WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – Jimmy Johnson knows a little something about building a powerhouse NFL franchise, as he did in Dallas in the early 1990s. Through his longtime friendship with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, Johnson has probably had some influence on the dynasty that shows little sign of slowing down these days in New England.
When the two met decades ago at the Kentucky Derby, no one could have predicted where Belichick would ascend to in the world of football. But his spot, according to Johnson, is quite clear.
“He’s the best ever, and I made that statement before the (Super Bowl), but I also made that statement a year ago and two years ago,” Johnson told Patriots.com recently. “It’s not something I just recently decided. Having watched Bill over the years, it goes all the way back to Cleveland, when we first met and built a relationship.
“He covers all the bases. He’s very thorough. He approaches the job in a way that every coach should envy. And one thing about his teams, they’re always better prepared than their opponents. And that’s because of him.”
Like Belichick, Johnson oversaw both coaching and personnel in his time in Dallas and later with the Dolphins. It’s an almost infinitely demanding responsibility that generally is too much for those who are even given the chance to wear both hats.
“The job is almost overwhelming, and obviously you’ve got to have the right kind of people assisting you and helping you do it the right way,” Johnson said. “And Bill does. But there’s very few in the NFL, and very few that’s been in the NFL who can do all the jobs that he does.
“I’ll just say one more thing about Bill Belichick: He’s the best.”
Belichick had a couple of his coaching friends from other sports on hand as guests during the joint practice action with the Texans. That included former Major League Baseball manager Tony La Russa and former Indiana University men’s basketball coach Tom Crean.
“When we’re together, I’m asking the questions, he’s talking, and I’m taking notes. He’s not taking my notes,” LaRussa said with a chuckle before highlighting what he sees as the strength of his pal’s coaching style.
“I believe his ability and his staff’s ability, and his team’s ability to start at zero every year – refuse to think about last year – is an important part of why they are so consistent. It’s easy to celebrate the next year. The ability to turn the clock to zero is really impressive and very hard.”
“My relationship with Tony has been great,” Belichick said. “I’ve learned a lot from somebody as accomplished as he is in another sport. I’ll never forget the time he let me get in the dugout with him for an exhibition game. Baseball – it seems like just throw it and hit it, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I saw just how much there is on every single pitch and the focus, concentration, all of that.”
Crean offered up his observations about Belichick, the coach and the person.
“Everything matters every day,” Crean said. “As simple as that sounds, it’s very complex and hard because there are so many things that can distract, that can interrupt that, can get in the way of it. When I think of fundamentals, and preaching the fundamentals and details on a day-to-day basis – and then watching it come out in his team – that’s one place you’re going to look. He leaves nothing to chance. It would be hard to imagine something missing his radar or the people that are around him.
“He’s been very, very good to me, very helpful,” added Crean. “I think that’s one of the reasons he’s such a great leader, great developer of teams, programs, players. He’s always inquisitive. You can get an idea of how great he is with his team because of the way he helps his friends.”
“Again, different sport,” Belichick said of his kinship with Crean, “but I learned a lot from his organization … Different motivations, teachings, he is a very progressive guy … We speak pretty frequently.
FOXBORO — There are few things that players, coaches, fans and media agree on. But it’s hard to find anyone in those groups with a negative word about training camp practices between NFL teams.
So when the Patriots opened up joint workouts with the Jaguars on Monday on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium in front of huge crowds of fans and a massive media contingent, nothing but positives were voiced in the post-practice interviews.
“They’re really beneficial,” said New England tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“Obviously it’s always good to go versus each other as a team, but when you get a new opponent, when you get new looks, new defense, new players, it’s always great. It’s like more of a game feel and everything. It’s very beneficial for myself and the whole team.”
Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler agreed. While the former Pro Bowl defender faces the likes of Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and the foundation of an elite passing attack each practice, shaking off the familiarity of those battles has clear benefits.
“It’s great to work against somebody other than Julian, (Danny) Amendola and our guys,” Butler said after a practice in which he notched an interception against Jacksonville starter Blake Bortles.
Butler said the intensity of going against a different team, even in a practice setting, brings everything closer to the level of game action that’s less than a month away.
“I most definitely got winded out there, going hard each and every play,” Butler said, “but that’s what we need. The season is near … well, the season is here. Practice turns into game reality. Got to work hard.”
