FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One can learn a lot, or have a previous thought reinforced, from observing a Patriots practice and then listening to players in interviews.
This happened to me on Thursday. We often hear about the importance of the second year for a player in the team's system, and that thought was crystallized.
My focus was on defense and specifically the linebacker spot (a piece on the outside linebacker spot has been posted on ESPNBoston.com), and these were three things that stood out:
Derrick Burgess is doing more. Watching the rotation of outside linebackers, it stood out that Derrick Burgess was getting a lot of early repetitions. Used mostly as a rusher as a defensive end in 2009, Burgess looks to be expanding his responsibilities, which he confirmed after practice. He talked about how when he joined the Patriots last training camp, he was jumping on a moving train, but now that he's been in the system, he is in better position to do more.
The importance of repetitions. Five-year veteran Rob Ninkovich feels these organized team activities have been invaluable to him because he was working on pass drops from the outside linebacker spot. He hadn't done much of that in recent years, as he was a defensive end with the Saints and an inside linebacker with the Dolphins practice squad (where reps are hard to come by). Like Burgess, Ninkovich joined the team last training camp and was deep on the depth chart at outside linebacker (there were few repetitions for him in practice). Now in his second year in the system, he's in better position to do more and the increased repetitions are helping him with flow and gaining a better understanding of the entire scheme.
Spikes and Cunningham have ground to make up. When projecting the type of impact that rookies Jermaine Cunningham (outside linebacker) and Brandon Spikes (inside linebacker) might make in 2010, it caught the eye that they were working in the final group at their positions. At outside linebacker, Shawn Crable, Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich, Pierre Woods and Tully Banta-Cain all took turns before Cunningham, whose most significant reps came at the end of the entire practice. The same was true at inside linebacker, where Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Tyrone McKenzie, Eric Alexander and even Thomas Williams took turns before Spikes, whose most significant reps came at the end of the entire practice. Both Cunningham and Spikes might end up making a big impact, but right now they have ground to make up.
This seems to be an important part of the team-building process that is easy to overlook, the idea of a player building a base in his first year in the system and then expanding in Year 2.
The Patriots have a lot of those players on the roster in 2010, whether it's the 13 members of the '09 draft class or free agents like Burgess and Ninkovich.