Patriots

Sunday Notes: Deebo Samuel's judgment was debatable in goodbye to ‘Billy’ Belichick

Sunday Notes: Deebo Samuel's judgment was debatable in goodbye to ‘Billy’ Belichick

Interesting approach from South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel. He visited the Patriots this week. When he got to the parking lot he whipped out his phone and, with the facility as his backdrop, said, “We outta here. Hey Billy. I’ll see you in a month, my man.”

The video was posted on Instagram and aired on NFL Network when Samuel was there as a guest. As the video aired, one of the hosts, former NFL player Brian Baldinger, looked at Samuel with a look of stupefied amazement.

Being overly familiar with the CEO and posting your confidence on social media isn’t a strategy you’d see recommended by experts for young job seekers. But the NFL isn’t a normal industry and sometimes Bill Belichick surprises with what he finds amusing. He doesn’t hate big personalities. He does hate distracting personalities. It’s a fine line.

What Belichick definitely doesn’t love is having what he talks about behind closed doors brought into the open. Samuel did reveal a bit. Again, this probably wouldn’t be viewed as a mortal sin but might elicit a fatigued, “What are we doing here…?” response.

Samuel’s impression of Belichick?

“I thought he was like a real, real serious coach like, ‘Don’t smile or a lot.’ But when I met him he was a little laughing, gave me a little smile,” said the receiver. “We had a good conversation there.”

What did they talk about, asked Baldinger.

“They really wasn’t hard questions,” said Samuel. “He was just asking about what type of plays I did. He was asking about kick returning, where I would be on the offensive side but it was really just a conversation, see what happens in the draft, whatever happens.”

Not exactly giving away any state secrets, as Belichick would say. Still, if Samuel does land here I’d expect his social media presence might taper off a bit.

Will he land here? That’s the question.

At 5-11, 215 pounds, Samuel is a sturdy, fast, ultra-competitive, works over the middle and returns kicks. He’s got great versatility. He isn’t as sudden as Julian Edelman and he’s so rocked up he looks like he could use some significant pliability time.

There are, as Belichick pointed out earlier this week, a lot of teams seeking slots. Parris Campbell, Marquise Brown, Andy Isabella and Hunter Renfrow are among the players mentioned first at the position.

The Patriots have had a variety of receivers in with different body types during the private-visit stage. Baylor’s Jalen Hurd (6-4, 227), Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown (6-0, 226), Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin (6-4, 220), Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry (6-2, 228) and Georgia’s Mecole Hardman (5-10, 187).

Visits are not necessarily an indication of outsized interest. Often, they are scheduled to answer lingering questions. Hurd, for example, had knee surgery in December. It would be wise to double-check his progress. But the Patriots are obviously going to draft a wideout. And while Brown and Samuel are bigger and more highly-touted slots, Hardman seems the most enticing to me because of his suddenness and elusiveness. He’s 40 pounds lighter than Brown, 30 pounds lighter than Samuel, he should be quicker. But he’s also faster (4.33 40) and – as a converted defensive back – still has room to grow as a receiver.

In the Patriots offense, understanding the concept and spacing, getting open, catching it and making the first guy miss are the attributes that made Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, James White, Dion Lewis and Deion Branch the most trusted inside receivers Tom Brady’s thrown to. It really isn’t about running past people on the outside. It’s about uncovering on the inside where the high-percentage completions are there for the taking. If the right guy is running the route.

*****

Ready for a streamlined Donta Hightower? Check this out. Hightower and Shaq Mason were shown post-workout  Friday evening on a Twitter post. Former Patriots Marquice Cole weighed in on Hightower’s lack of weight. Hightower weighed in on Quice’s comment. Hightower was visibly less bulky in 2018 and now seems even leaner. It’s a departure from the 270-pound version of Hightower we saw during the first six seasons of his career. If Hightower’s aim was to become more durable, his 2018 season provided evidence it worked. He played and started 15 games – that was the most he’d started since 2013 when he played in all 16.

*****

Earlier this week, former NFL official and current NBC officiating analyst Terry McAulay pointed out that making pass interference reviewable means offensive linemen better stay legal when blocking on RPOs. Contact initiated by a blocker more than a yard past the line of scrimmage is pass interference.  

Now that coaches have a chance to scrutinize replays to see if anyone was blocking past 36 inches, there may be as many reviews for offensive pass interference.

Additionally, as Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk pointed out when passing on McAulay’s observation, this begs the question of whether replay officials are on the hook to look for OPI on touchdowns since every scoring play is reviewed.

“Will touchdowns get overturned to offensive pass interference because of a block two yards downfield that didn’t appear to have any impact on the play?” wondered Smith. “It’s important that the league think through all these possibilities and, if necessary, revise the rule at the May league meeting. One revision could be to make offensive pass interference reviewable only for contact that begins after the ball is in the air.”

Now let me add another layer. Illegal picks. If pass interference was reviewable, you can bet your sweet bippy Bill Belichick would have been throwing when the Chiefs ran a devastating and illegal pick in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game.

Take another look at Sammy Watkins making a 38-yard reception down to the Patriots 2-yard line with 2:55 remaining and the Patriots ahead 24-21. Wide receiver Chris Conley obliterated Patriots corner J.C. Jackson about 4 yards downfield, leaving Watkins along and Belichick blowing a gasket on the sidelines.

That’s reviewable now. And if the owners do try to tinker with the rule, as Smith suggests, the outcry from coaches, GMs and media on the behalf of defensive players should be long and really loud.

*****

You like Nashville? Sure ya do. Will you like it in August? We will find out. Titans coach Mike Vrabel all but confirmed this week that the Patriots and Titans will be holding joint practices prior to the second game of the preseason in Nashville.

Over the years, the Patriots have gotten some really good work in during these shared practices. They twice went to The Greenbrier in West Virginia, first to work with the Saints and two years ago to practice with the Texans. With Houston on the early-season schedule, the Patriots held back a fair amount and the reviews weren’t quite as positive.

Last season, the Patriots decided to forego joint sessions and – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – the team was remarkably healthy during the 2018 season. Those joint practices can take a chunk out of a team. The Patriots also cancelled the last two practices of their final four-day session of OTAs in mid-June – and spent one of those four days visiting Fenway.

So it will be interesting to see how the Patriots approach the 2019 workouts given the health and results of last season.

*****

Only three of the Patriots nine drafted players saw any action in 2018 – Sony Michel, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Keion Crossen. And Bentley wound up on IR with a torn bicep after just three games. So there are a lot of unknowns among that crew, which Belichick alluded to this week.  

“Many of our 2018 draft choices had partial seasons or minimal in some cases,” Belichick said at his Wednesday predraft press conference. “We’re excited to see how those guys will do this year, obviously. It’s a hardworking group. Those guys are here on a very consistent basis and hopefully we’ll be able to get a much longer look at the 2018 draft class than we were able to get last year.”

Offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn, who tore his Achilles, is the most prominent player of the group. Second-round pick Duke Dawson, who was available late in the season after being injured but never saw the field, could also have a prominent role based simply on the amount the team was putting on his plate during training camp.

Linebacker Christian Sam, wide receiver Braxton Berrios, quarterback Danny Etling and tight end Ryan Izzo are the others who didn’t see any game action or were on IR and unavailable.

How will their presence impact the Patriots’ 2019 draft decisions? Well, for one thing, the Patriots don’t need 12 more rookies in camp and that’s how many draft picks they have so that fact underscores even more that the Patriots figure to be active traders when the draft begins.

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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.