Patriots

Patriots offensive line ready for endurance test vs. Eagles

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Patriots offensive line ready for endurance test vs. Eagles

BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota -- The way in which Patriots offensive linemen practice embodies their collective mantra: They grind away out of sight, hoping not to be noticed.

Yet despite usually taking up residence on a far corner of the team's practice fields at Gillette Stadium -- as far away as possible from the gaze of media and fans -- every so often, during training camp, all eyes turn to Tom Brady's protectors and their five-man sled.

When that particular implement of destruction of wills is dragged out into the open and placed on one goal line for everyone to see, it becomes Dante Scarnecchia's version of the torture rack. The expectation? Take the five blue pads strapped onto five heavy strips of recoiling metal, and push it 100 yards. Quickly. With coaches screaming in your earholes.

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Nate Solder, with the team since 2011, is familiar with the task. In those moments, it's safe to say there are other places he'd rather be.

"What runs through your mind? That's not a fun drill to do," he said.
"That's strictly a conditioning drill. That's strictly a toughness, physicality drill. That's a camp drill for sure."

David Andrews, a captain in his third year, put it more simply when asked what he's thinking when he's in the middle of that dreaded 100-yard march.

"Probably cussing something," he said.

But that drill, completed during the dog days of camp and then put away, helps establish the approach to which the largest Patriots on the roster adhere for the entirety of the season. They know it's critical to the overall success of the offense for them to be well-conditioned. All the proof they need is on tape.

Flip on, for example, two of their most dramatic victories from the last 12 months. Against the Jaguars in the AFC title game, the Patriots offensive line was able to outlast Jacksonville's uber-talented front and provide Brady with the time he needed to orchestrate another dramatic fourth-quarter comeback victory. Against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, the Patriots pass-blocked 76 times. By the end of the game, Atlanta's defensive front was gassed, Brady had time to make precise reads and accurate throws, and the franchise left Houston with its fifth Lombardi Trophy.

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Against the Eagles in Super Bowl LII, the Patriots will be faced with their toughest endurance test. Unlike Jacksonville or Atlanta, Philadelphia has the ability to rotate eight talented defensive linemen onto the field. That means that their pass-rushers should be fresher longer into the game, and Brady could find himself in some tight spots in the fourth quarter more frequently.

The Patriots won't alter their program this week in order to account for Philly's depth, instead relying on the work they've put in since the summer to carry them.

"There's just a big commitment from the guys," Andrews said. "That's not just something that happens overnight. I wish it was something that's very easy to do. It starts in the offseason. Guys coming back in the summer. I think Scar does a great job of conditioning us in practice. Practice is never easy. They make it as hard as they can for us."

It's not all five-man sled work. Or gassers. Or sprints up the hills.
Or their off-the-field training. It's a combination of those things.
And oftentimes something as simple as the pace of practice helps get them to where they need to be in terms of their wind.

"It's just keeping your heart rate up, going from drill to drill quickly," Solder said. "Making those drills high-intensity. Making them fast. Making things go quickly so that you're always working hard."

"I think it's just pushing tempo, pushing guys," Andrews added, "and I think we respond really well to that."

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The Patriots are viewed as an athletic front that can get out in front of pass-catchers in the screen game or easily work up to the second level in the run game. But they need to maintain their strength in order to execute their jobs, and so three days of weight training with head strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera and assistant James Hardy are just as crucial as the cardio facets of their regimen.

"I definitely am always looking to maintain their muscle mass,"
Cabrera said this week. "It gets measured . . . As long as they maintain the muscle mass, they really don't get much lighter than they are. They're always right around where they're supposed to be. They're always training how they're supposed to. I think it builds from there for us."

Having linemen who are conscientious about all aspects of their training and nutrition helps make the road to a well-conditioned unit a little smoother, Cabrera explained. Getting the big fellas to do their work hasn't been an issue.

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"If you're a worker, you're a worker," Cabrera said. "If you're lazy, you're lazy. Doesn't matter if you're big or small or whatever. The thing is they're all professional athletes. They have a goal. And I think they're all consistent in the way they handle their business.

