Patriots rookie receivers credit 'virtual room' in preparing them for emergency roles

Patriots rookie receivers credit 'virtual room' in preparing them for emergency roles

FOXBORO -- Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers will typically finish off a Patriots practice exhausted. They sit behind three veterans on the depth chart, and there are no wideouts on the practice squad. That means when it's time for the scout team to run its plays, they have two undrafted rookie receivers to rely on.

They might be gassed, but Meyers and Olszewski know their afternoon of work isn't over when the final practice whistle blows. Oftentimes it's assistant receivers coach Troy Brown who approaches them as soon as a workout is finished to tell them that they've got some extra work to do inside the building.

"Troy's always chasing us around," Olszewski said with a smile. "We get done with practice and we kind of look around. 'Where's Troy? Where's Troy?' Then he comes by and he says, 'Upstairs, 10 minutes.' Sometimes it's not always the most fun thing to do but it certainly helps."

That extra work paid off on Thursday night as Meyers and Olszewski played 56 and 50 snaps, respectively, as the Patriots beat the Giants, 35-14. The snap totals were a season-high for both players, and Olszewski easily blew away his previous high of seven offensive snaps against the Jets. Meyers caught all four passes sent his way for 50 yards and Olszewski caught two of his three targets for 34 yards.

Why the jump in playing time? The Patriots were backed into a corner.

After injuries took receiver Josh Gordon (knee), tight end Matt LaCosse (knee) and fullback Jakob Johnson (shoulder) out of the game, Josh McDaniels had to roll with his three-receiver 11-personnel grouping (one back, one tight end) for the remainder of the game.

"Got kind of forced into one grouping there in the second half," Tom Brady said. "I don’t think that’s ever happened in 20 years."

One of the reasons the Patriots were able to get away with running "11" snap after snap after snap in the second half was that they had two young receivers who were ready to go. And one of the reasons those young receivers were ready to go was the work they put in with Brown after practice.

When Brown tells Meyers and Olszewski, "Upstairs, 10 minutes," they know that means head up to the team's virtual room at Gillette Stadium.

It's not exactly what it sounds like, if it sounds like high-tech helmets that provide players a virtual reality football experience.

But it's a place where players can get virtual reps as a complement to what's done on the practice field.

"It's just a little turfed area that we go up to," Olszewski said. "It's a big room. That's all it is. We can line up and not run a full route, but work through it, and they can tell if we did something wrong. It's enough room to tell if we did something wrong.

"Up there in the virtual room, it's all about every single step is where it needs to be, you're going at the right angle with all your routes. It's very helpful to have that."

"We might have to go through practice where I might be Julian [Edelman] because Julian doesn't go for a rep," Meyers explained. "Then after practice we can come back and run through, in the virtual room, as if we were actually in the game. It gives us a chance to actually physically do it, even though it's not as taxing on your legs. It just challenges you mentally. It prepares us."

Patriots players won't only go through the plays they'd just seen at practice. They'll also go to the virtual room to get ready for games. They'll even go up there just to get ready for the next day's practice. If they are going to get a rep with the regular offense in a practice setting, they want to be able to run the play at game speed.

"If they don't see you going fast," Meyers said, "that play probably won't be in for you."

Part of the reason the virtual room is so critical to young players like Meyers and Olszewski is that they'd be in a tough spot if the only chance they had to physically run through their alignments and routes was on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium. The top three receivers on the team, when healthy, are Edelman, Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett. That means there typically aren't many routes left over for the new guys.

Meyers and Olszewski will stand by their coaches during practice and get all the mental reps that they can, but the virtual room gives them a little more. They have an opportunity to hear a play call, go take their place at the line of scrimmage, and then slowly walk through the route.

"Reps are limited in practice," Olszewski said. "JG and Phil, when Phil gets back, and Julian are taking the majority of the reps, which they should because most games they're going to be taking the majority of the snaps.

"So for us that's kind of our practice. We go out there and we run scout team. Me and Jakobi just run our butts off the whole practice, and then we get up there and we can kind of run our offense and really learn. We start switching positions and try to learn the offense as a whole."

Meyers has been the No. 4 receiver for the Patriots for the majority of the season after a surprise training camp where he made an impressive catch or two seemingly every practice. He went into Thursday night with more on-the-field experience than Olszewski, partly because he had a head start on Olszewski from the beginning.

