Grugier-Hill an interesting fit for Patriots in a world of shrinking defenses

Grugier-Hill an interesting fit for Patriots in a world of shrinking defenses

FOXBORO -- Kamu Grugier-Hill knows he's supposed to play football for the Patriots, but he says he isn't completely sure where he'll be lined up when he's asked to take the field. 

He's listed as an outside linebacker on the Patriots roster. But he may be a safety. Or he may be a kick-coverage specialist. 

At this juncture, after a brief rookie minicamp and a few days of workouts with the team, it's hard even for him to say what his job will be. 

"To be completely honest, I don't care where they line me up," he said. "They could line up at receiver. I'm just happy to be here."

What makes Grugier-Hill (pronounced gru-gee-AY) such a fascinating prospect is that he's built like the type of linebacker-safety hybrid that seems to be popping up on depth charts all over the league.

A former linebacker at Eastern Illinois, where he was teammates with Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Grugier-Hill measures in at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. He blew up at his pro day before the draft, posting a 38.5 vertical leap and a 4.45-second 40-yard dash -- numbers plenty of receivers would be proud to boast. 

Though he's somewhat undersized to play linebacker, and though he's inexperienced as a safety, the Patriots saw him as a valuable commodity in the sixth round and took him with the No. 208 overall pick. 

"He’s an interesting player," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the draft. "He is kind of built like a safety, plays like a linebacker. [He] plays a lot down in the box, as a linebacker would. Physically he is probably built a little more like a safety.

"I think that part of his value to our team would be in the kicking game just based on the position he plays. And then defensively, probably just like a lot of guys, we’re just going to have to figure out what the best fit would be.

"I would say that the traits that he has of being smart, fast, tough, and a good tackler, those are things that we feel we will be able to find a way to utilize those, maybe in some different packages, or matchups, or situations, or whatever it happens to be. I think he’s got some things going for him but maybe a little less conventional than some other players and other positions."

When asked if he felt like his place in the league represented a shift in the game where teams are more inclined to use hybrid players, Grugier-Hill conceded what any fan of the game in this day and age would tell you.

"The game's about speed now," he said. "No matter what position it is, you have to be fast."

Even Belichick admitted that the game seems to be going in a direction where defenses want to play faster and are willing to shrink in order to accmplish that feat. 

"I think that you are definitely seeing a strong trend in the league towards corners that play safety or corner-type athletes that play safety, bigger safeties that play linebacker," he said following the draft. "Both of those are trends. We’ve always put a lot of premium on the passing game even going back to when we had Eugene Wilson, who played corner at Illinois, and started for us at corner for a couple weeks and then we moved him to free safety, but that was an advantage when teams went to the multiple receivers . . . 

"That was really, I’d say, pretty successful for us. Devin [McCourty’s] given us some of that, so has [Patrick] Chung. Devin’s a corner. Not that Chung is a corner, but he has corner qualities, he’s had some corner-type responsibilities, particularly in the slot, even going back to when Wes [Welker] was here, and he would cover Wes pretty competitively in practice sessions and things like that."

Though Grugier-Hill and Chung are both listed at 215 pounds, and though Chung's tackling ability makes him look like a linebacker at times, Grugier-Hill has plenty of work to do before he's considered near Chung's level as a coverage player. Should the team be able to harness Grugier-Hill's athleticism, though, and make him an effective defender in the passing game, that will carry plenty of value. 

"I’d say that has always been something that's, if you have a player that can do that, somewhat appealing," Belihick continued. "The other problem is if you get mismatched with the receiver against a safety who’s not a very good coverage player, then that can blow up in a hurry. Rodney [Harrison] was a guy . . . that was a very good coverage safety even though he was a big physical, and he played the run as well as anybody. He could also cover the run and that’s very unusual and that made him very special. You could literally matchup on anybody, receivers, tight ends, blitz him, play him on goal line. He could do it all. He was tremendous.

"I'd say, yeah, as the offenses have gotten more spread out, as the offenses have put more skill players on the field, as the tight ends have become more athletic and less of the conventional kind of power-blocking type guys, those matchups keep getting tougher and tougher. I’d say there’s definitely a movement towards safeties that can play corner or have some corner-like qualities to them and that extends to the linebacker level as well.

"You see less of the big run stopping Ted Johnson, Brandon Spikes type players. It’s just harder when the offense spreads you out and then they go fast and you can’t substitute and you’re stuck with whoever you have out there, out there. That creates some problems out there, too . . . Ends are playing tackle, safeties are playing linebacker, and corners are playing safety. It’s just kind of getting a little bit smaller in a lot of areas."

Perhaps the Patriots plan to shrink as the league has shrunk and use Grugier-Hill as an athletic linebacker. Or perhaps they're looking to buck that trend by employing him as a big safety.

Whatever they plan to do with him, he's open to it. 

"I don't really know what position [I'm going to play]," he said. "I'm not really focused on that right now. We have a long way [to go] before the season. Just learn the playbook and do my thing out here."

Patriots cap space explosion could complicate things with Cam Newton

Patriots cap space explosion could complicate things with Cam Newton

The Patriots care about locker room dynamics. They pay attention to the way in which the contractual hierarchy is structured.

