By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Tom Brady's absence from Foxborough this coming week would be far from a spell disaster. But it's not what's best for the Patriots, either. It's only what he feels is best for him.
Forget the much-ballyhooed "optics" of it all. The "look". Forget Brady's perfunctory presser on Thursday, in which he Said The Right Things™ but neither confirmed nor denied whether he'd practice with the team in Foxborough at any point before training camp. And forget the three days Brady did spend at Gillette this past week, in which he dominated on day 1, took a tiny step back on day 2, and sharpened back up (while ceding some reps to his backups) on day 3.
The Patriots are packed with new weapons for Brady. And even if only for them, what's best for the team on the football field is for Brady to return for the final four OTAs.
What's best for Brady? Obviously, he believes it's to be elsewhere this week. Perhaps he still needs time to tend to the "personal reasons" he cited as the impetus for missing the first five OTA sessions of the offseason. It's fair to leave open the possibility that Brady believes he'll be less drained, both physically and psychologically, if he saves full-bore football for late July.
But if Brady's mental fatigue stems from a desire to avoid Bill Belichick, he barely experienced any of that on the field in Foxborough. The quarterback and coach never had any noticeable interactions during the three practices. Not even when Brady was running the first-team offense, while Belichick observed from about 10 yards away. That was as close as the two got to each other the whole time. It wasn't necessarily a sign of any major problems, but it was certainly unusual for the head coach and No. 1 quarterback not to address one another at any point.
So if Brady truly does want to minimize his interactions with Belichick, he just showed he could accomplish that while also practicing with the team. It would behoove him to keep doing that - if only for the sake of his new teammates. He has a lot of those.
Now, Brady will likely be without Julian Edelman, his most prolific target when healthy, for the first four weeks of the 2018 season. In football terms, the best thing for all parties involved is for Brady to participate in the remaining OTAs and mesh with the rest of his weapons as much as possible. Besides Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, and James White, none of the team's skill players have played for more than one full season.
Phillip Dorsett may very well be the No. 2 receiver to start. Running back Rex Burkhead looked good in minicamp and could only benefit from more time to gel as he looks to build upon an injury-plagued 2017. Potential No. 2 tight end Jacob Hollister, who looked as good as any pass-catcher during minicamp, is entering year two with 86 snaps (7.55 percent of the 2017 total) under his belt. Promising wideout Malcolm Mitchell is in his third year, but essentially lost a whole season in 2017 and has remained mostly absent during OTAs and minicamp. Tight end Dwayne Allen is working his tail off to show he's better than the letdown of a season he had in 2017.
There's the group of players who have yet to play their first snap for the Pats, but could very well turn out to be key targets. Belichick didn't draft running back Sony Michel in the first round to keep him on the bench all season. Former Bengals back Jeremy Hill has a decent chance to crack the 53-man roster. Towering ex-Cardinals tight end Troy Niklas, who rivals Gronk in terms of sheer size, caught a surprising amount of balls in minicamp.
And then there's former Bills and Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews. The 6-foot-3 wideout can line up inside and, in some situations, provide a facsimile of some of the things Edelman can do. As a large-framed possession receiver, he has a chance to be the ideal kind of weapon for Brady. If they could get on the same page, Matthews could create the kind of financial value that excites Belichick as much as any third-and-7 catch at the sticks.
What was more immediately promising than Matthews' ability to line up all over the field, which he did throughout minicamp, is the fact that he was the first offensive player on the field all three days. He stayed late, too.
It was striking to see one of the Patriots' newest faces set the kind of example that Brady has set for the rest of the team for so many years. And when Brady did take the field for minicamp, he set the bar as high as he usually does. You better be on top of your game, because No. 12 will be. Matthews certainly noticed.
"Obviously Tom has a presence," Matthews told reporters after practice on Tuesday. "He's the greatest of all time, so obviously there's a presence that comes with him that everybody else knows, 'Let's be on our stuff, let's make sure we come out here and get our job done, because we know he's gonna come out and get his job done. At the same time there's a calmness, too. So I feel practice went well."
