On the opening his 20th training camp with the Patriots, Coach Bill Belichick removed whatever glow was left of New England’s Super Bowl LIII title by reminding everyone that every year is its own.
“We start all over again every year,” Belichick said at his media availability before the Patriots took to the practice field. “We’re not really worried about last year. I think every year is its own year and you start from scratch and you build from the bottom up every year. That's what we're doing.”
The 172 days that have passed since New England stifled the Los Angeles Rams may as well be 172 years as far as Belichick is concerned. The Patriots still have 17 of the 22 players who started against LA on their roster, but any team that loses Rob Gronkowski, Trey Flowers and Trent Brown in one off-season has its work cut out for it.
Even with those massive holes to fill, the biggest story from Day 1 of camp involved a different position group entirely.
Danny Etling, a seventh-round draft choice of New England’s in 2018 at quarterback, shed his red non-contact jersey for a white jersey worn by the rest of the offensive players at practice. After spending a year on the practice squad – traveling with the team even, a rarity for practice squad players – Etling lined up at wide receiver and did some special teams work in the first session of camp.
“I’ve not really played it, per se,” Etling said when asked about his experience at wide receiver.
At 6-foot-3, Etling does have good size for a receiver. And who could forget his 86-yard run against practice squad-caliber players on the New York Giants in preseason game No. 4 last summer? It would appear as though a position group big on numbers but short on proven commodities just got even more muddled.
Here are a few other things that stood out in Foxboro before fully-padded practices begin on Saturday:
• When it comes to replacing Gronkowski, Flowers and Brown, Day 1 of camp likely only created even more questions than already existed. Michael Bennett, acquired to help fill the void left by Flowers after he signed in Detroit, was one of two players absent on Thursday (offensive lineman David Andrews was the other). No reason has yet been given for Bennett’s absence, but it’s worth noting he already restructured his contract with the team in April for two years and $16.75 million following his trade from the Eagles.
• Isaiah Wynn, New England’s top draft choice in 2018, missed his entire rookie year due to a torn Achilles suffered during the preseason. He’s been cleared to practice, but during 11-on-11 work, it was Joe Thuney – normally a left guard – lined up at left tackle.
• Finding an adequate player to step in for the greatest tight end of all-time is a fool’s errand, but it’s hard not to at least be moderately intrigued by the signing of Lance Kendricks on Wednesday. If there’s one thing he has that Gronk lacked, it’s durability: since entering the NFL with the Rams in 2011, Kendricks has played in 125 of a possible 128 games between the Rams and Packers.
Of course, he caught 50 fewer touchdown passes than Gronkowski in the same time frame, made five fewer Pro Bowls and was named First Team All-Pro four fewer times. Still, Kendricks could be more than just a warm body at a position that’s as much a work in progress as any on the roster.
• After serving his four-game suspension to begin the regular season, 38-year-old Ben Watson will also figure into the equation at tight end. It’s simply incredible that Gronkowski was drafted back in 2010, in part, to replace the departed Watson, and here we are nine years later and it’s Watson helping to replace Gronkowski.
Watson played for the Browns, Ravens and Saints during his time away from New England after he was originally drafted by the team with the No. 32 overall pick in 2004. As one of only eight players still active from his draft class, Watson doesn’t seem to mind the grind of the preseason. “Training camp is not punishment, it’s preparation,” he said.
• Watson was sporting his original jersey No. 84 with the Patriots, a jersey worn most recently by Cordarrelle Patterson. Brandon Bolden, back for his second tour of duty with New England, was wearing his familiar No. 38.
But Jamie Collins Sr., who wore No. 91 from 2013-16 with the Patriots, donned a No. 8 jersey at practice – one of the same numbers he rocked in college at Southern Mississippi. He won’t be able to wear that once the regular season begins – should he make the roster, of course – but No. 91 now belongs to Deatrich Wise Jr.
The Patriots infamously traded Collins to the Browns at the trade deadline in 2016 before going on to appear in three straight Super Bowls, winning twice. “I want every to succeed,” Collins said when asked what it was like to watch New England’s success from afar. “I’ve never wished anything bad on anyone – including you [the media].”
• Like Belichick, it’s training camp No. 20 from Tom Brady as well. The soon-to-be 42-year-old quarterback didn’t speak with the media today, however, and isn’t expected to until next week at some point.
• The following players began training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list: wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, running back Sony Michel, offensive lineman Cole Croston, defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, defensive back Ken Webster and special teamer Nate Ebner. Julian Edelman and rookie Yondy Cajuste are on the non-football injury (NFI) list.
• Patrick Chung, after suffering a broken arm in the Super Bowl, wore a red non-contact jersey during practice.