New England has three days of work with the Jags heading into the preseason opener for both teams. Then, the Patriots will travel to West Virginia to Texans camp for a few days of joint work with Houston. Joint sessions have become the norm for Bill Belichick’s teams in recent years, but not everyone is used to the format.
“Today is my first time going against another team in training camp,” said new Patriots linebacker David Harris, who spent 10 seasons with the New York Jets.
“It was good to hit someone other than ourselves … it’s a high level of competition on both sides. It’s a good measuring stick. That’s what these practices are for, to see if you can carry over from the normal practice. We’re still learning, it’s still training camp. Still have a long way to go, but it’s a good start.”
In practice Monday against Jacksonville, the Patriots’ offense made plenty of plays but also had some issues with dropped passes and miscommunications. Gronkowski had a rare drop.
“We’ve always got a lot of work to put in,” he said. “No matter if we caught every ball (or) if we got a first down every play, there’s always work that you can put in.”
And as Belichick has referenced in the past, sometimes there is no better place to get that done than in joint practice action this time of year. Gronkowski said the value of these reps can surpass even game action at this point in the process.
“(During) joint practices you can analyze the play right after, go to your coach, see what’s going on, see what you did wrong,” Gronkowski said.
“Games, it’s more, ‘Boom, you’re on to the next play.’ But out here in practice you can definitely get the feel of it, learn from your mistakes and keep getting better.”
–RB Mike Gillislee has been in full pads but only doing rehab work during recent Patriots training camp practice as he deals with an apparent hamstring injury.
–WR Malcolm Mitchell has practiced since the first day of camp, despite being on the practice field in full pads. The second-year receiver, who dealt with a knee injury last fall and dealt with injury issues at Georgia, has been doing rehab work on a side practice field.
–WR Cody Hollister has not practiced since the second day of training camp due to an apparent left shoulder injury. The undrafted rookie has been on the practice field in recent days doing rehab work.
–OT Nate Solder has missed the last three practices due to an unknown injury. The veteran has been on the field in full pads doing rehab work
(Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange)
FOXBORO — With all the bickering about whether the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots should even talk about going undefeated, head coach Bill Belichick was probably thrilled when the yakking was replaced by a focus on tasks at hand when the improved roster reported here for training camp Wednesday (July 26). For example, before the Patriots can even think about their first victory, let alone an undefeated season, they must tend to details, such as the battle for No. 3 cornerback.
With big-money free-agent signing Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler atop the cornerback depth chart, New England starts a pair of Pro-Bowl talents on the outside. That duo should be the foundation – along with high-level safety play from Pro Bowler Devin McCourty and returning vets Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon – for what may be one of the top defensive backfields in the NFL The biggest question in the group is with the No. 3 cornerback spot and, tangentially, who will play in the slot.
Yeah, mundane stuff for a team with such lofty ambitions, but the key to success for Belichick and the Patriots is to put a magnifying glass on the little things and get them right.
Eric Rowe was added via trade last season and evolved into a key force on the way to the Super Bowl, capping the season with a big day in the big game. But the former Eagles second-round pick is a bigger (6-foot-1, 205) matchup corner ill-suited for the inside. If he retains the third corner job he had last winter, it would likely mean Butler would move into the slot in nickel and dime packages.
Other options for the No. 3 job include 2016 second-round pick Cyrus Jones, who struggled mightily on both defense and special teams as a rookie. He was drafted out of Alabama with an eye on the slot corner job but as of yet hasn’t shown the ability to fill the role in practice or limited game action. Fellow second-year player and former undrafted player Jonathan Jones got some starter reps this spring and he’ll also battle third-year former undrafted corner Justin Coleman for rotational reps.
The No. 3 cornerback is essentially a starting job in the modern pass-happy NFL, so the battle for that role will be one to watch this summer in Foxborough. Or is it Foxboro? Belichick needs to fix that, too.
Newsworthy as the Patriots opened camp was the decision by wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, signed in the offseason as a free agent, to retire.
TRAINING CAMP: Gillette Stadium; Foxboro, Mass.
COACH: Bill Belichick
18th season with Patriots
226-80 overall; 25-9 postseason
23rd season as NFL head coach
263-125 overall; 26-10 postseason
2016 finish: 1st AFC East (14-2)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 386.3 (4th)
RUSHING: 117.0 (7th)
PASSING: 269.3 (4th)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 326.4 (8th)
RUSHING: 88.6 (T3rd)
PASSING: 237.9 (12th)
2017 PRESEASON SCHEDULE
All times Eastern
Aug. 10, JACKSONVILLE (Thu), 7:30
Aug. 19, at Houston (Sat), 8:00
Aug. 25, at Detroit (Fri), 7:00
Aug. 31, N.Y. GIANTS (Thu), 7:30
QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Tom Brady. Backups – Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett.
