Thursday, July 29, 2010 Updated: July 30, 9:14 AM ET
Patriots camp filled with fresh faces
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The first day of New England Patriots training camp is in the books, and it might best be summed up this way: fresh start, fresh faces.
This team has a much different look than its uninspiring predecessor -- a younger look, and with that comes a new energy.
Perhaps more than any other time in Bill Belichick's 11-year tenure, he's counting on talented but unproven players to deliver in key spots. That seemed clear from watching two spirited, full-pads sessions Thursday, and one moment in particular seemed to be the perfect snapshot of this dynamic.
A full-team offense-versus-defense drill had just concluded during the morning session when Belichick sought out one player to go over what had just taken place. Of the nearly 80 players on the practice field, whom had Belichick targeted for one-on-one instruction?
Brandon Tate was one of several young players getting into the rotation on Day 1.
If you guessed rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, you must have been one of the rain-soaked 2,819 in attendance.
As players and coaches hustled to their next portion of practice, one couldn't miss Belichick and Spikes staying behind, the coach thrusting his arms in front of him to drive his point home. Spikes, easily spotted because of the bright red gloves he was wearing, nodded his head and took the hard coaching in stride.
This is part of what makes the 2010 New England Patriots compelling.
While the rival New York Jets have loaded up on big-name veterans, Belichick is putting his faith in several first- and second-year players, those who normally would arrive at Gillette Stadium for the first time and be reminded of how little they know and that they are better off being seen and not heard.
Consider that during a red zone drill in the afternoon practice, quarterback Tom Brady fired a touchdown pass to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski in the left-hand corner of the end zone and a few plays later connected with rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez on the right side for a touchdown on which Hernandez wrestled the ball away from safety Patrick Chung.
Speaking of Chung, he was the team's top draft choice last year, and it looks like he'll be given ample opportunity to earn a starting role next to Brandon Meriweather. If he comes through, and ultra-athletic 2009 second-round draft choice Darius Butler rises up as the starting left cornerback, the secondary will have an impressive injection of youth and athleticism.
The key word, of course, is if.
At times Thursday, first-round draft choice Devin McCourty rotated in at left cornerback with some of last season's starters. Rookie Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 53rd overall) did as well, knocking down two passes in the afternoon practice at outside linebacker. And when it was time to call on a receiver opposite Randy Moss, second-year man Brandon Tate got the nod.
More fresh faces.
The day started with Belichick giving reporters an early wake-up call, as he held a 9 a.m. ET news conference. He said a big emphasis for the coaching staff is "watching our younger players, seeing how much they've improved and seeing how it comes together with the new players that we've added on the team, and just evaluating the whole mix there."
Under threatening skies and thick humidity, players arrived to the two practice fields behind Gillette Stadium at 9:30 a.m. and received a cheer from the crowd. Morning practice ended at 11, and seemingly half the roster conducted interviews with reporters on their way off the field.
Perhaps the most compelling of them all was five-year veteran Rob Ninkovich, a 26-year-old outside linebacker who lined up opposite 2009 starter Tully Banta-Cain during practice.
"This is the best opportunity of my life," Ninkovich said.
The Patriots are thin and untested at outside linebacker, and some might be asking "Who?" when it comes to Ninkovich, who has never started an NFL game. He's yet another fresh face.
It was back to the practice fields at 3:45 p.m. for the second session -- this one under sunny skies -- and the intensity was high. At one point, Chung and second-year receiver Julian Edelman nearly got into it at the tail end of a play. Both play at 100 miles per hour and are cogs of the Patriots' youthful approach.
There is no youth movement at quarterback, however. Brady is cool and always seemingly in command.
There was a hold-your-breath moment when it looked like Brady got his legs tied up with a lineman while dropping in the pocket (he walked it off gingerly). But he didn't miss a play or the chance to connect with owner Robert Kraft at the end of practice. Brady walked toward Kraft and two senior executives of UnitedHealth Group, CEO Steve Hemsley and executive vice president Larry Renfro, and shook their hands before engaging in conversation.
That had to be a welcome sight to Patriots fans who might have heard speculation of late about a possible strained relationship between Brady and Kraft, a result of Brady entering the final year of his contract.
The practice ended with the players coming together in the middle of the field and singing "Happy Birthday" to defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, who later had a bucket of Gatorade dumped on him by veteran Ty Warren. Warren's laughter could be heard across the practice field.
In all, the Patriots reported a total of 6,914 spectators walked through the gates for the morning and afternoon practices. What the fans saw was a team with a new look.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.