Each offseason, NFL rosters undergo inevitable change, even if it's relatively minor. Older or existing players move on to other teams or even retirement, while new players, veterans and rookies alike, are brought in to fill the void.
Sometimes, the new players are familiar faces. This offseason, for instance, the Patriots added a pair of well-known veterans – one on each side of the ball – who began their careers with New England and went elsewhere in the NFL for a time before eventually returning to Foxborough.
"It's kind of little déjà vu, but I'm getting back into it, knowing what to do again," remarked 38-year-old tight end Benjamin Watson, who recently inked a one-year deal after initially announcing his retirement from the NFL as a New Orleans Saint late last season. Watson entered the league in 2004 as one of New England's two first-round draft choices that year. He spent six seasons here, but the past nine between Cleveland, New Orleans, and Baltimore.
Now, Watson's a Patriot again, donning his original jersey number 84 as the team suits up for organized team activity practices (OTAs) this week.
Check out photos of Patriots practicing during OTAs at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, May 23, 2019.
"The offense has changed so much since I've been gone," he added "so, it really is a new experience. Of course, it's been a decade, but there are also familiar faces and we're all old now. Julian [Edelman], [Matthew] Slater, [Stephen] Gostkowski, Tom [Brady], obviously. [Jerod] Mayo's back in coaching, which makes it good, but it's also a different decade of football."
Insisting he was psychologically prepared to end his NFL career this offseason, Watson acknowledged having a change of heart in late April. However, he maintained that Rob Gronkowski's decision to retire a few weeks earlier did not influence Watson to find his way back to New England.
"No, that wasn't a factor for me. As we've seen before, guys feel like they may be retired and maybe they come back," explained Watson. "So, whatever happens with his situation, he's a fabulous player, great player. His decision didn't factor into mine. It was more of a family decision, my wife and I walking about what that would look like for us, weighing the pros and cons of trying to play again at this point.
"There were really only two places I considered: coming back here or staying in New Orleans. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity [with the Patriots]. This is where our life started, my wife and I. When I first got here, I was a rookie, wasn't married. Now, we have seven kids, been married 13 years. So, this place is always special to us."
Like Watson, linebacker Jamie Collins became a pro when the Patriots made him the 52nd overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. A Pro Bowler and second-team All Pro in 2015, Collins helped New England win a Super Bowl title the year before. However, midway through the 2016 campaign, the Patriots dealt Collins to Cleveland.
The Browns released Collins this past March, freeing him to sign with whomever he chose. New England eventually won out.
"I had the opportunity to start my career here. So, obviously, yes, that played a big factor," admitted Collins, who added that his wife and children approved of the move back to Foxborough.
Some media reports at the time suggested that Collins left town not on the best of terms with the Patriots. He wouldn't elaborate one way or the other when asked by reporters Thursday, choosing to focus on the present and future rather than the past.
"It was just a change of destination," a somewhat philosophical Collins observed. "I'm a professional. Business is business. You can't get upset. You live and you learn. I change every day. I grow every day. No one wants to stay the same. We all want to mature and grow.
"I've got a long ways to go. There's always room for improvement. I'm just here grinding every day."
The transition is perhaps a bit easier for Collins, rather than Watson, given how recent his departure was, and playing alongside Dont'a Hightower, whom Collins describes as being "like my big bro."
"It's even more fun with that guy [Mayo] being our coach, but it's all business," he emphasized. "You've still got to do your job to the best of your ability. We all have a job."
It's that last point that Watson underscored when asked about his potential final opportunity to end his pro football career where it started.
"I think I have a leadership role, period, in our locker room because I'm 38 years old. That's just what comes when you're an older player. Now, what happens in the locker room and what happens on the field are two totally different things. On the field, this is the ultimate meritocracy. It's about learning what to do, being consistent making plays, all the things I learned as a rookie.
"It doesn't matter," he concluded, "what you've done somewhere else, what you did last year or throughout your career. It's all about how you perform every day in practice… I do consider myself a leader from a life standpoint, talking to the younger guys, but as far as production on the field, that's something that's earned."
Something's Bruin in Foxborough
As Patriots players and coaches arrived for Thursday's practice, almost every member of the roster and staff was conspicuously decked out in Boston Bruins hats. Head coach Bill Belichick encouraged his squad to show its solidarity with the local NHL franchise that's gunning for yet another Stanley Cup Trophy, starting next week.
"Obviously, want to wish the Bruins well in their Stanley Cup Final," Belichick proclaimed after practice. "Proud of what they're doing and wish them the very best in this next series. I know they've played great, but this will be a great opportunity for them and we'll be here cheering them on."
Numbers for newcomers
Like last spring, Patriots rookies are assigned jersey numbers beginning with the number 50 for the top pick in the draft class and ascending upward with each selection and undrafted signing thereafter. Of course, those numbers aren't permanent, as in almost every cast, they don't necessarily correspond with the players' respective position groups. Come preseason at the latest, those will have to change. Collins' current number 8 likely will as well.
For the time being, however, here's a list of notable numbers for newcomers, both rookie and veteran alike:
LB Jamie Collins – 8
WR Dontrelle Inman – 15
DB Terrence Brooks – 25
RB Brandon Bolden – 38
DB A.J. Howard – 39
TE/RB Jacob Johnson – 47
DL Michael Bennett – 77
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins – 81
WR Maurice Harris – 82
TE Matt LaCosse – 83
TE Benjamin Watson – 84
DL Nick Thurman – 86
WR Demaryius Thomas – 88
LB Shilique Calhoun – 74
OL Cedrick Lang – 77
DL Mike Pennel – 98
WR N'Keal Harry (R) – 50
CB Joejuan Williams (R) – 51
DE Chase Winovich (R) – 52
RB Damien Harris (R) – 53
OL Yodny Cajuste (R) – 54
OL Hjalte Froholdt (R) – 55
QB Jarrett Stidham (R) – 58
DL Byron Cowart (R) – 59
P Jake Bailey (R) – 60
DB Ken Webster (R) – 61
TE Andrew Beck (R) – 63
RB Nick Brossette (R) – 64
WR Ryan Davis (R) – 65
DB Malik Gant (R) – 66
OL Tyler Gauthier (R) – 67
LB Terez Hall (R) – 68
WR Jakobi Myers (R) – 69
DB D'Angelo Ross (R) – 70
OL Tyree St. Louis (R) – 71
Although Thursday was the media's first glimpse of the 2019 Patriots on the field, the team actually suited up this past Monday and Tuesday, as well. This week marks beginning of Phase Three, the first of the final four weeks of New England's nine-week offseason training program. New England will practice again twice next week, then three times the following week for a mandatory minicamp before closing out the spring with two OTA practices in early June.