Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. One of the offensive plays that stood out from the Patriots’ most recent practice was quarterback Tom Brady firing a low touchdown strike to tumbling receiver Danny Amendola just over the goal line in red zone drills. It was a very tight window in which to throw, the type of play that those watching Brady have come to expect over the years but still makes one marvel because there are few quarterbacks who can duplicate it. The play summed up two primary thoughts from watching two Patriots practices the past two weeks –- Brady is still ripping it, and Amendola once again looks like the player who caught the eye in these practices last year. For Amendola, the question remains the same as it has in recent years: Does that change, and do the injuries continue once the pads come on?
2. With two solid pass-catching running backs in Shane Vereen and fourth-round draft choice James White, one consideration for the Patriots is putting them on the field together. We know this much: The two-running back package is part of the team’s deep playbook as evidenced by one play in last year’s AFC divisional round playoff win over the Colts. It was the only time all season the Patriots used the two-RB grouping – with Vereen and Brandon Bolden – and it produced a 25-yard catch-and-run reception over the middle by receiver Julian Edelman. The Patriots like to manipulate matchups with various personnel groupings and that play against the Colts provided a snapshot of how a two-RB package (with 2 WRs and 1 TE) can put stress on a defense. The Colts matched in their base defense, the Patriots sent both RBs into pass routes (Bolden to the left flat, Vereen up the right sideline), and there seemed to be just enough confusion between the linebackers and defensive backs on how to handle it that it opened things up for Edelman underneath.
2b. Vereen, by the way, made one of the best plays in Thursday’s organized activity by beating linebacker Jerod Mayo down the sideline for a big gain in the passing game. When a running back draws a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker, that’s usually something Brady will take every time. Backs on 'backers – we wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes a bigger part of the Patriots’ attack this year because of the solid pass-catching combination of Vereen and White.
3. As Bengals offensive coordinator last season, Jay Gruden felt joint practices with the Falcons in training camp were beneficial for his players and his own evaluation of them. So it wasn’t a hard sell for the first-year Redskins head coach when Bill Belichick reached out to explore the possibility of having joint practices this year. “Any time you have a chance to welcome Tom Brady to town, and Bill Belichick, and the great players of the New England Patriots to see how you compete against [them], I think it’s a great opportunity to see what you have in front of you,” Gruden said Friday after touring the Redskins’ practice facility in Richmond, Virginia. Gruden detailed that the teams will work on two practice fields, similar to New England’s practice setup at Gillette Stadium, and the times for the practices over the three-day stretch are now set.
4. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s remarks about preferring to be with his teammates at organized team activities instead of the required NFL Players Association Rookie Premiere last weekend echoed a thought I had when it came to Patriots rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo having been in the same situation. Why not hold the premiere in late June or early July so rookies – already behind because of the later-than-normal draft – don’t miss valuable practice time with teammates? The intentions of the event seem solid, but the execution seems to make things harder on these new union members.
5. When a veteran player comes to New England for the first time, there can be a culture shock based on the hard-driving, no-nonsense, 365/24/7 all-football environment. One example of this came Thursday when Belichick sent the entire defense on a full lap around the field at a voluntary practice because there was a substitution/personnel error. Along those lines, I don’t think Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell meant any disrespect to his former team, the Panthers, but I took note of this comment from him on Thursday: “The way we work, the way we practice, is all new [to me]. It’s not like we didn’t work hard in Carolina, but we work a little harder here.”
6. First-year receiver Mark Harrison made our list of five players we were watching closely in Patriots OTAs, because of his rare size (6-3, 230) and athletic ability, coupled with him having spent his rookie season on injured reserve (foot). But the Patriots, after waiting a year for Harrison to return to health, abruptly ended their developmental plans with him on Wednesday. It seemed a bit unusual, and as is sometimes the case, there is a bit more to the story. As Nick Underhill of MassLive.com reported, Harrison showed up late for a voluntary OTA early last week and the Patriots have a rule that if a player is late, they don't practice. The same thing happened with Aaron Hernandez a few years ago in OTAs but Harrison obviously wasn't working with the same margin for error and it was apparently a significant factor in costing him his job. As noted above, the Patriots’ expectations for players are high, even during the voluntary portion of the offseason. Harrison already has a workout scheduled with another team this week.
7. I thought Eric Mangini’s recent comments to Desmond Conner of the Hartford Courant confirmed why some of the aspiring young coaches under Belichick have struggled when going out on their own. They were honest, and if I had to guess, Josh McDaniels might echo parts of them as well. "I think what happens is, whatever you grew up with and learned, you tend to carry over when you're in that position," Mangini told Conner. "My football fathers were Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells and I learned a ton of stuff from those guys, and there was a certain approach. I think when I became a head coach it was a little bit of 'this system works, this approach works,' and far be it for me to dramatically counter that. And you tend to emulate the guys you know. I think one of the greatest things I learned is you need to take all the things that you find valuable from those experiences but do it in your voice. I thought I got a lot better in Cleveland, but typically once there's a perception that's the perception. It's a lot harder to change people's minds."
8. The Patriots’ visit with free-agent defensive tackle Kevin Williams sparked memories of the 2003 draft and how Williams (No. 9, Vikings) ended up being the best of the six DTs taken in the opening round that year – Dewayne Robertson (No. 4, Jets), Johnathan Sullivan (No. 6, Saints), Jimmy Kennedy (No. 12, Rams), Ty Warren (No. 13, Patriots) and William Joseph (No. 25, Giants). The Patriots’ exploration of Williams also highlights how the team’s defensive scheme continues to evolve away from the big-bodied pure 3-4 defense to a more athletic multiple unit that now views a penetrating 4-3 defensive tackle such as Williams as a possible fit. In the ’03 draft, I don’t think the Patriots viewed Williams as a perfect scheme fit. Times have obviously changed.
8b. Random leftover on Kevin Williams: He has to be the greatest “pass” draft pick in the history of the NFL, right?
9. Former Patriots defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick (2010-12), who was mostly utilized as a 3-4 defensive end in New England and was a reserve defensive tackle in the Jaguars’ 4-3 scheme last year, signed with the Saints last week and is being looked at as a nose tackle in coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 alignment. The Saints were seeking some depth behind starter Brodrick Bunkley, as backups John Jenkins and Moses McCray haven’t been practicing at organized team activities. Deaderick (6-4, 305) was a scheme-versatile player coming out of Alabama in 2010 and that has held true in the NFL.
10. Veteran offensive lineman Will Svitek, who spent last season with the Patriots in a reserve role, isn’t quite ready to file his retirement paperwork. The 32-year-old, who dressed for 13 games with two starts last year, has recovered from a late-season ankle injury, feels he is in shape, and would play again if the right situation arises. As for the Patriots, they have been juggling a shortage of personnel along the offensive line in organized team activities, a result of starting tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer not fully cleared to participate and rookie offensive tackle Cameron Fleming (fourth round, 140th overall) having yet to report because his class at Stanford hasn’t graduated. Things should look different by training camp, but if they aren’t, perhaps the club would consider Svitek’s return.