FOXBOROUGH – Five observations from the first day of Patriots mandatory minicamp at Gillette Stadium:
1) Who is the lead blocker? With Heath Evans signing with the Saints as a free agent, the Patriots must determine who fills the void when they go with a two-back set with a traditional fullback. In a power package, offensive lineman Russ Hochstein has shown the ability to fill that role, but today’s practice included some two-back work in a more traditional package. Without a pure fullback on the roster, some presumed that tight ends could fill that role, and that came to fruition at times today. Evans played in 19 percent of the team’s snaps last season, and perhaps the Patriots would consider keeping a fourth tight end if some of Evans’ duties are filled by a player at that position. The Patriots aren't a big two-back team, as they run a base three-receiver offense, but they haven't been shy in going two-back if they feel it's their best matchup (e.g. vs. Denver in 2008).
2) It’s like Vince Wilfork never left. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork was flanked by Richard Seymour and Mike Wright when the Patriots were working in their base 3-4 defense. He went through all the drills and assumed his standard spot near the front of the stretching line. During stretching, receiver Randy Moss left the offensive side of the field and stretched next to Wilfork.
3) Terrence Wheatley making plays. Second-year cornerback Terrence Wheatley caught the eye on two different plays. In 11 on 11 work, he had tight coverage on receiver Terrence Nunn and when second-year quarterback Kevin O’Connell rolled out and attempted to fire the ball in a tight spot, Wheatley picked it off. Later in practice, Wheatley ran stride for stride with Nunn down the right sideline, turned as a high-arcing pass from Matt Gutierrez was arriving, and knocked it away.
4) Fifth and sixth receivers in focus. Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis seem entrenched as the top four receivers. With this in mind, I spent some time watching the fifth and sixth options today – rookie Julian Edelman and veteran Sam Aiken. At one point, Edelman lined up alongside Galloway and Lewis in hurry-up work, and overall, I saw him catch everything thrown his way. Aiken figures to make the club because of his special teams prowess, so Edelman’s progress will be interesting to monitor (a better gauge will come when there is contact), as it could lead the team to keep six receivers.
5) Brady to Moss connection going strong. At one point in 11 on 11 work, quarterback Tom Brady dialed up a long bomb over the middle to receiver Randy Moss. The pass was longer than 50 yards, with Moss splitting safeties Patrick Chung and James Sanders to haul in the pass as he threatened the deep part of the field. A big part of OTAs and minicamp seems to be Brady and Moss trying to get on the same page, and this was one example of how they are doing so -- as well as showing Brady's arm strength and ability to step into throws.