Patriots

Ex-Patriots LB Vrabel gets a trial run at stopping Brady

Ex-Patriots LB Vrabel gets a trial run at stopping Brady

As a player, Mike Vrabel was always the smartest guy in the room. Or on the field. Just ask him. But that confidence was well-founded because he was that player. Thus, Vrabel’s rapid rise in the coaching ranks - he’s now the defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans - was predictable for those who saw him make that same rise as a player in New England, where he went from Steelers castoff to cornerstone piece in a dynasty.

“Mike had a lot of great qualities as a player, so yeah, no surprise,” Bill Belichick said earlier this week. 

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“It won’t be long before he’s a head coach,” Tom Brady said. “He’s just got a great presence. He was a great player for us.”

“I think he’s doing a good job,” said Texans coach Bill O’Brien, himself a former Patriot staffer and offensive coordinator. “He’s very organized, detailed, works very hard. He’s got a great way with the players, so I think so far, so good.”

In his matter-of-fact way, Vrabel confirmed what Belichick, Brady and O’Brien said about him.

“I’m not cut out to do much other than play football and now coach football,” he said. “It took me nine years to graduate from Ohio State, if that tells you anything.”

Vrabel and Brady spoke for about 10 minutes following the Pats and Texans joint practice in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Wednesday, smiling, laughing and no doubt needling each other about who got the best of who in these sessions.

“He’s been one of my great friends for a long time,” said Brady. “It’s nice to see him out there. There’s a little friendly talk back and forth, which is always fun. I love the guy and what he’s accomplished.”

“Tom’s a phenomenal leader, a good friend,” Vrabel said. 

That friendship will have to be tabled in Week 3 of the regular season. That's the first time Vrabel will be the lead dog game-planning to stop Brady and the Pats offense. The former Ohio State standout and Buckeyes assistant coach spent the previous three seasons in Houston as a linebackers coach, but now as the defensive coordinator, the buck stops with him. 

“They beat our ass the last couple of times we’ve played them, so it’s been hard to sit over on the other sidelines, but I think to be able to practice against them and see them in somewhat of a relaxed setting, it’s great,” said Vrabel, reflecting on the joint practice. “Hopefully we can be a little bit more competitive this year against them.”

That won’t be easy. The Pats added explosive wideout Brandin Cooks, along with a couple of versatile backs in Rex Burkhead and Mike Gilislee. Mix that into an offense that was already at the head of the class, and you can see why Vrabel will probably have a few sleepless nights prior to that Sept. 24 meeting in Foxboro, especially after what he just saw in mid-August.

“Well, it’s as advertised,” he said. “There’s a lot of weapons, led by Tom [Brady]. Josh [McDaniels] calls a great game over there and it was good because nothing was scripted and we all kind of had to just come up with the calls on the fly and think fast, just like a game.”

Having the think the game and match wits with Brady, McDaniels, Belichick, etc, has overwhelmed many over the years, but to hear Belichick talk about his former charge, you understand Vrabel is different.

“He played a lot of positions on defense,” said Belichick. “He played everything in the kicking game and also did a lot for us on offense, playing tight end in short-yardage situations. He could call signals, he had great leadership, was a multi-year captain, so his leadership, his presence, his communication, awareness, situational awareness in addition to just being a good football player, but those things were traits that carried over into coaching. And Mike's one of the physically and mentally toughest players I’ve ever coached, so I’m sure that will serve him well in this profession, too. There are times when you need that.”

Like, say, when you’re trying to outthink the Pats game day braintrust? Save the date. That one should be fun.


 

Anyone care to interpret this Rob Gronkowski tweet?

Anyone care to interpret this Rob Gronkowski tweet?

As he contemplates retirement to either become a wrestler or an action movie hero, Rob Gronkowski appears to be contemplating more than that.

OK, that's great. So, are you coming back to catch to touchdown passes from Tom Brady or not? 

Not quite as easy to translate as Gronk's famous "pay cut" tweet from spring 2016, is it?

The tweet doesn't shed much light on it and whether the retirement talk is for real or a "contract ploy", the Gronk question looms over the Patriots' offseason as much as the Malcolm Butler mystery. It's actually more impactful since Butler's days in Foxboro are over. Are Gronk's?

As NBC Sports Boston Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran put it this week: 

They can’t just sit with their hands folded in their laps and wait until Gronk gets around to deciding. They need to know is he in or is he out? Or if he’s completely ambivalent, at which point, would trading him be a horrific idea?

"...your destiny will be not just be reached, it will just be starting." Hmmm. 

