FOXBORO — When it comes to Patriots training camp practices, you'd be hard-pressed to find an uglier offensive performance than the one they put together on Wednesday.
Eight passes were dropped. Eight more were broken up by defensive backs. The quarterbacks combined to complete less than half of their attempts in competitive 11-on-11 work (10-for-23 with an interception). First-round rookie N'Keal Harry, who accounted for four drops on his own, had to be coaxed into proper pre-snap position
Even James White, the team's most reliable pass-catcher with Julian Edelman out injured, looked off. He of the one career fumble in five pro seasons coughed one up into the hands of safety Obi Melifonwu late in the session.
"Yeah," White said after. "We obviously know we didn't practice to the best of our abilities today, but that's what camp is all about. Every day is not going to be perfect. There's going to be ups and downs. We'll learn from them and come out tomorrow."
Though things are just getting started, this is a critical point in the season for the Patriots. They tell us as much every year.
It's a time to set a foundation. It's a time to build up an understanding of the team's systems — both offensively and defensively — from one day to the next so that when the real games begin there's a variety of scenarios that have been practiced over and over and over again. It's a time for individual competition to find out which players are going to give the team the best chance to win come September and beyond.
So for the Patriots offense to put together a day like Wednesday's isn't exactly a shrug-your-shoulders-and-get-'em-tomorrow situation. These reps matter, we're told, and they almost universally stunk out loud in training camp practice No. 6.
But that stench emanating from the fields behind Gillette Stadium now should at some point result in something fruitful for Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and whoever it is they're working with over the course of the 2019 campaign.
How? In a sink-or-swim league, they're learning who's doing what early.
Right now Brady is forced to throw to players like Harry, Maurice Harris, Jakobi Meyers, Ryan Davis, Braxton Berrios, Matt LaCosse and Stephen Anderson. All are new in one respect or another. Some are new to the league. There have been growing pains.
Had Julian Edelman been healthy enough to practice at the start of camp, that might not have been the case. Or at least those growing pains would've been noticed to a lesser degree. The receiver depth chart would be one body deeper. Brady would have his favorite receiver to bail the offense out whenever reps started to get hairy or a practice (like Wednesday's, for example) felt like it was starting to spiral.
But there's value in the oodles of reps guys like Berrios and Harris have to juggle at the moment with Edelman's freed up. The initiation process has been accelerated. It's trial by fire out there. And, though it's early, it's providing results.
Harris has thrived with the work he's seen and looks well on his way to becoming a trusted weapon. He's caught just about everything thrown to him and has been in the right place at the right time consistently. Berrios, meanwhile, has had a vastly different camp experience. He will have more opportunities to make an impact, but the work he's gotten thus far has yielded little.
Berrios dropped one Wednesday and had three passes sent his way broken up by defensive backs. He caught one at the end of the workout, Brady's final attempt of the day, but it was a non-competitive throw that the defense allowed to be caught just in order to finish the drill. The offense had to get the field-goal unit on quickly and aligned from a manageable kicking distance — and after three straight incompletions, they needed some help.
Charity for efficiency's sake.
"We've got a very good defense this year," Brady said after. "Those guys are challenging us on every day. It's hard to complete passes on our secondary. That's just the reality. So, it's actually great work for our offense to see how we measure up against a very good defense. Days like today are frustrating for us and we've got to learn from the corrections and try to come out and have a better day tomorrow."
The learning aspect of the offense's camp struggles feels like more than quarterback cliché from Brady. He's probably learning who can and can't be trusted — or at least he's on his way — as he goes to work without Edelman. It was going to have to happen eventually. Better now than midseason when injuries strike or defenses sell out to take away Brady's security blanket.
Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio are probably learning just how aggressively they should work the phones in order to try to improve their receiver and tight end rooms via trade. Better now than when rosters have settled and teams become more reluctant to part with contributors.
With so many new pieces, in a complicated offense, going against a well-oiled defense, it's going to look ugly at times for the Patriots. It will again.
But if they have things figured out by October, as they typically do, with Edelman back in the mix and a couple of new faces established as legitimate passing-game options, they'll look back on practices like Wednesday's and say, "Better then than now."
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