Patriots

Pats make quite the catch in Rex Burkhead

Pats make quite the catch in Rex Burkhead

FOXBORO -- Trying to cover Rex Burkhead here in training camp is a little like trying to catch a bee with a fishing net. Not impossible, but not likely either.

Just ask linebacker Elandon Roberts or safety Brandon King. Both had the unenviable task of trying to corral the quick Burkhead during one-on-one pass catching drills Thursday. Both found themselves looking quite foolish. That continues a week-long trend here at Patriots training camp -- Number 34 getting into space and creating even more.

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“I’m trying to reach the expectations every day of excellence,” Burkhead said, as if he just created a slogan for the back of a t-shirt.

Burkhead broke into the league five years ago with the Cincinnati Bengals. He earned his way by being an ace special-teams player, but eventually saw an increase in his role offensively a season ago, both running and catching the football. Word is Burkhead was chased by Bill Belichick and Bill Belichick alone. You can see why, with the Pats wanting to create even more uncertainty for opposing defenses. 

“Hopefully, this year, we’ll have a little more balance between the running game and passing game,” Belichick said. “Again, [the departed LeGarrette Blount] was primarily a runner. He didn’t have a lot of receiving production. The reverse is true of James White. So hopefully with our backs this year we’ll have a little more balance and be a little less predictable from that spot.”

That’s one of many areas where Burkhead can factor in. 

“It’s something growing up, my dad -- he was a coach, he played football -- he always told me, ‘You can’t be a one-dimensional player. You’ve have to be able to catch the ball as well,’ ” Burkhead said. “It’s always been something I’ve taken pride in. I want to make sure I can do it well.”

The Pats haven’t been shy about trying Burkhead in short yardage situation down at the goal line either. Running backs coach Ivan Fears is on record saying the team needs to find it’s power back and while Mike Gilislee is probably the lead dog in that area, Burkhead is bigger than you think, right around 210 pounds. That’s not Blount beef, but that doesn’t mean the Texas native can’t get it done.

“Find the creases and see the reads. You don’t want to have your head up with a guy 50 pounds or 100 pounds bigger than you, so you try to find those creases where you can really lower your pads and get on in there,” adding, “I can fit through some cracks that some normal - or bigger backs - can’t get through.”

If Burkhead keeps showing up and showing out in every practice, he’ll get plenty of opportunities to impact the Pats in all facets and pay off Belichick’s faith in him.

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. 

Rivers feeling good, could help provide Patriots an answer at left end

Rivers feeling good, could help provide Patriots an answer at left end

FOXBORO -- Of all the observations made at Tuesday's OTA practice, one that stood out as sort of an under-the-radar takeaway was that the defensive end position for the Patriots looked nothing like it did back in early February.

Seeing a good deal of the workload on the edges were two players who didn't play a snap for the Patriots last season: Derek Rivers and Adrian Clayborn.

From this, we can deduce a couple of things.

First, a few of the team's most experienced edge defenders weren't available. Trey Flowers' absence from Tuesday's work is worth monitoring as we progress through the spring and move toward training camp. Arguably the team's top defensive lineman, Flowers is headed into the final year of his rookie contract. Dont'a Hightower, who's coming back from a season-ending pec injury and has on-the-line/off-the-line flexibility, was also missing Tuesday.

Second, the participation level from both Rivers and Clayborn would serve as an indication that both are feeling healthy enough to take on a healthy amount of work at this point in the year. Clayborn reportedly tweaked his quad in workouts earlier in the offseason program, but he appeared to be moving fine. Rivers, meanwhile, is back for his second pro season after missing all of last year following an ACL tear suffered in joint training camp practices with the Texans.

Rivers availability is particularly interesting, if unsurprising, since he could be a stabilizing factor for the Patriots' front in 2018. A third-round pick last year out of Youngstown State, Rivers was used as an end, as a stand-up player on the edge, as a pass-rusher and as a coverage player in camp before getting hurt.

Though he missed all of last season, he was able to maintain a positive approach in the Patriots locker room, attending meetings and working diligently on his upper-body strength while his leg healed.

"Nobody ever wants to have an injury, but praise God. It’s all in his plan," Rivers said Tuesday. "My faith helped me get through it. It was a good rehab process. I was able to learn the defense, and I wasn’t away from the building, so I could do everything but be out here on the field. So it was a blessing. It actually made me a better player."

Rivers played on the left side - opposite Clayborn, a right end - in Tuesday's work. That's a position the Patriots had some trouble filling all of last season following Rob Ninkovich's retirement. It requires good athleticism, an ability to set an edge, an ability to rush...but also an ability to track backs out of the backfield.

"I’d say it’s different playing on the left than playing on the right from a responsibilities standpoint," Bill Belichick said last summer. "There’s certainly some similarities, but it’s different. Some guys can play both. Some guys, I would say, are better suited at one or the other. Sometimes that’s a comfort thing. Sometimes it’s really a scheme thing and what we ask them to do. They’re the same, but they’re different more so than say right and left corner or right and left defensive tackle or that type of thing. It’s defensive scheme. It’s a little bit different...

"I think it really becomes more of a coverage discussion – how much and what type of coverage responsibilities would you put them in? You know, Chandler Jones versus Ninkovich or Trey Flowers versus Ninkovich. There’s some differences in their coverage responsibilities. Especially most teams are, for us, defensively left-handed formation teams. Not that they couldn’t do it the other way, but more times than not, there’s a high percentage of situations that come up on the left side that are different from the right side, especially with a right-handed quarterback, which most of them are.

"I mean, look, they both have to know them, they both have to do them, but I’d say there’s definitely more – it’s kind of like left tackle and right tackle. You don’t really see the same player at right tackle as left tackle. Some guys can do both, but there are quite a few guys that are better at one or the other, and that’s usually where they end up."

The Patriots used Hightower off the left side early in the season but eventually moved him back to the middle in what looked like an effort to improve the unit's overall communication. Cassius Marsh got a crack at the spot at times. Kyle Van Noy could be seen there. Eric Lee saw work on the left. It was a revolving door. 

The rotation was heavy at both edge spots, really. Deatrich Wise saw extensive work as a rookie. Harvey Langi looked like he might earn regular snaps before a car wreck ended his season. Trevor Reilly, Geneo Grissom, Marquis Flowers and James Harris all appeared on the edge as the Patriots hoped to find answers. 

In the athletic Rivers, they could have a player who is big enough (6-foot-5, 250) to handle work in the running game on the left edge and athletic enough to both rush (his specialty in college) and cover. It's just a matter of Rivers showing the team he can do it. 

"Obviously, coming in here, your rookie year is almost like your freshman year in college," Rivers said. "So now, it’s just listening to the coaches, staying in the playbook and just getting ready to roll for each practice and just try to get better each and every day.”

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