Meyers is relatively new to the position, having played quarterback in high school and then receiver at NC State. But Olszewski made the transition from corner at Division II Bemidji State to wideout in Foxboro. Meyers is practically a seasoned vet at the position by comparison, and he's picked up the offense quickly, according to his rookie receiver pal. Olszewski has been in awe of Meyers for what seems like a photographic memory.

"The reason [the Patriots offense] is hard is because it's a heavy load on your brain," Olszewski said. "That's why Jakobi is so good is because he's the smartest football player I've ever played with. We got here in training camp, we're all trying to learn one position and Jakobi is going from F to X to Z. I'm like, 'Dude, how are you learning this stuff?' "

Meyers said a big part of learning it all has been the virtual room reps.

"When I go up there, that's my chance to shine and go through it," he said. "That's my chance to mess up almost. I know it so well because I've messed it up so many times at this point. I'm just always learning and always trying to get better."

“We’re up in the virtual room doing walkthroughs every day after practice," Olszewski said. "We’re the last two out of the building every day. Troy Brown is on us, harping on us, about being ready and being one play away. That happened tonight, one play away and we were in there. And we did our part. We have a lot to improve on. We’re going to watch the film and see a lot of stuff that we can improve on obviously and do better, but we’re ready to go.”

Brady can be a difficult quarterback to please. That's been well-established. And he recently made it pretty apparent just how difficult it might be for his young teammates to make significant contributions to the Patriots offense. But on Thursday he had to trust what he was given.

"With the bodies we lost today, we didn't have no choice but to trust us tonight," Olszewski said. "But I think we did a good job of showing him that he can trust us and we're gonna make plays when he throws us the ball and puts it in our hands."

To get to that point requires some work. It can be hard for players like Olszewski and Meyers to get into the famed Brady circle because they aren't necessarily afforded much in the way of practice reps when everyone's healthy. But the two rookies have tried to make an impression whenever they can.

"I'm always trying to work toward that goal of being where he wants me to be," Meyers said. "He's been seeing me do that in practice and it showed on the field today."

"Tom and Josh, they see everything," Olszewski said. "Even if you don't get the ball thrown to us in practice, we're doing it against air and we're running the right route. In walkthroughs it's critical to make sure you're doing the right thing because Tom's always looking at you like, 'OK, he ran the right route. Maybe I'll throw it to him next time.' It's trust. I think we're getting along with it."

They have help from each other, Brown, receivers coach Joe Judge and the rest of the offensive staff, but Edelman -- who Olszewski called "pops" Thursday after the game -- has been key in their development as well.

"With him there's not a lot of room for error," Olszewski said. "He's a very intense guy. He always tells us, 'Man, when I was a rookie I was doing this, this and this. You better get on it. Yada, yada, yada.'

"It's like I don't want to piss him off any. Him and Tom both. He's helped us out a ton though. When you need something, you can go to him and be like, 'Dude, look, how do I...' and he'll just tell you. It's awesome."

"I love those two," Edelman said. "They come in and it's funny. Playing the game for a while, and I remember when I was that guy, in the huddle with guys that have been playing a long time. You try to think back of how you felt. You try to encourage and help them as best as you possibly can to make them go out and play their best, because the better they play, the better we're all going to play. They can play good ball. I'm excited for them and the opportunities they got. They did some good stuff."

The Patriots came out on Thursday night with a plan to go heavy. They wanted to continue what they'd done in the second half against the Redskins the weekend prior and during last year's postseason: impose their will with their running game, and then strike with well-timed passes out of running formations.

That plan went out the window because of injuries, but that didn't mean that McDaniels and his players had to toss out the entirety of the game plan they'd put together during the short week of preparation.

"You don't have to change all the plays," James White said. "It's all pretty similar in a sense. It's just everybody knowing what to do. Coach is going to call things that everybody knows so everybody's comfortable when we go out there and execute it well."

They didn't have to change all the plays because in the Patriots offense the same plays can be run from different personnel groupings.

Instead of an inside zone run behind a fullback, for instance, tight end Ryan Izzo can start just off the end of the line of scrimmage in a wing position and then motion into the backfield and serve as the fullback for that snap. Instead of running a pass play that might've been put in for a two-tight end formation, three Patriots receivers can look at the same play and run it.

