Patriots

Stephon Gilmore impressed Patriots with resilient first season

Stephon Gilmore impressed Patriots with resilient first season

FOXBORO -- Stephon Gilmore understood the implications: Make the play, have a chance to do in his first year what he set out to do when he signed a lucrative long-term contract with the Patriots last offseason. 

"I came here to have an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl," he said, wearing his newly-issued AFC Championship Game hat. "When New England called, that was the reason I came here." 

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Gilmore's fourth-quarter pass-breakup of Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles gave the Patriots the ball back with just under two minutes remaining and effectively swatted away Jacksonville's last shred of hope of mounting a comeback.

For a player who was maligned early in the season when his performance didn't match his paycheck, it was as redemptive an individual moment any player on the team has had this season. In the biggest game of the year, in one of its most critical spots, Gilmore showed why the Patriots value him so highly.

"It ain't always going to go all gravy," Gilmore said when asked about his road this season. "You move to a different team, you gotta figure everything out. Meeting new people. Getting used to playing with these guys. Getting used to all new things. It's no excuse, but you've just gotta keep working and preparing and playing hard."

Gilmore is as quiet a player as there is in the Patriots locker room. Duron Harmon, the first player to celebrate with Gilmore following the Bortles breakup, called him a "silent assassin" after the game. But Gilmore's teammates noticed the work he put in after a rocky first month to the regular season. And to them, it spoke volumes. 

"Just seeing where he's grown through this defense over this past year, it's amazing, man," Harmon said. "You had a guy who had a lot of scrutiny at the beginning of the year. All he did was continue to get better, ignore the noise, put in the extra work, and it's no coincidence why he was able to make that play on that fourth down today."

Devin McCourty was one of the first players Gilmore texted after signing with New England, and he helped Gilmore figure out the logistics of living in the area when he arrived. The longtime captain said that the resiliency Gilmore showed over the course of this season came as no surprise to him.

"He's a corner. He's an NFL corner," McCourty said. "When the difference is when you play in Buffalo sometimes you have a bad game and it didn’t get talked about. You come here and I learned early in my career, you have one bad game, one bad play or one play that everyone has no idea what happened but they think you did badly, you get 10,000 stories about how you are not good. 

"Steph was good. You don’t play corner and bat 100 percent. Plays happen. [He's] a very talented guy. We knew that from training camp as soon as we got together. I am happy because you decide to come here and play in games like this. The guy played awesome. He stepped up."

The Patriots weren't able to force Bortles into any turnovers in the conference championship, but Gilmore's leaping deflection gave them the football and a chance to ice the game.

On fourth-and-15 with 1:47 left and the Patriots leading, 24-20, Bortles stepped up in the pocket and tried to hit Dede Westbrook on a deep over route. Just before the snap, Gilmore and McCourty locked eyes. They knew the route. They knew how to play it. McCourty crashed down to create some traffic, while Gilmore turned and ran to go stride-for-stride with his assignment. 

"We were in a man-to-man coverage," Bill Belichick said on Monday. "Those over routes can be tough routes against that type of coverage because the receiver has a lot of space and can kind of run away from the defender. The defender doesn’t really have any leverage. 

"About all the defender can do is keep up with the route, which a lot of times a good throw and a good catch can result in a completion there or undercut it and make it a tougher throw and a tougher play to execute for the quarterback. Stephon's got a good feel for that . . . I thought he made an outstanding play."

The Patriots have a few different ways of playing the football when it's in the air, depending on where you are in relation to your assignment. If you're step-for-step with a receiver, you're "in phase." If you're a step behind, you're "out of phase." For the former, you have the freedom to play as though the football is yours. For the latter, the technique is to go up and through the arms of your assignment and bat the ball before it settles. 

Kyle Van Noy made a sound "out of phase" pass breakup on TJ Yeldon after he was picked near the line of scrimmage and lost a step on his man in the first quarter Sunday. Gilmore's play was an example of an athletic, almost graceful, "in phase" disruption. 

"Just go get the football," said Gilmore. "Don't worry about him. Coach always tells us don't even worry about the receiver. Go get the ball. Be the receiver. So that's what I did."

Iin the process, in his second-career playoff game, Gilmore made the play of his life. Now he's headed to Minneapolis, where he'll live out the fantasy that kicked around in his head less than a year ago when the Patriots first came calling.

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Georgia the new Rutgers? Contingent of Bulldogs growing in New England

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AP Photo

Georgia the new Rutgers? Contingent of Bulldogs growing in New England

FOXBORO -- David Andrews was excited. He just had a hard time showing it.

The Patriots center stayed up long enough to see his team pick at No. 23 in the first round of the NFL Draft, long enough to see his Georgia teammate Isaiah Wynn have his name called.

