The Patriots took the Gillette Stadium practice field for just over 90 minutes earlier today as organized team activities begin to wind down. When watching the practices, it becomes apparent that the defense, which has astronomical expectations going into the season, is quickly coming together as a cohesive unit.
Between highly touted new additions like Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, first round pick Dominique Easley, and veterans Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and Tommy Kelly all returning from injury, the defense will look very different than it did at the end of last season, when the squad finished ranked 25th in the league.
A highlight of the session was a drill in which cornerbacks battled one-on-one for a fade route, and one of the match-ups pitted Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner against each other. In this particular instance, Browner used his mammoth size to gain the upper hand and make an athletic play on the ball.
The defensive front spent most of the practice working on 7-on-7 drills, but Mayo, Wilfork, and Kelly were not limited in any blatant way. While only so much can be determined from the no pads, no contact practices, it seems as though the unit is developing good chemistry.
“You just want to improve and get better towards the end of OTAs, you definitely want to be working your way towards putting the pads on.” Said DE/LB Rob Ninkovich.
“I’m not going to say we’re ahead of schedule, I’m not going to say we’re behind. I’m thinking we’re in OTAs and we’re going to continue to work on our techniques and get better.”
The group has been together for this entire week (minus a day off on Wednesday) and will have a three day weekend before returning to the practice field for their mandatory minicamp on June 17.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower said, “We’re learning a-lot but most of all we’re doing our job and having fun. Being on defense is a-lot more fun when you can go out there and have fun instead of worrying about making checks and stuff.”
“Right now I’m moving pretty well and I’ve gotten a-lot stronger in the weight room so I’m just trying to get myself better so when I come for mini camp not worried about my weight or strength or anything.”
The Patriots also have high hopes for Defensive Lineman Dominique Easley, their first round pick, who has not yet been cleared to practice while coming off of a season ending ACL tear last year at Florida. He has, however, impressed some of his veteran teammates while he is rehabbing.
“He’s got his work cut out for him. It’s never easy especially when you’re a rookie and coming off an injury like an ACL. He’s been in there working hard and I can’t wait to see him on the field helping us out.” Said Ninkovich
The veterans are thrilled about the influx of new talent that has been added to the roster, but stressed that it is important for the team to gel, and that talent alone is not enough. Regardless, the existing pieces have a new boost of confidence knowing that all-pro caliber players are playing in front of and behind them.
Hightower said, “For us we just need to gel together so we get that chemistry that all good defenses have. Hopefully we can get that good defense gelling.”
“(OTAs) help out a lot, especially with some of the younger guys and the guys that came along last year like Sealver Saliga, he learned a-lot and he knows a-lot but there are some things that he didn’t get a chance to pick up because he came in a little late.”
Gelling and coming together as a team for the first time is what OTAs are all about. It is a good chance to bond in a more laid back setting than a full-pad practice while still getting work in and giving the coaching staff an opportunity to evaluate talent. Hightower, Ninkovich, and the other veterans seem energized by the reinforcements that have arrived, paving the way for a potential top-five defensive season from a team that built a dynasty on the defensive side of the ball a decade ago.
“The thing that I want to work on the most is just having more fun. Those last couple of games last season, when I got more comftorable and relaxed, I was just having fun and I played a-lot better.” Said Hightower. “When I go out and play stress-free and don’t worry about things, I feel like that will elevate my play a-lot more.”