This is promising news for players like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who participated in spring camps on a limited basis as he recovered from a ruptured Achilles sustained Sept. 29, 2013.
The Patriots' first official practice of training camp is Thursday (9:15 a.m. ET).
Orton spent time on the Patriots' practice squad last year after signing Dec. 31, 2013. In practice leading up to the AFC Championship Game, the 6-foot-3, 199-pound target played the role of Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas on the scout team. Orton, 28, had been released on May 22.
He will wear No. 16.
The 6-3, 190-pound McDonald, of South Carolina State, had just joined the Patriots on July 18.
Patriots projected training camp WR depth chart
Aaron Dobson (active/PUP)
Jeremy Gallon (active/PUP)
Wilson Van Hooser
(special teams captain Matthew Slater, who is on active/PUP, also takes positional reps here)
Super excited to be back on the practice field with my teammates! Gotta keep on working if ya know what I mean!— Rob Gronkowski (@RobGronkowski) July 23, 2014
Length: 1 year
Base salary: $645,000
Split salary: $373,000 (in the event of injury)
Salary-cap hit: $645,000
QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: This is a modest deal, with no bonus money, that reflects a player competing for a backup spot behind Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui. With the Patriots not re-signing veteran Matthew Mulligan, who filled a blocking-based role last season, the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Byham is a candidate to possibly step into that void. Byham is coming off a torn ACL last season, and the injury split gives the team some protection along those lines. Meanwhile, Byham has a chance to play in a Tom Brady-led offense, increase his value, and potentially hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent again next year.
Wednesday’s news that New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared by doctors was a significant step, as it means he will not begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list.
It’s now in the hands of Bill Belichick and the coaching staff to determine how quickly they want to work Gronk into the mix. It’s a football decision rather than a medical one at this point, and that’s good news for Patriots fans.
So when can we expect to see him practicing with his teammates? He’ll likely be out there for Thursday’s first practice, which will be held without pads. The first real question comes Saturday, when the team is scheduled to be in pads for the first time.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Gronk is eased in rather than going full bore from the get go because you are talking about a player who had surgery for a torn ACL less than seven months ago. They’re going to want to bring him along slowly.
The New England Patriots ranked 26th in the NFL on third down last season, with opponents converting 42.2 percent of the time, and screens on third-and-long were a notable part of the problem.
"One of the big things is just getting to the ball. You try to get the linemen to rush up the field, guys are dropping in coverage, so just effort and everything on that simple basis can help improve the screen game," safety Devin McCourty said.
"That started in the spring, trying to develop those things and look at them, just so all the players can be aware of what hurt us last year and what we need to be ready for this year," McCourty said. "Third down is always a key. A lot of times it comes down to your season."
A few more sound bites from McCourty:
If he now considers himself solely a safety: "I still try to look at myself as just a football player. I always feel like you never know what can happen. Being able to play safety and corner has helped me in my career so far, so I don't think I should ever get to the point where I just lose one of them. In the offseason, I'm always doing drills for both so I can be a complete football player."
Training for a few weeks with Darrelle Revis in Arizona before training camp: "A lot of that stuff we did was working on technique, working on your conditioning, being ready for training camp. It's not as much when we're up here going over scheme and all of that. I think it's always good when you work out with your teammates. You just develop a stronger friendship, a stronger bond. It was really good for all of us to be out there [Revis, McCourty, Logan Ryan and Tavon Wilson] because we all got to work hard together and get better as player and doing it together as teammates."
On third-year safety Tavon Wilson: "I'm excited for him. I think sometimes guys get killed from the outside view and they're still putting in the work. That's why I'm excited. Tavon never budged at any second and just got down on himself and stopped working. This offseason in the spring time he's been working incredibly hard just to get out there and play more. Each year guys come in and it's a new year. You have new opportunities, new chances to get out there and play more. He's just one of those guys that have come in here and I think he's put himself in pretty good position to come in here and compete and try to get on the field."
On second-year safety Duron Harmon: "Same thing [with] Tavon, a younger guy who works incredibly hard, too. From the spring time until now going into training camp, he's pushed himself, he's done everything he could do just to be in this position and get himself a chance to be on the field as well. A bunch of guys on this team come back ready because they know if you don't go out there and work hard, there's somebody else on the team that's working hard to get on the field. I love this time of year. It's going to be so competitive at camp each and every day, not just one position, but really every position across the board. Guys want to get out there and play. I'm ready and I think Duron along with Tavon and other guys on the team have pushed themselves to be ready for training camp."
