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.


 

Hightower’s presence at OTAs leads to a look at linebacker depth

Hightower’s presence at OTAs leads to a look at linebacker depth

FOXBORO - Dont'a Hightower was among the missing during Tuesday's OTA that was open to reporters. He was prominently featured on the team's website as a participant in Thursday's OTA, though.

It's a positive development for one of the Patriots best and most versatile defenders. Hightower tore his pectoral in October and missed the remainder of the 2017 season, leading to some shuffling of personnel both at the second level and on the edge. 

Hightower snagged one of the team's photos of his participation in Thursday's workout and slapped it on his Instagram page. 

Hightower's presence on the turf behind Gillette Stadium, even if he was limited in the practice, allows our minds to wander a bit and look ahead to what the Patriots depth chart might look like at linebacker with him in the fold. 

The Patriots are consistently altering their fronts and Hightower's adaptability allows his role to change with whatever scheme Bill Belichick deploys. 

Hightower can play on the line or off. He can be used as a "Sam" linebacker at the second level in a 4-3 or at the end of the line of scrimmage in 3-4 looks. He played on the left end early last season - a spot we identified yesterday as a potential landing spot for Derek Rivers. And if the Patriots needed Hightower to play as a "Mike" linebacker, he has the ability to do that as well. 

Sub packages, base packages . . . Hightower can line up in a variety of front-seven spots for the Patriots regardless of the situation, which is why when healthy he's been able to serve as an every-down player. (He played 92.4 percent of Patriots defensive snaps in 2014 and 83.1 percent of the snaps in 2016.)

How might the rest of the Patriots linebacker corps slot in if Hightower is a full go for training camp? Let's take a look . . . 

MR. MIX AND MATCH


Kyle Van Noy is probably the closest approximation to Hightower that the Patriots have on their roster. When Hightower went out last season, it was Van Noy who moved around the front seven and handled a variety of responsibilities. He's probably best suited as a "Will" linebacker, someone who can use his athleticism to make plays in different areas depending on the situation, but Van Noy's ability to handle multiple responsibilities in New England's defense is part of the reason why the team likes him as much as they do. He was handed a two-year extension early last season. 

LIKE "MIKE" 


Elandon Roberts often handled the "Mike" responsibilities in the Patriots defense last season. The third-year player out of Houston might have the inside track on this role in 2018, but he could be pushed by rookie fifth-round selection Ja'Whaun Bentley out of Purdue. Both players seem like they're at their best against the run game, unafraid to fill their lanes as prideful "thumpers." What may separate this duo is which player can more consistently cover the correct gaps on first and second down, and which player more effectively communicates the defense to their teammates around them. Whether either player can contribute on special teams could also alter how the workload is distributed here. 

WHEN THERE'S A "WILL"


Van Noy would likely be the first choice here for the Patriots, but there are a few others who could be angling for time here. Marquis Flowers re-signed with the Patriots this offseason after an impressive end-of-the-season run where he showed up as a pass-rusher with enough athleticism to be trusted to run with backs in the passing game. Flowers was also a key contributor on special teams last season. Rookie sixth-round pick Christian Sam could also compete for "Will" reps. A defensive back in high school, Sam bulked up at Arizona State but remains a good athlete and could be a fit behind Van Noy. Special teamers Nicholas Grigsby and Brandon King work out with the linebackers and could be options here if they were ever called upon defensively.

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NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

Chris Gasper and Michael Holley talk about the inconsistent messaging from NFL owners to their teams' players after they unanimously voted to change the league's policy regarding the national anthem. Watch the video above.