Call it summer vacation.
Once this week’s minicamp is done, the Patriots will have their first extended getaway of the offseason, a break that will last until training camp opens roughly six weeks down the road. Players, coaches and the rest of the support staff will head for home to spend time with friends and family before returning to start the preseason grind of two-a-days in the summery conditions of late July.
These days in the NFL, there’s no such thing as an offseason. The whirlwind starts just weeks after the end of the regular season with scouting opportunities like the Senior Bowl, and moves on to the NFL Scouting Combine in late February. Free agency dominates March and the draft is April’s top story. May and June are full of OTAs and other minicamps. Even without a trip to the offseason, it’s a non-stop rush of activity that can be just as intense as the regular season for everyone associated with the league.
But things start to slow this week. The Patriots' annual team-wide golf tournament will take place Monday morning at The International in Bolton. The final organized team activity session is scheduled for Tuesday morning. And minicamp will run from Wednesday through Friday. While there are some things that need to happen between early June and late July -- for example, none of the Patriots’ 12 draft picks have been signed -- things start to wind down in Foxborough as everyone takes one last extended break before things get underway in July.
Before summer vacation begins, however, here are five things we’ll be watching for this week:
Can the new faces continue to acclimate themselves to the New England system? While rookies have their own learning curve, the new veterans face a unique uphill battle when they get to New England, and the OTA sessions are a chance for them to get up to speed on the Patriots’ system before they’re joined by what is expected to be something close to the full roster for minicamp.
Currently, there are 13 NFL veterans on the Patriots’ roster who have professional experience but have yet to play a game in New England. They range in age and overall experience -- 37-year-old Joey Galloway is at one end of the spectrum with 14 years in the NFL, while 27-year-old Steve Williams has spent just one year in the league. But they all must adjust on the fly to the Patriots’ system. One of those new veterans last week was linebacker Paris Lenon, who spent much of last week’s OTA session following linebackers coach Matt Patricia. Lenon was amazed at the efficiency involved in a New England OTA.
“It’s an organization that’s all about business. They work hard, and that’s great,” said Lenon, who spent the last three seasons with the woeful Lions. “Right now, I’m just trying to learn, on the fly, as much as I can.
“I’m not afraid to ask questions. Right now, it’s about me learning. I really don’t look too far past that. I’m just trying to learn this defense and go from day-to-day.”
How things shake out in the secondary, which appears to be in a state of flux. Of the four defensive backs that started the 2008 opener, only one (James Sanders) has returned. Many of the DBs who were in New England last year -- Ellis Hobbs, Deltha O’Neal, Lewis Sanders, Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster and Rodney Harrison -- are all gone, either released or retired.
In their place are several newcomers (Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs) and rookies (Patrick Chung, Darius Butler) looking to mesh with younger players (Jonathan Wilhite, Terrence Wheatley) who have limited experience in New England’s system. Thus far, it’s appeared that Bodden and Springs have received the majority of defensive snaps at corner, with Wilhite working as a third corner in the slot.
At safety, it’s been a mix of four by default -- currently, there are seven safeties on the roster, but one is a safety in name only (Tank Williams) and two others (Ray Ventrone and Brandon Meriweather) haven’t been in attendance for any of the three OTAs where the media has been in attendance. Chung, Sanders, Antwain Spann and Brandon McGowan have benefited as a result.
But going forward, it looks to be a chemistry experiment in shoulder pads, and will likely mean a wide-open position battle heading into training camp.
“They look good,” Sanders said of the new faces. “We’ve got a lot of new faces back there, but the guys are picking up the defense well, they’re eager to learn and get better, even though they’ve been in the league for years -- Springs, Bodden, guys like that. We just have a hungry secondary right now and everyone’s trying to go out there and trying to prove they belong.”
Tank Williams. Williams, who will turn 29 at the end of the month, is a completely unique figure in the New England locker room on a couple of levels. First, he’s the only player on the roster who has experience in the New England system, but has yet to play a single regular-season snap for the Patriots because of a torn ACL he suffered in last year’s preseason opener.
It’s a long road back to the field for Williams, who was a bonafide crusher for six years in the league with Minnesota (2002-2005) and Tennessee (2006-2007), but has now suffered three season-ending knee injuries the last four years.
“You’re definitely a little bit more familiar with the system,” said Williams, “but you have to hit the books just as hard and try and get into it, because we’re always doing something around here, so you have to make sure you stay ahead of the game, and that’s what I try and pride myself on.”
“I think I’m where I need to be right now, physically. I’m at a good place right now. I’m feeling good. Everything that they ask of me, I can do, so I’m just taking it all in stride.”
Second, during the three previous OTAs, he’s been moved around the field like a chess piece. The 6-foot-2, 223-pound Williams is listed on the roster as a safety, but he spent plenty of time at middle linebacker last summer and in the most recent OTAs. An intriguing player who can do a lot, it’s important to remember the Patriots have moved players from linebacker to safety and back again before -- Don Davis did it back in 2004, and Davis (6-foot-1, 235) certainly compares to Williams physically.
One last chance to check in with a handful of veterans before the start of training camp. In addition to some rookies, there are nine veterans who have not been present for the three previous OTA sessions to which the media had access: Brandon Meriweather, Sammy Morris, Mike Richardson, Ray Ventrone, Jerod Mayo, Mark LeVoir, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Jarvis Green have not been spotted for any of the previous three sessions.
What does it mean? Usually, absences from the voluntary OTAs aren’t serious matters -- most can be chalked up to the fact that the players are rehabbing. (In addition, there are several cases where athletes aren’t necessarily practicing with the rest of the team, but still getting their work in on the premises at Gillette Stadium.) We know Wilfork’s absence is contract-related, but it’s our educated guess that the ones who have missed all three previous sessions are not missing because of any major injury concern.
The knee. Mobility and mechanics will likely be the key watchwords this week for quarterback Tom Brady. In the OTA sessions the media has had access to, he has started to do more and more -- throwing on the run as opposed to working in the pocket. And while he admitted to some rust through the early stages of the OTAs, he looked much sharper last week, completing some nice passes to Greg Lewis and Randy Moss.
As strange as it might sound, it will also be interesting to see if he participates in the golf tournament. He is a passionate golfer who won the longest drive competition at the team-wide golf outing in 2007. Other than this picture of him on the links (it was part of a guest spot on “Entourage”), Brady hasn’t been seen golfing since his injury. If he does take part in the event (rather, if the Patriots allow him to take part, or even just the long-drive competition), it might be a sign that Brady and the Patriots are feeling good about the state of his rehab.