Coach Bill Belichick does not have the opportunity to work with young players in mini-camp, so plans to use training camp handle those things they normally would in the spring. Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The NFL’s on-field window is closing fast.

Mandatory minicamps are the last vestiges of an offseason that’s gone entirely virtual. Barring a miracle, these critical periods will soon be shifted online, too.

For the Patriots, minicamp offered a three-day peek into the franchise’s private, protected world. Every year at the start of June, the team would practice outside Gillette Stadium before a throng of media. Notes were scribbled, stories were written and predictions, backed by real football observations, were born.

Minicamps are not necessarily predictive. The sample size of on-field product, diluted by the absence of pads and emphasis on instruction over competition, is often too small to be meaningful.

For example, wide receivers Maurice Harris and Braxton Berrios snatched everything in sight last year from Tom Brady. Their performances sparked speculation they would provide legitimate and vital depth for the 2019 team. Barely two months later, Harris was gone, and Berrios was en route to becoming one of the team’s first calls on cutdown day.

Then again, during the same minicamp and within the same position group, N’Keal Harry struggled to separate from man coverage – a theme of his disappointing rookie campaign – while undrafted teammates, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, showcased natural ball skills that made them sleeper picks to make the final 53-man roster. Elsewhere, the Pats secondary dominated team periods, and Jamie Collins was a pleasant surprise, balling out in the middle of Bill Belichick’s defense. While Collins’ stellar play only lasted half a season, Stephon Gilmore and the defensive backs later locked up everyone in sight from Week 1 through 17.

Veteran players often remark how they can tell within minutes whether an incoming rookie can hang in the NFL. While not all rookies develop at the same rate or react to their first pro snaps identically, if their practice sample is strong enough, its size doesn’t matter.

The kids can play, or they can’t.

Akin to those veterans, these impressions are what the media and public are missing most without a minicamp; the ability to tell instantly that Gilmore was on a special track or that Harry may fall behind his less heralded teammates.

So what will the Patriots lose if their minicamp practices are lost?

For starters, not much from a competitive standpoint.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has been mindful of maintaining a level playing field, recently extending the NFL’s virtual offseason through mid-June. Coaching staffs could soon return to team facilities, but their meetings with players must still be conducted remotely. No one, at least officially, will have a head start.

In those meetings, much of what will happen would usually be a precursor to on-field work. It’s all about teaching for the staff; concepts, plays, techniques and fundamentals. For the players, how much they absorb during these days would normally lay the foundation for their season to come.

Belichick explained his offseason philosophy in April, stressing that his coaches take a blanket approach with their instruction.

“I think the spring is always the time for the players to learn the offense, to work on their fundamentals, their basic techniques and the refinement all comes at a little later point in time,” Belichick said. “If we don’t have an opportunity to do that this spring, then there’s nothing we can do about that. We’ll deal with it in training camp.

“But, before we can start getting too fine-tuned and too specific, we all need to understand the basics, the fundamentals, the basic communication, the fundamentals of our technique, the fundamentals of the running game, the passing game, so forth. And then we’ll tailor those to an individual player, whatever position it is.”

In this sense, the team’s off-field work won’t be much different. The classroom coaching will continue, just virtually. As for the on-field emphasis on fundamentals, it’s safe to assume those periods will be pushed into training camp, where players will spend less of their time getting specialized coaching. That leaves young players who are stepping into larger roles and whose success depends on the execution of several specialized skills seemingly at a disadvantage; players like Jarrett Stidham.

As a quarterback, the lack of practices figure to hurt him more than most, considering he will need time to continue developing chemistry with the team’s pass-catchers. However, Stidham can still organize and execute passing sessions away from Foxborough, as Brady once did and continues to do in Tampa Bay. Depending on the quality of those sessions, Stidham may miss precious little in that regard and be able to jump straight into training camp as the anticipated starter.

Although no matter how often Stidham may or may not organize such sessions, there’s nothing to replace what else is annually developed at Gillette during minicamp: camaraderie.

“That’s what you really miss, because football teams are built on relationships,” Pats safety and captain Devin McCourty told the Boston Herald last week.” You become a good team when you’re not just playing for your contract or for fame, but you’re playing for the guys you’re in the locker room with. This is the time of year when we build that, so it’s a lot different doing it virtually.”

Whenever the Patriots reconvene, it’s obvious they will adapt to make up for lost time; just as they always do and did back in 2011, when the league’s last lockout erased any player-coach contact over the offseason. That year, without a minicamp, OTAs or any prior work, the Pats went 13-3 and reached the Super Bowl. They proved what’s always been known about the NFL: those who adapt and perform best under pressure will always survive.

Therefore, in a way, how significantly a lost minicamp impacts the Patriots should be up to them.

It will be measured by the return of the investments they made with their new free time.


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