Rookies enter NFL with a lot on their minds

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Rookies enter NFL with a lot on their minds

FOXBORO -- Patriots rookies have their candor forcibly removed during rookie minicamp.

So I wasn't expecting deep, reflective answers last week when I asked Dont'a Hightower and Jake Bequette whether they considered the threat to long-term health the game can pose.

"We as players understand that football's dangerous," said Bequette, a third-round pick from Arkansas. "That's a discussion for the league and the league office and doctors. I play the game safely and to the best of my ability. I'm not gonna worry about that right now."

Bequette allowed that, "There are some risks but it's just like anything else in life. You can't think about that all the time or else you're wasting your focus. I'm going to keep my focus on my job which is to come in here and work as hard as I can and hope I make the roster."

Hightower, the 25th overall pick, puts his fate in the hands of the league and the medical and training staffs in New England.

"I'm out there playing ball," said the linebacker from Alabama whose game is predicated on violent collisions. "Everything we're doing, from a safety (standpoint), I feel like they've done all in their power with the new helmets and new rules. It's out of my hands and all I can do is go out there and play ball and that's what I intend on doing."

Hightower also offered that the player who plays to protect himself is often the one that gets injured.

"That's definitely one thing that I think everybody's learned: When you play for safety, that's when you get hurt," he explained. "In order for me to play fast and play the best I can I have to get into my playbook so safety's not really an issue although you do have to take care of your body. I'll get with the training staff and get the rehab and get in the ice-baths and all that good stuff and take advantage of all the training elements."

Bequette and Hightower's responses came into sharper focus this week when two undrafted players with opportunities to make teams cited concussion concerns and pushed back from the NFL table.

Andrew Sweat, a linebacker from Ohio State, said, "Thanks but no thanks" to the Browns and plans on going to law school. Chris Diehl, a Clemson fullback who signed with the Ravens, got concussed at rookie minicamp just a couple of months after suffering one at the Senior Bowl.

He too said, "Enough."

But the cost-benefit ratio for a drafted player - like Hightower or Bequette - is different.

Bequette, a third-round pick from Arkansas, has business and legal aspirations like Sweat does. With a degree in finance and work on his Master's degree already started, Bequette says he may consider following in his father's footsteps to become an attorney.

The opinions of Hightower and Bequette are the prevailing ones. Of the 253 drafted players, none of them have made the same decision as the undrafted Sweat and Diehl.

That includes Nick Toon. Selected in the fourth-round by the Saints, Nick is the son of Al Toon, a three-time All-Pro receiver for the Jets who retired in 1992 when, at the age of 29, he suffered what was believed to be his ninth NFL concussion.

Nick Toon suffered a concussion in early 2010. The University of Wisconsin was exceedingly careful with his comeback from that. Last October, Nick Toon had this to say about the risks of playing football: "With what happened with my dad, you don't wish that on any player," says Nick. "It's part of the game. It's going to happen. I think it's something that you realize, accept and go out and play."

Al Toon is now 49, a tremendously successful businessman. He attributes some current physical problems to his concussions.

"I still have a problem with strobing," he told Gary Myers of the New York Daily News last October. "It's weird, different situations would set it off. It could be a ceiling fan with a light. It causes a little dizziness sometimes. I think my ability to retrieve information has definitely been compromised. My concentration level is probably not what it was. But clearly I am able to function and take care of my family."

Junior Seau's suicide two weeks ago set off a flurry of hysteria about player safety - specifically head injuries - that hasn't subsided.

Seau never appeared on an NFL injury report with a concussion. Which isn't to say he never had one - or even dozens - but the belief that Seau's suicide was directly attributable to head injuries sustained while playing professional football for 20 years took root immediately.

Whether Seau suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) won't be known because his brain was not submitted for a post-mortem examination. Maybe he had it. Maybe he didn't.

