Terrence Brooks

Patriots Roster Reset: Reinforcements at safety behind Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung

Patriots Roster Reset: Reinforcements at safety behind Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung

For the better part of the last decade the Patriots have had a pair of decorated safeties leading their secondary: Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. That'll continue this upcoming season as both recently agreed to new contracts with the team. 

For those who'd argue stability is key to success on the back end — and we've pointed out that shared playing experience is one of the reasons the Patriots have been so effective in coverage in recent seasons — having both veterans back in the mix will be critical to the performance of the Patriots defense in 2020.

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But lower on the depth chart there's been turnover. Those fresh faces will be expected to contribute in some to-be-determined capacity. And at some point, some of those fresh faces will likely be expected to take the torch from McCourty and Chung as the leaders in the safety meeting room. 

Who will those players be? What will be their roles? Let's dig deeper as we take a look at the state of the depth chart at the position...

LOCK 'EM IN

Chung and McCourty are locks, but you already knew that. McCourty received $13 million guaranteed when he re-signed this offseason. Chung got $4 million by signing a one-year extension in April.

Veteran signee Adrian Phillips will see $3 million in guarantees as part of the two-year deal he signed in free agency. Not going anywhere. Second-round pick Kyle Dugger clearly is part of the long-term plan in Foxboro as well. 

ON THE BUBBLE

Terrence Brooks was a nice addition to the Patriots roster last year. The veteran was clearly going to contribute in the kicking game, and he did. But he also stepped in to help spell Chung in spots as a box safety in the Patriots defense. His best game came in Philly where he helped beat the Eagles by slowing down Zach Ertz and helped prevent him from hurting the Patriots in critical spots.

His spot might be in jeopardy now though that Phillips was signed and Dugger was drafted. All depends on how many spots Bill Belichick wants to reserve for core special-teamers. He made the roster in our very early 53-man projection earlier this offseason. 

I like Cody Davis' chances of making the roster as a core kicking-game player — the Patriots lost important special-teams contributors Nate Ebner and Duron Harmon this offseason — but he may be on the bubble as well. He signed a one-year deal with $300,000 guaranteed in free agency.

LONG SHOTS

Malik Gant was a fascinating player coming out of Marshall last season. At 6-foot-2 and a shade over 200 pounds, he relished contact and had a bio that gave him the look of a Patriot on paper. Walk-on. Tackling machine. Nose for the ball. He didn't light it up in camp, but he saw quality kicking-game reps in last summer's practices. He was placed on injured reserve at the end of August and will have another crack at the roster this summer.

Veteran safety option Ardarius Pickett also has to be considered a long shot, though he did spend time on the Patriots practice squad late last season. 

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How the Patriots decide to use Dugger as a rookie will be fascinating. Coming from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, the jump he'll have from college to the pros will be tougher than it is for most. Add on top of that the fact that access to players has been limited for teams this offseason, and Dugger could be looking at a "red shirt" season.

His athleticism, on the other hand, is so striking that it might be worth it for the Patriots to have him on the field in limited spots. As a punt returner, he's certainly capable, which he showed at the Senior Bowl. He also played as a deep safety and a box safety in Mobile, Ala., that week. Looking more natural as a running-game player in the box, perhaps he could position himself for defensive reps should the Patriots experience an injury at the position. 

X-FACTOR

"He's the kind of guy that would not only know what to do, he would put other guys in position on defense."

That's what Jeff Miller of the L.A. Times told our Tom E. Curran recently about Adrian Phillips. Sound like the kind of guy who would fit in with the Patriots safety group? That quality — understanding not only your role but all the roles around you — is what has helped make McCourty and Chung the staples they've been in New England. Cut a whopping eight times by the Chargers over the years, Phillips eventually worked his way off the practice squad to become one of their best defenders. So it's not just his football I.Q. There's a chip there that Belichick must appreciate, too.

We know he'll contribute in the kicking game. He was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler for his work on special teams in 2018. But, as more of an in-the-box player, how will he contribute alongside Chung? Same way McCourty did when Duron Harmon was playing starter snaps for the Patriots.

Because Belichick likes to use his linebackers as part of the pass-rush so often, and because he'd typically rather have those players rushing than covering, a lot falls on the shoulders of the safeties in their man-to-man looks. They cover backs. They cover tight ends. They may have to cover slot receivers at times. Phillips will find work in a defense that has enjoyed its three-safety packages in recent seasons. And if there's an injury to either of the top two guys, he'll likely be at the top of the list of replacements.

"He can play strong safety, free safety, dime [linebacker] and nickel [linebacker] for us, and we'd feel extremely comfortable if he was in any of those positions,” Gus Bradley said in 2018. That's an x-factor.