It did go well that day. Brady was on-point with targets old and new, offering vocal support for some of his greener teammates along the way. He could be heard from the bleachers lauding the efforts of Hill and Hollister on certain plays. He spent extra time after practice with a number of players, as well. There's no question that, when on the field, Brady was the typical Brady. He worked as hard as anyone and he was as good a teammate as anyone.
Which only makes it more curious that Brady would decide to duck back out for the remainder of OTAs. For all the rarefied air that Brady has entered in recent years as a sports superstar, he's arguably been the most team-oriented of them all, historically. So his absence would be all the more peculiar after comments he made about these sessions on Thursday.
"Yeah, I mean it's obviously important for everybody," Brady said. "Our coaches do a great job getting us ready. Just some personal reasons for me [missing OTAs]. But I'm here now and focused on what I need to do, as I always say I am. Like I said, I'm looking forward to this year."
Why aren't the voluntary practices as important to Brady as they have been in the past? Whatever the answer is for that - and there's been no shortage of speculation - the undeniable fact, as has been covered here before, is that it's wildly different from how Brady has approached the offseason for most of his career. It's a tacit acknowledgment that the football team is momentarily moving back in the line, in favor of other things.
Brady doesn't deserve criticism for wanting to spend more time with his family. Nobody does. As for his other business ventures, well, those are what they are. It's not that he shouldn't want to devote his energy to other things. It's that they will inextricably be at the expense of his football team, and he ostensibly acknowledged that as a possibility.
Asked whether he thinks his absence from early OTAs would hurt the team, Brady replied simply, "I hope not." He was more expansive on the follow-up question, but the answer ultimately rang no less hollow than the last.
"I mean every year has different challenges, you know?" Brady said. "There's some years where, I mean obviously this team has very high expectations. We're trying to win every game. That's what our goals are. I think those things we have a lot of time to work on literally. Figuratively there's a long way to go. We've got a lot of work to do and it's going to be up to us individually to prepare as best we can and then collectively when we come together we do the same."
There's no denying that Brady still wants to win every game, as do the rest of his teammates and coaches. The question is whether he's doing everything he can to make that a reality. It's impossible to claim that he is.
If the Patriots end up back in the AFC Championship Game for an eighth straight season, this strange offseason will become largely a distant memory. Even if they don't, it would be hard to gauge how much of an effect Brady's absence from OTAs really had on it. There might be no effect whatsoever, as evidenced by Brady's decidedly sharp return at Tuesday's minicamp.
But Matthews said all that needed to be said. Brady's mere presence elevates the rest of the team. It can only help the proceedings moving forward. And another Brady disappearance from Gillette, with so many new Patriots losing out on the benefits of that presence, cannot.
Brady can do whatever he wants next week. But regardless of his intentions, whatever he does end up doing will not necessarily be what's best for football. It's only the latest development in what's been a strikingly different offseason of preparation for No. 12.
Anyway, it was quite an eventful week in Foxborough. Unfortunately, it wasn't all football-related. But in spite of the rampant news-jacking that went on in the local and national football media this past week, there was, in fact, plenty of actual football going on from Tuesday-Thursday. Here are some final thoughts on that, as well as the other stuff, before turning the page.
-- Friday's Rob Gronkowski trade rumors serve as a cautionary tale on who to trust with reporting, and how quickly things can spiral out of control on the internet. The now-infamous Reddit user "RedditLover1981", who claimed to have major Patriots news ready to drop, turned out to be a troll who essentially duped sports media and Twitter users across the country with a not-so-elaborate hoax. He simply got lucky with his prediction of the Edelman suspension, and took advantage of it. But at the same time, the trickster never so much as hinted at Gronkowski being traded. That social experiment and the Gronk rumors were independent of each other, but the digital history books may ultimately conflate the two.
