In the first eight games of this season, Trey Flowers had a specific role: coming off the bench in New England's defensive end rotation.
The Patriots then had their bye week, and since then, Flowers has blossomed into a regular starter, mostly at right defensive end, and playmaker. During that span, the second-year man has recorded all seven of his sacks this season, including a trio of two-sack performances (at Buffalo, versus Seattle, and most recently against the Broncos in Denver).
Flowers' role has also evolved in that he is often utilized in the tackle position, to give the Patriots' defense an element of speed and pass rushing threat from the interior of the opposing teams' offensive lines. It's been impressive to watch the 6-2, 265-pound Flowers make plays from that position, considering he's often overmatched physically by the o-linemen he's facing.
"It's just a mindset," he explained. "You have to understand that you might get doubled, or you have to go against guys who are bigger-sized. As long as you have that mindset and use your skillset as an advantage – speed and quickness on the inside – you can be productive."
That mindset was developed at a young age, Flowers went on to say, when he would accompany his father to work on construction sites.
"As a child, I was instilled with that with my father, being on construction sites with him, knowing that you have to work hard. I've always been a hard worker. I have brothers and sisters that push each other to work hard. It came in my blood."
He's not just relying on natural ability and determination, however. Flowers has become so obsessive about refining his mechanics that teammates have taken to nicknaming him "Technique." He chuckled when this fact was revealed to him.
"I think having great technique puts you in the right position to make plays."
"He's a very good technician," fellow DE Rob Ninkovich asserted. "He's great with his hands and his arms are twice the length of mine. He's been doing a phenomenal job for us. He can play outside and inside. It's not easy in there and it's something he excels at and it makes our team better.
"Trey's a really good football player. He works really hard at his technique. He has a good attitude. Last year, I remember saying to myself, 'This kid is going to be a really good football player.' I'm happy to play with him and see his progress as a player. This is just the beginning for him."
Last summer, as a rookie, Flowers started off strong, sacking Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers in New England's 2015 preseason opener. Unfortunately, Flowers was injured on that same play and eventually placed on season-ending injured reserve. This season, he's worked his way into a significant role that may take some observers by surprise – though not Flower himself.
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised just because I feel like I've prepared well. I was just blessed with the opportunity to come out here and put it on display… It's been a blessing to be able to contribute to my team's success."
Pro Bowl Patriots
New England had four players elected to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday: QB Tom Brady, safety Devin McCourty, LB Dont'a Hightower, and special teamer Matthew Slater. This year's game will be played in Orlando, Florida the weekend before the Super Bowl, so, naturally, if the Patriots are in the championship game, their all-stars won't be taking part in the exhibition contest.
Nevertheless, being named one of the best in the league at your position is an honor the players will always accept.
"It's a great honor," declared McCourty, who's now earned Pro Bowl status for the second time as a safety (2014 was the other) and third overall (as a rookie cornerback in 2010).
"I think in my case it speaks volumes to what we've done as a defense, as a team. I think my teammates, and us just playing at a high level, has helped me get nominated, but I think any of our guys in the back end could have got nominated in the same role. So I think it's still an honor to be voted. That's really about it."
Before the voting results were announced last night, Slater told reporters he believed teammate Nate Ebner was deserving of the all-star recognition – a point he reiterated on Wednesday when, like McCourty, he credited his teammates with helping him achieve the individual honor.
"It's very humbling. You think about all the good football players that do what we do that don't necessarily get the recognition, some on this football team. You look at a guy like Nate Ebner, who in my mind has been a Pro Bowl player. He's had a great career for himself. You look at some of the young guys, the Brandon Kings, the Jonathan Joneses, the Brandon Boldens. There are so many good players in this league and on this football team. Hopefully this says something about the culture that we've created here.
"I really believe firmly that we have one of the best groups in the NFL when it comes to the kicking game," added Slater, "and we really push one another. Coach [Bill] Belichick believes in that phase of the game and it's indicative with the way we build our roster every year. I think this is certainly a team recognition for the way that we've played this season and hopefully we can continue that."
Rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett is back on the 53-man roster. He's been a regular attendee at practice since Nov. 30, when he became eligible to suit up once again. Today, however, was the league-imposed deadline for New England to decide whether or not to activate the young passer or keep him on the season-ending IR list.
In order to make room for Brissett on the roster, the team had to make a corresponding move, and it appears that rookie DL Woodrow Hamilton was sacrificed. He wasn't at practice Wednesday (nor was veteran WR Danny Amendola because of his ailing right ankle), but it wouldn't be surprising if Hamilton is eventually added to New England's practice squad. The club currently has one spot available on that 10-man unit after LB Trevor Reilly was scooped up by the Miami Dolphins on Monday.