- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass in one of the team's recent practices, his top receivers were Minnesota Vikings castoff Michael Jenkins and little-known Kamar Aiken on the outside, with Danny Amendola in the slot.
Then, when he worked on a different field while many players were going through special-teams drills, Brady was paired with tight ends Jake Ballard and Zach Sudfeld, a rookie free agent out of Nevada.
Watching it unfold, there were a few prevailing thoughts.
First, it's probably a good thing for the New England Patriots that it's early June, three months away from the regular-season opener on the road against the Bills. Maybe by then, injured players like receiver Julian Edelman (foot) and tight ends Rob Gronkowski (forearm/back) and Aaron Hernandez (shoulder) will be part of the mix, leading to a crisper passing game than was seen in recent weeks. Or maybe the two promising receivers selected in the 2013 draft -- Marshall's Aaron Dobson (second round, 59th overall) and Texas Christian's Josh Boyce (fourth round, 102nd overall) -- will have emerged.
Still, those "what-ifs" spark the question of whether the "redo" at the receiver position is ultimately going to work out as desired. If the Patriots are relying on a healthy Edelman to change things, or rookies to be difference-makers, will that be good enough?
And finally, there is this: Maybe too much of the burden is being placed on Brady himself. While Peyton Manning throws to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker in the Denver Broncos' three-receiver set, Brady is currently doing the best he can with a Jenkins-Aiken-Amendola trio.
If 2007 was nirvana -- a chance to throw to Pro Bowl talents like Randy Moss and Wes Welker, with Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth mixed in with tight end Benjamin Watson -- this looks more like 2006 based on the present snapshot. That was the season in which Reche Caldwell was the Patriots' leading receiver. It was also the season in which the Patriots still advanced to the AFC Championship Game.
This captures part of the intrigue surrounding the 2013 Patriots and their once-lethal (still-lethal?) passing game.
One line of thinking is that if Brady could get the Patriots to the cusp of the Super Bowl while throwing to Caldwell, Doug Gabriel, Troy Brown, Chad Jackson & Co. in 2006, why couldn't he do it again with the current unheralded group? Fair enough. Then there's the other line of thinking: Why make it harder on Brady than maybe it has to be?
No matter the viewpoint, something most can agree upon is that early June isn't the time to make sweeping judgments. It's a work in progress, as it always is at this time of year.
"It is early," stressed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this week. "As coaches, we usually have plenty of changes from one year to the next. Sometimes it seems like it's at one position, sometimes it seems like it's across the board. This is really a part of every year that we have in coaching in the NFL. We know there is going to be some turnover, some different players.
"The guys that are out there are working really hard, and we're learning every day," he continued. "We're going to make mistakes at this time of the year, but that's what this is for; to try to get better and improve and learn from the things that we're not doing well. Hopefully after 13 practices you're more prepared to go to training camp and these guys have been really adamant about working hard, staying after it, doing the extra work we need to stay after it to get better."
There was one snapshot from practice that was notable, with Brady working with his receivers on stutter comeback routes. As one receiver took a poor angle on the comeback part of the route, Brady could be heard yelling out what correction needed to be made. He wanted it tighter. For that moment, it was almost as if Brady the quarterback had morphed into Brady the coach.
It's often said that if a receiver can't earn Brady's trust by being in the right spot, it's going to be a challenge for that receiver to emerge, and there has been a lot of that trust-building unfolding -- for better or worse -- over the last four weeks at Gillette Stadium.
Brady and Amendola seem to have advanced the furthest in a short period of time. Meanwhile, Dobson's initial foray has seemingly been less smooth (some might say that is par for the course with a rookie) and bears watching come training camp because his upside and knack for coming down with contested catches is obvious.
For Brady, who turns 36 and craves another Super Bowl championship, it has almost been like starting back at square one again. Sure, he goes through the same process every year, but usually there is some type of foundation already established with his receivers. Thus, with all the new parts, the organized team activities have been an especially important time for him and his new targets, as well as the coaching staff.
"We have to go back and establish a foundation. We have to teach them what we believe in and what our system is all about," McDaniels said when asked if what he's seen on the field reminds him at all of 2007, when the team overhauled the position with Moss, Welker, Stallworth & Co.
"That happened in 2007, and it happened in '06 with Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney. It happened in subsequent years with different players at different positions. So our mode and our approach doesn't really change. We still go back and teach them from A to Z."
Perhaps it was a coincidence that McDaniels mentioned 2006 and 2007 in the same sentence, as those were the seasons, for different reasons, that also came to mind while watching the 2013 Patriots practice in recent weeks.
It's another receiver overhaul, and this one looks like it has some early predictable growing pains.
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