Brady-Gronk Connection Back in Step at Training Camp

Training camp 2017 is officially underway for the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, with the team’s first full workout taking place on Thursday morning.

After an off-season which saw the team get even better in virtually every area, cornerback Malcolm Butler was quick to dismiss the notion that the Patriots are buying into the hype coming from outside the organization, with publications such as USA Today predicting New England to finish the season 19-0.

“Not at all,” Butler said of listening to the noise. “Everyone is still 0-0. Time will tell. We look good on paper, but we haven’t done anything.”

“Be better than last year,” Butler said, as he begins his fourth season in New England. “Work on all my errors from last year, get better in each and every aspect of the game. Just be better. I want to be better this year. I will.”

When asked if he believed that along with new addition Stephon Gilmore, they are one of the top cornerback tandems in the league, Butler said, “I do.”

But the very best?

“We’re around,” Butler said. “Actions speak louder than words, so we’ll have our time to prove that.”

Gilmore came off the field for his first time as a Patriot impressed with the passion of the fan base in his new home, saying, “it’s crazy.”

Fellow free agent signing David Harris, who spent the first decade of his career with the Jets, was a much later addition to the roster than Gilmore. While Gilmore joined the Patriots on the very first day of free agency on March 9, Harris didn’t sign in New England until June 21; the Jets didn’t cut Harris loose until June 7.

As such, Harris said he’s been leaning on Dont’a Hightower to get up to speed with the Patriots system and learn what’s required of the linebackers unit.

“I’m trying to learn like guys like Hightower who has been playing that position for a long time,” Harris said. “I was kind of a late pick up, so I’m trying to make it as fast as possible to be on the same page.

Hightower was among three Patriots who were present at the facility, but did not practice. Alan Branch and Andrew Jelks were also at Gillette Stadium as spectators for day one.

Notably absent from the first day of training camp was defensive end Kony Ealy, who like Gilmore and Harris, was acquired in the off-season. No reason has yet been given for Ealy’s absence; the Patriots traded a 2017 second round draft pick to the Carolina Panthers for Ealy and a 2017 third round pick, which was only eight spots behind New England’s second rounder.

Linebacker Rob Ninkovich and long snapper Joe Cardona were also missing from Foxboro. Per ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Cardona is away on a commitment with the Navy through Friday.

Cardona, a 2015 fifth round pick of the Patriots, is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy.

Ninkovich, 33, was on Pro Football Talk Live with Mike Florio this morning on NBCSN. However, per Florio himself on Twitter, the interview had been taped last week. The 12-year veteran has one year remaining on his deal. It is worth mentioning that Ninkovich would carry only a $750,000 dead cap hit if released.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski was a full participant in today’s action for the Patriots, returning to action after a back injury prematurely ended his 2016 season in November.

“This is what you dream about out here, training camp, getting ready for a new season,” Gronkowski said. “I’m excited to be around my teammates and have some fun out here.”

Gronkowski was no doubt having fun when he caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady during an 11-on-11 scrimmage this morning, rekindling the fire of one of the most prolific quarterback-tight end tandems in NFL history. Gronkowski, who has caught more touchdown passes from Brady (66) than any other player, threw down one of his patented “Gronk spikes” upon making the play.

“I had a longer vacation than most of the guys so I’d say I was the most eager to get going,” Gronkowski said.

Brady shined during both 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills, including a touchdown throw to Brandin Cooks after he beat Cyrus Jones up the left side. Brady finished 11-on-11s 6 for 8 passing and 7-on-7s 4 for 6.

Backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw back-to-back interceptions during his 7-on-7 set, first to Jordan Richards and then to Eric Rowe. Garoppolo was 2 for 6 during 7-on-7s, although one incompletion was dropped by Austin Carr. Garoppolo was 6 for 8 in 11-on-11s.

Third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett was 9 for 15 in 11-on-11s and 7 for 12 in 7-on-7s.

The Patriots will practice again Friday morning beginning at 9:15 a.m. at Gillette Stadium.

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