Patriots

McCourty knows Patriots have to quickly adjust to Hightower's loss

McCourty knows Patriots have to quickly adjust to Hightower's loss

FOXBORO -- It's time to go. No time for mourning. No time to look at one another with raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Replacing Dont'a Hightower will be one of the most difficult tasks the Patriots undertake all season, but they have to figure things out and quickly.

The bus, as they say, keeps moving. 

"It's a tough loss," Devin McCourty said Thursday. "He's obviously a guy who's been out there for a lot of years now, played multiple roles in the defense, been in different spots, communication, everything. He's a huge part of what we do. We've been out there for a couple games without him so we know what that's like. But it's always a sad thing when a guy like that goes down. A bunch of guys have to step up and try to kind of fill that role -- in this case a bunch of different roles."

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And they can't wait around to get comfortable in filling those roles, McCourty insisted.

"Guys have to be ready to go when you get in," he said. "Can't afford for it to take a while to find out who's going to play good football. We need to continue to get better. That doesn't change with anybody going out, myself, anyone. If they're not there, someone has to step up and play. It can't be open tryouts each week we go out there and play a game or defensively that will be really bad for us."

Whether it's with the players already on the Patriots roster, or whether it's by acquiring someone before the trade deadline, the Patriots understand there's a void to be filled. And for McCourty, someone who has seen his share of season-ending injuries to star teammates on both sides of the ball since arriving to New England in 2010, he's confident that it will be filled. 

"As a team, we'll always figure it out," he said. "I firmly believe. Our coaching staff spends a lot of hours in here figuring out what we need to do personnel-wise. Who needs to play here. What works. What won't work. We'll figure that out whether that takes a quarter or two quarters, it'll happen. We'll figure that out. But High's been through a lot this year trying to get back on the field. I think he was actually starting to feel good and feel better. Just a tough blow for him."

McCourty was around when Jerod Mayo suffered a torn pectoral muscle in 2013. Then Mayo tore his patella tendon in the middle of the 2014 season and was gone again.

Given Hightower's importance to the Patriots defense as the quarterback of of the front seven and one of the team's captains, there are some similarities to the circumstances though they were different situations.

"In '13 it was different," McCourty said, "because it was the first time that I had been here that he was out for a season so that was a little different . . . It was tough just to fill his leadership role, but a lot of guys had a lot of football experience and I thought was ready to take on that role.

"[Elandon Roberts] has been out there a good amount and [David Harris] got a good amount of playing time last week and he's a veteran so he's always ready to go in there. Obviously [Kyle Van Noy] has been out there and played a lot of snaps this season. Guys are out there and ready to go.

"When injuries happen it gives a lot of guys opportunity to play now. The thing that I think has been great about being in this building is a lot of guys have been waiting for opportunity and they work hard and they try to prepare themselves and be ready if anything happens. Very unfortunate for High, but some guys will get an opportunity to step up." 

As challenging as it will be to find a way to replace what Hightower gave the defense, McCourty said there is a silver lining in that the team went through this before earlier this season. 

"I think we're better than we were early in the season," McCourty said. "High played against Kansas City and then I think he missed two games. I think we're in better shape than we were then. But guys have to step up and play well right away. It can't be, we're waiting all the way for four or five weeks. Guys have to step up and be ready to go."

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Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

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 at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have numbers but could see two key veterans depart via free agency: Receiver. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED:


Danny Amendola was a machine in the postseason. Chris Hogan was dynamite in the Super Bowl after a midseason shoulder injury that limited him to nine regular-season games. Brandin Cooks was very good throughout the majority of the regular season, putting up numbers that made him one of the league's most productive deep threats - and that's without the penalty yardage he drew. It wasn't a dominant season from this unit, but the group lost its most consistent performer when Julian Edelman tore his ACL in the preseason. Malcolm Mitchell's year-long knee injury also sapped this group of some depth. Despite some regular-season hiccups - it was a forgettable final month of the before the Wild-Card Round bye -- what Chad O'Shea's group did in the playoffs showed just how valuable it was for Tom Brady to have a handful of trustworthy receivers at his disposal. They checked in with a "B" in our final grades for 2017.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, Cody Hollister, Riley McCarron

WHO ISN'T?
Danny Amendola, Bernard Reedy, Matthew Slater

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Brady should have his top three options back for 2018 so the need here can't be considered more than a 5 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter. That said, the group needs some trustworthy depth. Especially if Amendola, 32, who has been willing to take less to remain in New England, decides he'd like to max out his value elsewhere. He's right there with Edelman, who turns 32 in May, as the most clutch postseason receiver Brady's had since Troy Brown. Dorsett and Britt are physically-gifted options who could benefit from a full offseason in the offense, but are they strong enough candidates to serve as the No. 4? And what about Mitchell? What does his future hold after missing his entire sophomore season? Moreover, and this wouldn't impact the offense so much as it would the kicking game and the level of leadership in the locker room, but Slater's loss would be monumental. If both Slater and Amendola return, the need here can't be considered close to dire. But a young option in the draft - either a burner who could provide insurance if Cooks opts for free agency next offseason, or someone who profiles as a true slot - would be a wise investment. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There's a potpourri of pass-catching talent available on the market this offseason. The biggest names available are receivers the Patriots know well from their time in the AFC East: Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins. One's a slot. The other's a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, who struggled to put up numbers in a highly-productive Rams offense in 2017. Then there's Jacksonville's physical outside-the-numbers option Allen Robinson (coming off an ACL tear) and Arizona speedster John Brown. Other field-stretchers who could be had include Seattle's Paul Richardson, Atlanta's Taylor Gabriel and Arizona's Jaron Brown. Buffalo's Jordan Matthews (25 years old) is a bigger slot, sort of a younger version of Eric Decker (31), who also happens to be a free agent this offseason. Keep an eye on Denver's Emmanuel Sanders, who could become available as a cap casualty. The Patriots tried to bring him aboard as a restricted free agent years ago and it would make sense if they were still interested. He caught six passes for 137 yards in a Week 10 loss to New England last season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


