Patriots

For Patriots, 'next man up' is a way of life

For Patriots, 'next man up' is a way of life

FOXBORO -- How many times have you heard the Patriots utter the phrase “Next Man Up”? So often that -- if  you’re like me -- you’ve become numb to it. Besides, isn’t that what the sport is all about? There's going to be attrition. It’s a league-wide thing. It has to be.

But unlike other franchises, which come unglued at the first sign of adversity, the Pats have managed not only to get by but often thrive. 

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The most recent example came Sunday, a 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. The previous week against Atlanta, the Pats' defense had finally played like we believed they were capable . . . but then lost their most impactful player, Dont’a Hightower, during that game to a torn pec muscle that will likely cost him the rest of the season. Yet this unit, not only without Hightower but also starters Malcom Brown, Stephon Gilmore and nickel corner Eric Rowe, limited Philip Rivers to 212 yards passing. How is that possible?

“I think it starts with Coach [Bill] Belichick, his leadership, the way he’s coaches,” said Matthew Slater. “The way he’s prepared every man on this roster -- from Tom Brady to the last guy on this practice squad  -- everyone is prepared the same way. The expectation, the bar, is the same for everyone and it’s like that every single day. So when you get into a situation where a guy’s number is called, it’s not new to him. It’s not totally foreign. Yes, he’s asked to do something a little bit different, but Coach and his staff have done the best  they can to try and prepare guys for those situations.”

“It’s not foreign to us,” said Duron Harmon. “We’ve been down a lot of players since I’ve been here. [Rob Gronkowski] went down, [Jerod] Mayo, Vince [Wilfork] . . . guys who are good players, players we lean on. But year in and year out, we find guys who just step up and do what they need to do: Just be consistent and play good football for us.”

Rex Burkhead is relatively new to this organization, coming over during the free-agency period last offseason. But as the son of a coach, he recognizes the attention to detail and what it translates to, not just for the first guy on the roster but the last as well.

“Lots of preparation here from the mental side, the physical side,” he said. “You really have to be on top of it . . . I think it’s kudos to our coaching staff for getting that next guy prepared. That’s the mentality that’s been here in the past and they prove that when those guys gets a chance, they do well.”

Burkhead recalls numerous times being quizzed by Belichick or another coach as you go from one meeting room to the next, or veer off toward the weight room. That’s nothing new in Foxboro but it’s not like that everywhere else. Certainly not in Cincinnati, where Burkhead was for the first four years of his career.

When you talk to players from different organizations, you truly understand how different that part of the equation is. One newer Patriot told me “it’s so [bleeping] stressful” and it “makes you hate them at times.” But “at the end of the day, they’re making sure you’re on your toes. That you’re involved. You can’t argue with it. Those Lombardi Trophies say it all.”

So Belichick and his staff get rave reviews for making the “Next Man Up” mantra not only a thing, but a thing that works. However, this isn’t just about the big brains in the corner offices. This is about the players buying in.

That’s not always easy; consider the egos involved. Yet from the top of the roster down to the bottom, the Pats usually get full commitment across the board.

“You know a guy like Tom [Brady] makes guys like myself, or guys that don’t play a ton of receiver, feel involved,” said Slater. “A guy like Devin McCourty making the practice squad safety feel like he’s involved. I think there’s a great deal of player leadership.”

Part of that leadership was lost, though, when Hightower was forced out of the lineup. The Pats had to lean on the erratic Elandon Roberts and a slowed veteran like David Harris and put even more on Kyle Van Noy’s plate. That’s less than ideal, but what else can you do?

“It’s hard, but you have to,” said Harmon. “No one is going to give us the production that [Hightower] did because no one is the player that High is. High is a special player, a special talent player. But you can’t sit here and harp on it. We have to find ways to get production that he [gave the Patriots] out of different people, whether it’s one person doing all his jobs or different guys coming together to do what he did. Maybe it’s three or four guys. It sucks we lost him, but worrying about that isn’t going to help us win games. It has to be the next man up. It has to be that mentality because it’s going to make sure that everybody has confidence in each other going out there and playing good ball.”

It sounds easy, but the reality is it’s far from easy. Johnson Bademosi isn’t suppose to find out shortly before a game against the Jets that he’s not just going to be a special teamer, but he’ll be the starting corner opposite Malcolm Butler and never come off the damn field. But when Gilmore’s concussion symptoms popped up late in the week, or early in the weekend, Bademosi got the call and he responded like he had been there and done that before. Why?

“I would say trust, and you build that trust through practice,” noted Harmon. “I would say Bademosi is the perfect example. Him getting ready for the Jets game. He didn’t know he was going to play all week until Friday or Saturday morning, but for him to be in the meetings, asking questions -- even when he wasn’t starting -- then in practice, playing good football and being consistent when he was thrown in . . . that’s how you build trust. That’s everybody here. Everybody wants to win. Everybody knows how important winning is to us in here. So everybody on this whole roster goes out each and every day and tries his hardest just to not let the team down.”