In light of that, it's not crazy to think that the possibility of a Gronkowski trade was real at some point. The latest reports are that conversations were had during the offseason, likely in February and/or March. Belichick has long proven that he's willing to trade anyone, if he feels that the timing is right and that he's getting good value. It just wasn't happening on Friday, and likely hasn't been a thing since he met with the tight end in April and the two sides re-affirmed their commitment to each other.
-- It'll be hard for the Patriots not to have an improved pass rush in 2018. The struggles in the Malcolm Butler-less secondary hogged headlines after Super Bowl LII, but the team's futility in generating pressure on Eagles quarterback Nick Foles helped precipitate those problems. The 2018 season should almost definitely present a marked improvement in that department.
Second-year defensive end Derek Rivers, who is essentially entering his rookie year all over again, looked fast and explosive when given an opportunity in team drills. He got plenty of run on the final day, and could essentially be another high-upside addition for the new Brian Flores-led defense. Fellow 2017 draft pick Deatrich Wise Jr. looked explosive as well, and free-agent acquisition Adrian Clayborn broke through on occasion. It's worth noting that Clayborn was the first defensive player on the field for at least two of the three days.
If the Patriots defense is to take a step forward in 2018, it'll start up front. And an infusion of talent, year-to-year improvements, and a newfound aggression from Flores' play-calling could make a big difference.
-- Undrafted rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson appears ahead of other, more high-profile players at his position. Belichick turned heads when he brought in Devin McCourty's twin brother Jason. But the former Cleveland Browns corner found himself behind Jackson in the pecking order during minicamp. Another rookie, second-rounder Duke Dawson, manned the slot for the vast majority of 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s.
Jackson looked solid when given the opportunity. The knock on him from a football standpoint before the draft was that he doesn't have the speed to keep up down the field, but in the short-to-intermediate areas he brings plenty of physicality as a classic press-man corner. He's giving Eric Rowe some competition for snaps as the No. 2 outside corner opposite Stephon Gilmore, which should ultimately benefit both players and bring the best out of them during the rest of OTAs and in training camp.
-- For now, Dante Scarnecchia is clearly going for Trent Brown at left tackle and first-round pick Isaiah Wynn at left guard. The duo had their issues during minicamp, at one point getting an epic tongue-lashing from the Patriots' offensive line coach. But the mountainous Brown and talented-but-green Wynn, whose size projects more as a guard, would likely be best suited at those positions.
Wynn still has potential as the team's long-term answer at left tackle, due to his experience against NFL-caliber talent at Georgia. His footwork and arm length could make up for his lack of height. But it appears that he'll have a chance to make an immediate impact at left guard. That could push Joe Thuney, who's been nursing an injury, to a backup role.
-- The NFL's new kickoff rules will be a good indicator of which coaching staffs have it together more than others. The Patriots spent a pointed amount of time working on their kickoff drills during minicamp, which mostly featured Cordarrelle Patterson as the primary kick returner. Special teams coach Joe Judge emphasized the importance of waiting until the football was in the air to start running; as part of the new rules, the league has banned players on kicking teams from getting a running start. It'll lead to a potentially annoying amount of flags - illegal motion? - for teams that aren't prepared. The Patriots stay on top of rule changes as well as any team in the league, so the likelihood is that they'll be ready for this particular change.
-- Tom Brady Looks Sharp as Ever in First Patriots Minicamp
-- Rob Gronkowski Has Plenty of Fun at First Patriots Minicamp Practice
-- Patriots Wideout Julian Edelman Happy To Be Back On Field
-- Patriots Minicamp: Intriguing Tight End Battle Brewing Among Gronk's Backups
-- Tom Brady Says He Never Considered Retirement, Speaks on Relationship With Bill Belichick in Post-Minicamp Presser
-- Edelman Suspension Could Open the Door for Riley McCarron as Patriots Slot Receiver
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].