After Alabama's Calvin Ridley, there seems to be some confusion as to which draft-eligible receivers deserve to take their place at the top of the class. Clemson's Deon Cain (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) has the size and speed to be a starter at the next level, but he was plagued by lapses in concentration that led to drops and false-start penalties. Courtland Sutton of SMU has an NFL-ready frame (6-4, 218), but probably doesn't have the athleticism to threaten defenses deep down the field as a pro. For teams interested in slot options, Texas A&M's Christian Kirk and Maryland's DJ Moore look like two of the best available. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


There may be little to address here if Amendola is back in the fold. If the Patriots are looking for young depth, though, there are plenty of options. Miami's Braxton Berrios could probably be had on Day 3, and he's already drawing comparisons to Amendola for his work in the slot, his toughness, and his ability to contribute as a returner. The Patriots could also dip into the Texas Tech pool after missing on both Amendola and Wes Welker in the draft in years past by taking Keke Coutee. He's slight (5-11, 180) but can play inside and out, has speed to burn, and could return kicks. If Belichick and Nick Caserio want to go with a bigger slot who will be a good character guy, Penn State's four-year starter Daesean Hamilton (6-1, 205) would make sense in the middle rounds. 

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The quote’s been credited to a whole lot of coaches. It doesn’t matter who actually said it. What matters is how much truth there is in the saying, “Once an NFL player starts considering retirement, he’s already gone.”

There are myriad variations but they all arrive at the same spot. Once a player talks about hanging ‘em up, he’s given mental traction to feelings of football ambivalence. Employer beware.

Immediately after the Super Bowl, Gronk was asked about possible retirement.

He did nothing to spike the idea.

“I don’t know how you heard that but I’m definitely going to look at my future for sure,” he said. "I’m going to sit down the next couple weeks and see where I’m at.”

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Rob Gronkowski’s gone past idle musing about retirement. The “that” is the smoking gun there, obviously referring to something that had been ongoing.

In the two weeks since the Super Bowl, we’ve learned Gronk’s  gotten advice from Sly Stallone and The Rock about how much dough he can make in action movies  and that folks in the WWE would offer Gronk a deal similar to Ronda Rousey’s.

Is this an orchestrated attempt to create some urgency with the Patriots so they give Gronk a bump that makes it more worth his while (he’s on the books for salaries of $8 million and $9 million the next two seasons)?

Is this an effort to dip a toe in the entertainment pool while his NFL marketability remains near its apex? A Brady-esque effort to set up a post-football career while still continuing in the main vocation?

Or is it simply what it is – a 28-year-old whose body’s been through the wringer since college using common sense to realize that his position and style of play are going to exact a physical cost on him for the rest of his life?

Yes. Yes. And yes. It’s all of the above.

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And that’s why the Patriots have to take this very seriously.

Gronk and his family have had an eye on his football mortality since he was 19. Because of an insurance policy taken out by his father, Gordie, while Gronk was at Arizona, Gronk could have retired from football and received $4 million tax-free. He considered it as his recuperation from back surgery left him concerned he wouldn’t be able to walk correctly again.

He declared for the draft in 2010 to maximize his earning potential. And he bought in. Then 2012 happened. 

He broke his arm during the regular season and had a plate inserted in his forearm. When he rebroke the arm just above the plate in his first game back, it was described as a fluke. Worst-case scenario. But that was small consolation. And when an infection developed in the arm in early 2013, another surgery was necessary. And the convalescence from that ensued. Then came a back surgery in June of 2013. Then came a longer-than-expected recovery that stretched well into the 2013 regular season and a blown ACL when he did return.

The 2014 season was injury-free, but when Gronk was hit in the knee against Denver in 2015, you could sense his panic as he writhed on the field that something was terribly wrong. There wasn’t. But the team and the Gronkowski Camp released a joint statement about his timetable for return then Gronk underscored his intention of not returning until he was “100 percent.”

The 2016 season ended prematurely with another back injury suffered against the Jets and another surgery. That injury followed soon after a thunderous hit was laid on him by Seattle’s Earl Thomas. And his 2017 playoff run was marred by a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game.

So it’s best to remember all that context when eye-rolling about how the Patriots have had to bend over backwards to accommodate Gronk. His care and feeding are a lot different because A) he came to the NFL with injuries that gave him perspective; B) he got burned when he came back quickly from the broken arm; C) the 2013 whisper campaign painting him as a malingerer left a dent and D) his family is uniquely attuned to NFL reality that it’s a business and you best protect your only asset – your body.

The branding and the marketing has felt hamhanded at times but that’s the nature of the business these days and - in hindsight – it’s been a boon for a player who signed a “safe” six-year, $54M contract in 2011 that’s now severely outdated.

So what are the Patriots to do with a 28-year-old who’s suffered multiple knee, head and back injuries and is openly talking about wrapping it up?

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?

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The irony is, Gronk told me in December that he’s never felt better. “I’m having fun playing football again,” he told me. His body held him hostage until he changed the way he trained and now the results from increased flexibility are obvious in his statistics, his quickness and the types of catches he was able to make last year.

He’s a Hall of Famer if he never plays another down. It’s not hard to make a persuasive argument that he’s the best tight end to ever play.

But how do the Patriots proceed with a legend that – for all the right reasons – isn’t sure he wants to keep playing? It’s a lot to wrestle with.