FOXBORO, Mass. -- The road to the Super Bowl began yesterday under the hot sun of Gillette Stadium as the Patriots opened training camp the delight of more than 1,000 fans in attendance.
It's all smiles and high hopes this time of year. Even Bill Belichick got into the mood - I mean, when's the last time you heard the old ball coach use the word 'exciting?'
"It's exciting to get out to camp. I'm excited to see everyone come back," Belichick said. "I think we had a decent start, but we've got a long way to go."
Belichick was a little off in his comments, however. Everyone was not in attendance. The team put several players on the physically unable to perform list, including Richard Seymour, Chad Jackson and Randall Gay, but the biggest no show was former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch.
Branch is holding out of camp because of his unhappiness with his contract, which is set to expire at the end of the season. He is in the final deal of his rookie contract and is looking for a higher payday.
"I love Deion," said quarterback Tom Brady, who was surrounded by a hoard of media members after practice. "He's such a fun guy to be around and you definitely realize when he's not here it's out of my hands, it's out of my control. It's between the club and Deion. It's not like it doesn't happen so you just go with the flow and roll with the punches.
Branch's absence left Brady without a familiar split end to throw the ball to.
Veteran Troy Brown was not at practice during the morning session yesterday, but Brady did find a familiar number lining up at receiver: No. 87, David Givens' old number, which is now being worn by former San Diego Charger Reche Caldwell.
"Reche (Caldwell) did some good things," Brady said. "I'm glad he's here. He's an exciting player."
Caldwell showed he is an exciting player during 11-on-11 drills when, playing along side John Stone at wide receiver with the first unit, he made a great diving catch, beating second-year cornerback Ellis Hobbs to draw a large cheer from the crowd.
Another player taking advantage of others missing practice was Ben Watson. The former Georgia Bulldog was one of only a handful of tight ends at practice yesterday and caught some balls from Brady during drills.
"The most important thing is getting used to wearing the pads again and getting your conditioning and wind into you," Watson said. "The most important thing is getting into shape."
Another great sight for Patriots' fans was the training camp return of Tedy Bruschi, who missed all but the final ten games of last season while recovering from a stroke he suffered last offseason.
Bruschi, who has averaged 95 tackles per season in the last five years, took his spot in the middle of the defense at inside linebacker with the first unit.
"I had a really good offseason," said Bruschi, who intercepted Brady during drills while Brady was trying to get the ball to Corey Dillon. "This year, I'm looking to have a good season and get ready for the opener."
The secondary also would seem strange to the naked eye. With Rodney Harrison and Randall Gay on the PUP list, Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs and even safety Eugene Wilson played cornerback during camp while Tebucky Jones, Artrell Hawkins and Guss Scott saw time at safety.
"Every year, there's new faces, new people and new draft picks," Samuel said. "That's the only way to make a team stay competitive."
First-round pick Laurence Maroney was on the field after agreeing to a contract with the Patriots late Thursday night. A rookie out of Minnesota, Maroney is expected to challenge Corey Dillon for the role as featured back in the offense behind Tom Brady.
Maroney's signing was the last of the draft picks, who were all at practice except Garrett Mills.
"Every time a player is on the field he has a chance to work on his technique and work on his skills to get better," Belichick said. "The more you're out there the more reps you get and more chance to improve on a day-to-day basis."
Joining Seymour, Gay and others on the PUP list was WR Bam Childress, T Nick Kaczur, C Dan Koppen, FB Patrick Pass, LS Lonie Paxton and DL Johnathan Sullivan Mills, brown and Graham were not put on the PUP list, but were also not at practice. Safety Jarvis Herring was released yesterday morning. New England signed veteran tight end Walter Rasby to take his roster spot. Rasby has played for a handful of teams in his 11-year career. Kevin Faulk got some work in on returning punts, which most were boomers off the foot of Josh Miller. The race to replace Adam Vinateri seems to be a dead heat so far between Martin Gramatica and rookie Stephen Gostkowski. the crowd at training camp will tell you who the most popular Patriot is. Every time Tom Brady got near the sidelines during a drill, the crowd would erupt in a loud cheer. Camp resumes Saturday with a morning practice at 8:45 a.m. and an evening practice at 5:30. The team will practice on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. then return to two-a-days on Monday.
Jonathan Darling is a special contributor to Patriots Insider. Jonathan's articles can be found regularly here on Patriots Insider by searching for "Jonathan Darling" in the archives.
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