FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots kicked off the third phase of the team’s offseason program this week at Gillette Stadium and, while it is a minor step in the progression toward actual football, there are still plenty of storylines being followed here.
It is a chance for returning players to begin bonding with their new teammates — both veterans and rookies. Players get a chance to work with their new coaches, which for the Patriots includes offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo and defensive line coach Brendan Daly.
Quarterback Tom Brady begins throwing to his new and developing targets. Darrelle Revis begins learning the Patriots defensive scheme and moving forward with the immense expectations that will be thrust upon him as New England looks to overhaul the pass defense in the back end.
But maybe the biggest storylines of action during organized team activities in New England will simply be about who is participating in the workouts and how much those guys are doing.
The Patriots lost a ton of talent to injured reserve last fall, much of that top-end, starting-caliber and even Pro Bowl-caliber talent. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (ACL), nose tackle Vince Wilfork (Achilles), linebacker Jerod Mayo (pectoral), defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (ACL) and tackle Sebastian Vollmer (leg) all failed to finish last season, many missing the bulk of the year. Even first-round pick Dominique Easley is recovering from an ACL injury suffered last fall at Florida.
Keeping an eye on what those players are capable of doing at this early point in the 2014 process might shed some light on the expectations for those guys when fully-padded action roles around in training camp in late July.
While watching Brady trying to complete passes in Revis’ direction will be part of the tale when the media gets its first viewing of OTA action in New England this week, most of the focus will be the rehabbing and returning players.
Gronkowski gave a preview of his status during a charity event in Foxborough on Wednesday when he said he hasn’t been participating in the OTA action with the rest of his teammates, but rather “just doing my own thing. Getting healthy on the side … I’m doing everything with the team that I can.”
The tight end has become all too familiar with the rehab process over the last year in dealing with a broken arm, subsequent arm infections, back surgery and the ACL repair, so the former All-Pro is taking the latest recovery in stride.
“It’s coming along good,” he said of his knee. “Just rehabbing, like, every day. Just improving every single week. That’s all I can ask for.”
Wilfork reportedly is working with his teammates on a limited basis this week, but seeing exactly what that means for the Pro Bowl nose tackle will be key to assess his progression in a return to the dominant force in the middle of the defensive line. Recovering from a torn Achilles is a trying ordeal for any athlete, never mind a 350-pound nose tackle on the wrong side of 30.
So while there will be plenty to witness in regards to the players taking the full reps this week on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, there will be as much scrutiny or more so placed on the group of guys working with the trainers, rehab staff and strength coaches as they work back from injury.
Real padded football — even of the practice variety — is a long ways away. And that’s a good thing because the Patriots have a large group of expected key contributors returning from injury and not yet anywhere near ready for game time.
Getting a feel for where each one of those guys is in the process will be the biggest news emanating from Foxborough’s OTAs this week.