NEW ORLEANS -- Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. Quarterback uncertainty has been the top storyline in Patriots training camp, but cornerback clarity isn’t far behind. Specifically, the questions are who replaces Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner as the starting 1-2 combination, and how might it change the team’s approach as it relates to man vs. zone coverage? The viewpoint of Saints coach Sean Payton confirmed what we’ve seen through 15 training camp practices: The Patriots haven’t altered much, if anything, as they transition away from two solid press-man corners in Revis and Browner. “Watching the tape, you see guys working on their technique [and] they’re playing a lot of bump-and-run,” Payton said.
1b. As far as cornerback personnel for the Patriots, Malcolm Butler has consistently been the top option at left cornerback, which is Revis’ old spot. Joint practices with the Saints might have benefited him more than any other player, as he had a rocky Wednesday when he was targeted with success before rebounding Thursday. Having a short memory is critical for a cornerback, and Butler acknowledged that’s sometimes a tough thing for him. Assuming good health, he’s locked in on the left side, with Logan Ryan (third year) and Tarell Brown (ninth year) the top candidates to start on the right side.
1c. I take Bill Belichick at face value when he says working Devin McCourty at cornerback, as we’ve seen in recent practices and in Saturday night's preseason game in New Orleans, is essentially geared toward a specific game-plan and how “when we get to those, which we eventually will during the season, [a player] will at least have some background in it.” I don’t see McCourty moving full-time to corner at this time, and it's clear to me he wants no part of that either.
2. Seeing Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry West at Patriots-Saints joint practices in West Virginia (where West lives) reminded me of an old Belichick story. When Belichick was head coach of the Browns in the early 1990s and the NFL was in the process of instituting its salary cap, he reached out to West to talk about how the cap affected building a team in the NBA. It was one of many examples of how Belichick was always thinking a few steps ahead, and West recalled that connection this week at The Greenbrier.
3. I didn’t think Tony Dungy’s remarks about how the Colts and Peyton Manning used to be careful discussing game-plan related items in the visitor’s locker room at Gillette Stadium warranted major headlines. These types of things are commonplace across the NFL with many teams, but it often seems to blow up to something bigger when the Patriots are in the spotlight (perhaps a result of the focus on Internet clicks). As Dungy said, it’s no different than chatter about how the Colts allegedly piped in crowd noise or turned up the heat in the dome; and there are some around the NFL that believe the Colts did a lot more than that.
4. Patriots-based nuggets from the most recent episode of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” with the Texans that interested me: 1) Bill O’Brien’s message to players regarding media (“in the end, you control the interview”) sounded like something right out the Patriots, right down to the suggested answers he offered up to players (“I’m working hard; trying to be a good teammate; trying to go out every day and do my job” etc.); 2) Always wondered how linebacker Brian Cushing might fit in a Patriots-based system where linebackers have to play downhill and stack and shed, as he was a player whose scheme fit was hotly debated in the 2009 draft. That will be fun to follow this year in Romeo Crennel’s defense, which still has a lot of Patriots-type principles. Also, Cushing’s personality comes across as similar to what I remember of Mike Vrabel – quick wit, sharp tongue, confident; 3) Vince Wilfork seems happy and settled in. “A lot of miles on these feet,” he told a few of his teammates as he scrubbed/massaged his right foot at his locker; 4) Interesting visual of how footballs were being prepared for quarterbacks (a lot of scrubbing) in light of Tom Brady’s legal fight against the NFL. It’s a similar process in New England, as Houston quarterback Brian Hoyer has mostly adopted Brady’s approach for ball preparation; 5) Great line from O’Brien when Ryan Mallett was penalized for a false start in the preseason opener for bringing his hands up to simulate receiving the shotgun snap: “Only two quarterbacks in the league that can do that” – in reference, one assumes, to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Mallett joked that he’d been watching too much of Brady.
5. I learned something I didn’t know about Ernie Adams' role with the Patriots in watching this preview clip on Patriots.com. The clip, which is for NFL Network’s “Do Your Job” Patriots special to air Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. ET, has Adams – the team’s director of football research -- talking about leading the “red team” in practice. What that means is that he studies the opposition and projects how they will attack the Patriots, and then sets things up in practice so players on both sides of the ball are as well-prepared as possible. In essence, Adams is a 19th assistant coach for Belichick, even though he’s not listed that way on the company masthead.
5b. Another good preview clip: Belichick on what he appreciates about coaching Tom Brady.
6. Spending two days in New Orleans as the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches this week, I sense great pride from many in how the city has rebounded from such a catastrophic event. Jeff Duncan’s Q&A with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, in the Times-Picayune, resonated with me on multiple layers. It was a reminder of how the NFL played a significant role in the recovery, and also to a time when the commissioner was more a uniting presence. Twice in the piece, Tagliabue talked about making decisions because it was right thing to do.
7. We know Belichick’s affinity for Rutgers players, as evidenced by the four on his current Patriots roster – McCourty, safety Duron Harmon, cornerback Logan Ryan and linebacker Jonathan Freeny. But after watching two Patriots-Saints joint practices this week, I wonder if Belichick is kicking himself a bit over not signing Rutgers receiver Brandon Coleman as an undrafted free agent last year. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Coleman, who spent most of last year on the Saints’ practice squad, caught my eye as a potential breakout player this year. The Saints, it seems, have big plans for him.
8. The Patriots could use a depth boost at receiver, especially with Brian Tyms’ season in jeopardy because of a foot injury, and one player I’m keeping an eye on is Kenbrell Thompkins in Oakland. Thompkins, the former Patriot, might be in a fight for a roster spot under Jack Del Rio’s new regime. The Raiders have Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and Rod Streater (currently on non-football injury list) atop the depth chart, and some might also put Brice Butler ahead of Thompkins as well. Andre Holmes will also factor into the mix when he recovers from a broken hand, which could be by Week 1. If Thompkins doesn’t stick with the Raiders, I could see the Patriots having interest in his return based on the combination of player and need.
9. Did you know: As first-year Patriots assistant special teams coach Ray Ventrone studies Steelers personnel for the season opener Sept. 10, he'll be looking at tape of his brother. Ross Ventrone, a third-year safety, is vying to make the Steelers' roster and special teams is his primary ticket. He played nine games for Pittsburgh last season.
10. My favorite media-based part of Patriots-Saints joint practices was catching up once again with Randy Moss. The way he walked away at the end of a group interview when asked if he’d never play again (“I would say never but … aaahhhh … let’s leave it at that”) was similar to the first interview he conducted with New England reporters in 2007 after being acquired in a trade. That conference call ended with Moss saying, “The Moss of old is back … I’ll leave it at that” as his voice trailed off. Moss always had the flair, and it was fun to be around it again.