“Certainly, I think on an individual by individual basis, you have to take a lot of pride in being a professional and understanding [that] I may have this role but I could get called into [a different] role, so I have to prepare myself for all of these roles,” added Slater. “And I think when you get guys that are professional and you get guys that are dedicated to their craft, guys that are invested in the concept of team and doing what’s best for the team . . . when you get in those situations, you have confidence in those guys.”

That confidence is earned in Foxboro and makes the “Next Man Up” a part of this organization’s DNA. Without it, injuries like the one to Hightower or to Julian Edelman could derail a season long before the playoffs roll around. But not here. No how. No way. It’s just not allowed, from top to bottom.

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Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

There was more breaking Patriots news this afternoon.

This time it was related to Gronkowski, and a health scare.

But it wasn't the Gronkowski that plays for the New England Patriots.

So it is unfortunately confirmed that Rob Gronkowski's horse will not be competing in the Kentucky Derby.

The 3-year-old colt named after Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski had a “minor setback,’’ according to trainer Jeremy Noseda when he spoke to The Racing Post.

Gronkowski was unbeaten in starts, earning his place in the Kentucky Derby field.

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Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Breaking down the edge defender spot is one of the reasons the Prototypical Patriots series is such an interesting one to put together.

For instance, last year, Deatrich Wise was an easy fit. His height, arm length, production (when healthy), and the conference he played in made him a perfect fit. He was Chandler Jonesian.

But Derek Rivers, who was taken one round ahead of Wise? He didn't make the "Prototypical" list. At 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds at last year's combine, Rivers was nearly a full 20 pounds lighter than what Bill Belichick has typically looked for in his top-101 edge defender draft picks in New England. Not exactly the "prototype."

Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) was 6-3, 266 pounds. Jones (first, 2012) was 6-5, 266. Jake Bequette (third, 2012) was 6-5, 274. Geneo Grissom (third, 2015) was 6-3, 262. Trey Flowers (fourth, 2015) was 6-2, 266. All powerfully built. All from Power-5 conferences.

Rivers, who went to Youngstown State, was a bit of an anomaly. What did it mean? Did the Patriots see him as a player who could pack on pounds and look like his edge predecessors? Did they see him as a more versatile weapon who could play both on the line and off? Did they simply look at his outstanding athletic testing numbers (6.94-second three-cone, 35-inch vertical, 4.61-second 40 time), and say to themselves that they could work with him?

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Because Rivers suffered a season-ending injury in training camp last year, it's hard to know exactly what their plan was for him. In camp we saw him both rush the passer and play in coverage. He aligned in both two-point and three-point stances, on the ball and off.

The Rivers pick may show that the Patriots prototype is adjusting. And it may continue to adjust if the team is going to shift back to more 3-4 looks now that Matt Patricia -- who favored a 4-3 and helped change the Patriots' front in 2011, one year before he was given the coordinator's title -- is in Detroit.

Still, we generally know what a Patriots defensive end looks like. He stands between 6-2 and 6-5. He's in the 260-pound range. His arms are between 33 and 36 inches. His hands are about 10 inches. He runs the three-cone in less than 7.3 seconds. His vertical is at least 33 inches. His broad jump is about 120 inches. His 40 time is under 4.9 seconds, usually.

There's obviously much more than a list of physical benchmarks a prospect has to possess in order to be considered by the Patriots -- skill set, college production, durability and character all play a role -- but it's not a bad place to start.

Who fits that bill in this year's class? Let's take a look. They one player who likely isn't within range for the Patriots, unless he slides, would be NC State's Bradley Chubb. He's expected to go in the top-five picks and could hear his name called as early as No. 2 overall to the Giants. 

PROTOTYPES IN RANGE

MARCUS DAVENPORT, UTSA, 6-6, 264 POUNDS

There are plenty of knocks on Davenport. He's raw. He played against lower-level competition and was able dominate because of his superior physical gifts. His hands are small (9 1/8 inches). But he checks just about every other marker from a size and athletic testing perspective, and he's thought to be a hard worker with a high ceiling as a 4-3 defensive end. He may go as early as the teens. My hunch is that, while gifted, he isn't so off-the-charts special (4.58 40, 7.2-second three-cone, 124-inch broad, 33.5-inch vertical) that he'd be worth the Patriots trading up for. 

SAM HUBBARD, OHIO STATE, 6-5, 270 POUNDS

Again, let's go ahead and start with the negatives. He ran a 4.95-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which was a full tenth of a second slower than what Trey Flowers ran in 2015. Not good. But his 10-yard time was 1.69 seconds, which was much more in range for the Patriots. Jones ran the same 10-yard time in 2012. Wise ran a 1.68. Otherwise, Hubbard is what the Patriots want. He was productive in Urban Meyer's defense, recording 13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles. A high school safety -- who was headed to Notre Dame on a lacrosse scholarship! -- Hubbard is quick and explosive for his size. He jumped 35 inches in the vertical and clocked a ridiculous 6.84-second three-cone drill. On paper, Hubbard is one of the best fits for the Patriots in this class, and he could be had at the top of the second round. If his 40 time drops him into the bottom of the second or top of the third round, he'd be a steal. 

