Things learned at OTAs, minicamp

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With five opportunities to view the Patriots practice in helmets and sweats this offseason, it’s safe to say we know a little more about the team compared to when the on-field work began.

We’ll certainly accrue more knowledge upon the continuation of practices during training camp, which will provide us our first look at a number of new Patriots acquired this offseason in full pads.

But before we get back to practice fields at Gillette Stadium, he’s a rundown of five things we learned during the media accessible OTA’s and minicamp.

1. Speed and athleticism will matter in 2012: Be it in the offensive backfield, secondary, linebacking corps or even the defensive line, the Patriots look improved athletically. In free agency, athletic additions came in the form of Jonathan Fanene, Brandon Lloyd, Bobby Carpenter and Daniel Fells. The draft supplemented the process by adding players such as Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. Chip in the development of players already on the roster, and it was clear that the Patriots will boast both speed and athleticism in 2012. We saw it during minicamp with many of the above mentioned players, and we may see it most clearly on the field with the team’s pass rush, which looks to improve this season.

2. The wide receiving competition is as good as advertised: As it currently stands, the Patriots will enter training camp with 11 receivers, and each seems to offer a package a little bit different from the next. While Wes Welker, Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and special teams ace Matthew Slater look like locks (with Deion Branch and Julian Edelman not far behind), the Patriots have a good problem on their hands with others such as Donte’ Stallworth and Britt Davis flashing on the field as well. Davis is an intriguing prospect because of his large frame, and Stallworth’s speed has been evident throughout the offseason. We can’t wait to see this position battle unfold in July and August.

3. A full offseason matters: In chatting with players, particularly younger players still relatively new to the NFL, it’s clear that a full offseason has made a difference across the board. Second and third-year players seemed to be especially thankful for the time to work and prepare, given the fact that the 2011 season was so unorthodox in nature during the lockout. Perhaps a full offseason is exactly what a player like running back Shane Vereen (2011 2nd round pick, 56th overall) needs to ready himself to make a major contribution to his team.

4. McDaniels a coordinator, teacher too: The return of Josh McDaniels was significant for the Patriots, as he has previously shown an ability to guide a record-setting offense with a handful of the pieces still in place for the 2012 season. He also reminded us this offseason that he’s more than just a game-planner and play-caller; he’s also an avid teacher. McDaniels never fell short on an opportunity to coach up either a player or a group of players, and that should pay dividends for the offense both in the near and long-term future. It will be especially compelling to follow his tutelage of quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, who look to continue on their respective arcs of development.

5. Offensive line questions exist: Keeping in mind that much can and likely will change between now and training camp, it’s clear that the offensive line presented a number of questions to us throughout the offseason. We saw shuffling and reorganization of line combinations, which was to be expected, but the absences of Logan Mankins (ACL), Sebastian Vollmer (ankle/back) and Brian Waters (personal) were noted. The Patriots may well settle back into a left-to-right alignment of Nate Solder, Mankins, Dan Connolly, Waters and Vollmer by season’s start, but for now the picture is less clear. With 17 linemen in the fold, the Patriots have a lot of pieces to play with. How it all shakes out will no doubt be worth following.