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Learning curve tougher for late-starting Patriots

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / August 2, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The late start to the 2011 NFL season doesn’t leave much time for players to scrap for a spot on any roster.

The Patriots released six players last week, including a group of veterans that included defensive end Ty Warren and tight end Alge Crumpler.

For those looking for a spot on the 53-man roster, the competition will only get tougher this week as a batch of signed free agents return to practice Thursday, the first day of the NFL league year. The list includes running backs Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, and offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Matt Light. The Patriots also have to sign their top three draft picks, offensive lineman Nate Solder, defensive back Ras-I Dowling, and running back Shane Vereen.

The players who are in camp are easing along in a process that is new for everyone as teams took the field last week for the first time in months without the benefit of team-organized workouts. How it will shake out is anyone’s guess. For the Patriots, the first couple of days covered fundamentals, said Nick Caserio, the team’s director of player personnel.

“I think we have a long way to go,’’ Caserio said. “Those first two days you want to look at as sort of an acclimation period and then the first day with pads. I think the biggest thing is where we are right now. Once you put on the pads, the focus is on the improvement and the individual techniques and the fundamentals.

“Those are the areas and those are things that if you don’t work on them on a consistent basis, on a day-to-day basis from the end of the season up until training camp, those are the things that go quickly.’’

The Patriots have had two padded/contact practices since training camp officially began last Thursday. In drills, there were botched snaps, dropped passes, and some confusion on plays. Some of the miscues were to be expected but with less time for players to learn various systems, each play matters.

“I would say probably just the overall conditioning is probably not where it needs to be, but it’s part of the process and we’re going to work as hard as we can to get our players to that [level],’’ Caserio said. “Our expectations aren’t going to change; we are going to demand the same things that we normally demand of them and they understand that. And it’s their job to work on things on their own when they can.

“I think the fundamentals and the individual techniques and the communication, those are the things that I think we’re a little bit of a ways off on right now and hopefully that will improve the more we’re out there and the more the players are working with one another.’’

The time is not only important for rookies. Players such as receiver Deion Branch said last week’s rehashing of plays and terminology was especially helpful for him. Branch rejoined the Patriots via a trade with the Seahawks last October. He spent a little more than four seasons with the Seahawks before he landed back with the Patriots and caught five touchdown passes.

The first few days last week were a valuable tool, Branch said.

“You have to realize we have a bunch of young guys who didn’t have the opportunity to go through an offseason program,’’ he said. “We have a bunch of veterans who didn’t have the opportunity to go through it either who are starting to see some new things - like myself.

“[I’m hearing] some things I missed because I didn’t attend training camp last year. It’s things that you see and hear that I’m still picking up myself. It’s good. I’m still learning. If you have a day when you learn it all, that’s when you need to retire.’’

Cornerback Leigh Bodden appreciated the return to basics after missing all of last season because of a torn rotator cuff. Whenever there is a break from the field, Bodden said taking time to refresh techniques can be helpful.

“I think the first step is always fundamentals,’’ Bodden said. “Sometimes even when you have the month off from OTAs and minicamp you still have to start back on the fundamentals and work on it and do different things. That’s nothing new. That’s something that everybody has to work on.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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