Patriots

McCourty disappointed players were left out of NFL anthem policy discussion

McCourty disappointed players were left out of NFL anthem policy discussion

FOXBORO - From Devin McCourty's perspective, it didn't have to go this way.

The NFL's anthem policy has reappeared in headlines since changes were implemented at the league's spring meetings last week. Though players are allowed to stay in the locker room for the playing of the anthem, teams will now be subjected to discipline should their players take the sidelines and do not stand for the anthem. 

McCourty explained on Thursday that the anthem policy, which the NFLPA has said was adopted without player input, felt like owners trying to "lay the hammer down" on players. 

"The NFL's a group where you have owners and players, but it can work together," McCourty said. "We'll see how that works out, how it plays itself out."

McCourty has been outspoken about the anthem issue for more than a year now. Immediately after the playing of the anthem at the 2016 season-opener, McCourty and Martellus Bennett raised fists in the air. McCourty was among a group of Patriots players who knelt during the anthem before their Week 3 game against the Texans. 

McCourty understood that change to the anthem policy would likely be coming, but he felt as though the solution - and the way in which that solution was reached - should have been different. From his perspective, a better alternative would have been to go back to the way things were just before McCourty entered the NFL as a rookie in 2009. That was the year the league began to have teams on the field for the anthem. Prior to that, teams remained in their locker rooms until moments before kickoff.

"If you're going to change the rule," he said, "doesn't that make more sense than telling a guy, if you go, you have to do this? You know what I mean?

"I felt the rule was going to change. I thought [staying in the locker rooms] was the best solution. I think we all knew something was going to happen. I thought that was the best way. [That way] it doesn't allow anyone to be different."

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin co-founded the Players Coalition that has teamed with owners on a $90 million initiative to tackle social justice issues. In an interview with the Associated Press in March, following a summit at Harvard Law School that was attended by both McCourty and Jenkins, McCourty said he was encouraged by the league's support of the players' goal to take on subjects like criminal justice and education reform.

"I think the NFL has seen the bigger picture," McCourty said at the time, "that this is not just the players trying to do something to give back -- but these are real issues that not just the players should care about but we should all care about."

On Thursday, he said he thought the new anthem policy was a step in the wrong direction for the relationship between players and owners. 

"To me, the disappointing part of it is owners across the league have been all in on helping the players understand this," he said. "So, then when the rule came out it was like, 'Wait...We've been doing so many great things, why send this to the public and make it seem like the players are the bad guys again?' To me, that was the disappointing part."

McCourty said he believes players will seek avenues to have the policy changed again, but there's uncertainty as to whether or not players will have a seat at the table moving forward when it comes to the anthem. 

"I guess the thing is now, for us as players, is it our decision? I would hope there would be some wiggle room to change it," he said. "I guess not even wiggle. Let's just change this thing. But I don't know. I don't know how we get that done."

There remains the possibility that players may protest during the anthem now not only to bring awareness to social issues . . . but to protest the anthem rule itself. Jets CEO Christopher Johnson has already said he would pay any anthem fine his team is assessed next season. 

"Anytime something happens like that," McCourty said, "and people don't agree with that, you can take everything else out of it. Protesting, reasons...Some people might say, 'I just don't like the rule so I want to do something to go against the rule.' I knew that was a possibility as soon as I heard the rule. Like, this is silly. This is dumb."

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Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

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Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.