Brady will turn 40 in the second week of his 18th training camp, but the man picking up more G.O.A.T. votes each season shows no signs of slowing down. After missing the first four games of 2016 to his Deflategate suspension, Brady put forth an MVP-worthy regular season in which he threw 28 touchdowns with just two picks, completed 67 percent of his passes and a 112.2 passer rating that was the second best of his career. Oh, and he capped it all with a historic comeback in Super Bowl LI to earn his fifth ring and fourth Super Bowl MVP. New England’s embarrassment of riches at the most important position in sports doesn’t end with Brady, though, as the team reportedly passed up a number of trade offers for the fourth-year backup Garoppolo this spring that could have brought a first-round pick and then some to the draft coffers. Heck, the Patriots even have a second-year quarterback in Brissett, who cobbled together a win for the team in his own rookie debut last September.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter – Mike Gillislee. Backups – James White, Rex Burkhead, FB James Develin, Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, LeShun Daniels Jr., FB Glenn Gronkowski.
It’s not often that a team lets a franchise-record-setter from the previous season walk and feels like the position may actually end up an upgrade. But that’s exactly what happened for the Patriots this spring as LeGarrette Blount and his NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns ran off in free agency to the Eagles while New England added former Bills restricted free agent Gillislee and versatile Bengals backup Burkhead to a new-look backfield committee. Gillislee clearly offers youthful upside going from the Bills’ run-first attack to the benefits of playing in the Brady-led passing game in New England. Meanwhile, White returns as the top receiving back after a historic Super Bowl LI performance. After catching 60 passes last regular season, White had three touchdowns – including the game-winner in overtime – and a two-point play on the biggest stage that helped earn him an offseason contract extension. Lewis is now more than a full year removed from the torn ACL that cut short his 2015 campaign that saw him put forth an electric, breakout effort as both a runner and receiver in the first seven weeks. Burkhead is the wild card. He signed a contract worth $3 million this season, more than any Patriots back since Fred Taylor in 2010. That for a guy with one career start who was basically a special teamer until the final two-plus games last season in Cincinnati. Develin is a trusted fullback and special teamer who brings grit, physicality and leadership that’s been lauded by his teammates and coaches alike.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Rob Gronkowski. Backups – Dwayne Allen, James O’Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel, Jacob Hollister, Sam Cotton.
Gronkowski proved two things in 2016: that he’s the most dominant tight end in the game when healthy and that staying healthy remains a concern. The big man battled a hamstring injury to open the year and then landed on injured reserve on the way to his third career back surgery. He signed a contract restructure this offseason that will double his pay to more than $10 million if he can put up the elite numbers he’s capable assuming he can stay on the field. While he’s battling to return to his best, Allen arrives to try to fill the void of Martellus Bennett’s departure. Allen has never put up huge reception numbers, but did have six touchdowns in two of the last three years in Indianapolis and should benefit from playing with Gronkowski as a complementary weapon working with Brady. O’Shaughnessy also arrives via trade, coming from Kansas City where he was primarily a special teams contributor. He’ll compete with Lengel, who was signed off the Bengals practice squad last fall to fill in after Gronkowski’s injury and hauled in his first career touchdown among his two catches.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan. Backups – Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Devin Lucien, Matthew Slater, Austin Carr, Cody Hollister.
