The Patriots are already setting down the foundation of the 2019 season as organized team activities (OTAs) got underway in Foxborough earlier this week. Rookies made their on-field debuts, while a few familiar veterans also appeared.
Tom Brady, Sony Michel, and several other returning players weren’t spotted among practice participants (Brady skipped OTAs last year as well). Still, Bill Belichick had plenty of talent on the field to begin building his latest attempt at defending a Super Bowl win.
Future OTA sessions are scheduled for May 29-30, and June 10-11.
Rookie vs. rookie
Two notable, new presences are rookies N’Keal Harry and Joejuan Williams. Both are large for their positions (Harry, a wide receiver, is listed 6’2″, 228 pounds, while Williams, a cornerback, is listed at 6’4″ and 211 pounds).
Each could add a dimension of physicality to the Patriots in the upcoming season. For the moment, it appears they will sharpen their skills competing directly against each other.
During Thursday’s session, Harry beat Williams to the inside on a slant, making the catch (and showing skeptical scouts that he has the ability to separate from coverage). It was a standout play that the 2019 first-round pick commented on afterward.
“He’s a great player. Iron sharpens iron,” Harry told reporters of battling Williams. “He’s making me a better player and hopefully I’m making him a better player as well.”
Williams made a play of his own during an 11-on-11 drill, hauling in an interception (earning a celebration from Belichick).
Quarterbacks not named Tom Brady in the spotlight
With the 41-year-old six-time Super Bowl champion absent from the field, the three other Patriots quarterbacks were given an opportunity.
The non-Brady depth chart appeared to be as expected: Hoyer, the experienced backup, led the way, while second-year quarterback Danny Etling followed. Rookie fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham from Auburn got his reps as the third quarterback.
Stidham was notable both for his positive and negative plays. He seemed to have a strong initial connection with fellow rookie Harry. The two connected on a pair of touchdowns, including a nice over-the-shoulder score that eluded the coverage of J.C. Jackson.
“He’s obviously a great player, a great person. He’s just so big, it’s hard to overthrow him sometimes,” Stidham said of Harry. “He can just go up and get it. He’s going to be a great player. He just has to continue to work hard.”
Stidham’s notable mistake came on the interception to Williams, but he appeared to offer glimpses of the potential that the Patriots saw before the draft.
Old faces return
A pair of veterans who began their NFL careers in New England are back, with the return of tight end Benjamin Watson and linebacker Jamie Collins.
Watson, 38, came out of his brief retirement (announced following the 2018 season) to sign with the Patriots earlier in May. Drafted by New England in the first round in 2004, Watson spent six years playing in the Patriots offense before leaving in free agency.
Now that he’s back, the experienced tight end understands what’s expected.
“I think I have a leadership role, period, in our locker room because I’m 38 years old,” Watson said. “That’s just what comes when you’re an older player. Now, what happens in the locker room and what happens on the field are two totally different things. On the field, this is the ultimate meritocracy. It’s about learning what to do, being consistent making plays, all the things I learned as a rookie.”
Collins’s return as a 29-year-old wasn’t what he expected would happen. Drafted by the Patriots in 2013 (and a member of the 2014 Super Bowl champions), Collins was traded midway through the 2016 season to the Browns. Cleveland cut him in March, prompting his NFL career to come full circle.
“I was surprised,” Collins told NESN’s Zach Cox of the Patriots’ decision to bring him back. “But then again, I wasn’t, because I’m just a free agent, so obviously a lot of teams are going to contact you or whatever. That’s just the business of the game. I’m always surprised no matter what. I’m surprised right now just being in the position.”
“I don’t live in the past,” Collins explained of the 2016 trade. “I keep pushing to do my thing and keep going.”
On the field, Collins showcased his trademark explosiveness. He hit the blocking sled so hard that instead of rolling back (as it is designed to do), it was left stuck on its side.