Up until Friday's practice, Devin McCourty had been lining up exclusively at safety in the Patriots defensive backfield. He played primarily at right corner, however, throughout Friday's session before returning to safety on Saturday.
The veteran, a co-captain the past couple of seasons, has emerged as a leader in the secondary not only because of his elected office, but also because he's gracefully made the transition from cornerback to safety and, when necessary, back to corner. Although it seems like McCourty has found a mostly permanent home at safety, he acknowledged that he needs occasional practice days when he goes back to his original position.
"I like wherever they put me. It's a chance to help the team win. Being able to practice a couple of positions always helps you during the season when injuries happen. You never know. You can't take everyone you want into games. We have to play musical chairs," he maintained.
"It's always challenging. That's one reason why I'm playing multiple positions – to make sure I stay fresh on it. I wish I could say it's easy as riding a bike, but it's not. You have to be out there getting reps and experiencing things."
On Saturday, the Patriots simulated game-like conditions with a split-squad of players facing off for most of the morning in 11-on-11 action with down-and-distance markers, penalty calls, and multiple substitutions giving the practice a more energetic feel. It also marked the first time in this camp that McCourty was not wearing a red, non-contact jersey as he continues recovering from a shoulder issue.
"I got tackled one time in the red jersey, so, I don't know how much of a difference it made," he revealed with a smile.
Hard work paying off for Benard
Last year at this time, Marcus Benard was on the Cleveland Browns' reserve/non-football-injury list and eventually released during the regular season. He remained out of football until the Patriots signed him to a futures contract in late January. Today, the veteran defensive end is seeing his fair share of action on the Patriots defense thus far in training camp. He is part of a regular rotation during 11-on-11 periods.
"It was tough," Benard admitted about being away from the game last season. "This is what I love to do. Not playing was tough for me, but it kept me hungry, kept me grinding, wanting it even more.
"You stay positive, but bad things happen and you have to work your way through them. I can't say I smiled and laughed through everything, but I just stayed focused and knew what my goals were and where I wanted to be in life. Just kept working."
When asked where his specialty may lie, Benard answered honestly, "I'm a pass rusher," but quickly added that he's willing to do whatever is asked of him in order to make the team, particularly when there is considerable competition for jobs at the defensive end position.
"Everyone knows what's at stake. There's definitely competition," he added. "I keep my head down. I grind every day. First [goal] is make the team. Second, find a role and help the team win."
12… times 3
Brady turned 36 on Saturday, and he received plenty of well-wishes, along with some good-natured ribbing from his teammates and coaches.
Many of the thousands of fans who turned up to watch Saturday's practice came armed with homemade signs wishing Brady a Happy Birthday. They even organized a group chant of "Happy Birthday, Brady!" at one random point in practice when Brady was on the far sideline and not really doing much.
Number 12 told reporters that, despite his relatively advanced age for a football player, he's physically in fine form.
"I feel better as camp goes along. Every day I feel like my legs get more under me. My arm gets better, so I'm enjoying it. I love this sport, I love playing it, I love being out here with my teammates and playing. I'm trying to take it day by day this time of year."
Nor does Brady mind being at work on his birthday. It's something to which he's become accustomed, in fact.
"My 30th birthday I think we had the day off," Brady recalled, "because I had a barbeque on my roof deck – a surprise birthday party. That was a long time ago. Six years ago – oh my God."
To make him feel even older, linebackers coach Pepper Johnson strutted onto the field wearing a t-shirt that read "Happy 40th Birthday Tom." At the end of practice, the team huddled as one and serenaded Brady with a chorus of "Happy Birthday." And afterward, wide receiver Danny Amendola was asked what kind of present someone gets for a quarterback who seems to have it all.
"Just try to catch every ball for him. That's pretty much it," he chuckled.
Buy*: Zach Sudfeld – In perhaps his best practice of the summer, the rookie tight end saw an increased role with veteran Jake Ballard out of action. Sudfeld caught several passes over the middle in simulated game conditions, including a number of touchdowns.
Sell: Ras-I Dowling – Having missed the last two and a half practice sessions, the third-year cornerback has taken a step back after having a solid start to camp. Given his history with injuries, he cannot afford to miss much more time on the field.
Play of the Day: In the split-squad scrimmage, QB Tom Brady executed a wonderful fake with his eyes, making the defense think he was going to throw to a receiver running an out pattern toward the right sideline. Instead, Brady lofted a perfect pass over that receiver's head to a streaking Danny Amendola, who'd cleanly beaten cornerback Kyle Arrington to the back right corner of the end zone. Amendola easily made the catch for the score. Brady then ran over and hugged his receiver as they went back to the sideline.
...The Patriots have an off day on Sunday, then get back to practice Monday morning at 10. Shortly thereafter, the team will board a charter flight to Philadelphia for joint practice sessions with the Eagles in advance on Friday's preseason opener at Lincoln Financial Field.