But the Thursday night prime time event isn't for everyone, and so Andrews wasn't fully conscious by the time the Patriots picked a second Bulldog, Sony Michel, at No. 31.

"I was in bed. My wife stayed up and watched it," Andrews said last week. "I was in bed and I saw Isaiah get drafted, and then I passed out. She came busting in th'.;e room about Sony getting drafted, and at that point, I really didn’t care. I was just trying to get to sleep, but . . . No, I was very happy for them. It was awesome to talk to them. They were here the next day. I didn’t really get to see them, but it’s good to see them around, see some familiar faces"

Suddenly, with five Georgia players on the roster -- Andrews, Wynn, Michel, Malcolm Mitchell and undrafted free agent John Atkins -- they now make up one of the largest contingents of players from one school in Bill Belichick's locker room.

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Iowa is right there with Georgia at five players (Aidrian Clayborn, Cole Croston, James Ferentz, Riley McCarron, Matt Tobin). Vanderbilt is next on the list with four (Adam Butler, Andrew Jelks, Jordan Matthews, Ralph Webb), even with Rutgers (Devin and Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon, Kenny Britt). Arkansas follows closely behind with three (Trey Flowers, Dietrich Wise, Cody Hollister).

If you look at the coaches involved in helping certain groups of players develop, the Patriots connections become even a little more clear.

At Iowa, it's Kirk Ferentz, who served as a Belichick assistant in Cleveland back in the 90s. At Vanderbilt, Belichick thinks highly enough of Derek Mason that he gave Mason and the Vandy coaching staff a behind-the-scenes look at spring workouts in New England last year. At Rutgers, Belichick's relationship with former Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano has been well-documented.

Then there are the coaches who've bounced around a bit and impacted multiple players on the Patriots roster at different spots.

Bret Bielema, who's been helping the Patriots this offseason (and was spotted with Belichick at The Preakness this weekend), coached all three Arkansas products as well as James White during his time at Wisconsin. Bo Pellini has coached three Patriots (Vincent Valentine and Rex Burkhead at Nebraska, Derek Rivers at Youngstown State).

Then there's that Georgia connection. Kirby Smart coached all three Bulldog rookies as well as the two Alabama products on the Patriots roster (Dont'a Hightower, Cyrus Jones) when Smart was coaching defense for the Crimson Tide. Former Georgia coach and current Miami sideline boss Mark Richt recruited all five Georgia players currently on the Patriots roster, and he coached both Miami rookies now in New England (Braxton Berrios, Trent Harris).

Asked why Belichick and the Patriots front office would be so interested in acquiring so many players from the same school, Andrews replied, "That’s a psychology question. Man, I don’t know . . .  

"You know, no, I don’t think there’s really like one thing. I think those are some great guys. They all work really hard. They’ve been great teammates to me, so that’s something you can always respect, and it’s guys like that you love having in your locker room and playing with.

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No matter how you look at it, the Georgia connection in New England is as strong as ever.

"Georgia the new Rutgers? Oh, I’m going to have to talk to Dev and Du about that and all those guys," Andrews said with a smile. "We might be now. We’ll have to see."

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Johnny Manziel signing with Hamilton of the CFL

Johnny Manziel signing with Hamilton of the CFL

Johnny Manziel won't be in the Patriots' plans at quarterback anytime soon.

The former Browns QB, Heisman winner in 2012 and first-round pick in 2014 announced on Saturday morning that he had decided to sign a contract to play in the CFL in order to "further my football career after a long break."

"I believe this is the best opportunity for me moving forward and I'm eager for what the future holds," Manziel tweeted. 

Manziel also announced that he'll be co-hosting the "Comeback Szn" podcast for Barstool Sports alongside his agent Erik Burkhardt and our buddy, former "Boston Sports Tonight" and "Football Fix" co-host, Kayce Smith.

"It's just a really good fit," Burkhardt said on "Comeback Szn." "Good offense. It's a really good league. It's been around forever, we vetted it well, and at the end of the day, like Johnny said, he wants to play ball."

Manziel, who's been out of football the past two years because of substance abuse and emotional problems, has battled bipolar disorder. He will play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats under head coach June Jones, who has also coached in the NCAA and NFL ranks. Jones served as offensive coordinator of the Falcons (1991-93) before becoming their head coach (1994-96). He was also quarterbacks coach and interim head coach for the Chargers in 1998 before heading to the college ranks. Jones coached at Hawaii then at SMU, where he was the first person to offer Manziel a college scholarship. 

CFL rookie contracts are for two years, meaning the Tiger-Cats will have his rights through the end of the 2019 CFL season. 

Earlier this year, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie reiterated the league's stance that they're not in the business of letting players break their contracts to pursue NFL opportunities.

The Patriots took a look at him this spring, but even if they had interest, the possibility of which we discussed on Quick Slants the Podcast last month, any marriage will have to wait. 

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