Patriots

Can Jason McCourty help replenish Patriots leadership lost via free agency?

Can Jason McCourty help replenish Patriots leadership lost via free agency?

With all the departures the Patriots have seen this offseason, it's worth wondering how the tenor of the Patriots locker room will be impacted. 

Respected players from a variety of position groups -- Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis -- have all headed elsewhere, and there could be more change on the horizon. Seven-time captain and one of the voices of the locker room Matthew Slater recently paid a visit to the Steelers. 

How do the Patriots replenish that outflow? They have their share of leaders still under contract, but trading for a player like Jason McCourty could help. 

Going into his 10th season, McCourty has established himself as a respected veteran who players looked to both in Tennessee and during his one year in Cleveland. He could naturally slide into somewhat of a leadership role, especially since his new teammates know his reputation after having played with his twin. Jason said in a conference call on Tuesday, though, he's not focused on leading at this point. 

"I think right now for myself I'm not going to go in with any expectations in regard to that," he said. "Get there, get accustomed to the guys in the locker room, not go in there and say 'I'm a 10-year vet, I've been a leader here, let me lead you guys.' But just go in and be myself and get to know them and figure out what my niche is and where I"m gonna fit in on the team. I'm just trying to go in there open-minded, ready to work, and just do whatever it is to help the team succeed."

One thing that should allow McCourty to find his niche relatively quickly is that he's already familiar with the Patriots defense. Though it will be a new system for him, he has watched the Patriots closely enough, and he talks enough with his brother that he understands what will be headed his way.

"I don't think it will take long," he said. "From an experience standpoint, I've only been able to play for two teams throughout my nine-year career, but I've been able to have a good amount of defensive coordinators. I think when you do that, you're forced to adjust, you get used to the different terminology, different systems. You start to combine them all and make sense of things.

"Obviously having Dev, we talk about different things throughout the course of the season. How to approach one game plan versus the next. Then it's just a team I've watched extremely closely. I think the one cool thing for me was when I got to Cleveland last year, it was a younger team and I didn't know a lot of the guys when I walked into the locker room. But just over the years, following my brother and the team, I walk into this locker room having a really good idea of a bunch of guys on the roster. That I think will help for an easier transition. Just over the years of going down to Super Bowls, coming to visit him at different points in the season, I've had a chance to meet a lot of the guys."

McCourty will have an opportunity to help fill the void left by Butler in the Patriots cornerback room. While Stephon Gilmore will slot in as the team's No. 1 corner, McCourty and Eric Rowe could compete for the starting job on the opposite boundary. McCourty is coming off of one of his best seasons with three picks (including one that was returned for a touchdown), 14 pass breakups and two forced fumbles for the Browns. 

Though he and Devin are identical twins (Devin is 27 minutes older), their skill sets differ. Devin told Boston Sports Tonight that he was the better and more physical player . . . a claim to which Jason responded Tuesday. 

"For some reason, he thinks he's more physical than me so I kind of let him have that one," Jason said. "I'm definitely faster than him. And I think some of our skill sets have kind of adjusted to the roles within our teams have been. For him with that switch from corner to safety, he's had to become more physical coming down in the box some or coming up and making tackles. For me, it's the quickness aspect getting in and out of breaks, being able to stay at the line of scrimmage and being able to chase some of the dynamic receivers that we have. So I think those are probably the biggest differences. I would agree with him there. 

"And we can have a debate on who gives the better pregame speeches. He already told me, don't come in there thinking that I'm gonna take over the pregame speeches. That's his thing. I may just have to sneak in there for a game or two."

Even if Jason isn't providing pregame speeches, it'll be interesting to watch how, if at all, he leads.

It's rare, but not unheard of, for a player to come in and make an impact on the locker room in his first year with the team. Chris Long comes to mind as an example of a veteran player who entered the building in 2016 with an established reputation who younger players looked up to. It'd come as no surprise if McCourty were to have a similar impact in 2018.

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Bill Belichick refuses to make a big deal out of new kickoff rules

Bill Belichick refuses to make a big deal out of new kickoff rules

 

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick is known as a defensive genius, but in many ways he's a special teams coach at heart. 

That's how he made his living as an assistant for the Lions in 1976. It's where he focused many of his efforts in Denver and New York before becoming Giants defensive coordinator in 1985. And to this day, he commits a significant number of hours and roster spots to the kicking game.

That's what made his answer to a question on the new kickoff rules Monday a bit surprising. He doesn't see them as much of a change at all, apparently. 

"The new rules aren’t really new rules," he said. "They’ve taken out a couple things. They haven’t really changed anything."

    Despite his special teams captain Matthew Slater calling the rules "a huge adjustment," and despite the Patriots committing a load of coaching manpower to the execution of the play during kicking-game periods this spring and summer, Belichick essentially shrugged his shoulders at the suggestion that the new rules will drastically change how the play looks in 2018. 

    "I mean, you still can block who you can block," he said. "They took out the wedge and they changed a couple of alignments, but that’s not really – I mean, there’s a lot of teams that lined up five by five to kick the ball off. I mean, in the history of football, there’s like probably at least a billion examples of that."

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    But there are other changes coming, not just an order from the league for kicking teams to align five-by-five on either side of the kicker. 

    Among them? Kick coverage units will no longer be able to get running starts before the ball is kicked. Return units, meanwhile, must have at least eight players in a 15-yard set-up zone closer to midfield prior to the kickoff -- meaning only three players will be eligible to align deep. 

    The idea behind the changes was to have more players traveling down the field together at the same time, potentially reducing the number of high-impact collisions and injuries associated with the play. Whether those numbers will shrink or not remains to be seen, but it seems likely. 

    It also seems likely that teams will try to take advantage of the new rules to exploit the amount of space beyond the set-up zone, kicking to open areas to make returners travel a long way to field the football. In some cases, dropping kicks into that space may mean a player unaccustomed to handling the ball may be forced to.

    Still, Belichick doesn't see big-time scheme changes coming. 

    "I would say for a lot of teams, the alignments on the kickoff return, really teams had those alignments anyway," he said. "I’m not saying it’s the same, but there are a lot of teams that did align like that. There are plenty of examples they showed in the coaching tapes when they talked about this rule where they showed teams lined up last year the way they lined up and [say], ‘This will be a legal alignment this year. This would be an illegal alignment.’ . . . But they were just showing examples of, you know, a guy lined differently by a yard or two made it legal or illegal. But, again, you’re talking about a pretty minimal adjustment in terms of alignment."

    The removal of the wedge block is another change. Only players who line up in the set-up zone can combine for double-team blocks. Belichick conceded that would be a change, but those types of blocks were rare enough, he said, that the play won't be totally altered. 

    "Unless every return is a wedge, then you can run the returns that you were running or maybe modify them a little bit," Belichick explained. "But it’s taking out something, not putting it in. And, honestly, there weren’t that many wedge returns in the last three, four years anyway. I mean, there were a couple teams that run them, but it wasn’t like you saw it every return every week like it was in the 70s or there where everything was either a three- or four-man wedge. I mean, that was the return. That’s just not like that anymore."

    Teams may be reluctant to put on tape during the preseason all they have planned for kicks and kick returns under the new rules so we'll see what teams truly have up their sleeves come September. 

    But judging by Belichick's comments Monday, he's not expecting to see anything drastically different than what we're used to. 

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