EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Quick-hit thoughts around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Those watching Patriots defensive end Cassius Marsh in Sunday's game against the New York Jets might notice his mouth guard, which pays respect to the flag of the United States of America. Given what's unfolded this year in the NFL, the 25-year-old Marsh wanted to do something subtle to express his thoughts.
"It's not like I put the mouthpiece in and thought, 'This is such a huge statement or anything like that.' I think it's just a positive little message: You can support your country a little bit -- red, white and blue. And we are the Patriots," Marsh said.
"It's a team color thing but it represents a support thing. I love my country. I'm thankful to be where I am, in the NFL, and to be an American citizen and be free and play this game I love."
Marsh, a fourth-year player who was acquired in a Sept. 2 trade from the Seattle Seahawks, said Patriots players are no longer discussing how to handle the national anthem. He referred to that as an "over conversation."
As for the mouthpiece, he said, "I've definitely kept it in because of what's been going on the last couple of weeks in the league. I've tried to be more positive and put as much positivity out there as possible with all the negativity coming our way. The best thing we can do: Put positivity out there."
2. Patriots linebacker Shea McClellin is eligible to begin practicing this week after opening the year on injured reserve (presumably with a concussion). McClellin has been around the team, participating in meetings, and those close to him relay that he has been feeling much better. So he could be on the cusp of a return to the practice field. Meanwhile, my sense is that receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who was placed on IR on Sept. 7 (knee), is not close to being a consideration to begin practicing at this point, if at all this year. Finally, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine (knee), who went on IR on Sept. 22, has been participating in meetings and appears to still be a consideration to return at some point.
3. Running back James White leads the Patriots with 29 receptions through five games, which puts him on pace for a 92-catch season. White, who had a career-high 60 receptions last season, told me last week that his favorite player as a teen was pass-catching Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, who from 2002-2010 totaled 442 receptions for 3,940 yards with 30 touchdowns. In 2007, Westbrook had 90 receptions. White, with his remarkable Super Bowl LI performance as a springboard, is becoming this decade's Westbrook when it comes to pass-catching impact from a running back.
Jets special teams coach Brant Boyer said that Pats special teams standout Matthew Slater plays harder than any player he's ever evaluated.— Dan Leberfeld (@jetswhispers) October 12, 2017
4. Patriots special teams Matthew Slater earned a meaningful compliment from Jets special teams coach Brant Boyer this week. The following is his reaction to it, and where his work ethic comes from: "Humbling. To have the people you compete against acknowledge your hard work means a lot. My dad played [Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater] and he always said to treat every down like it's your last. Coming into this league as a special teams guy [in 2008], every down could have been my last, and I still feel that way. I've also been blessed with such an opportunity to play this game that many people would love to play and the Lord has given me the talent, ability, the teammates, coaches to play, and I don't want to let anybody down. I want to go out there and play until they literally have to carry me off the field. That's always been my approach -- play hard, try to represent Dad, and represent the Lord. That's what I try to do."
5. Veteran Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch was a healthy scratch last week, and my takeaway from his interview with a handful of reporters Friday was mild surprise that he didn't more decisively acknowledge the dip in his play from 2016. Instead, I came away with the sense that Branch believes a lack of playing time has made it difficult for him to get into a rhythm. Bill Belichick often notes that playing time is earned through performance and in practice, which highlights the coaching-based viewpoint. Branch has made the trip to East Rutherford, New Jersey, for Sunday's game against the Jets, which is the first step for him to get back on track, giving him a chance to possibly earn some more playing time.
6. It was rare seeing Bill Belichick throw a challenge flag last week -- he was successful when Jameis Winston was ruled down for a 10-yard sack instead of an incomplete pass -- as it marked only the second time he's done so in the last 19 regular-season games (the last time had been Sept. 22, 2016 against Houston). More often than that, the red flag has stayed buried in Belichick's sock.
7. While most analysis focuses on a team's 53-man roster, a reminder of how Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio view things as more of a 63-player snapshot comes with this: Since the formation of the team's initial 10-man practice squad in early September, the Patriots have signed 12 new players to the practice squad (defensive back Jomal Wiltz was signed twice after being released one time), released nine different players; promoted two players to the active roster; and placed one practice squad player on injured reserve. This is the practice squad version of the term "churning the roster."
8. Last week, it was pointed out that the Patriots are paying practice squad cornerback Ryan Lewis (University of Pittsburgh alum) as if he was on the regular-season roster, with a base salary of $465,000. The reason, I'm told, is that Buffalo had shown a willingness to sign him to its 53-man roster, but Lewis made the choice to stay in New England because of his familiarity with the coaching staff. Thus, the Patriots bumped up Lewis' pay as if he was on the roster.
9. CBS analyst Tony Romo said during the Patriots-Buccaneers broadcast that safety Devin McCourty had called the week of practice leading up to the team's 33-30 loss to the Panthers on Oct. 1 one of the best the team had, which was surprising given how the defense had some major breakdowns. It was a point that I followed up with to McCourty last week, because it runs counter to the idea that a team usually plays like it practices. McCourty shared his viewpoint that happens about 90 percent of the time. He said that's why he stressed the importance of showing up on game day last week -- stressing how that is a big part of being a pro -- as he's felt the team's practices have been generally solid this year.
10. A Saturday ride from Boston to East Rutherford, New Jersey, leaves time for plenty of thoughts, and here's one as it relates to Sunday's game between the Patriots (3-2) and Jets (3-2): Wasn't this supposed to be a matchup of a potential 16-0 team against a possible 0-16 team? In retrospect, many in the media badly missed the mark on both clubs. For the Patriots, it's been a good reminder of how offseason headlines of loading up personnel-wise mean little, and for the Jets -- who still might crash back to earth in time -- it's a reflection of how professionals who embrace competition don't tank. Somewhere in there is a good lesson for those in this profession to take with us in the future.