Opinion: Patriots’ challenge in offseason is to merge new elements with old ones

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady made his much-anticipated return to the NFL universe on Tuesday as the New England Patriots opened their mandatory minicamp. He was sharp, energetic and even inspiring, hitting one target after another.

No, Mets fans, the “other” Tom Terrific has not lost his fastball or touch pass.

If only Bill Belichick served up some props.

Most coaches would be thrilled to see their 41-year-old quarterback can still drop a dime down the seam after skipping all of the voluntary work again this offseason, but Belichick is the antithesis of that notion. When someone asked how impressed he was with Brady’s showing, Belichick grumbled.

“There were 90 guys out there,” Belichick replied. “I can’t watch ‘em all.”

Of course, Belichick probably doesn’t need a display of what he’s seen from Brady for a few years running. Last year, the big story line at this stage involved Brady skipping the voluntary work as part of a supposed rift with the coach. Then they went out and won Super Bowl No. 6 together.

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The nonchalance from Belichick – who pointed out that Tuesday marked practice No. 6, to be exact – is what never changes with this setup. Belichick likes to hammer home the idea that every year is a new year, every team a new creation, starting from scratch.

To a large degree, that’s true. Players come and go. Coaches leave. Injuries happen. New deal.

This time, the Patriots are beginning life without Rob Gronkowski. They’ll switch in a new left tackle, 2018 first-round selection Isaiah Wynn, to protect Brady’s blind side. Trey Flowers is gone from the defense, though Jamie Collins has returned and Michael Bennett has arrived from Philadelphia. There’s a new big-play receiver in the mix in first-round pick N’Keal Harry.

Furthermore, Belichick is breaking in a few new pieces on the NFL’s smallest coaching staff. Brian Flores, the linebackers coach and de facto coordinator, left to become the Miami Dolphins' coach. Five others off last year’s staff are gone, too. The man hired to coordinate the defense, Greg Schiano, resigned a few weeks into the gig.

So it seemed fitting that there was heavy construction machinery situated Tuesday on a Gillette Stadium concourse that overlooked the practice fields.

That’s how it works at this place. Something is always getting fixed, tweaked or upgraded. The stadium construction project involved building out a plaza to facilitate a gathering place adjacent to the concession stands. The team construction involves defending a championship while making a new model.

Yet as long as Belichick and Brady are in tow, it still feels like the same old Patriots, with some new layers added to the ultimate coach-QB foundation. That’s not exactly starting from scratch, as good as that sounds. The culture with the Patriots is too rich for that.

Of course, Belichick sets the right tone.

Check out the jerseys: The rookies are all wearing numbers in the 50s and 60s. Harry had on No. 50. Second-round corner Joejuan Williams was No. 51. Even Collins, a seventh-year linebacker, was relegated to wearing No. 8.

They will earn their numbers and at the end of practice, they ran sprints up a hill.

This is starting from scratch.

“Practice No. 6,” Belichick said with a special, low-keyed quality, adding the OTA sessions that preceded minicamp. “Just working through it, one day at a time. Trying to make progress.”

Teaching is paramount at this time. Belichick emphasized that the player evaluations will come during training camp; now it’s a matter of putting players in different situations and positions to build a base of knowledge.

Somehow, they are always in the running at the finish. Sure, the Patriots have their challenges. But their bottom-line problems are not like everyone else’s issues. Not with Belichick, the best coach in the league at adapting, in his 20th season at the helm. Not with the NFL’s best quarterback.

Tough to start from scratch when you’ve won 10 consecutive AFC East titles and advanced to eight straight conference title games. But we get it, Bill: None of this is automatic.

Benjamin Watson, the 38-year-old tight end, came out of retirement to continue his career where it started. Drafted by the Patriots in 2004, he left a decade ago. Now he’s back. Each year entails a different season, but when Watson talks about the culture, expectations, fundamentals and stability, it says everything about the year-to-year carry-over.

Then there’s Brady, part of all that. Unlike Belichick, Watson surely noticed.

“Even before we got out here, he just had an excitement about going out and playing football,” Watson said of Brady. “Watching that, it’s contagious. Not only for me, it’s contagious for the whole team to see there’s a guy at his level who still enjoys doing it after all these years.”

New season or not, some things have remained the same.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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