FOXBOROUGH — For the Patriots, the tight end position is never going to be as closely scrutinized as it was last year when Rob Gronkowski was rehabbing his injured forearm and recovering from back surgery.
Need I remind you about they hype surrounding Zach Sudfeld? So it comes as no surprise that the conversation about the team's tight ends group going into training camp has been rather lukewarm.
However, that's all changed in the past few days. With Gronkowski still limited in practice (doing individual drills but not 7-on-7s or 11-on-11s), newcomers Justin Jones and D.J. Williams have been getting extensive looks when the team comes together and both have been turning heads in individual drills as well. As Erik Frenz wrote yesterday, Jones and fellow rookie Asa Watson are soaking up as much as they can from the veterans. But it appears that Jones and Williams have really seized upon their opportunities, and arguably have made the position more interesting to watch during camp. There's an air of "who's vying to be Gronk's backup" going on, with every expectation that Gronkowski, when healthy, is the unquestioned leader of the group. But the results of the competition behind him seem more and more noteworthy every practice.
Here are the notes from Sunday's camp practice:
— Did not practice: WR Aaron Dobson (foot, PUP), WR Matthew Slater (unknown, PUP), DB Jemea Thomas (unknown), DB Daxton Swanson (unknown), CB Alfonzo Dennard (shoulder, PUP), LB Deontae Skinner (unknown, NFI), OL Chris Martin (unknown, NFI), DL Dominique Easley (knee, NFI), WR Jeremy Gallon (unknown, PUP).
— Limited participation: TE Rob Gronkowski (knee), DT Tommy Kelly (knee).
— Drops: WR Kenbrell Thompkins.
— Interceptions: CB Malcolm Butler.
— Take a lap: QB Jimmy Garoppolo and C Bryan Stork (fumbled exchange), LBs Steve Beauharnais and Cameron Gordon (jumping offsides).
— OL vs. DL results: There was only one session of 1-on-1s because of Sunday's abridged practice due to the rain. But the offensive line dominated, winning 10-5.
— DL results: Chandler Jones (1-0), Vince Wilfork (0-1), Sealver Siliga (1-1), Chris Jones (1-0), Jake Bequette (1-1), Will Smith (0-1), Joe Vellano (0-1), Marcus Forston (0-1), Michael Buchanan (0-1), Zach Moore (0-1), Eathyn Manumaleuna (1-0), L.T. Tuipulotu (0-1).
(Missing one defender who matched up, and lost, with guard Jon Halapio.)
— OL results: Nate Solder (0-1), Logan Mankins (1-0), Ryan Wendell (1-0), Dan Connolly (0-1), Marcus Cannon (1-0), Sebastian Vollmer (1-0), Josh Kline (1-0), Bryan Stork (1-0), Jon Halapio (1-1), Cameron Fleming (1-1), Chris Barker (1-0), Jordan Devey (0-1), Braxton Cave (1-0).
— Tracking quarterbacks: In 11-on-11s, Tom Brady was 0 for 1, Ryan Mallett was 5 of 7, and Jimmy Garoppolo was 3 for 4 passing. Mallett certainly got the lion's share of work. He was also intercepted in 7-on-7s. Garoppolo is still very much going through growing pains, looking at times indecisive. But he lofted a beautiful pass to TE D.J. Williams down the sideline with DE Michael Buchanan in coverage. He also fumbled a snap from Bryan Stork, their second fumbled exchange in two days, and had to take a lap. Brady's lone pass, a slant over the middle to Kenbrell Thompkins, was dropped.
— Tracking running backs: Brandon Bolden was frozen out Sunday. The third-year back didn't have any touches in 11-on-11s before the practice was called. Rookie James White led all backs with eight touches. Stevan Ridley had seven, Shane Vereen had five, Jonas Gray had three, and both Roy Finch and Stephen Houston had two.
— Garoppolo received some one-one-one work with Josh McDaniels, the Patriots quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. They worked on his drop backs and rollouts.
— TE Michael Hoomanawanui got into a scuffle with LB Taylor McCuller during chase and tackle drills. McCuller appeared to go too far, driving Hoomanawanui into the grass after the drill rep appeared over. The tight end immediately went after McCuller and it took a moment for the team to break it up and resume practice.
— In the same chase and tackle drills, TE Justin Jones ran over LB Cameron Gordon. At 6-8 and 274 pounds, he's quite larger than every linebacker the Patriots have. He resembles Gronkowski with his physicality at the position. And there's an obvious size comparison there as well.
— Malcolm Butler picked off Mallett in 7-on-7s, marking the second straight day in which the cornerback had an interception in practice. He was the only cornerback to have a pick Sunday.
— Brandon Browner blew up James White in 11-on-11s. It was the first big hit of camp. Browner, who declared on Saturday that he wasn't going to change his game as a physical corner, certainly brings some thump to the secondary that wasn't there before.