Maybe all NFL players retire with a measure of CTE - protein deposits in the brain caused by trauma - but only the brains of the men who live with depression and die violently are being examined.

Their fate needs to be viewed in the same frame as Al Toon's,Roger Staubach's, Steve Young's or Troy Aikman's - all multiple concussion sufferers who, it would seem, are examples of men whose NFL cost-benefit was acceptable.

For every tragic and desperately sad case like Seau's or Dave Duerson's or Mike Webster's, there may be thousands of Al Toons. Or men who simply get away clean, the NFL leaving no imprint on them at all healthwise.

It's a very personal decision. How much would you need to be paid to do X?

Bequette and Hightower may make a few million, more if they play well. Sweat and Diehl? No guarantees of making more than 100,000.

There is no "right" and "wrong". Which hasn't stopped people (and websites, talk shows and online polls) from discussing if Sweat and Diehl make the "right" decision.

My response would be "How in God's great name would we know? And who the freak cares what our opinion is on their decisions?"

I've never met Andrew Sweat or Chris Diehl. They could end up teaming up to cur cancer. They could end up a couple of crackheads. I don't know. Neither do you.

The only opinion we can have is a general one.

Mine is that it's outstanding that guys feel empowered enough by combining personal experience with the visual, scientific and anecdotal evidence available to make educated decisions about whether to continue.

And I'm also happy that armchair hardasses inclined to question the toughness of Sweat and Diehl are now muzzled because of the current climate.

That they are allowed to make their decision knowing applause for their choice would drown out dismissiveness is a real step forward in football culture.

The 253 young men drafted in 2012 have - so far - unanimously agreed to accept the risk. Sweat and Diehl decided it was not.

Meanwhile, another player who went undrafted but was signed by Tampa Bay after the draft, will not be able to play. Rutgers' Eric LeGrande.

The choices for these young men are hard. The choices are theirs.

Curran: Jimmy G. Era is a reminder of what NFL did to Brady

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Curran: Jimmy G. Era is a reminder of what NFL did to Brady

FOXBORO -- So I guess this would be the official start of the Jimmy Garoppolo Era?

It is -- by Belichickian decree -- his team from now until October 3. He’s the lead dog, the head honcho, the big chief, the alpha male, head cheese, capo di tutti capi. For 67 days -- that’s from now until October 3, when Tom Brady can legally walk back into Gillette Stadium after his four-game banishment -- Garoppolo gets his dry run as The Man.

Brady, obviously, will be out there and -- especially during the early stages of training camp -- there will be an effort to make sure there’s no toe-stepping. Proper deference will shown to the future Hall of Famer.

But that will start to fade as the games draw closer and the urgency to be ready for Arizona grows. Believe it or not, the bus for Arizona is already idling (figuratively) and if you ain’t gonna be on it when it pulls out of town, you’ll need to step aside for the ones who will be.

That includes Brady, the greatest quarterback of all-time. We really don’t have to plumb the details of how absurd, unfair, unethical and flat-out wrong Brady’s suspension is. It’s pretty well-established. The reality is, Brady is the clipboard-holder for the first time since September 2001.

Enter Diamond Jimmy.

And watch New Englanders now stagger into an awkward embrace of the third-year quarterback. This process has actually been going on for a little while now. A lot of it was -- aside from the maniac radio callers -- done in hushed tones with a hand cupped over the mouth. “Ya know, I actually am looking forward to watching Garoppolo. See what we got there.”

On the face of it, I understand the sentiment. There’s a second-round pick with a lightning release, good feet, excellent touch and impressive accuracy. If you like football, you like watching football players play football to see if they are good at it.

But it’s gone beyond that, I sense. There is a swath of the populace looking forward to four regular-season games of Jimmy. Some want to see him showcased and turned into a pick. Others think the four games rest will be beneficial for Brady. Others are simply bored by regular-season games and the Patriots' annual inexorable march to the playoffs and so this adds a little spice.

You idiots.