That's why their newfound cap space might force a conversation with Cam Newton.

As part of the newly amended collective bargaining agreement, signed on Monday night, it was determined that 2020 cap hits for players who opt out would be kicked down the road to 2021. That includes the prorated portions of signing bonuses that have already been paid out. 

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That late adjustment to the CBA freed up additional cap space for all teams with players who a) opted out and b) had prorated signing bonus amounts count against the 2020 cap.

For example, as Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan points out, the amount the Patriots saved on Dont'a Hightower changed with this week's adjustment. Previously, his opt-out saved the Patriots $7.85 million. Now, with the prorated portion of his signing bonus adding to that number, his opt-out saves the Patriots $10.35 million. 

In all, the Patriots now have over $35 million in cap space. It wasn't all that long ago that the team hovered under $1 million

So what do they do with their money now?

They could choose to spend in order to buttress the positions that just saw players leave: linebacker, safety, offensive tackle, tight end. They could add to a position group, like the interior of the defensive line, that could benefit from some depth. 

There are talented players available. Marcel Dareus is hanging around and could strengthen New England's defensive line by complementing Lawrence Guy, Beau Allen and Adam Butler.

Jadeveon Clowney, Clay Matthews, Jabaal Sheard and Everson Griffin are available to man the edge of someone's defense. Eric Reid and Tony Jefferson are still available at safety.

Demar Dotson (formerly of the Bucs), Cordy Glenn (Bengals), Jordan Mills (Cardinals), Greg Robinson (Browns) and LaAdrian Waddle (Bills) are around if the Patriots are looking for a Marcus Cannon replacement to come from outside the organization.

Delanie Walker or Ed Dickson (who played with Newton from 2014-2017 as a member of the Panthers) are free-agent veterans at tight end

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But if the Patriots spend a significant chunk of change on any of them, they might have to adjust the contract of the man who looks like the favorite to be their starting quarterback in 2020. 

Newton signed for the veteran minimum on an incentive-laden deal that could grow to more than $7 million. Still, it's a veteran minimum deal. How would it sit with Newton if the team gave Dotson or Walker a few million to help them fill a role that suddenly needs filling? What would that do to locker room dynamics? 

The Patriots could choose to take all the cap space they've been afforded and hold onto it. They may need to make more in-season signings than usual due to COVID. There's enough uncertainty these days that prudence might be the best course of action. Then they could roll over that cap space to 2021 and — even though the cap will be reduced and could drop as low as $175 million from almost $200 million this year — be real players in the free-agent market when other teams have to slash payroll just to become cap compliant. 

But if they don't take that route, if they add veterans to their team by using real money, that could spur action with the man who could be shouldering quite a bit of offensive pressure as the Patriots play out their first season of the post-Tom Brady era. Even if they don't add pieces — unless they tell Newton they have to hold onto their cap space because these are uncertain times — Newton might have an argument to be given a bump in pay.

For Newton, the conversation might start with somehow turning those incentive dollars into guarantees. After all, Marcus Mariota is getting more than $7 million to be the backup in Vegas. Teddy Bridgewater picked up $7 million from the Saints as he tried to get his career back on track. Should Newton not be afforded at least the same amount as the most accomplished of that quarterback-revival-tour trio?

The Patriots couldn't give Newton that kind of deal when they signed him. They were up against it with the cap. But after all these opt-outs, that's no longer the case.

And while that means they're afforded the opportunity to add talent to their locker room, it also might mean they have to revisit the contract of the player who looks like the favorite to man their most important position.

What impressed LeSean McCoy the most about Tom Brady at first Bucs practice

What impressed LeSean McCoy the most about Tom Brady at first Bucs practice

LeSean McCoy has played 11 NFL seasons with three different teams and just won a Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs.

But the veteran running back had never played with a six-time Super Bowl champion before hitting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice field with Tom Brady on Tuesday.

Needless to say, McCoy found out pretty quickly what separates the former New England Patriots quarterback from his peers.

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"I've scrimmaged Tom in the past. We're pretty cool," McCoy told reporters Tuesday after officially signing with the Bucs earlier in the day. " ... But to actually see him work, I mean, he's like a general leading the troops, teaching them what he wants in the routes, things like that."

Brady threw passes to McCoy, tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Mike Evans and other Bucs skill players during Tuesday's session. According to McCoy, the 43-year-old QB turned some heads on the practice field with his high level of play.

"He looked real good," McCoy said. "As he was throwing the ball, I heard a couple of guys whisper, 'Dang, how many years do you think he'll play?' That's how good he looked. Seriously."

While we shouldn't put too much stock in a throwing session without defenders, McCoy also seemed impressed by how Brady carried himself.

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"Me and Gronk talked about it: His will to win, his will to go out there and keep doing it -- once you see a guy like that display that attitude, you want to be a part of it," McCoy said. "He looked good today, in good shape. Threw the ball very well. He's like a coach with a helmet on."

That assessment shouldn't surprise Patriots fans who saw Brady lead New England to nine Super Bowl appearances over 20 seasons. It's also a big reason why McCoy says he's in Tampa Bay despite considering a reunion with the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this offseason.

"I mean, come on. I'm in Tampa, nice weather, playing with Tom Brady. How can you beat that?"