With the signings of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and veteran defensive end Will Smith, the focus has been around the new additions to the defense. Even Ninkovich cannot ignore that having a player like Revis gives the team the ability to shut down any receiver it wants.
“Last year it was tough when we lost [Jerod] Mayo and Vince [Wilfork] and Tommy [Kelly],” Ninkovich said. “Having those guys next to you definitely gives you more confidence.”
The injuries hurt the depth of the line, which contributed to Ninkovich playing more than 90 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Only teammate Chandler Jones took more defensive snaps among all defensive linemen in the NFL last season. Ninkovich has nine years of experience, but he is still feeling young after a long 2013 season.
“Whatever it is, I’m going to be out there,” Ninkovich said of his playing time. “If it’s 90, 100, if it’s 80, I’m going to be out there playing just as hard.”
The Patriots will need Ninkovich as the team looks to improve on third down and get off of the field. After ranking 26th in the NFL in defensive third-down conversions last season, Ninkovich emphasized working together in coverage and the rush, especially in third-and-long situations.
As a returning veteran, Ninkovich knows what to expect at camp after going through the hard days.
“This is where you kind of set the tone for the season,” Ninkovich said. "I think that the NFL knows we’re going to be a better defense. But we have to put the work in."
“That’s a good question. It depends on health, I think, and if they want to keep me around here still,” Mankins said Wednesday morning. “I just want to play until I think I don’t feel good. If I can’t do it, I don’t think I’ll keep going once I don’t think I’m playing the way I want to.”
Mankins, a perennial Pro Bowler, obviously hasn’t reached that point.
“I feel great right now,” he said, before considering the grind of training camp ahead: “I’m sure in a few days, I’ll feel like crap.”
A couple of soundbites from Mankins:
On new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo: “It’s been great. Googe is a good guy, a hard-working guy, he’s very loud and he gets his point across well. He’s funny. Once the pads come on, we’ll really see how he wants things done and the way he coaches. We haven’t experienced him in a game situation yet. We’re still getting to know him, he’s still getting to know us, and that’s what all these practices are for.”
Despite continuity, no guarantees on the offensive line: “We do have a lot of veterans returning. We have some new young guys that are fitting in nicely so far. It’s always good to know the guys you’re with that you can trust them. This is the time of year you’ve got to go out and prove it. You’ve got to earn your job. That’s what training camp is for.”
From teaching focus to more competitive setting. Belichick stressed how the spring camps were more about teaching and the focus shifts at this time on the calendar. “Now we start competing,” he said.
Better feel for condition of team in a week. Asked if it was too early to assess the general condition of the team, Belichick said it’s something he’ll have a better idea of after a week of training camp. The team won’t be in full pads until Saturday.
Following up on Armstead’s retirement. Belichick was asked if he had been prepared for the retirement of defensive lineman Armond Armstead, or if it was something the team had to react to. “Armond had a problem, an issue, come up later in the spring. Then it was resolved when it was resolved. It was a little bit of a process, but I think after everything had come through, it was the decision that he made. As the process was going on, we realized that was certainly a possibility.”
Deflecting questions on Hernandez. The news conference ended with three questions on former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, specific to text messages that had been exchanged between Belichick and Hernandez. “I think that was addressed by a lawyer last week, and I don’t have any further comment on it.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared to play by doctors and will not be placed on the active/physically unable to perform list to open training camp, coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday.
Super excited to be back on the practice field with my teammates! Gotta keep on working if ya know what I mean!
- Rob Gronkowski (@RobGronkowski) July 23, 2014
This puts Gronkowski in position to be ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Miami. He said last week that he plans to play the full 16-game schedule.
Gronkowski, who was limited to seven games last season, underwent surgery on his right ACL on Jan. 9.
"It's a positive," said veteran offensive lineman Logan Mankins, one of the Patriots' captains. "We were all hoping Gronk would have a good recovery, and so far he has. Any time you can have Gronk on the field, it's great."
The Patriots' first training camp practice is Thursday. Gronkowski spent the majority of the offseason working out at the team's facility, yet his expected presence registers as a bit of a surprise.
"I'm happy to see his progress and see him coming into this season and staying healthy; obviously, that's what everyone is talking about," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "I don't want to speak on his behalf, but he's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever seen as well."