I don’t care what your excuse is, every snap that Garoppolo takes in 2016 should be taken as a personal affront. A flick in the tender region from the NFL, the 31 other “Roger has a tough job” owners and Goodell himself.

But besides that, we’re talking about one-quarter of an NFL season that will be missed by the best player the Patriots will ever have. Would you people have wished away 20 more games from Bill Russell, Larry Bird or Bobby Orr in the '60s, '70s and '80s just to see what Satch Sanders, Kevin Gamble or Mike Milbury could do?

So -- for football’s sake -- I say go ahead and enjoy the Garoppolo administration. But don’t get too carried away trying to put a buff-and-shine on the turd the NFL dropped on Foxboro.

Belichick on start of 42nd season: 'Each year is different'

Belichick on start of 42nd season: 'Each year is different'

FOXBORO -- He may be in his 42nd year in the National Football League, but for Bill Belichick, no two seasons are the same. As training camp practices get underway for the Patriots on Thursday, he'll be dealing with scenarios and skill sets that he hasn't yet seen.

This isn't Groundhog Day for him. Every year is different.

"It absolutely is," he said Wednesday. "Even though fundamentally I think a lot of things are the same -- things you have to do in camp in order to prepare for a season -- but each year is different.

"Players are different, teams we play are different, things change in the league, there are some rule modifications, or whatever. Things like that. So, every year is different and the chemistry – each team is different. Even with some of the same players there’s still always a little bit of a different mix. We’ll just have to see how it all goes. I don’t try and predict it. I don’t try and control it. It will just work itself out. We’ve got a lot of snaps out there, a lot of days, a lot of training camp days. It will all take care of itself."

Different as the Patriots situation may be to start this season, players who have come to know Belichick have come to expect a consistent approach. With so many variables swirling around each team every year, Belichick's mindset is constant.

After 42 years and four Super Bowl titles, it's clear he believes he's found something that works.

"I think the thing that’s remarkable about Bill is his approach," said Matthew Slater, one of the longest-tenured Patriots on the team, a fifth-round draft pick in 2008. "He hasn’t changed at all, and that consistency in his attitude and preparation, the things that he values and the things he tries to stress to his team. It’s really remarkable.

"I think it would be easy for him to become complacent. It’s human nature, once you have success you kind of exhale and think you have it figured out. And if anyone has it figured out it’s Bill Belichick. But you wouldn’t know it by the way he prepares, by the urgency with which he coaches us, the hours he puts in. That’s really been impressive to me in my time here, whether we go out and win a Super Bowl or don’t make the playoffs, he’s always been consistent in that regard."

For second straight year, Branch opens camp on active/NFI list

For second straight year, Branch opens camp on active/NFI list

FOXBORO -- Unless there's a late change to his status, Alan Branch will not be practicing with the Patriots when they open training camp on Thursday.

The veteran defensive lineman was placed on the active/non-football injury list on Wednesday, making him ineligible to practice with the team until he's removed. Branch will still count against the Patriots 90-man roster while he's on the active/NFI list.

Branch began training camp on the active/NFI list last year as well. It was reported then that he had failed a conditioning run, which led to him being held out of practices until Aug. 10.

Once Branch was cleared to play, he was one of New England's most effective and durable interior defensive linemen. He played in all 16 regular-season games, starting all but one. He was on the field for 40.5 percent of the team's snaps, seeing time in a rotation with a handful of others that included then-rookie Malcom Brown.

Headed into camp this year, Branch figured to play a significant role up front yet again, teaming up with Brown as well as free-agent signee Terrance Knighton and rookie fourth-round draft choice Vincent Valentine. With Branch unavailable for practice, that should free-up snaps for his teammates who play the same position -- a group that includes the three names mentioned above as well as two more free-agent adds in Markus Kuhn and Frank Kearse.

Branch was present for mandatory minicamp this spring, but he did not attend New England’s optional OTA practice sessions.