Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Backfield depth: In describing why the Patriots invested a significant asset to bring aboard a backup, coach Bill Belichick once said, “Nobody needs insurance until you need insurance.”
At the time, he was speaking of No. 3 quarterback Jacoby Brissett being activated off injured reserve late in the 2016 season. Fast-forward to the present and Belichick’s words also fit with running back Damien Harris.
When Harris hardly played during his rookie 2019 season, despite being selected in the third round out of Alabama after setting the Crimson Tide record for average yards per carry in a career (6.4), it sparked a question as to what he might bring to the team.
Running backs coach Ivan Fears said late last season that the Patriots were pleased with Harris, but that he was buried on the depth chart behind four quality backs/special-teams contributors (Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden) who had mostly remained healthy throughout the year. Fears’ message was that Harris has a “great future” but needed to be patient, similar to running backs Shane Vereen (2011) and White (2014) in their quiet rookie seasons.
So Harris was the Patriots’ running back insurance as a rookie, and now, the start of training camp in late July is shaping up as a time to see how valuable that insurance might actually be.
Michel is recovering from surgery on his foot, and even if he progresses well over the next six weeks, it makes sense to think the Patriots will proceed cautiously with him. That would give Harris an extended opportunity to show he’s worthy of a larger role.
2. Hughes in coaching pipeline: Today’s coaching assistants often become tomorrow’s position coaches and coordinators, and with that in mind, the addition of Tyler Hughes to Belichick’s coaching staff this offseason is a notable development. Hughes has a variety of coaching experience at multiple levels, having served as a head coach in college (Snow and Minot State) and high school (Bountiful in Utah). In 2012, he was a quality control assistant at Ohio State under Urban Meyer. In that role with the Buckeyes, Hughes performed advanced scouting, film analysis and data analytics to increase offensive efficiency and productivity.
3. Remembering Reche’s ’06 season: Kevin Faulk, who is in the Patriots Hall of Fame, said one of his primary recollections of being Reche Caldwell’s teammate during the 2006 season was his big smile.
“He was always laughing, always enjoyable to be around, always smiling and he had those big eyes,” Faulk recalled. “He was always willing to help a friend.”
Caldwell was killed in Tampa on the night of June 6. And, many of Caldwell’s former teammates have been reminiscing about their time together. Faulk took note of all the positive comments on Twitter, adding, “Every time you’d see him, he was either telling you a story or making you laugh. Then you’d hear him laugh. Just a lot of energy and fun to be around.”
Caldwell had joined the Patriots after four seasons with the Chargers, and totaled a career-high 61 receptions for 760 yards and four touchdowns. A dropped pass in an AFC Championship Game loss to the Colts was one blip over an otherwise solid season.
That drop haunted Caldwell into his post-playing career, because up to that point, Faulk remembered how uplifting the 2006 season had been for him.
“He got the best out of himself that year. I don’t think it shocked him, he knew he could do it, but that had been good for him because it really boosted his confidence,” he said.
4. Michel hurt by first-round perception: If Michel, the 31st pick in 2018, was selected two picks later — making him a second-rounder instead of a fringe first-rounder — would the perception of his first two seasons be viewed a bit differently? I say yes. Michel has been solid (but not spectacular) as the Patriots’ lead back through two seasons. But because he carries the first-round tag with him, it never seems good enough in the view of some.
5. Slater’s perspective: Special-teams captain Matthew Slater is the Patriots’ longest-tenured player (since 2008) and is given the responsibility of addressing players after victories, in which he often provides inspirational words. Slater’s speeches have resonated with teammates for years.
So if Slater, 34, was in position to do the same to help rally communities in challenging times, what would he say? He shared his message during Tuesday’s Boston Uncornered’s virtual fundraising event that honored teammate Devin McCourty.
“When you start looking at people as individuals — not necessarily men/women, not necessarily black/white, not necessarily Democrat/Republican — who they are, what their story is, what their life journey has been like, just try to connect and meet with them where they are. I think we’ve kind of moved away from that, with where we are in our society now. I hope that we can kind of move back in that direction. I have a lot of hope and faith that is something we can move toward as we navigate this uncertain time.”
6. Setting the pace on signings: Through Thursday, a total of about 60 draft picks had been signed, 10 of whom were from the Patriots, the first team to finalize contracts for its entire draft class. This was a result of the team aggressively coordinating remote physical examinations between team doctors and local physicians in the players’ areas.
7. Vrabel’s compliment to Belichick: Titans coach and five-time Patriots Hall of Fame finalist Mike Vrabel joined “The Camera Guys” of NBC Boston for an entertaining, lighthearted interview last week, and shared a compliment of Belichick not often highlighted: His self-deprecating sense of humor. Vrabel reflected on how he used to poke fun at Belichick’s affinity for the 1980s Giants defenses, among other things, telling co-hosts Bill Messina and Glenn Gleason: “One thing I always appreciated [that] Bill did is you can’t ever take yourself too seriously, and you have to be able to laugh at yourself to be able to be part of a team. That’s the same type of culture we’re trying to have here. When they imitate and make fun of me, at least I know they’re listening to me.”
8. Scar still connected: Longtime Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is happy in retirement, but he also remains connected to the organization in a non-coaching capacity. For example, on Friday, Scarnecchia volunteered as part of the team’s second Soup R Bowl event at Gillette Stadium, which benefited 1,500 local military, veterans and their families.
9. Gilmore, PR staff are PFWA finalists: The Pro Football Writers of America has voted on finalists for its annual awards, and the Patriots are represented in two categories: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore made the six-person cut for the “Good Guy Award,” which goes to a player for his qualities and professional style in media interactions, while the team’s public relations staff is one of five in contention for the Pete Rozelle Award, which goes to the group that consistently strives for excellence in its media-based dealings and relationships. One example of why Gilmore landed my vote: After the regular-season finale, in which he had his worst game of the season (against Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker), he was front and center in the locker room after the game answering questions.
10a. Seely’s impact remembered: When Belichick was hired as Patriots coach in 2000, Brad Seely was one of a small handful of assistants he retained from Pete Carroll’s staff. Seely stuck around to lead special-teams units under Belichick through the 2008 season, playing a key role on the early-era Patriots championship teams that were known for their defense and special teams. Belichick once referred to him as one of the best special-teams coaches he has been around. Seely, who went on to coach special teams for the Browns (2009-10), 49ers (2011-14), Raiders (2015-17) and Texans (2018-19), announced his retirement this month and his contributions to the Patriots’ two-decade run of success naturally warrant mention.
10b. Did You Know: The Patriots are the last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions (2003-04), with the 15-year drought the longest in Super Bowl history.