On Thursday, reporters will have the opportunity to attend a Patriots OTA practice for the second time this spring. It will be the team's fifth practice (out of 10 total voluntary sessions) during Phase Three.
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Who will have our attention during the shorts-and-tees workout? Which drills will be worth watching closely? Let's lay out some of the storylines we'll be tracking here...
Tom Brady's not expected to be present for the voluntary session Thursday, which means the passing workload will continue to fall on the shoulders of Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling (and occasionally director of player personnel Nick Caserio). The last time reporters were allowed to watch practice, it seemed pretty clear that the team missed Brady's presence and the sharpness that comes along with having one of the game's most accurate passers taking the majority of the team reps. We'll see if OTA practice No. 5 is any sharper now that the offense has had some time to work together.
Availability is more important than ability, and availability for these sessions matters. There are plenty of players dealing with injuries who will be either absent or limited, but part of our jobs this spring is to figure out when the participation levels of injured players is changing. So... What's the status of Dont'a Hightower, who wasn't spotted for practice No. 2 but was on the field later in the week? How about Malcolm Mitchell, who was on the field for OTA No. 1 but then missing for No. 2? And what of Trey Flowers? One of the team's most important defenders was not present the last time reporters were in attendance, leaving a good deal of the edge-defender workload to Derek Rivers, Adrian Clayborn and Deatrich Wise. Corner Jonathan Jones, safety David Jones, running back Brandon Bolden, guard Joe Thuney and receiver Cody Hollister were all missing from OTA No. 2. Thuney is dealing with an injury that's expected to keep him sidelined for the spring.
ALMOST OUT OF SIGHT, NOT MIND
The lower fields at Gillette Stadium are where players rehabbing injuries typically go to work. (For reporters, the view to the lower fields is mostly obstructed...hence "almost out of sight.") Last week, the lower-field group included first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, corner Cyrus Jones, defensive lineman Lawrence Guy, safety Nate Ebner, defensive lineman Malcom Brown and tackles Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown. If they're working in team drills Thursday, we'll note it. Also taking part in rehab work on the lower fields last week was...
EDELMAN STILL GOING STRONG?
...Julian Edelman. When he was on the upper fields, he looked strong and unafraid to cut off of his surgically-repaired knee. He did not, however, participate in 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 work so he spent part of the practice down below. Edelman returned punts and enthusiastically participated in drills, often stepping to the front of the line, which seemed to be an indication he's feeling good despite not being a full go practice-wise.
The receiver spot looks like one of the most competitive on the roster. Though OTAs are more of a "teaching camp" than a "competition camp," some pass-catchers may start to stand out with what they do in May and June. Last week, Kenny Britt's size and hands helped him catch some eyes. Cordarrelle Patterson also had an impressive end zone grab soon after a botched route during a team rep. Phillip Dorsett and Jordan Matthews will have continued opportunities to show they're picking things up as well.
YOUNG CORNERS BUILDING MOMENTUM
Keion Crossen had a good day in front of reporters last week. Has he kept that up in the sessions that haven't been open to cameras? Will he continue to show off his athleticism in opportunities given? This is a time of year where often an under-the-radar player or two starts to flash some potential. Could it be Crossen, a seventh-round corner our of Western Carolina, this year? Ryan Lewis, who spent last year on the Patriots practice squad and was eventually paid like a rostered player, saw some work across from Stephon Gilmore last week. He's another young defensive back to keep an eye on. Same goes for second-round pick Duke Dawson, whose strength at the University of Florida was in the slot. This looks like a strong position group when everyone is healthy. Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty figure to make up the top three on the depth chart with Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones, Dawson, Lewis, Crossen and others vying for roles.
TIGHT ENDS SEIZING OPPORTUNITY?
With Rob Gronkowski absent, that means more chances for players like Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister, Troy Niklas, Will Tye and rookies Ryan Izzo and Shane Wimann. Hollister and Tye stood out with athletic grabs during OTA No. 2.
NEW KICKOFF STRATEGY
Last week, with reporters standing by, the Patriots focused more on the punt game when it came to special teams periods. Will they shift gears to kickoffs on Thursday? The reason it'd be interesting if they did is because of the rules changes recently implemented for that play. The major changes are a) no more running starts for coverage teams and b) only three players on receiving teams can be deep. How will that impact what the Patriots do -- both in coverage and on returns - remains to be seen. But at some point, this spring - maybe not until mandatory minicamp June 5-7? - we'll get an idea of how the play will look with the rules changes in place.
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