"I think that's really a credit to Bill [Belichick], the culture, the way they're developed, and how they're brought here. Just because they're big doesn't necessarily mean they're not going do the work or they're not going to run. They're all great at that."

That applies even when the sled comes out. Because as badly as players may not want to drive it the length of the field, they understand it'll help them should they find themselves down in the fourth quarter with a championship on the line.

"You know at the time it sucks and it's not fun," Andrews said. "But you're going to reach down one day and you're going to need that moment."

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

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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.

His 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 $8M and $9M 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.

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

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 plenty of bodies but an unknown number of difference-makers: Edge defender. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED


No position group saw greater change through training camp than Bill Belichick's group of edge players. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. When Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, the team was dangerously thin on the outside. The Patriots tried to fill in over the course of the season with a series of Band-Aids. Cassius Marsh got the first crack but was eventually sent packing. The Patriots plucked Eric Lee from the Bills practice squad. They signed James Harrison late. By season's end, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise saw more pass-rush work than anyone else. Wise flashed his potential but also experienced some rookie growing pains. Flowers was really, really good in 993 snaps -- more than any Patriots defensive lineman since Ninkovich played 1,040 in 2014 - but he didn't have much in the way of consistent help on the other side. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

WHO ISN'T?
Harrison

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The Patriots have numbers here. But there are questions that need answering. How healthy will Hightower and McClellin be in 2018? And will they be better suited to play off the line or on the edge? What will Rivers look like after tearing his ACL? How will Wise and Langi develop? If everyone's back and they're all ready to play significant roles, is the need really all that dire? In reality, the Patriots could probably use another addition here, maybe a free agent who's a known commodity. The Patriots have plenty of lottery tickets that could hit in 2018, but adding a dependable option to play opposite Flowers would make sense.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The two top edge defenders in free agency will be Demarcus Lawrence (25 years old) of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Ansah (28) of the Lions. The Patriots would have to be willing to commit serious money to either one. More cost-effective options would be Alex Okafor (who tore his Achilles late last season), Trent Murphy (who might be a good fit in New England's multiple fronts), Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass), Connor Barwin (missed just two games in the last seven seasons), Jeremiah Attaochu (former second-rounder who may still have some untapped potential) and 38-year-old Julius Peppers (a potential stop-gap while young Patriots pass-rushers grow into pros). Options there. But because this isn't seen as a particularly strong draft class when it comes to edge players, there will be competition for each.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


NC State's Bradley Chubb is the early favorite to be the first edge defender off the board this spring, but he's not viewed by everyone to be a game-changing pass-rush talent. Pro Football Focus has compared him to Bills 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. Behind him? Question marks abound. Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio was dominant last season...but against seriously inferior competition. LSU's Arden Key may be the most talented pass-rusher available, but he left the team last spring, leading to questions about his commitment to the sport. Boston College's Harold Landry looked like a top-15 pick before last season, but he was slowed by injury in 2017, his production fell, and now so has his draft stock. Maybe the Patriots can find a physically-gifted edge-setter or pass-rusher in the middle rounds -  as they did with Flowers in 2015 - but there doesn't seem to be a ton of certainty at the top of the class here.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Because the Patriots are well-stocked with young players at this spot - Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins - snagging a reliable veteran for the rotation might be the best course of action. Would Barwin be willing to jump coasts after a year with the Rams in order to join the Patriots while Belichick's 20-somethings grow as professionals? What about Peppers? Could the Patriots coax him to leave Carolina for a one-year deal? He hasn't missed a game in 10 years, and he's missed just six total in his career. Maybe Belichick and Nick Caserio will be willing to go big here and shell out long-term dough to make sure they have both edges locked down for the foreseeable future. But with other needs to fill, and with myriad options already on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising if the team stood pat. It really all depends on how they view their youngsters. If they believe, there's little use in spending on, say, Lawrence or Ansah. If they don't, then there could be a splash coming. 

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