No more practicing in numberless jerseys for Bill Belichick's Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Bill Belichick has preferred to have players in numberless jerseys during spring practices, but the NFL instituted a rule in 2016 that prohibits him (and other teams) from doing so. The league is now requiring all players to wear jersey numbers when on the field in Phase 3 of the offseason program, which is organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. According to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, it was instituted to “ensure clubs are in compliance with workplace rules” (e.g. injured players shouldn’t be participating) as it “will permit the league office and NFLPA to monitor player participation during on-field sessions.” Belichick, similar to legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, liked the numberless jerseys in part because it forced players to communicate more on the field while getting to know one another beyond their number. The NFL’s new rule comes one year after the league instituted a change with declaring eligible receivers ineligible, a tactic that helped the Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs.

2. In this 2014 piece by Bob Labriola of Steelers.com, it was noted that in Noll’s 23 seasons with the Steelers (1969-1991) players never wore numbers on their jerseys for any occasion except games. There obviously wasn’t concern with the numberless approach in that era, but times have changed. I do wonder, however, if it’s an example of over-regulation with rules. Those with ties to the Patriots might take it one step further and wonder if it's another example of the NFL creating new standards specifically designed at trying to slow them down.

3. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton in entering his eighth NFL season, but what he took part in at the end of a Patriots mandatory minicamp session last Wednesday -- every player running the hill behind the team’s practice fields as a group -- was a first for him. “Most of the teams I’ve been on, you condition on your own at the end of practice. It’s a self-player thing,” he said. “It’s different here; you do everything as a team. No guy is sitting it out unless they’re injured. When you see guys like [Tom] Brady, [Devin] McCourty and Alan Branch running hills as hard as they can, there’s nothing to be said. Everybody just does it.”

4. One note of context on tight end Rob Gronkowski and his absence from the practice field when reporters were present on May 26 and then this past week June 7-9: I’m told Gronkowski was on the field for the start of OTAs on May 23 and that he has been at the facility every day since that time working behind the scenes. So the team’s initial intention was to have him practice, and now he’s dealing with an ailment that isn’t considered a long-range concern, presumably something that came up in one of the practices before media members were present May 26.

5. While some view the amicus brief filed by the Patriots on behalf of Tom Brady as a way to show fans how they continue to support him, not to be overlooked is how it could be a factor at the end of the decade when a new collective bargaining agreement is being negotiated. A team siding with a player on player discipline issues instead of Roger Goodell -- especially when that team’s ownership group played a significant role in initially giving Goodell the authority he has to oversee such issues -- is something the NFL Players Association figures to file away as a trump card of sorts in those negotiations.

6. Four soundbites of note from former Patriots defensive Chandler Jones, now with the Arizona Cardinals, from his Sirius XM NFL Radio interview last week with Bruce Murray and Brady Quinn:

  • His transition to Arizona: “It’s going great. I’m enjoying the heat. The biggest challenge is I’m playing outside linebacker now, a true outside backer, so I’m trying to get down the whole drops [into coverage] and everything. ... I’m excited for the challenges and new role. I’m ready to get this show on the road.”

  • When the Patriots traded him: “There were a lot of rumors out. I try to stay away from the media, but I had heard rumors, [so] it wasn’t as shocking when I found out I was traded.”

  • Season-opening game vs. Patriots: “When I first found out they were going to be on our schedule, I said that I was going to circle that game in red marker. It’s Week 1, so that’s even better. The NFL already contacted me and told me I’d probably be miked up for that game. So that will be a fun game to listen to.”

  • Facing Tom Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo: “It doesn’t matter. Whoever is back there, I’m getting after him, for sure.”

7. Former Patriots safety Tavon Wilson, the 2012 second-round draft choice who signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions this offseason, is wearing No. 32. After donning No. 27 in New England, he picked 32 as a shout-out to his good friend Devin McCourty.

8. The Patriots list defensive end/linebacker Shea McClellin at 245 pounds, but if things go according to plan, he will be in the 255-258-pound range for the start of training camp. That will give him a strong foundation from which to work, while also accounting for the inevitable weight loss that generally occurs for many players during the season. McClellin’s initial work in the team’s system has come as an on-the-line defensive end, with Belichick calling him a “smart kid who has some versatility,” leaving options open in terms of what his role might ultimately be. At this point, one thing seems clear: Whereas the Bears viewed McClellin best utilized as an off-the-line linebacker rarely used as a rusher in their 3-4, the Patriots aren’t ready to give up on McClellin’s pass-rushing skills as an on-the-line player in their multiple scheme. That was McClellin’s forte coming out of Boise State in 2012.

9a. “Pads bring out the players.” That’s what one Patriots player said when talking about how much stock to put into non-pads spring practices, which is always a good reminder. And that’s what I think the Patriots will miss most with No. 3 tight end Michael Williams tearing his ACL on Wednesday. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound Williams is the type of physical player who shows up most when the pads come on, so I view this as similar to what the team lost when fullback James Develin broke his leg last preseason. The Patriots can overcome it, but any time a team loses part of it toughness it is a hit that is more than just a passing note.

9b. One follow-up note on the Williams injury: There isn’t another tight end on the roster with Williams’ physical profile, as the next players on the depth chart -- Clay Harbor (6-foot-2, 250), A.J. Derby (6-foot-5, 255), Steven Scheu (6-foot-5, 245) and Bryce Williams (6-foot-6, 258) -- project to me more as pass-catchers more than in-line punishing blockers. That’s why I viewed Williams as the leading candidate to serve as the No. 3 tight end before his injury (he also was catching the ball well in spring camps and moving well after trimming down to the 270-280-pound range).

10. The Saints and Patriots have been finalizing details to have joint practices at Gillette Stadium before their Aug. 11 preseason opener. The teams have a good working relationship, and this will mark the fourth time they’ve held joint practices over the last seven preseasons (2010, 2012, 2015, 2016). Training camp remains one of the best values in all of sports (it’s free), and with the Patriots and Saints getting together the week before Patriots-Bears practices, this August has a chance to be as good as any in recent memory at Gillette.