FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski wasn't the only one taking a definitive step forward in his recovery process on Monday.
Dominique Easley took part in 11-on-11 team work for the first time this summer, just one week after being activated off of the active/non-football-injury list. The first-round draft choice out of the University of Florida is coming off of a torn ACL suffered last fall.
Just to get back on the field in shells and shorts during last Monday's practice was a monumental shift for Easley, who was seen during practices in as part of a rehabbing group of players, but he said he felt "like I'm a lost little kid" when he's not on the field.
Easley was full pads and competing against some of the team's top interior offensive linemen -- Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell among them -- during Monday's practice. The quick-off-the-ball defensive lineman said he welcomed the contact he saw and hoped to see more.
"That's what I've been doing all my life," he said. "It feels good to do it since I haven't done it for a year."
Easley explained after the workout that mentally he's been prepared for his re-insertion to practice. For him, taking mental reps in meeting rooms and bringing those lessons onto the field is not all that difficult.
Bill Belichick had a handful of players re-enter the practice setting Monday after missing various amounts of time, including Easley, Jerod Mayo, Tavon Wilson, James Anderson, Michael Hoomanawanui, and rookie Jeremy Gallon. Newly-acquired Patriots Jerel Worthy and Ben Bass were also practicing for the first time after spending a few days with the team.
Belichick said that it differs from player to player just how much they can take away from mental reps. While it may be easy for Easley to jump into the fold and be ready, it may be harder for another player.
"Well, it’s not as valuable as being on the field of course," Belichick said of meeting-room learning. "But I think some people, some players, have more of a capacity to learn without doing than others do. Some of us need to do it, to do it. Others of us can maybe hear it, visualize it and then go out and do it -- not perfectly but relatively well. I don’t think it’s all the same. I’d say if we have several players in that situation, some will perform better than others. I don’t think you know that until you actually get out there and have them do it.
"A lot of times you go through things in the classroom with a player whose not participating and he’ll have all the answers. You’ll ask him questions: ‘What would you do on this? What would you do on that? What’s your assignment here? What’s this adjustment?’ They can just rattle them right off. And then [they] get out on the field and it doesn’t happen that way and vice versa. Sometimes you get in the film room or the classroom and the answers don’t come very quickly and you feel like, ‘I don’t think this player really had a very good grasp of this situation or these plays’ and then you go out on the field and you don’t see that. You just see a better level."
For an example from New England's Super Bowl championship teams, Belichick said that Deion Branch was a player who could step on the field after taking a multitude of mental reps while injured and be ready to play as soon as he was healthy enough.
Branch missed eight weeks in 2004, but "came back the next week and I swear to God it was like he had been out there the whole time," Belichick said. "Other players miss one or two weeks and it takes them two or three weeks to get back to where they were."
We'll continue to monitor the progress of every player that has missed time -- Easley especially, given his first-round pedigree -- to see how close they are to Branch's end of the spectrum. If Easley is able to play Friday night against the Panthers, that would be a good opportunity to see how quickly he's gotten up to speed.