The Patriots held their first official practice of the post-Rob Ninkovich era on Tuesday morning, but two players couldn’t quite hang around for its entirety.
Julian Edelman and Stephon Gilmore were ejected following a skirmish in the end zone during an 11-on-11 drill in the practice’s final half hour, with Edelman throwing Gilmore to the ground after the two were engaged in coverage on the outside. Jacoby Brissett threw the errant pass, designed to be an out route to the right side of the field, which resulted in tensions boiling over.
Bill Belichick has a longstanding policy in place during training camp that any physical confrontation between players results in an early exit, regardless of stature or tenure with the team. Edelman is one of the longest-tenured Patriots, entering his ninth season in Foxborough, while Gilmore signed with New England as a free agent this offseason.
"It’s going to be competitive," Patriots special teams captain Matt Slater said of the incident. "It’s something that we understand; you get tired, you get hot, things happen. We’ve got to remember that we’ve got to take care of one another. It’s a long season and we need everybody. You saw what that resulted in; that’s been our policy, we all understand that, but sometimes things happen."
The players left the field separately so as to avoid further conflict.
Chris Hogan and Cyrus Jones, each in their second season with the Patriots, had a dustup at practice last week.
Ninkovich missed New England’s first three practices of camp last week, causing many to speculate that he was contemplating retirement. He confirmed those rumors on Sunday afternoon during a press conference at Gillette Stadium, stepping away from the NFL after 11 seasons – the last eight with the Patriots.
No player has yet been issued Ninkovich’s No. 50, a jersey which has become synonymous with under-the-radar linebackers blossoming in New England after failing to stick on their first NFL roster. Mike Vrabel donned No. 50 before Ninkovich, from 2001-2008.
Ninkovich’s 46 sacks with the Patriots rank fifth in team history (coincidentally, two behind Vrabel). Trey Flowers, whose breakout season in 2016 consisted of seven sacks, is among those who will be counted on to fill the shoes of Ninkovich along the edge.
"He was definitely a leader a guy who brought a lot to this defense," Flowers said of Ninkovich. "We’re going to miss him on that behalf, but it’ll create an opportunity for young guys to step up – young guys like myself – to fill those roles and understand it."
Tom Brady, who turns 40 on Thursday, finished 16 for 23 passing in full-team in 11-on-11 drills this morning. Backup Jimmy Garoppolo had a shaky day, throwing two interceptions to Justin Coleman and Damarius Travis, respectively. The fourth-year quarterback finished the day 8 for 15 in 11-on-11s, with third-stringer Brissett going 6 for 11.
On one particular stretch, the quarterbacks mixed-and-matched on a drill resembling a full length drive. Brady went 3 for 3, completing passes to Rob Gronkowski, Rex Burkhead and Edelman, Garoppolo went 0 for 2 – including his interception to Coleman – and Brissett completed his lone attempt, a quick slant to Brandin Cooks.
Cooks, a prized offseason acquisition for the Pats, is renowned for the blazing speed he demonstrated during his first three seasons with the New Orleans Saints.
Early returns are in, and the consensus is that the speed is both real, and spectacular.
"You don’t see that very often," Slater said of Cooks, whose 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2014 was 4.33 seconds. "Guys like that are very rare. God only makes a couple of those. It’s been fun to watch him do what he does well. I’m happy to have him as a part of this team, he’s a great addition to the group."
When asked if the title of "fastest man on campus" was being handed over – Slater ran a 4.44 40-yard dash coming out of UCLA in 2008 – Slater said that he was always up for competition.
"We all are," he said. "There’s a lot of fast guys around here. I think it makes us all better. But he [Cooks] is definitely one of the fastest guys within a 10-mile radius, no question."
Second-year linebacker Elandon Roberts looks to be okay after suffering a non-contact injury during a drill this morning. Roberts had his left cleat removed and examined by the Patriots’ training staff, who taped up his foot and ankle, and carried on with the day’s drills.
Notable absences today included safety Duron Harmon, who was not seen at Gillette; wide receivers Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell, who were present but did not practice; and linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive tackle Alan Branch, who remain on the PUP list.