There's been a familiar face in Foxborough this summer taking in some of the Patriots' training camp practices, as former linebacker and Patriots Hall of Famer Tedy Bruschi has been spotted along the sidelines during multiple sessions. But Bruschi wasn't just there to observe. After Tuesday's practice, he took some notable time talking to rookie third-round pick Ronnie Perkins, relaying the kind of experienced knowledge that only a player like Bruschi could offer.
"Tedy's meant as much to this program as just about anybody," said head coach Bill Belichick prior to Wednesday's session. "He was a tremendous player and leader and inspiration both on and off the field. He had a great career, and I appreciate his friendship and his support. Certainly, anybody with the kind of experience that he has could lend some good insight to all of us. It's good to see him back."
Bruschi was among the first to establish the Patriots "'backer-hood" that has been a fundamental part of the team's identity over the past 20 years. From players like Bruschi and Willie McGinest, to Mike Vrabel and later Jerod Mayo and now Dont'a Hightower, there's a rich tradition at the position, featuring players who have made some of the biggest plays on the biggest stages.
Again, they're looking to pass along those lessons to the next generation.
"Tedy was vital in my development," said Jerod Mayo, who arrived in 2008 via the first round of the draft but only spent one season as a teammate of Bruschi's. "I honestly came in trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I could, not only from Tedy but Vrabel, Junior [Seau], all those guys. That room was great."
Now, a new generation is trying to be the sponges, including Perkins, second-year linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, as well as Chase Winovich, with Mayo now serving as the inside linebackers coach and Hightower as the on-field veteran. The connections are easy to draw through the last two decades, as they remain active to this day in New England.
Standing on the shoulders of giants is a huge boost to the young players who are not only trying to figure out the Patriots defense but understand the privilege and history that comes with playing linebacker here.
"The good thing about Tedy, he didn't play linebacker at all or off the ball in college so he played with his hand in the dirt, and then when he got to the NFL he was a little too small and he moved to linebacker," said Mayo. "I would say he has a wealth of knowledge as far as front play is concerned, he can talk honestly any position in the front. I'm sure Ronnie took away not only some of the technique things but how to be a professional. I hope Ronnie tries to build a relationship with Tedy. He's a smart guy who knows a lot about football."
McDaniels pushing the pace
Plenty of eyes have been on Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this summer as he oversees the quarterback competition and looks to improve on last season's offensive output.
While everyone is hanging on every throw by Cam Newton and Mac Jones, the coaching staff is taking a bigger picture approach.
"What we're trying to focus on is everyone getting enough reps at the core foundational things in our offense," said McDaniels. "When we're charting, I know how many completions and incompletions we have because I'm an offensive coach, that's really not the important part for me right now, the important part for me is are we improving in our protection identification, are we improving in our blitz pickup, are we improving in our route technique? For the quarterbacks, are we improving in our read progressions, our throwing mechanics? Like those are the things really that are going to carry us through the entire season. It's not 'did we hit this today, did we hit that the other day.'"
So far, both quarterbacks have had their impressive moments within the offense through seven camp practices.
"I think all the guys that have gone in there have had periods where they've really got themselves into a rhythm," said McDaniels. "And there's definitely been periods where we'd like to improve our performance."
With one week down and plenty of preseason and joint practice action to go, the 2021 Patriots have only taken their first steps, but the urgency is hard to miss.
"We're all in the same boat in my opinion," said McDaniels. "The standard here is high, we want to take care of the ball and score points. Whichever guy is under center, that's his job."
5 takeaways from training camp practice no. 7
- It was a slight step back in intensity as the pads came off and the shells came on. Kickoff returns and field goal blocking were two of the notable special teams sessions that broke up the offensive and defensive periods.
- The defense won the day, powered by a number of interceptions, quite a few of which were deflected. Devin McCourty, J.C. Jackson and D'Angelo Ross grabbed three of them as the Patriots defense had their best day against the pass, making the kind of plays that have helped mold them into one of the NFL's most ball-hawking teams. And Stephon Gilmore isn't even out there yet.
- Third-year receivers Jakobi Meyers and N'Keal Harry had strong days. Meyers was a little quiet late last week but has strung together three good practices, catching almost everything thrown his way as he works the middle of the field. Harry has had two of the best practice days of his career over Tuesday and Wednesday's sessions. While he had three downfield catches on Tuesday, he showcased more middle-of-the-field work on Wednesday. The 2019 first-rounder is coming on and should have a great opportunity in Thursday's padded practice.
- It was more of the same from the quarterbacks, though Cam Newton wasn't as strong as he was in Tuesday's run-heavy practice. Despite being intercepted multiple times, Mac Jones continues to show flashes of accuracy, anticipation and development. Experience will be critical for the young quarterback in preseason and joint practices. For now, it would still appear Newton is the clear-cut starter, as his experience and dual-threat status will give the Patriots the best chance to win games in a little over a month. Despite the inconsistency, due in part to a defense that is making life difficult for all the QBs, Newton looks improved and has made mental strides in Josh McDaniels' system.
- Damien Harris and Sony Michel both seem raring to go this season, perhaps in part because they're pushing each other for the lead-back role. No matter who wins out, having a healthy Harris and Michel will be a huge boost for the offense out of the gates and they should be key pieces. Not to be forgotten, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson has an intriguing combination of size and soft hands.
Quotes of Note
Steve Belichick on the early days of his relationship with Jerod Mayo:
"We've known each other for a long time. Back when I was a QC and Jerod went on IR he spent a lot of time with me. We called it back in "The Dungeon", he was in a dark place, I was in a dark place. We spent a lot of time together. It was really beneficial for me as a young coach to get an elite player's perspective... Just the two of us in a room together, no filters, no one to try to impress, just two guys learning about football from different perspectives. "
Cam Achord on the value of Matthew Slater's leadership:
"Anytime you can get a guy that stature who's been successful in the league as a veteran it's no question how valuable that is... You're able to talk to those guys and they're giving you feedback of what they feel on certain plays and then they're actually helping the younger guys as well. That's what helps build a tradition here, the older guys take so much ownership in it."
Troy Brown on what his experience as a Patriots player brings to his coaching:
I just think we bring a sense of history to the program. Something that these guys can ask questions about, what it was like, for me, 20 years ago. These guys have no clue, some of these guys were just being born, and they have no clue what the culture is like in that building. Obviously, we bring that to the table as well. The amount of knowledge about this organization, this team and just football in general that we can provide to these guys."