"That's the beauty of the offense," White said. "Different personnels can run the same play. It's just everybody knowing what to do."

They did on Thursday night in part because the two rookies who weren't expected to be a big part of the plan were ready to go. And they were ready to go, in part, thanks to the time they've spent in the virtual room with Brown, Judge and fellow rookie N'Keal Harry, who can begin practicing this coming week.

"Being a Patriot, they expect you to know what to do regardless of the situation," Meyers said. "We've practiced those situations in the past. It's our job as pros to be ready for when it came up. When it came up, me and Gunner were ready. We've been waiting for our moment since we got here and I feel like we did a good job today . . .

"At the end of the day, the separation is going to be in the preparation. If you're ready mentally, you can play fast, you can play loose, and you don't have to think about everything when you're out there."

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Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

The Patriots staffers who questioned Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton at the NFL Scouting Combine just came right out and asked it.

How would he feel about replacing a legend at QB?

Luton, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound QB projected as a late-round pick, told USA TODAY he was a bit taken aback to get the Tom Brady question right off the bat. 

“I think that was a great question," he told Patriots Wire's Henry McKenna. "It was a fair question for them to ask.”

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Luton said his demeanor would be an asset if he was indeed that next guy for the Patriots.

“Those are big shoes to fill. But for me, I’m a pretty even-keeled guy. I kind of reiterated that,” he said. "I’ve never let any of the outside noise distract me, so I don’t think that would be an issue. I’d bring it every day and prove that I’m a leader, no matter if it’s a high or a low. Keep doing it every day, however that works out. I’m not going to worry about filling anyone’s shoes. Just doing the best that I can do.”

Injury concerns have dropped Luton down most draft boards. He spent six years playing in college between Idaho and Oregon State and a forearm injury kept him out of what would've been his final college game against Oregon.

Luton was one of four QB prospects the Pats have met with at the combine in Indianapolis. Jake Fromm of Georgia, Jordan Love of Utah State (projected as New England's first-round pick in Phil Perry's latest mock draft) and James Morgan of Florida International, who met with them at the East-West Shrine Game, are the others.

It stands to reason that the others were asked the Brady question, too. And it was probably put to current backup Jarett Stidham before he was selected last year in the fourth round.

Patriots Talk Podcast: What challenges will Tom Brady face in a new system if he leaves Patriots?

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Patriots Talk Podcast: What challenges will Tom Brady face in a new system if he leaves Patriots?

Tom Brady's decision on where he'll play next season is obviously a big one.

The New England Patriots quarterback is set to hit the open market and plenty of teams this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis have discussed the possibility of adding him. If Brady does decide to leave New England, he certainly will face his challenges.

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On this week's episode of Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast, Curran and former Brady backup Matt Cassel discuss - among other things - how difficult it could be for Brady to learn a new system.

While Cassel, who played for six NFL teams, is familiar with changing systems, he indicated that Brady, who'll turn 43 just after training camps open this summer, may have some difficulty with new terminology.

"The biggest challenge for anybody going into a new system is obviously learning the terminology," Cassel told Curran. "Over my career, I believe I've had 12 different coordinators in 14 years, so I'm accustomed to it, I know the process that takes place. Obviously, he's been in the same system for 20 some odd years, so it would be a big change if you're going to a new system with new terminology, how they call their protection scheme, route patterns, if it's a digit system, if it's a word system. I'd have to believe that if Tom [Brady] does go elsewhere, he would choose a place that has some familiarity with that system and how they call plays."

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While it can be difficult for a QB joining a new team, Cassel also tells Curran that it's the job of the coaches to make sure that players feel comfortable.

"Now, it's also about how much flexibility is the coordinator, the head coach, is everybody going to have because anybody that makes that commitment to bring Tom in, they obviously want him to be comfortable, and they won't want him to come in and have to learn a brand new system in its entirety."

If Brady does decide to step away after 20 years with Bill Belichick's team, he probably won't have too much of a difficult time given his championship resume -- especially if he gets some help with receiving talent.

We'll likely know where he's going soon after free agency officially begins March 18. 

Also on the pod, Curran discusses the reported meeting between Brady's agent Don Yee and the Pats at the combine and Phil Perry checks in from Indy with his three biggest combine takeaways so far. It's all on the Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network.