Added Belichick: "Rob's always worked hard when he's here."
This is one of them.
And that's the best thing possible for the team's Super Bowl championship hopes.
The last time we saw the Patriots' defense, it was an injury-ravaged group that was carved up by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game. Not enough pass rush. Not competitive enough in coverage.
There is good reason to think 2014 will be different, so for all the chatter about whether quarterback Tom Brady is still elite and whether he's been surrounded by enough weapons, we're putting our chips on the other side of the table.
This looks like Belichick's best unit yet, as there could be seven first-round draft choices in the starting lineup between defensive linemen Chandler Jones ('12), Vince Wilfork ('04) and Dominique Easley ('14), linebackers Jerod Mayo ('08) and Dont'a Hightower ('12), and defensive backs Darrelle Revis ('07) and Devin McCourty ('10).
There are other talented players, such as defensive end Rob Ninkovich and linebacker Jamie Collins, the team's top pick in 2013 (second round, 52nd overall) who looked like a budding star in last year's AFC divisional round playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts. So we come to this thought: Assuming relatively good health, the 2014 season will be a good case study as to whether some of the Patriots' recent struggles on defense (e.g., ranking 26th overall on third down last year) have been related more to personnel than to scheme.
The presence of Revis is where it all starts, because if he can effectively shut down one side of the field, it makes things inevitably easier on everyone else. But what is just as intriguing, if not more, is how the team's top picks in the past two drafts -- Collins and Easley -- represent a significant change in what Belichick has traditionally placed a high value on defensively.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Collins was one of the team's most athletic-but-raw draft picks in Belichick's 15-year tenure, a player without a clear-cut position after lining up at safety, linebacker and defensive end during his college career at Southern Mississippi. There was a time when Belichick seemed reluctant to utilize a top pick on such a projection, a point that was often repeated around draft time when it came to assessing how college 4-3 defensive ends might adapt to playing 3-4 outside linebacker.
As for the 6-foot-1, 288-pound Easley, he is a penetrating defensive tackle. In the team's Super Bowl championship run (2001, 2003, 2004), he almost certainly wouldn't have been viewed as a system fit because he's not a two-gapping, big-bodied 300-plus-pound force. Instead, he wins with his get-off quickness and explosion.
But he's a system fit now for a defense that has been in its subpackages (five or more defensive backs) in the middle to high 60th percentile in recent years. So whereas Belichick used to build his big, hard-hitting defense with the 3-4 base alignment in mind, now he seems to be building with the subpackage at the forefront of his thinking.
That's why the free-agent defection of run-thumping linebacker Brandon Spikes is less of a concern than maybe it would have been a decade ago.
"When I played, we used to be in our 3-4 base defense more than 50 percent of the time. Now it's down to about 30 percent of the time," said linebacker Ted Johnson, who played a Spikes-like role on the three Super Bowl championship defenses and now hosts a sports radio show in Houston. "You're going to smaller and faster guys now. It's a different game."
It sure is, and perhaps Belichick wasn't as quick to adjust to that as others around the NFL. He has adjusted now, and the 2014 Patriots defense – with the potential of having seven first-round picks on the field at the same time -- has a chance to be one of his best.
For the Patriots to bring the Lombardi trophy back to New England, this is where it starts.
8:30 a.m. ET -- Bill Belichick's opening news conference
8:45 a.m. ET -- News conferences with DE Rob Ninkovich, S Devin McCourty and G Logan Mankins
Wednesday marks the official reporting day for New England Patriots veterans, which usually includes the annual conditioning test. The rookies and most injured players have been in since Sunday.
Remarks from Belichick, Ninkovich, McCourty and Mankins will preview the first practice of camp, which is scheduled for Thursday morning. Based on the current forecast, the first practice could be a wet one, similar to last year. Quarterback Tom Brady, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork are already lined up to speak with reporters on Thursday after practice.
One question that is often asked from fans planning to attend is what conditions could move the practice inside and thus close it to the public. It is usually lightning, thunder or high winds that would lead to that decision. Otherwise, the Patriots usually practice outside. Those making plans are urged to call the training camp hotline at 508-549-0001 for the latest information.
As for Wednesday's news conferences, they will be much different than at this time last year, when it marked the first time Belichick addressed everything involving Aaron Hernandez.
We have our questions prepared and are ready to roll. More updates to come throughout the morning.