FOXBOROUGH -- They've been in and out of Gillette Stadium, lifting weights and running on a posted schedule as part of a ''voluntary" workout program.
But today, the Patriots gather on the field for the first time since winning the Super Bowl, in what should be the closest thing to real football until training camp begins the last week of July.
Close to real football, but not real football.
The players hit the field for three days of practice (closed to the public) this morning for what coach Bill Belichick describes as a teaching camp.
''This is not an evaluation camp," Belichick said. ''There's no emphasis on timing and execution, mostly on teaching. We have a long way to go before we have to play."
Through much of a whirlwind offseason, Belichick and the Patriots' front office have been running a two-minute offense in an effort to get even with teams that didn't play in February.
Belichick said he felt as if he had to cram to get ready for the free agent signing period and the April draft, which he described as a final exam that he didn't have enough time to study for.
''This is like a new semester," he said. ''I feel like we're finally getting caught up. We're finally up with everybody else in the league. Going into the draft, you feel like you're weeks behind. Now it's more of a level playing field. They have their rookies, we have ours. We have our schedule, they have theirs. Now we're all able to work on each other."
This weekend is also another step in working in new faces and new responsibilities, from Tom Brady getting accustomed to throwing to free agent signees David Terrell and Tim Dwight, to returning wideouts David Givens and Deion Branch getting a feel for how Doug Flutie throws the ball.
Former defensive backs coach Eric Mangini said he doesn't anticipate difficulty in making the transition to being in charge of the entire defense.
''I'm looking forward to it," said Mangini, who took over from Romeo Crennel. ''Hopefully I'll bring the same things to the table as Romeo and we'll continue to do what we've done. It's about the team, not me."
Tedy Bruschi, recovering from a stroke suffered in February, isn't likely to participate this weekend, but defensive newcomers Chad Brown, Monty Beisel, Duane Starks, and Chad Scott will get a taste of where they will fit into one of the league's top defenses.
As was the case in their passing camp a couple of weeks ago, the Patriots will go over schemes and technique during minicamp to help indoctrinate newcomers to the system.
''We have a number of veterans who've been through it, but how they'll adapt to our system and fit in with our players remains to be seen," Belichick said. ''You have quarterbacks working with new receivers, linemen with new players, there's a process in getting comfortable. In a way, you go through it every year."
This year the Patriots are going through it minus the offensive and defensive coordinators who helped them win three championships. Players have mentioned they noticed a difference in not having Charlie Weis and Crennel on the practice field during the passing camp.
Belichick admits to noticing it as well, but doesn't see that as unusual.
''There's always going to be change," Belichick said. ''Whether it's on the coaching staff or the roster. Every year, you start something new. That's a part of it."
Second-year tight end Joel Jacobs won't attend minicamp, as he is with the Berlin Thunder, who play in the NFL Europe World Bowl Saturday. Running back Kory Chapman, linebacker Grant Steen, and receiver Cedric James, who also played in Europe this spring, are expected to be at Gillette today.
Belichick doesn't foresee notable additions or subtractions from the roster between now and the opening of training camp, but he likes the team's salary cap position, should an opportunity to add a player present itself.
''It's like a household budget; you could always have an emergency," Belichick said. ''It's difficult because something could always come up. You never know how much you're going to need going into a season, because somebody could get hurt -- will get hurt -- and you have to get somebody. You have to budget a cushion and I believe we're OK on that."
Belichick would not comment on possible contract negotiations with defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who has two years remaining on his contract and is in line for a sizable raise if and when his contract is extended. But the coach, who is in his sixth year with the Patriots, said he was not overly concerned about players such as kicker Adam Vinatieri and Givens, who could enter the season with one-year deals if new contracts aren't agreed to.
''We've all been there," Belichick said. ''Some guys are in their first year, some guys are in their last year, and some guys are in the middle. That's just how a team is set up. That's how it works."