If an NFL career is like a journey, then Friday morning, many rookies took their first steps on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.
Thirty players -- 12 of whom were drafted last weekend by the Patriots, plus a handful of rookie free agents and assorted players there to fill out the minicamp roster -- got a taste of NFL life under the watchful eye of the New England coaching staff as part of the Patriots’ rookie minicamp.
The group had a second practice on Friday afternoon, and was scheduled for more run-throughs behind Gillette Stadium on Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon.
For everyone other than many of the rookies, this weekend’s minicamp is far more laid-back than any other time of the year. While there are still expectations around the weekend, the level of intensity is ratcheted down dramatically from regular season or even preseason. Instead, it’s the chance for many of the players who might make up the future of the franchise to get their first real extended opportunity to familiarize themselves with the community, the facilities and the coaching staff.
In turn, it’s a chance for coaches to get a look at how some of their draft picks perform in something resembling a practice situation. To that end, there were several teachable moments for coach Bill Belichick and the rest of his staff throughout the workout -- on several occasions, players were pulled off to the side and got some individual tutoring.
“It’s good to have some new faces out there and its fun as a coach to be working on some fundamentals and some real basic things, which they all need,” Belichick said.
Different things will be expected of different players. For the picks in the upper levels of the draft, like second-round selection Ron Brace, they want to get some serious work in, get some exposure to the New England playbook and show the coaches they deserve a spot on the 53-man roster.
“College football and the NFL are two different things. In college, you can stick out by being the most talented. When it comes to [the NFL], everybody is the most talented,” Brace said. “The difference maker is the person who puts in the most work and knows his role and emphasizes and tries to learn every aspect of the game that he can that’ll give him the advantage over that other player who has just as much talent, if not more.”
For the players who were simply invited to fill out the minicamp roster, it’s a different story. Belichick acknowledges there are long shots in camp, but at the same time, he said getting a chance to practice with an NFL team four times during a minicamp is a better way to gauge overall ability than an individual workout.
“If you just try a player out, you take him out there and maybe you have one or two other guys with him. Sometimes it’s just a player by himself and you put them through a series of drills, and maybe coaches try to simulate a situation and you see how he reacts to it,” Belichick said.
“The advantage of this is you get to see them. It’s a longer look -- it’s a couple practices. You have some other practices. You have other people out there, [so] you can see them doing some competitive drills against each other, 7-on-7, 1-on-1, punt team. It just gives you a longer look at those guys.”
In the end, according to the coach, the same expectations are there for every player who participates this weekend.
“My expectation for all the rookies is that by training camp they will be ready to compete of this team with the other players,” Belichick said.
“It’s a long way to go. One step at a time, and we’re underway.”
It can be an eye-opening experience for many players. They’ve reached the summit of college football, only to be brought back to earth after a single one-hour practice under the direction of the New England coaching staff. Long snapper Jake Ingram was one of the best in the nation -- he was invited to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine, a rarity for a long snapper.
But after an hour on the practice field in Foxborough, he quickly realized things were different now.
“I thought I knew things in college, but I come out here and I don’t have the slightest clue,” said Ingram, who was taken in the sixth round of the draft last weekend by New England. “I have a long way to go. I have a lot to learn.”
The players went through the Friday morning workout in shorts, jerseys and helmets -- no pads. It was essentially two-hand touch for much of the day. But for many, any chance to even replicate real football is welcome.
“The last time I played football was January 3. Actual football, not working out or running 40s and all that stuff,” said cornerback Darius Butler, a second-round pick out of UConn. “So as a football player, it’s always good to get back out here and compete.”
One thing that can make the transition easier for many is that many of these players already know each other. Butler and Chung have become friends -- the two were seen encouraging each other on the first day of workouts -- and are roommates for the weekend.
“It makes it a little bit easier. I played against some of these guys,” Butler said. “I know some of these guys from the Senior Bowl and the Combine, [and] it’s good to know them a little bit. My roommate is [Patrick] Chung – I’ve been seeing him a lot. It’s been cool.”
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for WEEI.com.