FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Douglas’ potential: Troy Brown was an eighth-round draft pick. Danny Amendola entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Julian Edelman was a seventh-rounder. All were under 6-foot and weighed less than 200 pounds.
Could Demario Douglas, the Patriots’ sixth-round rookie out of Liberty, be next in line of underdog and undersized receivers to thrive in New England?
Former Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze, who recruited the 5-foot-8, 179-pound Douglas and watched him grow into a bona fide No. 1 option before being hired as Auburn’s new head coach in November, says he believes so.
“Y’all [the Patriots] have been great at moving those guys around and putting them in iso situations. I think that is his strength,” Freeze said of Douglas. “He could play for me right now at Auburn and start for us. He is the best, most quick-twitched kid at getting in and out of breaks that I’ve ever coached.
“He’s not the burner 4.27 guy [in the 40-yard dash], but his ... short-area quickness and his hands are phenomenal. If you watch the way he rolls out of breaks, it’s pretty darn special.”
Despite many identifying receiver as one of the Patriots’ top needs entering the NFL draft, the team waited until the sixth round to address it -- with LSU’s Kayshon Boutte (No. 181) and then Douglas (No. 210).
“Double moves, he’s incredible at those,” Freeze said of Douglas, who totaled 131 receptions for 1,694 yards and 12 touchdowns over his past two seasons at Liberty.
“You’re probably going to have to play him inside and move him around; the catch radius on vertical seams could be an issue because you know he’s undersized. But on third-and-5, get him iso’d, he’s a handful to handle.”
The Patriots had a unique pre-draft opportunity with Douglas, who was at the East-West Shine Bowl in January and practiced with the West team coached by Troy Brown and other New England assistants.
One of the top questions for scouts is how Douglas’ diminutive physical profile projects to the NFL.
Since 1960, there have been just 13 non-kickers/punters listed at 5-foot-8 or shorter and 180 pounds or less who have played in at least 100 NFL games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The Patriots might have gained more comfort with Douglas based on their experience with 2022 third-round pick Marcus Jones, the 5-foot-8, 175-pounder who was arguably the team’s most dynamic player as a rookie while appearing in 15 of a possible 17 games.
Douglas, like Jones, has experience as a punt returner (two TDs) and kickoff returner. “He’s excellent there, too,” Freeze said.
Freeze recalled recruiting Douglas out of Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, Florida, where he won a state championship and was a “dominant player” but was overlooked by top colleges because of his size.
Freeze’s team benefitted from that -- he credits receivers coach Maurice Harris for aiding Douglas’ development -- and now he can envision something similar unfolding in New England.
“He has the natural ability to do it, and he has the work ethic. He’s a great teammate. Loves the game. Loves to practice,” Freeze said. “He’s so pleasant to be around, with no sense of entitlement. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
2. DHop odds: The Cardinals' release of veteran receiver DeAndre Hopkins on Friday means a player coach Bill Belichick has long admired is now available on the open market, instead of the trade market. The Patriots could use a boost at receiver, but in a past appearance on the "I Am Athlete" podcast, Hopkins listed Josh Allen (Bills), Jalen Hurts (Eagles), Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs), Lamar Jackson (Ravens) and Justin Herbert (Chargers) as the top five quarterbacks he'd like to catch passes from. So if the Patriots were interested in Hopkins, they'd seemingly have to be especially convincing with a financial offer. My view is that seems like a longer-odds scenario.
If tonight is the last ride at home, I have to say thank you to one of the best QBs in NFL History for welcoming me into this league, helping me grow, and being there for me in every step of my career. It's been an honor to catch passes and take the field with you.— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) January 3, 2022
Thank you, 7! pic.twitter.com/YsL53rfpfE
3. OTA violation: New England was stripped of two organized team activities because of coaches' scheduling that resulted in players spending more than their allowed time at the team facility. The NFL also could have fined Belichick as much as $100,000 but instead chose $50,000. The league could have additionally fined the Patriots’ organization (paid by ownership) but didn’t do so. While that could be related in part to the Patriots’ cooperation with the investigation, it more decisively reflects, in the view of some around the NFL, how the violation was primarily about carelessness/lack of attention to detail on the day an NFL Players Association staff member was visiting as part of standard operating procedure.
4. OTA fallout: Losing two voluntary practice days shouldn’t have a major impact on the Patriots in the big picture, as Belichick has often canceled some days anyway. Perhaps the bigger challenge for players is the disruption to their strength and conditioning work, as no one is allowed to work out at the team facility on days that the violation is served. But for contractual purposes, players are deemed to have participated in order to be credited for offseason workout pay or any workout bonus. Meanwhile, Belichick has 16 days to pay the $50,000 fine.
5. Back to work: The Patriots will be back on the field Wednesday after a six-day break, and reporters are scheduled to be present for the first time this spring. Belichick is expected to answer questions. One spring tradition continues with rookies in unconventional jersey numbers, so cornerback Christian Gonzalez will don No. 50, receivers Boutte and Douglas are 58 and 60, respectively, and undrafted quarterback Malik Cunningham is 64. It’s a reminder to them, in part, to focus on more important things. No player on the roster has been assigned zero, which is allowed for the first time in 2023.
6. Kickoff rule: The Patriots voted against the NFL’s new kickoff rule, according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer. The rule allows returners to call for a fair catch and have the ball spotted at the 25-yard line. No surprise there, as Belichick has previously called the kickoff return one of the most exciting plays in the game.
In 2017, Belichick said: “I take an opposing view to the people who want to eliminate kickoffs from the game and try to have as few kickoffs as possible. I think it’s an exciting play, a unique play, one that is a big momentum play because of what happened the play before -- the score or, possibly, the two times at the start of the half where it’s kind of a tone-setter or pace-setter for that opening play.”
7. JuJu in 7: Smith-Schuster could have donned jersey No. 19 like he did with the Steelers, but instead he will wear No. 7 in his first Patriots season. There’s often a story behind every number, and here’s a question filed away to ask Smith-Schuster: Is that a nod to Ben Roethlisberger and his influence on him?
8. Firkser perseveres: Newly signed Patriots tight end Anthony Firkser entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard in 2017, so he’s beaten long odds to still be in the league seven years later (115 career catches, 1,207 yards, 5 TDs). The 6-2, 246-pound Firkser played 21% of the offensive snaps in Atlanta last season, and he has experience at fullback if new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has designs to reintroduce that position to the offense in 2023.
9. Remembering Marquise: On this day 16 years ago, Patriots defensive end Marquise Hill drowned after falling off his personal watercraft in Lake Pontchartrain. Belichick said Hill would be “remembered as a thoughtful and caring young man who established himself as one of the year-round daily fixtures” of the team. A locker for Hill remains intact at Gillette Stadium.
10. Did you know?: When O’Brien was head coach of the Houston Texans from 2014 to 2020, his offenses were in empty formations 767 times (10.5% of their plays), according to ESPN Stats & Info. Only the Cardinals (916) and Steelers (856) ran more total plays in empty formations.