- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots held their sixth organized team activity on Thursday, and the second open to reporters.
Here were the big takeaways from this perspective:
Belichick's expectations crystal clear: At one point during 11-on-11 drills, Patriots coach Bill Belichick sent the entire defense on a lap around the field. When the defense returned from the lap, there was a quick huddle and Belichick's voice could be heard from well across the field. This was a reminder that while these OTAs are voluntary, expectations remain high, particularly when it comes to being mentally sharp. What seemed to draw Belichick's ire was a substitution/personnel error.
Red-zone passing part of the itinerary: With 10 organized team activities to cover the team's vast playbook, each practice features a little bit something different. Today's session included quite a bit of red-zone passing, and that's where 6-foot-2, 210-pound receiver Brandon LaFell caught our eye with one of the nicer plays of the day in a half-line drill (2 WRs vs. 3 DBs all aligned to the left side) with the ball spotted at the 7-yard line. One purpose of the drill is to test communication between the three defensive backs when receivers motion before the snap, and also to make it harder for receivers to get open with the numbers (2 on 3) stacked against them. LaFell ran a flag route to the back left-hand corner of the end zone, and quarterback Tom Brady threw a perfect high-arcing pass for the score. Why did the play stand out? Because at 6-foot-2, LaFell's size makes him a possible red-zone threat compared to most other receivers on the roster and I'm not sure that's a play that Julian Edelman (5-10, 200) and Danny Amendola (5-11, 195) -- both of whom are effective in other ways -- would make. "If you're a big receiver, you have to become even bigger in the red zone," LaFell said after practice. "Hopefully I can do that here."
First look at rookie quarterback Garoppolo: Because he was required to attend the NFL Players Association rookie premiere event, Jimmy Garoppolo missed last Friday's organized activity that was open to reporters. So this was our first exposure to him on the field and the first thing that stands out about Garoppolo (6-2, 226) is how it's a different look behind center when compared to Tom Brady (6-4, 225) and Ryan Mallett (6-6, 245). It kind of reminded me of 2005 with Doug Flutie, who was sometimes a bit harder to identify at first glance because of his smaller stature. Garoppolo's quick release is notable, and as offensive lineman Logan Mankins said after practice, "I think he's made a few good plays and a few bad ones. That's expected of someone at that stage." That probably best sums up our first look at Garoppolo.
Kickoff return is the focus on special teams: Every Patriots practice usually has one segment devoted specifically to special teams, and today it was the kickoff return unit. This is an interesting area to monitor now that running back LeGarrette Blount, who assumed the role late last year, has signed with the Steelers. The three main returners were second-year wide receiver Josh Boyce, first-year receiver Reggie Dunn, and rookie running back Roy Finch. One common thread between them: They can get into top gear quickly, which is an interesting contrast from the bigger, more physical Blount. Running backs Shane Vereen and James White, and receiver Brandon LaFell worked alongside each returner, which is a role usually held by special teams captain Matthew Slater (did not practice).
Working in the rain: There has been steady rain in the area today, but as he usually does, Belichick had the team working outside on the two practice fields behind Gillette Stadium. This was particularly a challenge for the ball-handlers, as there were a handful of dropped passes, and one ball on the ground with a center/quarterback exchange (Bryan Stork/Mallett). I didn't notice any of the backs losing the football on run plays. Part of the reason Belichick likes to work outside is that the team could face these type of elements at some point. Thus, he figures it's good practice to work in the rain. Also, there is the logistical aspect of trying to fit 75-plus players in the much smaller Dana-Farber Fieldhouse indoor space.
Defensive plays of note: Linebacker Chris White leading the huddle and then following a running back down the left sideline and turning his head/hips in textbook form to intercept a Garoppolo pass. … Cornerback Brandon Browner intercepting Brady in 11-on-11 drills, which got a rise out of the defense. … Rookie defensive back Travis Hawkins with a pass breakup in red-zone drills.
Attendance report: Players not spotted included defensive tackle Armond Armstead, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, receiver Aaron Dobson, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, offensive tackle Cameron Fleming, and receiver Jeremy Gallon.
Limited report: Players who were spotted at the start of practice but then went off for rehab work included running back Brandon Bolden, cornerback Justin Green, tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, receiver Matthew Slater, defensive end Will Smith, left tackle Nate Solder, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end D.J. Williams.