FOXBORO — It was the final day before summer vacation.
Thursday’s minicamp session marked the final day the Patriots were together as a team before training camp in late July. They’ll have six weeks away from Gillette Stadium before everyone reconvenes for the start of the marathon that is the NFL regular season.
The final words from Patriots coach Bill Belichick before everyone scattered?
“We have a long way to go. Everyone will be on their own for a while,” Belichick said after the practice, which lasted just under two hours. “We need to continue to work and get ourselves in good condition both physically and mentally. A lot of techniques and individual things guys can work on in order to get better. It’s different for each guy.”
Spring football is as benign and low-intensity as it gets in the NFL. In the spring, players aren’t jockeying for jobs — not yet anyway. (“It’s not a competitive camp, it’s a teaching camp,” Belichick said of the difference between minicamp and training camp. “That’s what training camp is for.”) Instead, the focus is frequently on teaching and installation, making sure there is a foundation of knowledge among the rookies and veterans so that when everyone returns in July, you can hit the ground running.
By that estimate, the Patriots had a productive spring, according to quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien.
“Spring is a teaching camp, and I think it was a productive camp. A lot of enthusiasm, a lot of spirit out here — we got a lot of things accomplished,” said quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien. “You try to expose these guys to a lot of things. The guys that have been here for a long time, the new guys, so I thought it was a productive camp.”
One of the biggest things about the series of spring practices comes with working new faces into the mix. Many of them were able to get their feet wet at rookie minicamp and they would augment that in the full-squad workouts at minicamp. Most of the new faces are on offense, specifically at wide receiver, where a plethora of new pass-catchers, both young and old (including wide receivers Torry Holt, Taylor Price, David Patten and tight ends Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) made the spring interesting for the offense.
“We have some great new receivers in here — you have great veterans like Torry Holt and David Patten. And you have some younger new guys in here too,” said backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. “Just trying to get comfortable throwing to those guys is something that I’ve enjoyed.
“You see a guy whose played a lot of years in Torry Holt … he might approach something differently than a Randy Moss. He might take a different course on a route than Randy. Just getting some timing down with those guys has been fun.”
The Patriots had excellent attendance throughout the spring camps. Many of the early absences in rookie camp were due to simple procedural matters. (Price was delayed because of a graduation requirement, while fellow rookie Kade Weston had a visa problem.) The only player missing for all three mandatory minicamp sessions was Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who is now officially embroiled in a contract dispute with the franchise.
Teammates and coaches were fairly low-key when asked about Mankins’ absence.
“He’s a friend of mine and I love the guy, but the situation is, I don't even have cable at my house or Internet, so I don’t know what’s going on,” said fellow offensive lineman Stephen Neal. “I think I talked to him on Friday. Honestly, we weren't talking about football. We went out to dinner, talking about family and stuff.”
“I’m not going to really get into any sort of contractual discussion,” Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said Thursday when asked about Mankins. “We’ll leave that between the player and the club.”
In contrast, the return of Wes Welker was a surprise. Roughly five months after he suffered a nasty left knee injury in the regular-season finale against the Texans in Houston, Welker was back on the field. He didn’t participate fully — he went through stretching and team drills before leaving the field when situational football began — but the sight of Welker making cuts and catching footballs left some feeling optimistic about Welker’s return.
“It’s great to see him out there. As soon as he gets back, it’s better for the team,” said wide receiver Julian Edelman. “I don’t doubt him. You never doubt Wes Welker.”
“[I’m] just trying to work hard and day to day, just get a little better,” Welker said. “That’s been my plan from the get-go, and just sticking to that plan. … I’m just taking it day-to-day and working hard and coming back as quickly as I can and just trying to get better on a daily basis.”
While different players will take different assignments away from Foxboro that they’ll have to focus on the next six weeks, Belichick believes that the mission statement for every player remains the same.
“I think everyone that leaves here should be going with the same attitude: we’ve learned some things,” he said. “I think there are some things that we can feel good about and there are plenty of things that we need to work on. We have a lot of work to do and I hope we do that between now and training camp.”