Last season’s Patriots received their Super Bowl rings on Thursday night, but the defending champions have already been putting in the work to mount another title challenge.
Three days of Patriots mandatory minicamp concluded on Thursday, showing early glimpses of the team’s future. Rob Gronkowski is out, but new players are filling in. The constant in New England’s football universe since 2000 has been the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady partnership, and both were once again to begin another season.
Exactly who will make the Patriots’ 53-man roster is far from known, but this week’s minicamp sessions provided an opening act for those who need to state their case.
Tom Brady and the post-Gronkowski era at tight end
Through the entirety of his career, Rob Gronkowski never blended in. His sheer ability and demeanor made that impossible. And even in retirement, the tight end remains conspicuous. His absence looms over the team’s tight end depth chart.
Life after Gronkowski is off to a chaotic start. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, signed earlier in the offseason to help shore up the tight end position, was released on Tuesday to deal with “personal issues” (though he could return).
Ben Watson, the 38-year-old former Patriots 1st round pick who came out of retirement to re-sign in New England, will be suspended for the first four games of the 2019 season due to a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
The rest of the group are lesser known quantities. For the moment, fourth-year tight end Matt Lacrosse is at the top of the depth chart.
“He’s a young player that has some talent, he’s played in the league, and we feel like he has some upside,” said Belichick. “We’ll see how it goes in our system.”
The lack of a clearcut Gronkowski replacement might seem to point towards a diminished role for tight end in the Patriots’ offense but Brady disagreed.
“That has to be a position of strength, even if it’s not one player but multiple players doing different roles,” Brady explained to reporters. “There was times in my career before [Rob Gronkowski] that where we’ve had similar approaches.”
The Patriots quarterback also offered support to the current group at the position.
“The tight end position is a big part of our offense and those guys are going to have to do a great job for us.”
Gunner Olszewski is an intriguing addition.
He might not shatter any records as a wide receiver right away, but undrafted rookie Gunner Olszewski has already turned a few heads since arriving in New England.
Signed from Bemidji State, a Division 2 college program, Olszewski is a converted defensive back. Exactly why New England wants the 5’11” 178-pound Olszewski on offense remains unknown (Belichick was unsurprisingly vague discussing the topic), but the rookie has been showcasing a strong work ethic. He was the first player on the field for each of the first two days of minicamp.
Before the draft, Olszewski was eyeing the now-folded AAF and yet-to-debut XFL as a more likely option to play professional football. Yet here he is in New England, working at receiver with the Super Bowl champions and taking advice from Julian Edelman.
“I love that guy,” Edelman told NESN’s Doug Kyed. “If he’s got a question, I’m here to help try to answer it to the best of my ability. I feel that’s part of my role on the team, being here so long. He’s working hard. He’s definitely a tough kid. I love the chip on his shoulder, and I like working with him, that’s for sure.”
Bringing back Jamie Collins could prove a shrewd move.
It’s a long way from the Patriots defense playing meaningful downs, but a new (old) face is emerging as an impact player.
Jamie Collins was drafted by the Patriots in 2013 and quickly displayed standout ability and athleticism, helping New England win Super Bowl XLIX. Along with Dont’a Hightower, it appeared that Belichick’s defense had two top linebackers for years to come.
But Collins was surprisingly traded to the Browns midseason in 2016, with the Patriots apparently losing patience with his “freelance” habits. This made his offseason return as a free agent a surprising twist.
What’s becoming apparent, however, is that Collins still possesses valuable playmaking capacities.
An almost universal observation from Patriots beat reporters was that the 29-year-old linebacker consistently imposed himself on offense vs. defense drills. ESPN’s Mike Reiss called Collins a “key cog” in the defensive setup (at least as it exists in minicamp).
Where the tight end position appears to have a glaring lack of options, linebacker — especially if Collins can keep it up — looks to be a position of strength.