Brady has never had a more trusted, proven, versatile receiving corps than the one he’ll work with in New England in 2017. Edelman returns to his role as a slot machine with a nice new contract extension after a healthy season in which he notched 98 catches for 1,106 yards and three touchdowns. As long as he’s on the field, he’ll be one of Brady’s top go-to guys. But there is no doubt Cooks arrives from New Orleans with a chance to spice up a passing game that already ranked No. 4 in the NFL last fall. Cooks had 78 catches for 1,173 yards – a career-best 15.0-yard average – and eight touchdowns for Drew Brees’ Saints last fall. While Cooks is expected to be the unit’s big-play force, the group actually returns Hogan on the outside after he tied for the NFL lead with a 17.9-yard average in his first fall in Foxborough. Amendola isn’t an every-down option by any means at this point in his career, but he’s proven himself a clutch performer over his time in New England, as he did once again last postseason. Mitchell was an impressive rookie who swiftly worked his way into Brady’s so-called circle of trust with 32 receptions as a fourth-round pick, as well as six catches in Super Bowl LI. Slater is a receiver on the roster only, earning his keep on special teams with an occasional blocking rep or go-route his only contributions on offense.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Nate Solder, LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, RT Marcus Cannon. Backups – C/G Ted Karras, T Tony Garcia, T Conor McDermott, T Cameron Fleming, T LaAdrian Waddle, OL Chase Farris, OL Jamil Douglas, T Andrew Jelks, C/G James Ferentz, OL Max Rich, OL Jason King, OL Cole Croston.
New England returns the entirety of its starting offensive line from last season’s Super Bowl run. The unit struggled at times against the Falcons’ speedy defense in the Super Bowl and though relatively young, there are some upside questions. Solder is the former first-round pick in a contract year as a middling left tackle, though a trusted veteran. Cannon inked a $30 million extension last fall when he put forth his best season, when he lost weight, got in better shape and benefited from the return from retirement of legendary line coach Dante Scarnecchia. While Cannon and Solder each have six years under their belts, the interior starters have just five years of combined experience. Mason is the best of the group, but heading into his third year the former fourth-round pick continues to struggle at times in pass protection. Andrews earned his own contract extension starting 27 games, including all 16 last fall, as a former undrafted rookie. He’s undersized and solid, but far from dominant. Thuney is the biggest question after the third-round pick started 16 games as a rookie. He appeared to wear down as the season played out and there are questions about his potential for growth moving forward. Beyond the starters, the backup roles and roster spots are very much up for grabs. Waddle was a healthy inactive 14 times last fall and is unlikely to earn a spot. Fleming is another backup at tackle, but the addition of the third-round rookie Garcia and sixth-round selection McDermott increase the competition on the outside. Inside, Karras started the opener at guard as a rookie and is really the only potential backup at center.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LDE Rob Ninkovich, DT Malcom Brown, DT Alan Branch, RDE Trey Flowers. Backups – DT Vincent Valentine, DE Kony Ealy, DE Derek Rivers, DL Lawrence Guy, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., DT Woodrow Hamilton, DT Darius Kilgo, DE Geneo Grissom, DL Adam Butler, DT Josh Augusta.
At end, Ninkovich is the trusted veteran even as his age has begun to show in recent years. He started the final 10 games last season after a four-game suspension, but his sack numbers and overall production have declined for three straight years. The other starting end job will likely go to Flowers, who broke out over the second half of 2016 to lead the team with 7.0 sacks and then was maybe New England’s best defensive player with 2.5 sacks in Super Bowl LI. He’ll be expected to carry an even larger load this fall with the likes of role players Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard having departed in free agency. The depth at end will come from trade addition Ealy and draft picks Rivers (third round) and Wise Jr. (fourth round). Ealy is in a contract year as a former second-round pick, but started just 15 games in three seasons in Carolina while notching 14 total sacks. Grissom is a third-year former third-round pick who has yet to find a way to get on the field on defense and shows no signs of doing so moving forward, meaning his roster spot is tenuous at best. The roles at tackle are a bit more defined. Branch was the best player at the spot last year and re-signed this spring, but the veteran missed offseason practice to an undisclosed injury and his status to open the season is very much in doubt. Brown will hold one of the starting jobs, even if the former 2015 first-round pick has been somewhat of a disappointment. Valentine was a nice role player as a third-round rookie last fall and will slide into the starting lineup if Branch isn’t healthy. Hamilton saw spot duty as an undrafted rookie, while Guy signs on as a versatile backup who can play all over the defensive front. The veteran started a combined 16 games over the last two seasons in Baltimore and should be in line for a roster spot at the very least.
LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Dont’a Hightower, MLB David Harris, WLB Kyle Van Noy. Backups – OLB Shea McClellin, MLB Elandon Roberts, OLB Jonathan Freeny, MLB Harvey Langi, LB Trevor Bates, MLB Brooks Ellis.