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Patriots can't overlook needs on special teams

Patriots can't overlook needs on special teams

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are constantly looking to add: special teams. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED


Lucky for us, and for anyone who cares about assessing special-teams performance, Rick Gosselin of the Talk of Fame Network (formerly of the Dallas Morning News) compiles kicking-game rankings every year. Gosselin calculates scores for every NFL team by ranking them in 22 special teams categories and assigning points to their standing. Fewer points the better. The Patriots, according to Gosselin, ranking third in the NFL this year (231.5 points), just behind the Chiefs (229.5) and a ways off from the runaway winner Rams (196.5). The Patriots were excellent in terms of covering kicks, achieving the best mark in football for opponent starting field position. They were the only team in the league that, on average, had teams starting drives behind their 25-yard line. The average starting field position for New England's offense, meanwhile, was middle of the road (18th in the NFL). Stephen Gostkowski was once again highly effective on kickoffs and on field goals, ranking fourth in the league in kicks made and kick percentage. He didn't miss from inside 40 yards, and he was perfect on kicks of 50 yards or more, including a career-high (in Mexico City) of 62 yards. The operation among Joe Cardona, Ryan Allen and Gostkowski was generally very good all season, but in the Super Bowl, they faltered on their first field goal attempt. Gostkowski then missed an extra point at the end of the first half. Allen finished the season strong, with several well-placed kicks inside the 20, but he finished the regular season with 23 kicks downed inside the 20 (tied for 26th in football) and his net per punt was 40.5 (22nd). 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gostkowski, Brandon Bolden, Allen, Cardona, Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, Nicholas Grigsby, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones

WHO ISN'T?
Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, Brandon King (restricted free agent), Marquis Flowers, Johnson Bademosi 

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


If you're looking purely at the three specialists here, the need isn't all that significant. People may want the Patriots to start sniffing around for a new kicker after Gostkowski hooked an extra point against the Eagles, but the reality is he's still one of the most accurate kickers in football, and his ability to place kickoffs is highly valued by the Patriots coaching staff. Cardona isn't going anywhere. Allen will also be back, in all likelihood. Belichick is a fan of some of the big-legged punters around the league, and Allen hasn't proven to be that kind of punter. But the fact that Allen was able to rebound from some eyebrow-raising punts early in the season to finish strong should have him back in 2018 without issue. The need here is in the kick-coverage and kick-returning areas. The Patriots are scheduled to have both of their returners (Amendola on punts and Lewis on kicks) hit free agency. Where will they end up? How much can Cyrus Jones take on after tearing his ACL last season? There are legitimate questions there. And when it comes to kick coverage, Belichick's two best players in that regard -- Slater and Ebner (coming off an ACL tear of his own) -- are slated to hit free agency. The Patriots have re-signed Bolden but other core kick-coverage players like Flowers, King and Bademosi are also scheduled to hit the market. Several could be back, but right now the core coverage units which served them so well in 2017 could have a significantly altered look next season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


Arguably the best non-kicking, non-punting special-teamer in the game last season, Miami's Michael Thomas, is slated to be an unrestricted free agent. Arizona's Justin Bethel - in the top-10 in the league in terms of special teams tackles every year since 2012, according to Pro Football Focus - is also set to hit the market. Rontez Miles of the Jets and Nick Dzubnar of the Chargers, both among the league leaders in special-teams tackles, are restricted free agents. At kicker, there's plenty of experience out there. The Raiders have parted ways with Sebastian Janikowski. Graham Gano, praised by Belichick in the regular season before New England's matchup with Carolina, is a free agent. Same goes for Atlanta's Matt Bryant, Seattle's Blair Walsh, Washington's Dustin Hopkins, Tennessee's Ryan Succop and Philly's Caleb Sturgis. Punters available include Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs, Houston's Shane Lechler and Cincy's Kevin Huber. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


Glad you asked! We've got multiple draftable punters coming out of the college ranks this year. Michael Dickson of Texas is already getting some Day 2 (!) draft buzz for his combination of power and control. An Australian Rules Football guy who won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter last season, Dickson would be just the second punter taken inside the first three rounds in the past 10 years if it happens. Alabama's JK Scott (6-foot-6) and Bowling Green's Joseph Davidson (6-7) could also hear their names called on draft weekend. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Davidson is left-footed and could pique Belichick's interest, but Allen's finish to the 2017 campaign should earn him the chance to pick up where he left off. The Patriots will surely be looking to bolster their kick-coverage and return units throughout the draft so don't discount a player's ability to perform in those phases when looking for potential Patriots fits. The quickest way to ensure immediate contributions here would be to re-sign players Slater, Amendola and King. Ebner could also be back following his ACL tear, which was relatively clean and uncomplicated. One late-season injury that could impact whether or not the Patriots make a move for a special-teamer in free agency was the one suffered by Jonathan Jones. It was of the non-contact variety on the Gillette Stadium turf. The severity of his injury is unclear, but if he won't be ready by the time the season begins, the Patriots would have to find someone who can handle his myriad duties in the kicking game. Bottom line: With everyone focused on the offensive and defensive holes on the Patriots roster that need to be addressed, there are others in the kicking game that will also require attention this offseason.

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