Patriots

'Twinkle Toes' Gronkowski? In Belichick's eyes, anyway

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'Twinkle Toes' Gronkowski? In Belichick's eyes, anyway

FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski has plenty of nicknames. There's the obvious abbreviation of his last name. There's what Tom Brady calls him, borrowing from Marshawn Lynch: "Beast Mode."

Bill Belichick has also gotten in on the nickname game for his massive tight end, apparently. What it lacks in intimidation it makes up for with . . . sparkle?

Gronkowski was told on Wednesday afternoon that when Belichick broke down his 33-yard touchdown against the Jets, he made a point to highlight Gronkowski's high-stepping into the end zone.

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"Oh, he liked that? It didn’t seem like he liked it," Gronkowski said with a smile. "He says I've got twinkle toes, so I’ll take Twinkle Toes. I like when I have twinkle toes -- that means I’m feeling good. I’m feeling it."

Gronkowski finished the game with 6 catches for 83 yards and two scores, and if he stays healthy he's on pace for 78 catches for 1,203 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. Those numbers would put him in contention for a first-team All-Pro nod, which would earn him the max $10.75 million for 2017 that's been written into his incentive-laden contract for this season.

Even if he isn't an All-Pro, 1,200 receiving yards would also trigger the max value of the deal. Seventy catches, 1,000 receiving yards or 12 touchdowns would trigger the second tier of Gronkowski's incentives, paying him $8.75 million. Sixty catches, 800 yards or 10 touchdowns would pay him $6.75 million -- up from the minimum of $5.25 million he's  guaranteed for this season.

Numbers aside, part of what has made Gronkowski's season so impressive is that he's been an impactful run-blocker and pass-protector when asked. On Dion Lewis' first carry of the game against the Jets, Gronkowski sealed a defensive lineman and allowed Lewis to bounce outside for nine yards. On a goal-line run in the second quarter, Lewis ran right behind Gronkowski to get into the end zone. 

During training camp, as Gronkowski returned to the field after season-ending back surgery, the physical aspect of the game didn't necessarily look like one of his strong suits. He was on the ground more than reporters are used to seeing, and there were questions as to whether or not at this stage of his career he would be able to be the well-rounded tight end that has made him such a dynamic weapon in years past. 

After five games, it's clear he has his feet under him. 

"It's definitely part of the game, a big part of the game," he said. "You want to be able to block. It helps in the play-action passes big time to get open. It just helps overall. It helps with the running game to be able to block and you want a run game. You don't just want a pass game. 

"It takes time. When you get to training camp you've got to build your foundation. You’ve got to build that base and taking all of those hits in training camp and it progresses throughout the season. Just building the base throughout training camp and you just want to be the best blocker that you can be to help out the team."

A hard-nosed blocker who occasionally flashes twinkle toes? Though he may poke fun, Belichick's no doubt pleased he has himself a tight end who can do both.

"Yeah, he said I had twinkle toes," Gronkowski said. "I took it as a compliment . . . I like twinkle toes."

You can watch Belichick's breakdown of Gronkowski's celebration -- he also looked at his team's execution against a two-man Jets rush, its hustle on kickoffs, and a 58-yard net punt by Ryan Allen -- on Patriots.com.

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With Andrews out, who's next man up for the Patriots at center?

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With Andrews out, who's next man up for the Patriots at center?

Continuity along the offensive line was one of the reasons the Patriots were able to have the season they had in 2016. They tossed aside the early-season experiementation that Bill Belichick favored at times in order to establish a starting five that could be relied upon, if healthy, start to finish. 

They attacked 2017 with the same approach, but because of injury the consistency simply has not been the same. Both starting tackles, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, have missed time injured this season, and Cannon will sit out again on Sunday as he continues to deal with an ankle injury. 

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The interior of the line has remained largely in place until this week when center David Andrews came down with an illness, missed two practices, and was ruled out. 

On a line where familiarity is key, where the center is the one making the calls, the one in constant communication with Tom Brady, what now?

The Patriots will likely turn to second-year man Ted Karras, who has the ability to play both guard spots and also backed up Andrews for the vast majority of training camp. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder was released at the end of camp, quickly signed to the Patriots practice squad, and then he re-signed to the active roster in Week 1 when Malcolm Mitchell was placed on injured reserve.

Karras, drafted in the sixth round in 2016 out of Illinois, was named a practice player of the week earlier this year and he earned some praise from Belichick before the Patriots took off for Mexico City.

"Ted works hard," Belichick said. "He loves football. He gets there early, stays late."

Belichick noted that Karras (nine snaps, all against the Broncos) hasn't played much this season, but he did see plenty of work early last season when he filled in for an injured Shaq Mason. He was the Week 1 starter at right guard in a win ver the Cardinals and he played 41 snaps in Week 2 against the Dolphins. 

The Patriots offensive line could also potentially turn to Joe Thuney at center. He's practiced there before and got some experience at the position during his time at NC State. This seems like the less likely move since the Patriots would then have to deal with two new players at different spots -- center and left guard (whether the player replacing Thuney would be Karras or rookie Cole Croston) -- which could have a domino effect on the rest of the line. 

However the Patriots choose to handle it, they'll face an interesting test south of the border. The Raiders feature a pair of talented pass-rushers in Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack, who Belichick says play all over the offensive line, yet Oakland is tied for last in the league in sacks. 

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Bill Belichick takes time to admire yet another opposing punter

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Bill Belichick takes time to admire yet another opposing punter

If the Patriots are about to go up against one of the more talented punters in the league, one way or another, you're bound to hear about it from Bill Belichick.

Sometimes Belichick will go into great detail on opposing punters in one of his weekly press conferences. Sometimes he'll go out of his way to highlight a punter during one of his "breakdowns" on Patriots.com. 

He went the latter route this week, gushing over Raiders punter Marquette King.

"We usually don't have the punters on the highlights here, but King's a very athletic punter," Belichick said. "He runs a lot of fakes, a guy you have to really be conscious of as a both holder on field goals and punts on fakes."

King is the No. 2 punter in the league when it comes to net punting (45.5 yards), and he's tenth in the league in terms of the number of punts dropped inside the 20-yard line. 

"King is an athletic guy," Belichick reiterated, "and he can change field-position big time."

Add him to the list of big-legged punters -- "weapons," if you will -- Belichick has praised in the past.

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