFL-level physicality in these practices, he showed reliable hands and good body control to make difficult catches in his two days of work.
* Patriots third-round offensive lineman Joe Thuney -- who played left tackle as a senior at NC State -- worked primarily at left guard, and he took some snaps at center as well. (Patriots newcomer Jonathan Cooper, who arrived to New England via trade with Arizona, saw plenty of work at right guard.)
* Hard to gauge the abilities of rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine in the non-padded sessions, but he appeared to get through the three days without incident. We'll get a better feel for his game when pads are introduced at training camp.
* It was interesting to watch rookie outside linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill take part in some special teams periods alongside second-year special teamer Brandon King. At times, they were the only two players to join the long-snappers, punter Ryan Allen and kicker Stephen Gostkowski in certain drills. Grugier-Hill, a sixth-rounder from Eastern Illinois, is a fascinating linebacker-safety hybrid and could carve himself a spot with his contributions in the kicking game. He saw some time as a gunner on the punt team on Thursday, something King did last year, giving the Patriots a pair of bigger options in that role opposite Matthew Slater. Grugier-Hill also showed up defensively with an interception of Brissett late in Thursday's work when the offense ran a hurry-up period.
* Ted Karras, a sixth-round offensive lineman from Illinois, saw time at both guard spots during minicamp.
* Seventh-round wideout Devin Lucien flashed a connection with Brissett at times -- perhaps the residual effect of their time together during rookie minicamp -- and after Tuesday's practice he spent some time on the field with longtime friend and second-year Patriots receiver Chris Harper.
* Foster looked like a fluid athlete and a natural pass-catcher during running back drills over the course of this week's three days of work. The team also tried him as a punt returner, a new role for him, and he showed some growing pains when it came to fielding the football cleanly. Foster's camp ended when he tweaked his hamstring Thursday and was held out of team drills.
FRONT SEVEN PIECES SEE SOME MOVEMENT
Patriots rookies weren't the only ones who were tried at various positions in order to gauge their versatility. Several veterans were spotted lining up in multiple different spots, including defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who discussed on Wednesday how he embraces the challenge of playing both on the edge as well as at inside linebacker.
Free-agent signee Chris Long was used both on the edge as well as on the inside, much like when Sheard was used as an interior pass-rusher last season. Another free-agent acquisition, Shea McClellin, who had experience as a defensive end and as an off-the-line linebacker as a member of the Bears, saw action primarily on the edge.
Linebacker Jamie Collins ran through drills at times with defensive backs on Tuesday. When the team then moved on to perform some 2-on-2 coverage drills, Collins communicated with corners lined up next to him in order to make sure all assignments were straight.
COACHING STAFF OBSERVATIONS
By now, Belichick's level of intensity and attention to detail -- even at this point in the year -- should come as no surprise. But there were several changes to the Patriots coaching staff this offseason, meaning these minicamp practices gave reporters an opportunity to see some of those with new titles go to work.
* Safeties coach Steve Belichick ran a fascinating few periods during Wednesday's practice that might have given a brief glimpse into the cerebral approach the young coach has taken to his job. For about 10 minutes, as other positional groups buzzed around different parts of the Patriots practice fields, Belichick and his players did little more than talk. Veterans Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung were among those who apparently gave their input, but Belichick ran the discussion as a professor might run a college-level English course on the quad during a picturesque afternoon.
* It may have felt like old times for Dante Scarnecchia, as he coached the offensive line for his first minicamp following a two-year retirement. For his players, on the other hand, Scarnecchia is relatively new. None of the linemen on the field for minicamp, other than Marcus Cannon, had ever been coached by Scarnecchia. "He's going to coach you hard, he's going to love on you when the time is right, he's definitely going to teach you some great techniques and work you hard," said Cooper. "He definitely hopped right back into it, full speed ahead."
* Assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski could be seen spending plenty of time with Brissett, helping the rookie get acclimated to life as a member of the Patriots. There is a chance Brissett will be the team's backup quarterback for the first month of the season so having some one-on-one time with the former coaching assistant could prove beneficial. During Garoppolo's first two pro seasons, Schuplinski was often found going over notes with Garoppolo whenever the young quarterback had some down time during practice.