Nine years later, Patriots finally get their man in Eric Decker

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

1. The Patriots’ interest in adding receiver Eric Decker to their team intensified a few days into training camp, but in another sense, it was nine years in the making.

Rewind to the third round of the 2010 draft, when the Patriots were watching the players come off the board as their selection at No. 90 approached. Decker, according to those familiar with the team’s plans that year, was squarely in their sights. Part of the reason he slid in the draft was because a serious foot injury cut his senior season at the University of Minnesota short.

But the Patriots ended up getting scooped by one of their own, as then-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels -- who, like New England, forecast Decker as a good fit in his offensive system -- picked him at No. 87. The Patriots ended up with Ohio wide receiver Taylor Price instead, and he never panned out.

Now McDaniels and Decker unite again, this time with the Patriots.

2. With Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games of the season and Danny Amendola now in Miami, the Patriots have a void to fill at punt returner. If they choose Rex Burkhead, it would be a neat story because of the organic nature in which it unfolded.

“I was walking by the other day and said, ‘Coach, can I field a punt real quick, just to do it?’” And then he’s like, ‘That looked good. Get back in there.’” Burkhead told me.

Since that time, four practices into training camp, Burkhead has joined safety Patrick Chung and receivers Edelman, Chris Hogan, Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios in punt-return drills. The six-year NFL veteran hasn’t returned a punt in a game since his senior year at Nebraska. Until this past week, he hadn’t practiced it since entering the NFL.

“I love it because of the creativity that comes with it as a returner,” he said. “It’s such an exciting play. You can turn the game around in an instant.”

3. With Patriots rookie running back Sony Michel having undergone a procedure to drain fluid from his knee late last week after leaving Wednesday's practice, he is expected to miss at least 10 days, which alters the course of his training camp/preseason. Michel would ideally get to play in at least one preseason game for the team, helping to make it an easier transition for him when the speed of the game increases to a higher level in the regular season, but if history is any indication the Patriots won't push it with the short-term in mind.

4. During his interview on Sirius XM NFL Radio’s “Movin’ The Chains” program last week, veteran Jason McCourty said one of the things that surprised him with the team’s younger players at the cornerback position, based on talent, is how Maryland’s JC Jackson went undrafted. Jackson has a solid chance to make the Patriots’ roster, possibly at McCourty’s expense. Draft analysts projected him as a mid-round selection, but teams shied away because of questionable off-field decision-making that led to his departure from the University of Florida in 2014.

5. While still impressive, the crowds at Patriots training camp haven’t seemed to be as large to me as in recent years. A few theories on why that might be:

  • Unpredictable weather. Opening day (Thursday) is usually packed, but this year’s forecast was threatening, keeping some away. Meanwhile, the second half of practice on Saturday, August 4 was held in a downpour.

  • Late scheduling. While the club announced the first four days of practice well in advance, the remainder of the schedule was not. That has made it harder for some fans to plan their trip to camp.

  • No joint practices. The Patriots have hosted another team each year since 2012, and those sessions have sparked massive crowds, but they aren’t on the schedule this year.

  • Media fatigue. In an offseason dominated by media discussion about “tension” within the organization, and with no headline-grabbing offseason personnel addition (e.g. Randy Moss in 2007, Brandin Cooks in 2017), there hasn’t been as much football-based discussion to spark interest.

6a. With Randy Moss taking his well-deserved place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, it has sparked many positive stories from his time with the Patriots (2007-2010). His '07 season was truly special. But as good as that was, his ending in '10 -- in which he went from breaking down the team in the locker room following an early-season victory to traded a few weeks later after going without a catch against Miami in a Sunday meltdown -- was equally as stunning. That 2010 team had Tom Brady earning MVP honors, receiver Wes Welker, a rookie tight end in Rob Gronkowski, and lots of talent across the board. Would Moss have made the difference in the AFC divisional-round loss to the Jets? It's a question that came to mind on Moss' Hall of Fame weekend.

6b. Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft surprised Moss by attending the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, and Moss shared how much both meant to him in his speech. He thanked the Kraft family for "ignoring the noise" and welcoming him with open arms, and when he reflected on the late Myra Kraft shaking his hand, the emotion from Robert Kraft was palpable. Moss saved his remarks about Belichick for the end, thanking him for "being a friend when it wasn't always about football." He apologized to Belichick for "not bringing it home." And Moss also shared a behind-the-scenes story of longtime Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia that touched him. "One of the worst times in my career, I received a letter from you telling me what you had learned from me, and what an inspiration I was to you, and Coach, that uplifted me so much. You have no idea, because I was down and out," Moss said in his speech. "I wanted to leave the game. Scar, you talked me back into the game, just with that letter, and I wanted to thank you."

6c. Vince Wilfork and Kevin Faulk were two of Moss' close friends with the Patriots, and both were in attendance as well.

7. When the Patriots released wide receiver Jordan Matthews on Wednesday, my understanding is it was a combination of two things: He had injured his hamstring in a practice four days earlier, and there were lingering questions as to how big of a part of the team’s plans he would eventually become. So the injury led the Patriots to make the decision quicker than they would have otherwise, but Matthews -- contrary to my preseason projection -- was far from a lock in the view of team evaluators.

8. When coach Bill Belichick had the first-unit offense and defense flip places near the goal line at the end of Thursday’s practice (it was different seeing Tom Brady in a linebacker-type role), some pointed to it as another example of Belichick going out of his way to make things “fun” for the team. It came a few days after rookie offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn caught a punt at the end of practice to earn players some extra time off. This has become a talking point on sports talk radio locally after an offseason in which the Patriots’ culture was under scrutiny from the likes of Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson and former New England defensive end Cassius Marsh, but I’m not buying that Belichick is doing anything differently than the norm this training camp. Going back to 2000, he’s always mixed in some light moments for players along with his regular hard-line, no-nonsense approach. Just ask the players how “fun” it is to run on the conditioning hill after a sweltering practice or when it's raining heavily.

9. The Patriots continue to experiment with different things with the kickoff return in practice, as players say the biggest change with the NFL’s new rules is the spacing on the field. Some believe that could create more opportunities for dynamic returners such as Cordarrelle Patterson, and one thing I noticed is that the Patriots are exploring using their running backs in the lead-blocking roles that would have previously been filled by fullback James Develin, tight end Dwayne Allen and offensive lineman Ted Karras. The thought process seems to be that with more spacing on the field, a player with elusiveness might have more value on the play than a traditional blocker.

10. Many Patriots season-ticket members received their tickets over the past week, and it included a letter from Robert and Jonathan Kraft reflecting on a quarter century of their ownership tenure and thanking them for their support. In a nod to the core players, here's who is featured on each ticket:

Redskins: Patrick Chung

Eagles: Matthew Slater

Texans: Tom Brady

Dolphins: Devin McCourty

Colts: Dont’a Hightower

Chiefs: Trey Flowers

Packers: Julian Edelman

Vikings: Stephon Gilmore

Bills: Rob Gronkowski

Jets: James White