Jarrett Stidham impressing Patriots teammates with 'damn...' throws in practice

Jarrett Stidham impressing Patriots teammates with 'damn...' throws in practice

FOXBORO -- Jarrett Stidham can laugh about it now.

On the road. In Nashville. Deep into his first training camp as a professional. He fumbled his first snap. Others in the quarterback room at One Patriot Place might have a laugh remembering that one, too.

Stidham has come a long way since then. After impressing with his arm strength, accuracy and flashes of mobility in preseason action, he hasn't had many opportunities to show what he can do in meaningful games. He's attempted four passes this season and completed three. One of those completions? To the wrong team -- a pick-six against the Jets in Week 3.

But teammates and coaches have seen much more of Stidham since August. And the reviews have been positive.

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"There have been a few throws," said safety Terrence Brooks, "that we see in practice where we're like, 'Damn, that was a nice one. He's getting better.' That's a good guy that's coming to work every day and proving he belongs here. I'm excited about him, man. Just to see some of the throws that he makes, it's pretty cool to see. Just to see his growth from where he started this summer, it's awesome, man."

Bill Belichick explained earlier this week that Stidham has had an opportunity to fill in for Tom Brady, who has occasionally missed practice time this season as he dealt with injury. Brady was not listed on the injury report this week, but he's recently been dealing with an elbow issue that's required extra attention. More reps for Stidham has meant more work for third-stringer Cody Kessler on the scout team.

"Those guys are always ready to go and it’s an opportunity for them," Belichick said. "You know, it’s hard to practice three quarterbacks, and there have been a couple of examples where Tom hasn’t been able to do a lot this year. So, that’s given Stid an opportunity to go with the first group, and run our plays and run our offense, and that’s been good for him. That’s given Cody an opportunity to run more of the scout-team plays because Jarrett’s not taking those. So, again, quarterbacks are always looking for more work. So, they’ve taken advantage of it and I think it’s helped."

Back in October, midway through Stidham's rookie season, Belichick explained that he liked what he'd seen from Brady's backup.

"Jarrett is a smart kid," Belichick said at the time. "He picks things up very quickly. He has a good grasp of the offense given where he is in his career. He’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him. In practice, he does a good job. He gets a lot of passes on our defense and when he has the opportunity to get the offensive snaps, he’s prepared and does a good job of those."

The Patriots are owners of the league's top defense in several categories, but even they would admit that the fourth-round pick out of Auburn has challenged them on the fields behind Gillette Stadium when he's running the scout team.

"You see a guy who has really tight coverage on somebody, and he finds a place to put it where the DB can't get it," Brooks said. "Those are the type of throws that you classify as 'NFL throws.' Those are the ones that you just can't really do anything about as a defender. If it's in the right place where you just cannot get it where the receiver can, it's a little discouraging at times. But to see his growth, he's done very well, and you can tell he's getting better ...

"I feel like us as a defense is making him better, also. It's pretty cool to see. We like that guy. He's a good guy. Good locker room guy. Teammates love him. He's doing his thing, man."

Stidham wasn't in the conversation to be a Day 1 draft choice back in the spring, but evaluators seemed to agree that he had the kind of ceiling that could one day make him look like an early-round choice.

Fourth-rounders aren't typically projected as future starters, but that's exactly how Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy -- who spent seven years as a scout with the Patriots -- classified the 6-foot-3, 215-pound righty soon after the draft.

"No question," Nagy told The Next Pats Podcast. "No question ... Jarrett's got starter ability. No doubt in my mind. If they develop him right. Again, quarterback play is all about opportunity and situation. I think he's in a good spot to really maximize that. I think Jarrett could definitely be a starter in the NFL."

Stidham talk starts at about 12:30 mark:

Nagy raved about Stidham's ability to throw "a pretty ball," which he explained actually carries with it some importance. It's about more than simply how the football looks flying through the air before it's caught.

"It's just natural. He's just a natural thrower," Nagy said. "Some of these guys have to get drilled and go to camps. I've made the comment a couple of times over the years down here in Alabama about him, 'Jarrett came out of the womb throwing a football.' It's so natural to him. It doesn't matter if his feet aren't right, if he's off-balance, if he's gotta adjust his arm angle. The ball just comes off his hand so clean. That's why it's so important.

"You see him make a lot of throws under duress. You see him make a lot of tight-window throws. There were a couple of quarterbacks in this draft that really sat back in a clean pocket and played pitch-and-catch all the time. That's not the NFL. When I evaluate quarterbacks I want to see people in their face, throwing into tight windows.

