OTA Observations: Brady celebrates scores at late-May practice as if it's January
BRADY FIRED UP
It was rainy and cold, and Tom Brady shouldn't have been as excited as he was.
He'd just completed a touchdown pass to second-year running back DJ Foster toward the end of his team's third OTA practice of the week. What followed -- Brady screaming and seeking out Foster for the day's most exuberant man-hug -- looked more like the kind of on-the-field celebration one might expect in January rather than late May.
Touchdown passes to Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski also resulted in mini-outbursts from the almost-40-year-old quarterback.
For those who've seen Brady practice before, it's the kind of thing that should elicit little in the way of surprise. But that his competitiveness is where it is even going into his 18th season -- and that it seems not to have waned -- continues to be worthy of note.
Even Cooks, who is still just getting his feet underneath him in New England, already knows what to expect from Brady on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
"The competition level here is amazing," Cooks said after the session. "When you’re scoring touchdowns and going back and forth, of course it’s going to be exciting. That’s the competitive nature."
Brady's emphatic end to practice was one of several observations we made on Thursday, which was the first OTA practice of the spring made open to media members. Here are a handful of others, including how much Gronkowski participated, how some of the younger players acquitted themselves, and how Jimmy Garoppolo looked.
GRONKOWSKI A FULL PARTICIPANT
Before Thursday's workout, we'd already seen photos of Gronkowski participating at Patriots practices earlier in the week. What we didn't know what how often he was participating and how he looked as he moved around the field following last year's season-ending back surgery. What we saw was the tight end we'd become accustomed to seeing at these no-contact sessions when healthy. He participated fully, ran through drills, and was a go-to option for Brady in the 11-on-11 periods. After catching a touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone with Jordan Richards in tight coverage, Gronkowski leapt into the air to side-bump with James Develin and Julian Edelman while Brady remained in the backfield with his arms raised overhead.
GAROPPOLO BACK WHERE HE LEFT OFF
The last time Jimmy Garoppolo was on the field and making passes of any consequence, it was in Week 2 against Miami. You remember it well: He threw three touchdowns and completed 18 passes for 232 yards in about one half of work before suffering a shoulder injury that knocked him out for the next two weeks. Stringing together a series of passes again on Thursday -- the first such string anyone outside the organization had seen since last September -- Garoppolo was sharp. A touchdown pass into a tight window to Danny Amendola resulted in Amendola enthusiastically firing the ball toward the sky. He also dropped in accurate passes to Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and Julian Edelman in offense versus defense periods. How Garoppolo continues to develop will be one of the Patriots storylines to track this spring and summer.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Brady wasn't the only one enthusiastically going about his work on Thursday. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, back for another season after some speculated he could move on to pursue a head-coaching position, was equally giddy about being back on the field this week. "This is a great day for us," he told reporters before the practice, noting that he looked forward to getting in some work in the rain. "This is why we do what we do. The offseason you spend a lot of days in an office, watching film, talking about things, and evaluating all the aspects of your program and what you're doing on your side of the ball or techniques you're teaching, whatever it is. And then to finally have an opportunity to be out here with the players on the grass . . . that's why we all got into this profession to begin with." During one practice period that lasted several minutes, McDaniels spent the entire time working with pass-catching running backs James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and DJ Foster on their slant-and-go (or "sluggo") routes, while Brady chimed in with some coaching tips of his own in between passes.
UDFAs GETTING A SHOT ON SPECIAL TEAMS
It's far too early at this point to say whether or not there are some rookies who have a better shot to make the 53-man roster than others. But it's almost always the case that if first-year players -- particularly undrafted players -- hope to make Bill Belichick's club, they'll have to do so by proving themselves as reliable special-teamers. Undrafted free agent linebackers Harvey Langi and Brooks Ellis as well as receiver Austin Carr all received some extra attention from special teams coach Joe Judge at some point during Thursday's practice. Last season, Jonathan Jones was an undrafted rookie who almost immediately separated himself as a special-teams hopeful. He eventually made the roster and was a weekly contributor in the kicking game.
We hear about it every year. The all-important "second-year leap." A few second-year players who caught our eye on Thursday? Foster, Joe Thuney and Cyrus Jones. Foster made a handful of difficult catches, including one over the middle of the field on a laser from Jacoby Brissett that ended the practice. Hard to get a feel for anything happening in the trenches when pads aren't involved, but Thuney continued to man his spot at left guard, joining the same offensive line group that played the vast majority of snaps in 2016. Jones had a difficult day as a punt returner, though the wet and windy conditions made it tough on most who assumed that role. Cooks and Amendola had trouble securing punts at points, while Jones punted one ball in frustration after a drop. A talented returner in college, last year's second-round pick struggled in that phase as a rookie, but it seems as though he'll have another opportunity to take the reins as the punt returner in 2017.
'PERFECT' DAY TO WORK ON BALL-SECURITY
It rained throughout Thursday's practice and temperatures hovered in the 50s. It wasn't ideal football-playing weather, as the team's punt-returners might acknowledge, but don't tell that to Belichick. "Perfect," he said when asked about the rain before the workout began. Players slipped -- including Garoppolo on one drop-back during warmups -- and had trouble securing the football throughout the session. Brady fumbled one would-be pass that was recovered by Devin McCourty, and there were several drops by skill-position players. Taking advantage of the wet grass at one point, the Patriots worked on recovering fumbles. Belichick was among the coaches rolling out the football while players like Brady, Gronkowski, Cooks, Marcus Cannon and others made sure to slide alongside the ball before corralling it.
There were no apparent injuries suffered during the session, but safety Duron Harmon and receiver DeAndrew White were limited in their participation. Linebacker Jonathan Freeny, who spent the majority of last season on injured reserve, wore a red non-contact jersey. Chris Hogan dodged a bullet when he juggled a pass out of bounds and crashed into a parked cart while focused on the football. He was down in the back of the cart for a moment before popping back to his feet and jogging away. He continued to participate in the session and appeared to avoid any significant damage.
The Boston College women's lacrosse team, which will participate in the Final Four at Gillette Stadium this weekend, watched the last part of Patriots practice on Thursday. When the work finished up, they joined the team for the final breakdown, and Belichick spoke to players briefly. With the BC women's team was Belichick's daughter, Amanda Belichick, who is the head women's lacrosse coach at Holy Cross. Former Navy SEAL Dom Raso, who has worked with Patriots in the past on hand-fighting techniques, was also present.
These OTA practices are optional, but most Patriots players were on the field Thursday. A half-dozen were not spotted: Alan Branch, Joe Cardona, Stephen Gostkowski, Dont'a Hightower, Malcolm Mitchell and Max Rich. The Patriots will have one more OTA practice (June 1) that is closed to the media before opening their doors to reporters once again from June 6-8 for mandatory minicamp.