Five position groups with the most to learn during Patriots OTAs
CLASS IS IN SESSION
Monday's arrival brings with it Phase Three of the offseason program for the Patriots. That means organized team activities and mandatory minicamp -- stuff that resembles football -- will be going down at Gillette Stadium over the course of the next four weeks.
Here's a quick run-through of what's allowed and what isn't for clubs who've been able to do drills with coaches on the field for the last three weeks, but have not been allowed to don helmets or compete in any offense versus defense drills.
* The Patriots will hold two five OTAs, then hold minicamp from June 6-8. The final set of OTAs will take place on June 12, 13 and 15.
* Media members will have access to the OTA on May 25, all of minicamp and the OTA on June 12.
* These will not be padded practices, and there will be no live contact, but helmets will be permitted. This is the first phase of the offseason program in which 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills will be allowed.
Whereas training camp, set to begin in late July, is a time when players jockey for spots on the final 53-man roster, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has explained in the past that OTAs are used to get players familiar with the team's system. Education rather than competition is the focus.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the five spots on the Patriots roster where there may be the most to learn. This may not necessarily mean the players at these positions are inexperienced as pros (though some of them are). Rather all five of these spots feature new faces that will have plenty of Patriots-specific information to absorb during this stage of the offseason.
When OTAs are eventually opened up to reporters, Brandin Cooks will garner plenty of eyeballs. How his rapport develops with Tom Brady and how he processes the information thrown at him will be among the top Patriots storylines all spring and summer. Does he grasp concepts and plays relatively quickly? Or will his transition from the offense in New Orleans to the offense in New England take some time? It'll be hard for any of the undrafted rookie receivers on the roster to make the team since the position group is loaded with proven talent, but it'll be worth keeping a close eye on Austin Carr from Northwestern and Cody Hollister from Arkansas. The Patriots were consistently turning over the pass-catching talent on their practice squad in 2016.
Brendan Daly will be a busy man during OTAs as he tries to bring along two of the team's top three picks this year: Derek Rivers (third-round defensive end out of Youngstown State) and Deatrich Wise (fourth-round defensive end out of Arkansas). The Patriots defensive-line coach will also have Kony Ealy to tutor in the art of setting the edge in New England. Ealy's three years in Carolina showed promise but did not exhibit the kind of consistency that coaching staff was looking for. He indicated recently that he's already bought in to the program with the Patriots. How does that manifest itself on the field? Lawrence Guy, a free-agent pickup who projects as a versatile lineman who could play inside or on the edge, will also have to pick up on the intricacies of the Patriots defense now that he's in it.
Like defensive end, this is one of the youngest positions on the Patriots roster after Belichick and Nick Caserio double-dipped in the draft. Are either Tony Garcia (third-rounder out of Troy) or Conor McDermott (sixth-rounder out of UCLA) on track to nab roster spots behind Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon? Both have good size and above-average athleticism. Can either serve as the swing tackle of 2017 with the potential for something more in 2018 and beyond? What does undrafted free agent Max Rich, from Harvard, bring to the table? All rookies have an adjustment to make going from college to the pros, and linemen -- particularly those in New England who will be learning a complex offense under a demanding offensive coach like Dante Scarnecchia -- are certainly no exception.
Some corners pick up on the communication in the Patriots secondary more quickly than others. When Aqib Talib was dealt to New England in the middle of the 2012 season, teammates marveled at how it seemed to take no more than a couple of weeks before he was caught up on what he needed to know. For others, it's not as easy. Where will Stephon Gilmore fall on that spectrum? The 2017 season will be a big one for second-year leaps at this spot, as well. Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones and Eric Rowe (in his third year in the NFL but his second in Foxboro) will all have the benefit of a full offseason in the system, which could lead to some marked improvement during their sophomore Patriots campaigns. Undrafted corners DJ Killings and Kenny Moore will be intriguing rookies to watch during what's commonly referred to as "passing camp."
Players at this spot have all kinds of responsibility in the Patriots offense, particularly those who will be asked to protect Brady as a last line of defense. Both Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee (signed as unrestricted and restricted free agents, respectively) could find themselves in that spot, meaning the pressure will be on for them to get a good understanding of their assignments between now and Week 1. Burkhead, whose value is due in part to his ability to catch the football out of the backfield and play on special teams, could have as much information to absorb as any veteran newcomer on the roster.
HONORABLE MENTION: TIGHT END
After Rob Gronkowski and Matt Lengel (who arrived to the Patriots during the 2016 campaign) everyone's new. Dwayne Allen (left) will have the most on his plate, but it looks like there will be a good battle for the third spot on the depth chart between Lengel, James O'Shaughnessy and undrafted rookies Sam Cotton and Jacob Hollister.