The two most conspicuous absences throughout New England’s voluntary offseason programs had been quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, but each member of one of the most prolific quarterback-receiver tandems in NFL history returned to Gillette Stadium on Tuesday for the first day of the team’s mandatory minicamp.
It had been the expectation all along that Brady and Gronkowski would be back for this week, which consists of three sessions between Tuesday and Thursday.
When asked if the absence of the superstars affected the team’s preparation for the upcoming season, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was quick to point out that organized team activities (OTAs) are voluntary.
“It’s good to have all the players here,” Belichick said. “It’s always good to work with all the players.”
Save for injuries, no other players were missing from minicamp on Tuesday.
The injury bug is already present for the Patriots, however, with Malcolm Mitchell, Joe Thuney, Jacob Hollister, Brandon Bolden and David Jones not spotted during drills on Tuesday. Mitchell’s absence is certainly a reason to sound an alarm after the 24-year-old wide receiver missed all of the 2017 season with a lingering knee injury.
During 11-on-11 sessions – without players wearing pads – both Brady and Gronkowski received reps with the first-team offense. Brady completed 11 of his 13 passes.
Gronkowski caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer at one point during 11-on-11s, splitting through Jordan Richards and Damarius Travis in coverage before finishing with one of his patented ‘Gronk spikes.’
Gronkowski, who contemplated retirement before confirming last month that he’d be back for the 2018 season, confessed to having some jitters prior to his first day back with the team.
“The first time, when it’s been awhile, you get some jitters going out there,” Gronkowski said. “You just don’t know; it’s football, you’ve got to compete. You’ve got to compete with really good players every time you step out on the field.”
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Asked why he stayed away from the voluntary OTAs, Gronkowski said that he’d spent the spring training on his own.
“I felt like that was the best thing for me,” Gronkowski said. “I wanted to take care of my body, take care of myself and see where I was at before I came out here. I think it was a good decision.”
“It’s exciting any time you have your teammates out here working together, working as a team, trying to get better,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said of the return of Brady and Gronkowski. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Entering his 11th season with the Patriots – behind only Brady and kicker Stephen Gostkowski for longest active tenure with New England – Slater said that players are so zoned in on what they have to do as individuals that it’s hard to spend much time on who happens to be in camp, vs. who isn’t.
“You’ve got enough to worry about trying to get yourself going in the right direction,” said Slater, who re-signed with the Patriots this offseason after visiting the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency.
Devin McCourty, entering his ninth season with New England, was asked about President Donald Trump rescinding the invitation of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles to the White House after practice. Without speaking for anyone on the Eagles, McCourty offered a quick opinion on the matter.
“We’re not surprised, are we?”
Brady did not speak with the media after Tuesday’s practice. Using last offseason as a guideline, Brady did not speak with the media between the postgame of Super Bowl LI in February until the second week of training camp in August.
The Patriots have four more voluntary sessions next week, with the Tuesday session open to the media. After that, no one is required to be back in Foxboro until the beginning of training camp in late July.