At the start of this season, the Patriots had one Pro Bowl guard in Logan Mankins. Now they have two.
The addition of 12-year veteran Brian Waters, late of the Kansas City Chiefs, was necessitated when the injury bug hit New England's offensive line, particularly at the backup interior line spots.
Incumbent starter Dan Connolly missed portions of camp with an elbow injury, then left the Lions game in preseason with what looked like an ankle or foot injury. He did not practice or play last week, nor did versatile backup Ryan Wendell, who's been out for most of the preseason. Then, over the weekend, the patriots placed Rich Ohrnberger on injured reserve, ending his 2011 campaign in its tracks.
Enter Waters, a player who entered the league as an undrafted rookie free agent tight end with the Dallas Cowboys in 1999. The following year, he signed with Kansas City, where he switched to left guard and was allocated to the then developmental league NFL Europe. By 2004, he'd earned the first of what would become several trips to the Pro Bowl.
However, with All-Pro Mankins already entrenched as the starting left guard here in Foxborough, Waters understands that he'll be asked to plug the exigent hole at right guard. And he's just fine with that role.
"You just have to flip everything in your mind, when you've been doing something for a long time," Waters explained, "but I don't think it will take me too long to get it."
Mankins was asked what the most difficult part of the transition from left to right would be for Waters, and offered a half-joking reply.
"I don't know. I've never had to try it," he chuckled.
"I've been a fan of Brian's for quite a while now," Mankins added, on a serious note. "He's a good player, good guy. We're happy to have him."
"Brian has a good level of experience," elaborated head coach Bill Belichick. "I think his playing style is one that we feel like – the way that he plays the position is kind of the way we feel like we would want it played. I think the fact that he has a little familiarity with our system relative to what Kansas City is doing and all that doesn't hurt. That's not an overriding factor; it's just the part of it. We've gone up against him a number of times. I have a lot of respect for Brian, his play, his professionalism, what he brings to the team."
Waters was not with the Chiefs or any other team this summer following the lockout, but he could have if he wanted to be. He revealed that he'd been contacted by several teams, but that he was enjoying spending time at home with his family and didn't want to jump at the first club that came calling. He was willing to wait for the right situation, which he says he found here in New England.
The Patriots coaching staff has worked with Waters in the past at the Pro Bowl, and, as a member of the NFL players executive committee's negotiating team during the lockout, he had a chance to deal directly with team owner Robert Kraft. Those factors helped convince him that this was the team he wanted to join.
"It's a great organization. Why not? The record speaks for itself. It's a football team that's a contender year in and year out. I've had the opportunity to be around the staff and a number of players, had an opportunity to spend some time with Mr. Kraft in the offseason. It seemed like a perfect fit for me."
Even if that means giving up his accustomed spot on the left side of center, because the respect Mankins has for Waters, apparently, is mutual.
"Great football player. We just happen to play the same position," said Waters. "I have great appreciation for the type of work he does."
With established veterans James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather on other rosters today, the safety position is now led by relatively young elder statesman Patrick Chung. He says he's ready for the role, but at the same time, tries not to dwell on it.
"Yeah, but, like I always say, you can't think about that stuff. Period. I'm here to play and so is everyone else. Whoever's a leader out there, regardless, all 53 players have to play. Hard. Fast."
Who lines up and plays next to him remains a question at the moment however, with Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, and James Ihedigbo in the mix. And it's a question Chung was reluctant to touch when asked today.
"That's not a question for me to answer," he stated, before continuing.
"The guys we have here, we're going to work with the guys we have here. Period. Now we know who we're going to be playing with, so, this is our family right now."
Barrett is an intriguing, but still enigmatic player. He's the biggest of the Patriots safeties, but has hardly suited up at all since arriving in Foxborough last September. He was claimed off waivers from Denver and immediately put on IR with a shoulder injury. He returned for camp this summer, but almost right away was injured again and didn't reappear on the field till just recently.
"It's a long year, for sure. It's definitely the toughest situation I've been in, not being in the groove, not being out on the field, having to do your rehab … it's just something you grind through.
"You never want to get too frustrated with it," Barrett added. "Obviously, you want to control what you can control. Being healthy is a big part, too, of being successful in this game. My approach to it is, as long as I'm healthy, I'll be productive. Just doing what I can do and more to getting back out on the field is where my focus was at that time."
Plenty of room for tight ends
The Patriots reportedly were hoping to keep rookie tight ends Will Yeatman and Lee Smith on their practice squads, but after releasing them over the weekend, division rivals Miami and Buffalo, respectively, scooped the duo up.
That means New England has just two tight ends on the team right now, albeit two extremely talented ones in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both players are only in their second year, however, so much will be expected of them in terms of productivity and leadership responsibility.
"It's definitely taking on a bigger role," acknowledged Gronkowski. "Crump [veteran Alge Crumpler] helped out last year, too, but I feel like, having a year under our belt, that we can handle this situation.
"It's always the same thing, whether there are two or five tight ends. Just go out there and do what I have to do, do what the coaches ask me to do. I feel like it's not going to change at all."
"It's a little quiet right now with just me and Gronk," added Hernandez. "I'm sure someone else will come it, but I don't mind it. I don't mind it just being us."
For more on today's Patriots practice, please visit the PFW blog.