Gronk smiles after hearing the crowd roar as he catches a toss from Brady. (SBalestrieri photo)

Rob Gronkowski took part in team drills and contact for the first time in 2014. (SBalestrieri photo)

The Patriots conducted their 16th and final training camp practice in near perfect weather conditions with temps in the high 70s with sunny skies. The full-pads practice was much less intense than other sessions we’ve seen during camp but it looks like things are starting to take on a more regular season feel to it.

Here are a few of the observations I witnessed on Monday afternoon:

Gronk Returns to Contact: The big buzz of the afternoon was that tight end Rob Gronkowski took part in his first team drills of training camp. While he’s been on the field for most of training camp, most of his work has been on the side with Tom Brady and Darrelle Revis. But on Monday, Gronk took part in 7-7s and 11-11s for the first time…with contact.

Gronkowski wasn’t alone; not only he but Aaron Dobson and Dominique Easley took part in team drills for the first time. With three weeks to go before the Patriots take on Miami in the season opener, there is a cause for optimism now that two of their biggest weapons on offense as well as their #1 draft pick are now active participants.

Brady wasted very little time finding Gronkowski and then Dobson in 7-7 drills, much to the delight of the fans witnessing the final public practice of 2014. Gronkowski looks ready and sounds ready for more,”Definitely a step forward with participating more and more. It’s doing well so far, no setbacks or anything”, he said. “I’m having a blast competing back out there.”

He showed signs of a little bit of rust when after a short completion in the flat, he was stripped of the ball by Malcolm Butler but Gronk stated firmly, “on my behalf, I have to do a better job of taking care of the ball.”

Gronkowski stated that his fitness level is good but that there are no substitutes for running plays and going right back to the huddle and run them again. The next step for him promises to be more active drills with run blocking and tackling involved. Sounds like the chances of him playing in Week 1 just increased.

MIA List Shrinks: The news was also good on returning players, with Brian Stork, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Jeremy Gallon as well as Jerod Mayo all returning to practice. Stork and Hooman quickly retreated to the elliptical machines at the far end of the field. Gallon worked with a member of the training staff on the lower fields. Tommy Kelly arrived about 45-50 minutes late for practice with pads but no jersey on….

Kanorris Davis, James Anderson and Ja’Gared Davis also returned. Missing included Sebastian Vollmer, D.J. Williams, Cameron Gordon, Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga.

Easley Flashes Burst: At the time of his drafting much was made of his explosion off the ball and his ability to be a disruptor in the backfield. Easley isn’t a typical Patriots two-gap lineman. At 6’2, 290, he’s slightly undersized but he was watched closely in the 1-1, 2-2 lineman drills and he didn’t disappoint.

On his first go-round, he blew right past Ryan Wendell in a split second, beating him cleanly. In the 2-2s he and Marcus Forston got inside for what would have been another sack, as he used a spin move to beat Dan Connolly.

While strictly a small sample and with Easley still having a long way to go, it’s obvious why the team was so high on him. After practice I asked a long-time Patriots insider his thoughts on what we saw, while waiting for the players to come over for interviews. “Wow….just wow”, he said. I tend to agree with that sentiment.

Butler Continues to Shine: Malcolm Butler has been the surprise story of training camp. So on the last day for the public to witness camp, what better way to wrap things up than to have a couple of stand-out plays.

We already mentioned that he stripped Gronkowski during one drill; he also picked off a Brady deep pass when the QB tried to find Brian Tyms during another. Butler is making a strong case for not only making the 53 man roster but garnering plenty of playing time during Brandon Browner’s 4 game suspension at the start of the season.

James Anderson also made a nice play, picking off a Brady pass that was earmarked for Danny Amendola down the left hashmark. Anderson read the play perfectly and broke on the ball quickly for the interception.

The Patriots, not surprisingly spent a lot of time on Special Teams, especially punt protection on Monday. Coach Scott O’Brien could be heard screaming at one player thought to be James White for missing a blocking assignment.

Will Smith blew thru Marcus Cannon on one play which would have resulted in a sack of Ryan Mallett. Smith saw a lot more reps with Kelly missing. Also on the pass rush, Jamie Collins looked very strong on a couple of different occasions, applying pressure and disrupting timing. Collins has looked stronger this season without losing any of his athleticism.

Rookie Zach Moore spent some time on the field goal team, which is a bit different. His blue jersey stuck right out in the sea of white on the offensive side of the ball.

After practice, the entire team took to the sidelines to sign autographs for the fans and pose for pics. Even Bill Belichick got into the act. Many of the players with families on hand played with their kids on the field at the end of the day.

Also after practice new defensive tackles Ben Bass and Jerel Worthy spent some time with the media. During practice both worked on the side with some of the training staff on some individual drills.

The team will continue to prepare for the Friday matchup with the Carolina Panthers so  be sure to check out PatsFans.com for the latest updates. We also are updating the stats database and now have the PatsPicker where you can play GM and select your own 53 man roster for the Patriots.

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