FOXBOROUGH - When he arrived in New England as a free agent last year with four NFL seasons under his belt, Daniel Fells was already the oldest guy in the tight end room.
But now, with Aaron Hernandez gone and Rob Gronkowski on the shelf for an unknown amount of time, Fells is the most experienced Patriots tight end in his position group despite being here for just 16 months.
"You know, itís nice being in a system for a little bit of time, especially a system as complicated as this," Fells said Saturday. "Itís nice to come out and [feel at ease]. Itís always forever changing, so itís always nice to have a little bit of a background to fall back on."
Fells played in 13 games last season with four starts, after missing nearly all of training camp with what the Patriots termed a leg injury. His playing time varied game-to-game - his season high of 57 (of 70) snaps came against the Jets in November - but a week earlier he'd played just three (of 73) snaps against Buffalo.
He is healthy now, and there is an opportunity for him to have a larger impact this season.
"Anytime you can participate with the team, thatís the best way for you to get on the field, so being out here every single day during training camp is my goal, and so far weíre off to a good start. Only two days in, butÖ," he trailed off, smiling.
Both his injury situation and his lack of playing time once he felt he was healthy enough to contribute were frustrating, Fells admitted.
"You know what, Iím a competitor, so I wanted to go out there and compete and I wish I could have participated a little more but ultimately theyíre going to put whoever on the field that they see fit so Iíve got to show them that Iím fit to do it," he said.
Though the 6-foot-4 California native had just four catches (for 85 yards) last year, he has shown before that he can be a reliable option as a pass-catcher, with 41 receptions for 391 yards and two touchdowns for the Rams in 2010.
Until Gronkowski is healthy, it will be up to some combination of Fells, Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and rookies Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford to make the tight end group productive.
Bill Belichick noted during his Friday press conference that Fells had a good spring, which the player was happy to hear. He's looking to build on that work now.
"Like I said, after being in the system for a year I feel a little bit more comfortable, just hearing the plays and being able to fly without thinking, itís a lot more reacting this year," he said. "I have a year off my injury and Iím able to come out and run around with a little bit more confidence. Iím hoping it reflects as I go out there every single day, because I have to get better every single day. That was spring and weíre in training camp now."