RASHEEM GREEN, USC, 6-4, 275 POUNDS

Another physically-impressive defensive end, Green offers some versatility. He looks like a base end on first and second downs who could kick inside to generate pressure in obvious passing situations. He has nearly 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and if the Patriots do shift to more 3-4 looks, he could potentially play as an end in those formations -- particularly if he improves his functional strength. He's a little raw and a little less athletic than the parameters set above, but he's also heavier than many Patriots ends. His 4.73-second 40 time, 32.5-inch vertical, 118-inch broad and 7.24-second three-cone are impressive for his frame, and he could be a boom-or-bust second-rounder for New England. 

DUKE EJIOFOR, WAKE FOREST, 6-3, 265 POUNDS

Making comparisons this time of year can be a little dangerous, but when it comes to Ejiofor, it's hard not to be reminded of Flowers (6-2, 265 at the combine in 2015). Ejiofor has 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, while Flowers had 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands. NFL.com's scouting report for Flowers three years ago? "Consistent with hand placement and is technically sound." NFL.com on Ejiofor? "Possesses a mature approach as a pass rusher." Neither player would be described as incredibly "quick-twitch," but Flowers has had great success as an interior rusher and Ejiofor projects similarly because of his length and power. One question mark about Ejiofor is his motor, but he dealt with an injury last season, and late in the second round he'd be worth a roll of the dice. The Patriots reportedly hosted Ejiofor on a pre-draft visit. 

ADE ARUNA, TULANE, 6-5, 262 POUNDS

It'll require some time, but if a team can find a roster spot for Aruna on special teams, and if he takes to the coaching he receivers, he could end up being a late-round find. Classic height/weight/speed prospect since he ran a 4.6-second 40 and has 34-inch arms and 10 5/8-inch hands. His three-cone was lacking (7.53 seconds), but he's explosive as all get out (38.5-inch vertical, 128-inch broad) and worth a shot some time on Day 3 since he's relatively new to the sport. From Nigeria, Aruna only found his way onto a football field as a senior in high school.

IMPERFECT BUT INTRIGUING

HAROLD LANDRY, BOSTON COLLEGE, 6-2, 252 POUNDS

Landry is one of the best pass-rush prospects in this draft class. He might be the best, which could compel a team to call his name inside the top 10. He's undersized by Patriots standards, but an exception could be made if Belichick believes Landry is athletic enough to play a variety of different roles. The question is, would the Patriots be willing to trade way up in the first round to make an exception?

JOSH SWEAT, FLORIDA STATE, 6-5, 251 POUNDS

Sweat is a little light compared to other top-100 edge picks for Belichick, but he's not all that far off from Rivers. Undersized. Great athlete. Sweat ran a 4.53-second 40 and jumped 39.5 inches in the vertical. His broad was 124 inches. There are reportedly some concerns about Sweat's durability, but he could be a second-round gamble.  

UCHENNA NWOSU, USC, 6-2, 251 POUNDS

One evaluator told me that Nwosu looks like a Patriot because he offers the kind of on-the-ball, off-the-ball versatility that Belichick appreciates. Athletically, he tested in the same range as bigger players the Patriots have taken in the past (32-inch vertical, 119-inch broad). That may not help his chances. But he's long (almost 34-inch arms) and a smooth athlete. Would the Patriots view Nwosu's instincts in the passing game -- he flashed an ability to cover on tape, and he's a good enough athlete to do it -- and make him an off-the-line type? Some may see "tweener." The Patriots may see "hybrid." And if they move to more of a 3-4 defense, he'd be an ideal outside linebacker. 

KEMEKO TURAY, RUTGERS, 6-5, 253 POUNDS

Another great athlete (4.65-second 40) with long enough arms (33 3/8 inches) and big enough hands (9 5/8 inches), Turay shows good explosiveness on tape. The Rutgers connection doesn't mean what it once did for the Patriots now that Greg Schiano has moved on, but the school fit doesn't matter much in this instance. This is a relatively rare athlete who needs some polish, but if he's athletic enough to rush and cover on the outside, he could be an outside 'backer for Belichick. 

DORANCE ARMSTRONG, KANSAS, 6-4, 257 POUNDS

Size-wise, Armstrong is right there. He has almost 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and his height-weight combination is within the desirable range for the Patriots. Armstrong would be even more of a fit if he was just a bit more powerful and a bit more athletic. His 40 time was fine (4.87 seconds), but his explosiveness (30-inch vertical, 118-inch broad) left a little to be desired. And he plays more like a 3-4 outside linebacker than a true end (like the majority of the players listed as "Prototypes in Range"). But on Day 3? He could be worthy of a choice and given an opportunity to make the roster this summer. 

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