FOXBORO — With Patriots mini-camp now in the books, let’s highlight a few of our observations from the team’s three days of work...
- TOM E. CURRAN - Patriots considered trading Gronkowski in the offseason
HOW'D BRADY LOOK?!?!
All eyes were locked on Tom Brady last week as he undertook his first spring practices with the team. Fair or not - because players are in shorts and tees, and because this isn't thought of as a competitive camp - his every throw was closely scrutinized. The results? Fine. It certainly didn't look like he'd taken two months off. He also didn't exactly light the world aflame. He was fine. We tracked his play through the first two days of minicamp here and here. On Day 3, it was a mixed bag. Brady sailed three passes early in a 4-on-3 period - the last of which, intended for Chris Hogan, forced Brady to half throw his arms in the air out of frustration. Later in the practice, he had another attempt to Hogan broken up by Ryan Lewis, and another pass landed incomplete when he threw behind Rex Burkhead. Brady had a handful of very accurate throws as well, including a long pass dropped by Jordan Matthews, a deep strike to Jacob Hollister fit in between defenders, and a low and accurate strike to James White at the goal line where only White could get it. So, in summary, how'd Brady look, a question I've heard several times from Patriots fans the past few days? He was fine, but even he would probably admit there's plenty to fine-tune, as there always is in spring practices. The difference this year is he's left some of that fine-tuning for his teammates to handle without him.
GRONK ENJOYED HIMSELF
As is the case with any player - Brady and Rob Gronkowski included - judging performances at this time of year is perilous work. But people are hungry for information. They want to know how these players look, and so we do our best to relay what we can while providing all the important qualifiers: there are no pads; many practice periods are not competitive - even when the offense and defense align across from one another; this isn't real football. That said, Gronkowski looked spry. He caught what was thrown to him, even passes that were a touch off the mark. And almost every completion in an offense-versus-defense period resulted in some kind of celebration. It was a little over the top at times, but consider Gronkowski's answer to a question I asked him at the end of his press conference last week: When you don't feel good, the game can be "awful"; when you do, the enjoyment is "off the charts." He clearly feels good, and he doesn't care who knows it. That's excellent news for the Patriots. Don't be surprised, though, if when the competition ramps up a bit in training camp defensive players don't fire right back with wild celebrations of their own. This has happened in the past, when the offense and defense -- especially when Gronkowski is involved -- try to one-up each other with the post-play reactions. Bill Belichick has often let that stuff go, unsurprisingly, as it can't help but contribute to the competitive nature of the sessions.
DRAFT WEEKEND QUARTERBACK CALL IN FOCUS
While Brady will garner the most attention of the three Patriots quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling are worth watching closely as well. If only because how they play in training camp and preseason could shine a light on how the Patriots opted to handle that position in this year's draft. By waiting until the seventh round to draft a quarterback in what many considered a deep class at that position, they passed on what could have been an opportunity to take one in the first few rounds. They had two first-round picks to play with, and signal-callers from our "Prototypical Patriots" series lasted into the fourth round. Belichick said back in 2014, after the team drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, that he didn't want the Patriots to be like the Colts when the Colts lost Peyton Manning to injury. Should anything happen to Brady in 2018, the decision to go with Hoyer and Etling behind Brady will obviously be revisited. Both Hoyer and Etling fumbled on Day 3, leading to laps for both, and both had accuracy issues at points.
COACHES IN MID-SEASON FORM
Even though Belichick is always quick to point out that spring work is more of a "teaching camp" than a "competition camp," that doesn't mean that there aren't consequences to how players handle their responsibilities on the field. Belichick sent the entire Patriots offense for a lap after a substitution penalty on Day 3, then gathered the team around him for a few moments before getting back into the practice. Dante Scarnecchia was also unafraid to let players have it, tearing into the left side of his line - guard Isaiah Wynn and tackle Trent Brown - on Day 2. And Brian Flores could be heard from across the field admonishing players, and briefly pulling one linebacker from a practice period when an assignment was botched. This is how business has been done in New England for a long time now, and players understand it. It's interesting to see how that method is viewed in Detroit with Matt Patricia now running the show.
Jacob Hollister missed Day 1 for undisclosed reasons, but he was among the standouts on Day 2 and 3. He showed a good connection with Brady in the reps they took together, making impressive catches over the two days despite close coverage from the likes of Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. He also shook rookie linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley in a 4-on-3 drill that had his offensive teammates roaring...Bentley's work in the pass game, outside of that rep on Hollister, wasn't bad. A self-proclaimed "thumper," he is viewed as a traditional "Mike" linebacker and could project to the NFL as a player who sees the vast majority of his work on first and second down. His instincts in the passing game, though, flashed on occasion in minicamp as he got his hands on passes on multiple occasions. He's seen some work alongside Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower this spring, and he could compete with Elandon Roberts as a middle-of-the-field presence in base packages...The cornerback spot opposite Stephon Gilmore will draw plenty of eyeballs in the last OTA session open to reporters on Thursday. Jason McCourty did not take part in team work in mini-camp, and Eric Rowe often worked across other corners last week, leaving undrafted rookie JC Jackson to take on the bulk of the reps with Gilmore. Jackson seemed to hold his own, breaking up a pair of passes on Day 3. With seventh-round rookie Keion Crossen rehabbing an injury, Jackson and Lewis both picked up valuable reps. If everyone's healthy, there could be a good competition brewing between young Patriots corners that carries over to training camp.
NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE
FOXBORO - The Patriots went to work on their defense this offseason, not too long after giving up more than 500 yards of offense to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII: They gave their pass-rush a bump (Adrian Clayborn); they added depth at corner following Malcolm Butler's departure (Jason McCourty); and they bulked up in the middle of their defensive line (Danny Shelton).
But the player who looks like he has the chance to be the most important addition to Bill Belichick's defense is linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The defensive captain was knocked from last season in Week 7 with a torn pectoral, and though he was absent from OTA workout No. 2 (the first that was open to reporters), Hightower has been out there for each session since.
On Thursday, the second OTA practice open to media, the 28-year-old looked fluid in his drops and took regular reps during team periods.
"It feels good. It’s been a while," Hightower said. "It feels good to get my feet wet, get my feet back under me. It feels good to be out there with my teammates, new and old. Just ready to keep moving forward and getting better."
Hightower wouldn't say he's back to 100 percent just yet but that he's working toward full health. And even though he looked fine Thursday, he said there's only so much he can glean from the work that's put in at OTAs, also known as "passing camp."
"I just know that I feel great right now, I’m moving around, I’m not having any problems," he said. "I mean, I won’t know how I really feel until we get pads on. I mean, 7-on-7 is for receivers and DBs, and that’s not my thing. So, I won’t know until I get the pads on."
When asked if he was confident he'd be ready for Week 1, Hightower didn't commit, but he noted, "I plan on being out there for everything."
The Patriots certainly could've benefitted from having Hightower out there for their Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. At that point in time, Hightower was in the middle of attacking his rehab work, wishing he could have been getting after Nick Foles, LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and the rest of the Philly offense instead.
- TOM E. CURRAN - Hightower, McCourty swing back at "fun-free" Patriots' chatter
"It hurt, but I was just trying to do what I could do," he explained. "Not much in the moment was going to do much about it. So, I still talked to Kyle [Van Noy] and [Elandon Roberts] and those guys and gave them my ear when I could. But it hurt and stuff, but it just goes to show you’re one play away from missing. You know, you’re used to missing a couple games and being able to fight through it, but this year I wasn’t able to do that. So, I’m trying to take every measure I can to prevent that from happening again."
One of Hightower's former teammates and on-the-field mentors Jerod Mayo had been in Hightower's shoes before, suffering season-ending injuries while his teammates were in the middle of making a run. Part of what Mayo did as he rehabbed was absorb as much film as possible with a coach - often Steve Belichick - to stay as fresh as possible when it came to the mental aspect of the game.
From the sounds of it, Hightower did something similar with coaching assistant DeMarcus Covington, gaining a better understanding of the methods and "whys" behind Patriots defensive calls.
"I watched a lot of film of myself," Hightower said. "I saw a lot of things that I need to work on. DeMarcus Covington’s done a great job with that, as far as in our linebacker room with helping us. One of the things I wanted to be able to work on and know a little bit more about was man-to-man coverage, and we’ve been working more on that and why we’re running certain styles and why our philosophy is what it is, so a little bit deeper than, 'What is Cover 2 or Cover 5? Or why did we run that?'
"Picking some of the offensive guy’s brains, like [Brian] Hoyer or [Tom] Brady, like ‘Whenever we’re in Cover 2, what are you looking at? We’re doubling over here, so what are you looking at?’ It definitely made me sit back and want to learn a little bit more about the game so that can help me get back and be able to move a little bit quicker than what I am."
Wherever Hightower lines up in 2018 - whether he's off the line, where he spent most of his time Thursday, or off the edge - that processing speed should help him. Still, he'll need to be on the field to show it off.
- MORE HIGHTOWER - Brady, Gronk absences "not going to stop us from working"
He said on Thursday that he's doing everything he can to make sure he prevents another season-ending issue. He said he sat down with Dr. James Andrews and others to come up with "preventive matters to help strengthen those small ligament things that a lot of guys have a problem with, whether it’s rolling an ankle or spraining an AC joint or something," he said.
Hightower has missed 22 regular-season games the past four years due to injury, and if he's healthy in 2018, he should be the most impactful piece dropped into Belichick's defense this offseason.