I managed to keep a long-standing tradition alive today by heading over to Foxborough to catch a training camp practice with my father. Here are my observations from the fully-padded session.
- This will sound redundant to anyone who's been following the team's performance in camp, but Malcolm Butler continued to stand out today. Butler seemed to have "highlight of the day" sewed up early in the session when Tom Brady decided to test him deep despite close coverage on Jonathan Krause, as he timed his leap perfectly to swat away the pass. However, he one-upped himself later during team drills, jumping a Josh Boyce slant to make a one-handed, "did he really just do that" interception. He had another pass break up during goal line work. Time will tell whether Butler has the goods to handle the star receivers he might be tasked with tracking during the regular season, but he's looked like a star in camp. He certainly got star treatment from the fans, who chanted "Malcolm, Malcolm" during post-practice stretching and went nuts when he came over to sign autographs after the session.
- The similarly named Malcom Brown was another standout for me. The rookie defensive tackle made his return to practice today and was a full-participant, showing no limitations from the foot/ankle injury that sidelined him over the weekend. He flashed with two stops against the run, including a pretty loud pop in the backfield on James White, and looked stout manning the interior of the Patriots defensive line. He also showed up with a blocked kick during the special teams portion of practice.
- It was a sloppy day overall for the offense (more on that in a second), but they produced a few highlights as well. Chief among them was a 50 yard bomb for a touchdown from Brady to Josh Boyce. Rookie corner Darryl Roberts had decent coverage on the play, but Brady dropped one right in Boyce's breadbasket in stride. Another highlight came from Gronk, who did Gronk things all practice and continues to look like the best tight end in football. Patrick Chung couldn't have had tighter coverage during red zone work, but Gronk used his enormous frame well to shield him from the outside shoulder throw, which he snagged easily.
- The offensive line was already thin going into the day. They took another hit when Nate Solder left practice for reasons unknown (he didn't appear to suffer any injury and walked off the field under his own power with no noticeable limp). With Marcus Cannon and Bryan Stork still out and Sebastian Vollmer still easing his way back to full action, that left the Pats down three starters. The bulk of the first team reps went to Chris Barker (left tackle), undrafted rookie David Andrews (center) and Cameron Fleming (right tackle), with rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason remaining at their usual spots at guard. Needless to say, this didn't go well, as Barker in particular was repeatedly victimized by the likes of Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard. Vollmer did get some reps late in the session at his customary right tackle spot, which led to a few reps for Fleming on the left side. I also found it noteworthy that Andrews got the lions share of the center reps over Josh Kline, who had split reps with him since Stork's injury.
- The offensive line certainly didn't help matters, but it was a sloppy day for the offense overall. Brady had an interception during 7-on-7s due to Brian Tyms not turning his head for the ball, which bounced off his chest into the waiting arms of Dont'a Hightower. Plays like that certainly won't help his case for a roster spot, with his quarterback showing some visible frustration after the play. It was also an up-and-down day for Boyce, who caught two touchdowns (the second coming against Nate Ebner) but also dropped an easy one in the end zone and allowed Butler to out-position him for his highlight reel pick. Jimmay Mundine flashed a few times working with the twos (pretty sure Jake Bequette got a DNP-CD for team drills today), but he also dropped a gimme over the middle. Sometimes it's just one of those days, as even Gronk missed a catchable ball during red zone work.
- Jimmy Garoppolo was accurate for the most part (the Herald's Jeff Howe had him at 16-20 for the day), but also had at least two plays on which he held onto the ball indecisively for far too long. One of those completions also would have gotten receiver Jonathan Krause decapitated by Tavon Wilson had this been fully live play. New arrival Ryan Lindley was also present (wearing #7), and he made his presence felt with an interception on a ball that sailed over the middle with no receiver remotely near by. Credit to Duron Harmon, who flashed his athleticism to make the leaping pick.
Overall, it was a positive day on the injury front, as several noteworthy Patriots returned to the practice field. Brown was the only full participant in his return, but Matthew Slater, Brian Tyms, Alan Branch and Julian Edelman all were on the field as limited participants. Slater and Tyms both donned red no-contact jerseys, while Edelman and Branch merely took part in warm-ups and positional drills before leaving for the rehab center next to the field. LeGarrette Blount was also spotted doing sprints on the hill behind the practice fields, certainly a positive sign for the status of his sprained MCL.
While those guys were back, there were still a number of players missing. That group included receivers Aaron Dobson and Brandon LaFell, running backs Blount, Tyler Gaffney and Dion Lewis, linebackers Eric Martin, Dane Fletcher and Darius Fleming, offensive linemen Ryan Wendell, Caylin Hauptmann, Stork and Cannon, tight end Scott Chandler and defensive tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano. It's been reported that Lewis, Martin and Stork are expected to return soon, as their injuries are relatively minor.
Newly acquired guard Ryan Groy was not present and will likely make his practice debut tomorrow. Newly signed running back Tony Creecy and tight end Logan Stokes were there and full participants.
- Brandon Bolden seems to have an early lead on the competition for Shane Vereen's old passing down back role. He took the bulk of those snaps with the ones, leaving James White to mostly work with Garoppolo and the twos. Many have speculated that Bolden's superior pass protection has given him the edge, a theory that certainly makes sense on paper. It will be interesting to see how that competition shakes out, as White could really use a positive showing Thursday against Green Bay to steal momentum back his way.
- Lindley's interception was ugly, but he did have one dime of a throw, dropping one perfectly along the sideline to Jonathan Krause. Bradley Fletcher was beat on the play.
- Brandon Gibson had another solid day in what's shaping up to be a solid camp for him. The veteran caught all eight of his targets, with five of them coming from Brady against the ones. One of those went for a touchdown, with undrafted rookie Jimmy Jean in coverage.