Koppen fighting to be at the center of things

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Koppen fighting to be at the center of things

FOXBORO -- Dan Koppen might be fighting for his job.

During Thursday's OTAs, Dan Connolly -- formerly the backup -- was first in at center. Koppen answered questions about it during a media scrum . . . however glibly.

"I think there's always competition (for jobs)," he shrugged. "You approach every year, there's always guys coming in and trying to take your job and my approach this year is not going to be any different from last year. No one's job is safe on this team -- maybe minus Tom Brady. But you never know around here.

"You've just got to compete and work hard, show the coaches you can be reliable, dependable, that you know what to do, be in the right spot and just go. There'll always be competition; that's what the coaches stress to us and everybody coming in. That's what we're told."

The 32-year old has started 120 of the 121 games he's played as a career Patriot. When he broke his left fibula last season in Week 1, it was Connolly who stepped in. And it was Connolly who signed first during free agency, agreeing to a three-year, 9.7 million deal.

It sounded like starter's money.

Koppen was offered a deal before free agency began but tested the waters, most notably with a visit to the Titans. He re-signed with New England in mid-April: two years, almost 6 million.

Thursday, he said he's back where he belongs.

"I didn't want to go anywhere else," he said. "Thank goodness it did work out. It's more of a pain moving the whole family and getting that stuff squared away. To be able to play here . . . hopefully for a little bit more -- end my career here -- it's a good feeling. So this is where I want to be. This is what I know. I'm just excited to play this year."

Ironcally, the league is changing the injured reserve rule this season. Had it been done one year earlier, Koppen -- who went on IR September 21 -- could have come back after Week 8.

"It's tough," he said of the absence. "It makes you appreciate things a lot more. Especially sitting around watching . . . you put everything into the offseason. Just to sit around and watch, it makes you have greater appreciation for your job and being around the guys and going out there and playing for one another."

But he's not thinking about what could have been. A full season to recuperate was beneficial; Koppen said he's now healthy, "good to go."

Whether he'll be "going" from the start or off the bench is less certain.

As far as he'd let on, Koppen's focus is wider. The team is stockpiled all over the place and it won't shake out for weeks. Adding talent and creating competition is the only way to push the entire team, right?

"If you're going to stay still, everybody else around you is just going to get better," said Koppen. "All 32 teams right now, 31 other teams, we're at the same point. It's just how hard we work now that's going to really determine how we do this year. If we come in and think we've got all the answers, that's not the right approach -- might as well just come in, try to learn it like a rookie, and just go out there and work as hard as we can."

We'll see how he feels in September.

Curran's Sunday 4-pack: So, what HAS Tom Brady been up to?

Curran's Sunday 4-pack: So, what HAS Tom Brady been up to?

Six days – four quarters of football – remain in Tom Brady’s four-game suspension.
 
The fact is the Patriots are 3-0 and have gotten a long – and enjoyable – look at their quarterback depth behind Brady. Brady, meanwhile, has gotten a chance to shave one-quarter off the season-long wear-and-tear he takes.
 
But highlighting silver linings and pointing out there’s not much sand left in the suspension hourglass is no real consolation. Said one team source Thursday night, “It’s never going to go away.”
 
What’s Brady been up to? Mixing family time and working out. He’s routinely spent four hours a day training, I’m told, presumably with his body coach Alex Guerrero at TB12 Sports Performance at Patriot Place. Also, aside from his Sunday session with Wes Welker, Brady’s been throwing to young college players at undisclosed locations, eschewing the opportunity to bring in some of the “name” former players who’ve reached out and offered their services.
 
Spotted in Italy with wife Gisele Bundchen last week, Brady’s also been back home in San Mateo visiting with his family.
 
Speaking to two people close to him, I was told he succeeded in making peace with the time off and avoiding the creep of too much bitterness. I was also told he’s unbelievably motivated to return at a high level and wants his transition back to be seamless in terms of performance and conditioning. That last part is, of course, to be expected. But it will be interesting to see how Brady does perform out of the gates after a month’s forced exile.
 
NINKOVICH RETURNS, TOO

The lesser of the two suspended prodigal sons set to return next week – Rob Ninkovich – is no doubt going to benefit physically from the quarter-season vacation as well. And the defensive ends who’ve performed well in his absence – Jabaal Sheard and especially Chris Long – will do well to have Ninkovich back in the mix. Mention should also be made of Trey Flowers who has shown up in opponent’s backfields on a weekly basis. It depends on what your personal cup of tea might be, but through three games, Long seems to me a much better defensive fit for this team than Chandler Jones. Jones was the more explosive pass-rusher but Long’s ability in the running game, and his play-in, play-out impact in applying pressure on the tackle in front of him makes it seem so far as if he’s an upgrade.
 
NEW DEALS AHEAD?
 
Still no word on which Patriot may be in line for a new deal since the team restructured Devin McCourty and freed up some cap space.

Donta Hightower, Malcolm Butler and Jamie Collins have been seen as the most likely targets for extensions and a redo of Hightower at this point would whittle down his $7M cap number and possibly allow another extension to be executed for either Collins or Butler, as our Phil Perry pointed out.  Jabaal Sheard, meanwhile, is the Patriot who flies under the radar when extension talk starts. He may be every bit as important to the success of the Patriots defense as the other three.
 
REX WRECKS
 
The Bills are 0-2, the natives are beyond restless in Buffalo and the Cardinals are in Western New York on Sunday. The Bills are expected to play without wide receiver Sammy Watkins and are a team staring into the esophagus of 0-3 with a visit to the Patriots coming next week. Have a gander at the Bills Mailbag in the Buffalo News.  Seems like years since Rex was all giddy about the paint job on his new truck. It was less than 19 months ago.