FOXBORO -- Terrence Brooks was still the new guy. But there he was, in Patriots training camp, standing side by side with Bill Belichick. They were practically in the middle of the Patriots defensive backfield as play went on in front of them one afternoon. Student. Teacher.
Brooks saw plenty of time in the defensive huddle this summer, playing with starters fairly regularly, particularly with starting safety Patrick Chung limited due to injury. It was apparent even then that Belichick had more planned for the special teams ace who'd spent time with the Ravens, Eagles and Jets during the first five years of his career.
Recalling those camp moments this week, when Belichick carved time out of his 90-man practices to make sure Brooks was getting caught up to speed in a complicated role, the 27-year-old smiled.
"To me, I was honored by it," Brooks said. "He stood by his word about giving me an opportunity. I don't know. It was kind of a shocking thing at the moment, too. Especially just being so new to it all. But having him take some time out and coach me up, whether it's little things or big things, it was an honor for me, and it put me in a good place and good spirits as far as what I'm doing here and what he believes in. It was a good situation."
Brooks, who signed a two-year contract with the Patriots in March, has made good on the opportunity Belichick provided. After playing less than 10 percent of the defensive snaps during his time with the Jets in 2017 and 2018, and after seeing just three defensive plays in Philadelphia in 2016, Brooks has played 34 percent of Patriots defensive snaps this season. He saw 35 plays last weekend against his old team in Philly and was a key piece to the plan for slowing down Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz.
"It's awesome, man," Brooks said after the game. "I wish I could really explain it to you. It's an awesome feeling, just getting a chance . . . I'm not thinking about my former team, I'm just thinking about the opportunity the coaches have given me, with my background, with what I've done in the league. It was just an awesome feeling to go out there with those guys and just make plays. It was a great feeling."
Those types of feelings were few and far between for Brooks at his last stop. Situated in the same position group as a pair of highly-drafted rookie safeties (first-rounder Jamal Adams and second-rounder Marcus Maye) with the Jets in 2017, Brooks was largely left out of defensive game plans. The same happened in 2018, and the Jets finished 28th in scoring defense.
"I really don't like to think about the Jets anymore, I just felt like I was held back a lot there," Brooks said this week. "And it got to a point where it was just really frustrating trying to prove what I could do there. It was really a bad time for me over there. I just did not enjoy the second year of that just because I felt like I was good enough to go play and do some things. It just didn't work out well for me.
"But all that stuff is in the past now, I'm happy with the opportunity I'm getting now, and where the coaches are putting me. I'm just trying to work to not make those times never come back again."
So far so good. Belichick told Brooks he'd have a chance to contribute defensively, particularly in a deep and versatile secondary where personnel groups are tailored to opponent skill sets and game plans.
"I think that’s one of the things that I talked about with him when we visited him and signed him," Belichick said earlier this season, "that we use a lot of defensive packages and our players play. All the players play, and that’s something that he hasn’t really had a lot of chance to do in his career. So, he’s really embraced it.
"He’s taken on a number of different roles and he’s worked very hard to understand those. We have different multiples in our defense. Between the multiples of the defense and different positions, the wheel can start spinning there a little bit, especially for somebody that hasn’t been in the system for multiple years like Devin [McCourty] and Pat and Duron [Harmon] have. But, he’s done very well with it and has given us a lot of solid play there as a part of different packages and rotations -- but also for Pat. He does a nice job for us and continues to contribute in the kicking game, so he’s been a very valuable addition for us this year."
That Brooks has been able to help fill in for Chung -- who's been banged up throughout the course of the season -- speaks volumes. Chung's role is among the most valuable on the Patriots defense because it maximizes his versatility. He can play as a true strong safety, a linebacker or a slot corner, altering from one to the next on a snap-to-snap basis. The 32-year-old has signed four different extensions with the Patriots since re-joining the team in 2014, and he remains under contract through 2021.
But to have Brooks around makes Chung's absences a little less arduous for the rest of the defense to withstand when they occur. Through practice moments next to Belichick, through meetings with Chung and McCourty and Harmon, Brooks has turned himself into a viable option for the secondary despite not having a regular defensive role since he was a third-round rookie in 2014.
"For the most part, ever since then, yeah, I wasn't given a chance really at all," Brooks said. "I was kind of overlooked a lot. It was a refreshing feeling, being in an organization like this and having a head coach like Bill, who wanted to give me an opportunity and saw something in me and wanted me to come play here. It was relieving in some sense."
Brooks' season-high for snaps came against his old team at MetLife Stadium, playing 39 plays and making a pick of quarterback Sam Darnold in Week 7. Then came his performance in Philadelphia, where he was tasked with chasing one of the best tight ends in football on a regular basis.
Even when Chung returns, Brooks could maintain a real role, helping defensive backs stay fresh in what is the NFL's oldest starting defense.
"He's been a very important part to our defense because he just brings a versatility that allows the defense to do a lot of good things," Harmon said. "And then we put a lot on him. We ask him to ask all the Chung roles and then his roles. That can be overwhelming for a lot of people. But all he's continued to do is just put his head down and just grind.
"He sits by me and Dev. He's asking us questions. He's asking Chung questions. And he's not just trying to learn just his role, he's trying to learn the entire defense so that he can get more comfortable and know how to play everybody's position instead of one. He's just done a tremendous job, what he did Sunday we all knew he was capable of that because he's been consistent with his work ethic, his study habits and just his overall grind. We were obviously very excited for him, but we know what he's capable of. He just continues to need opportunities to play."
"He’s always excited for whatever role you give him," safeties coach Steve Belichick said earlier this year. "We’ve put a lot on his plate defensively and special teams. We keep giving him more to do and he keeps coming through for us. So yeah, been pleased with everything that Terrence has done. Can’t say enough good things about him – hard worker, tough kid, loves football, loves to compete. He’s fit in really well with the veteran group that we have."
Over his two decades with team, there is no shortage of diamond-in-the-rough types who've been brought to the Patriots by Bill Belichick -- players who've been in the league but hadn't quite reached their potential for whatever reason.
Mike Vrabel, Danny Woodhead, Dion Lewis, Kyle Van Noy and Trent Brown all fit in that category. They needed an opportunity. They took advantage when an opportunity presented itself.
Brooks seems like he's the next in line. But he's not thinking in those terms. He's simply trying to make the most of what the last year has laid out for him. Things weren't going well in Jersey. He became a free agent. He signed with the Patriots in March. Five months later, he was standing on a training camp practice taking one-on-one coaching from Belichick, being prepped to have a role in what would soon be recognized as the league's best defense.
"Just to have him there, coaching me up, getting me up to speed, it was an awesome feeling," Brooks said. "You never feel like you made it, but you feel like, 'Hey, I'm going in the right direction. This is a great coach that's taking the time out to coach me . . .'
"I don't think he would've brought me in or taken a chance on me if he didn't see something. But at that point I was just trying to do everything right to make sure I stayed there, and I guess make him proud for the opportunity he's given me."
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