"I go back to seeing Jarrett play Week 1 against Washington this year and you can go back to my Twitter feed from that day back in September. Some of his red-zone throws in that game were incredible. If you want to see a guy's true accuracy. Go do a cut-up of all the red-zone stuff, his ball placement in the red zone. Not even on that day but over the course of the year, he's one of the best in the class and maybe the best in this year's class. He brings a lot to the table. He really does."

It's one thing to look that way against Washington or defenses in the SEC. But to do it at the NFL level is another, even if it's practice where quarterbacks are protected by red non-contact jerseys and defenses that know they're not permitted to go full-tilt.

Still, Stidham has his moments that leave veterans impressed.

"It's been good," receiver Phillip Dorsett said of having Stidham getting practice snaps. "It's been good. Jarrett's a guy that can make every throw. We all know that. He's learning. He's learning a lot more, just trying to take command of the offense when Tom's not there. He's doing well out there.

"You see [his talent] every day. When he's doing scout team, he has a cannon. He's got a rocket for an arm. I'd say that's his biggest strength."

Jakobi Meyers was on the receiving end of many of Stidham's throws this summer. He acknowledges that he's only seen so many pro quarterbacks up close, but what he's seen from Stidham this fall and winter has only been a continuation of what began back in rookie minicamp.

"I know if we're doing scout team or something, he makes some throws where it's not really our offense and he's just showing his arm off, he's made some pretty crazy throws," Meyers explained. "Even when he's in our offense. When we're actually in practice and Tom's not going, he makes some pretty good throws then. I mean, he definitely has a lot of arm talent, and he shows it here and there."

Not a burner by any means, Stidham's athleticism has stood out at times as well, according to his teammates. During a season in which the Patriots have faced several remarkably mobile quarterbacks -- Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott among them -- Stidham couldn't replicate what they do, but he could test the Patriots defense with his ability to roll out and throw accurately on the move.

By the sounds of it, week to week, whatever the Patriots defense was about to face, he could at least offer a whiff of what they were to see.

"That's the crazy thing," Meyers said. "Any team we play, he can kind of show a little bit just from different areas of the field. On the move. In the pocket. He can step in and do all of that. It's been real good having him around. Definitely very useful."

"He moves well," Brooks said. "He can get in places he needs to get and make throws he needs to make ... I feel like that's where the game is going nowadays. Everybody wants to get a mobile quarterback that can do a lot of things because it's tough on a defense. You have to worry about pass protection, and it just puts more emphasis on the game of trying to contain the quarterback. When you got a guy like that who's dynamic like that throwing and running it helps a lot -- for the offense and preparing the defense too."

The Patriots currently have two quarterbacks under contract for 2020: Stidham and Kessler. With the possibility looming that Brady ends up elsewhere next year, Stidham could be looked to as "The Next Guy."

There is plenty of quarterback movement scheduled to occur across the league this offseason -- Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater and others could certainly be had for a team needing a bridge passer -- but as it stands right now, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Stidham is taking meaningful snaps in a year.

If that's the case, winning the respect of his teammates and having an understanding of the offense would be just as important as his arm talent or his ability to buy himself time. With the work he's put in this season -- often with Kessler and assistant quarterbacks coach Mick Lombardi -- he's apparently made progress in that regard.

"He's been great. He really has," Kessler said of Stidham. "We've gotten along really well, and we're helping each other out a lot. Him more so helping me with the offense, where it developed from, why this play is being called, why this play is in. He's been there. Ran it in OTAs. Ran it in camp. 'This is where it came from. This is what we're reading.' "

"Obviously, Josh and Mick will go over that but he's been out there and repped it before and done different things so he's telling me what he's seeing. And for me, going through that, my rookie year was a couple of years ago, so I've been giving him stuff that I've learned or ways to study, study habits, different things like that. But he's mature far beyond his years. He doesn't act like a rookie. He does a lot of things at a really high level."

That beyond-his-years demeanor avails itself, Kessler said, when they're studying in long days at the office. They'll go over game plans, test one another, just talk football. And the 23-year-old doesn't miss a beat.

"A lot of guys, your rookie year, it can be too much for you," Kessler said. "It really can. Sometimes you get overwhelmed. But he always knows what's going on. He's always one step ahead of everything. It's been cool to see that."

While the football-watching world hasn't seen much from Stidham the past several months, those who have seen him indicate there's promise there. Good thing for the Patriots, given the uncertainty swirling around the future of that position at the moment.

Bill Belichick's latest find: Terrence Brooks finds a home with Patriots in sixth season

Bill Belichick's latest find: Terrence Brooks finds a home with Patriots in sixth season

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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