There was a rather large guest chatting with Bill Belichick before Wednesday's practice, and during his Thursday morning press conference he was asked about it. It turned out the visitor was former Boston Celtics forward Dino Radja, who like the coach has Croatian roots.
Belichick was asked about the 6-11Radja's potential as a fit on the field goal block team to close out the Thursday session.
"He'd be good, wouldn't he?" Belichick joked. "It would be hard to kick it over him."
Radja played for the Celtics from 1993-97, although it was unclear why he was in town or on hand for the start of practice.
"Yeah, he's a big guy. He's a great guy though. It was good to have him around."
In more pressing matters, the Broncos defense will provide a stiff test on Sunday night, especially if right tackle Marcus Cannon is unable to go. Cannon left the Chargers game in Week 8 with an ankle injury and has missed some practice time this week.
Belichick was asked about the depth the team has at tackle, a group that includes LaAdrian Waddle, Cam Fleming and rookie Cole Croston.
"I think that's a position that I feel like is an important position to have depth there," Belichick said. "You want to have depth at every position but those guys are hard to find. If you're tackle-poor I think that can show up a lot quicker than being poor at other positions. Tackle – you can help them a little bit but they're single blocking most of the game. I'd say it's hard to help that positon. Not impossible, but it's hard."
The tackle position continued to receive some attention during the Thursday morning press conference, which also included talk of Waddle and rookie Andrew Jelks (who recently began practicing after spending the first eight weeks of the season on NFI).
New and improved –Waddle spent most of last season on the inactive list while Fleming generally dressed as the backup swing tackle in his place. Recently those roles have reversed with Waddle seeing action in the last three games ahead of Fleming, and the 6-6, 315-pounder out of Texas Tech has held his own.
Belichick was asked about any improvements Waddle has made since last season, and the coach indicated that health may have played a factor.
"It started in the offseason," Belichick said. "He had a really good offseason, good spring and I think he's improved his overall strength, his mobility, he's in good condition. You know, he kind of took a while – when we first got him, I think he was still dealing a little bit with the knee injury from Detroit. And, I don't want to say last year, but it's just over a period of time, between hard work, maybe it's some just physical improvement – I don't know, some combination of the two – but he looks and plays kind of like what we saw in Detroit before the injury."
Scratching the surface –One of the more unknown members of the team is Jelks, a rookie tackle out of Vanderbilt who missed the last two seasons in college due to injury. Despite the inactivity, Jelks signed as an undrafted free agent and spent the entire offseason with New England.
His physical limitations prevented him from taking part in any on-field work, but the team thought enough of him to keep him around and placed him on the non-football injury list, meaning he would have to sit out at least the first six weeks of the season.
Jelks returned to the practice field this week, and he will now have three weeks to get some on-field work in before the team has to make a decision on his future. Belichick feels like the experience will be beneficial for the rookie.
"He hasn't played football in over two years, so he's obviously been excited to get back out there and to be able to start playing," Belichick said. "He's done a lot of rehabbing, but really, I think we're past that. It's really just training, and due to the rules that are in place, his opportunity to come back and play, that window has just recently opened.
"We felt like this was the best time to take advantage of it. We could have done it a couple weeks earlier, but with the bye and all that, we felt like this was a better time for him. So, it's good to have him out there. I know he's excited to be out there. He's worked extremely hard. Yeah, we'll see what happens."
In all likelihood, Jelks will practice for three weeks and then revert to the NFI list, but with depth at the position becoming an issue it makes sense to not only give the rookie some reps but also to give the team another potential option down the road.
"He's got talent and he works hard and he's done all the drills that he can do – bags and shields and sleds and cones and all that," Belichick added. "Now it's actually football. I mean, there are live bodies out there. It's a lot different than hitting a pad. So, he's adjusting to those things, but he's going to work hard, he's going to get better and we'll see where it goes."
Mirror images –The Patriots have used multiple players in the backfield this season and been able to get contributions from all of them. The Broncos are in a similar situation with C.J. Anderson, Jamaal Charles and Devontae Booker.
Belichick was asked about Denver's approach with regard to their backs and explained how they've all been used effectively at times this season.
"You could get any of them at any time. I mean, they're all good," he said. "Obviously, Anderson's done a great job for them – a hard-running guy, tough, good balance, gets a lot of tough yards. Charles is a great back. He's got good vision, kind of a big play threat. And Booker's just been coming on. You know, he had the wrist early and kind of got slowed early in the season, but each week, he seems to be in a little bit more prominent role. He's done a good job for them in the passing game, but he's a hard guy to tackle. So, yeah, all those guys, they're good."