Prior to the late offseason signing of Harris, the depth at linebacker was one of the bigger concerns in New England. But the former Jets mainstay has proven himself over the years against the Patriots and now pursues a ring on the other side of the Border War after a year in which he tallied 95 tackles despite missing his first game in eight seasons. More important than Harris’ arrival, though, was New England’s re-signing of the Pro Bowler and captain Hightower. The former first-round pick has durability issues – he missed at least three games in each of the last three years, something that hurt his value on the open market this spring – but is the key man on the front seven. Van Noy arrived last October via trade from the Lions and the former second-round pick carved out a solid role for himself. Though he only started two of the seven games he played, New England sees him as a starting-caliber option moving forward. Van Noy did have 27 tackles, a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defensed in a reserve role, production he’ll be very much expected to build on with more playing time in 2017. The former Bears first-round pick McClellin has settled into a role as an off-the-line linebacker at this point, not the rusher he was drafted to be. He’ll battle with second-year player Roberts, who impressed with both his maturity and production as a sixth-round rookie, more of an early-down, run-first option. Freeny started the first four games last season and has strangely been a favorite of Belichick’s in his time in New England, seen as a coverage linebacker. The veteran may be in a battle for a roster spot at this point, though.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Malcolm Butler, RCB Stephon Gilmore, SS Patrick Chung, FS Devin McCourty. Backups – FS Duron Harmon, CB Eric Rowe, SS Jordan Richards, CB Justin Coleman, CB Cyrus Jones, SS Nate Ebner, CB Jonathan Jones, SS Brandon King, S David Jones, CB D.J. Killings, CB Will Likely, CB Kenny Moore II, DB Dwayne Thomas, DB Jason Thompson, DB Damarius Travis.
Though Butler’s status seemed a bit precarious this offseason, his return as a restricted free agent and the addition of Gilmore after his Pro-Bowl season in Buffalo could give the Patriots one of the best cornerback tandems in football. Based on spring practice, Butler will retain his left corner spot, although work in the slot can’t be ruled out depending on how the battle for the No. 3 job shakes out. Gilmore will settle in on the right side where he’ll play under massive expectations thanks to his $65 million contract that makes him by far the biggest free-agent signing in Patriots history. Rowe was the third cornerback last fall after arriving via trade and is the favorite for that job again, although his 6-foot-1 size and matchup style mean his playing time could push Butler into the slot. Cyrus Jones was terrible in limited defensive action as a rookie, struggles that were actually overshadowed by his even worse struggles as a kick returner. Coleman and Jonathan Jones are both former undrafted players who have each had some reps this spring at the No. 3 spot and will battle for depth roles and playing time. In addition to the talent at cornerback, the Patriots’ back end is also loaded at safety. McCourty is the leader coming off a Pro-Bowl season. Though not a flashy playmaker, the former cornerback and first-round pick is a solid last line of defense and the guy who keeps the whole thing running on pass defense. Chung is the physical force in the box who has remained surprisingly durable in his second tour of duty in New England starting all 16 games last fall. Harmon re-signed for $20 million this offseason, starter money for a guy who’s been a reliable third safety option over the last couple years. He allows the Patriots to play many nickel packages with three safeties on the field, depending on the opposition and weekly game plan. Richards is a third-year former second-round pick the team still believes can be a contributor on defense, something he’s failed to prove in two-plus seasons, ending last year as a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl. Ebner is a specialist in the kicking game, where his 19 tackles were more than double his next closest teammate. King is also a coverage specialist, one of a crowded bunch on the New England roster.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, KOR Cyrus Jones, PR Cyrus Jones.
New England’s specialists very much had their ups and downs in 2016. A year after earning All-Pro honors, Gostkowski had his worst season in the NFL missing field goals and extra points with uncharacteristically alarming regularity. The four-time Pro Bowler missed three extra points and five field goals in the regular season and another two extra points in the playoffs. Allen may not have the strongest leg – his gross average ranked just 21st in the league – but his situational work is very much trusted by his coaches. Allen’s 41.4 net last fall was seventh in the NFL and he’ll once again go without training camp competition entering his fifth season. The same is true for Cardona, who entering his third year has juggled his commitments to the Navy while putting forth very few hiccups in his job in New England. The biggest question in the kicking game comes with the return jobs. Jones had five fumbles and even more bad decisions as a rookie in his work on both punts and kickoffs. If Jones can’t take over the job he was very much drafted to fill, veterans like Edelman and Amendola may need to continue to do the work on punts, while McCourty, James White or Lewis might need to handle kickoffs, something Belichick would prefer not to have to do for all involved