Johnson: Teaching D-line old dogs new tricks

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Johnson: Teaching D-line old dogs new tricks

By A. Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com Celtics Insider
Follow @sherrodbcsn
The New England Patriots defensive line is filled with new faces and in some instances, those new faces are being looked upon to contribute differently than they have at previous stops.

That unfamiliarity is among the reasons why -- statistically at least -- the Patriots defense has struggled so mightily in these first few weeks of the NFL season.

While the numbers might suggest otherwise, Pats defensive line coach Pepper Johnson does believe the defense is improving.

"It's kind of hard teaching some old dogs new tricks," Johnson said. "But we have some guys buying into the system, and working at it, working hard, trying to do some of the things that we're asking them to do."

One of those players is defensive end Shaun Ellis, now in his first season with New England after spending his previous 11 (2000-2010) with the Patriots opponent on Sunday, the New York Jets.

"Shaun is a trooper," Johnson said. "He's a guy -- like when I want to scream at him for a play -- he comes back and turns around and makes a good play."

Johnson added, "He's one of those guys that I'm talking about. He's trying to do some things that we ask him to do. A lot of things that we ask him to do, it's kind of different from his play in the past. But he's been improving."

Ellis said getting to know how to play with his new teammates along the defensive line is the biggest challenge. No matter how much time you spend watching film, he said, it doesn't compare to actually being on the field with one another.

"I kind of put it in mind like, a jump-shooter goes out and shoots a whole bunch of jumpers all day long," Ellis said. "Just get that feel so that when he gets in games, it just comes naturally."

Making the challenge of establishing chemistry even more daunting has been the absence of defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, one of the Patriots' top offseason pickups.

There's no way anyone knows what impact having Haynesworth would make on a defense that's giving up a league-high 477.5 yards per game which includes 108.8 yards rushing per game which ranks 18th in the NFL.

Haynesworth or no Haynesworth, one thing we do know having him available wouldn't hurt.

Johnson knows this, but you won't hear him grumble or gripe about what the Pats defensive line doesn't have right now.

"Coach Belichick would punch me in the face if I got frustrated if I didn't have a particular player," Johnson said. "My job is to not count on one person or something like that. My job is to coach whoever is out there on the field. Until Albert is out there on the field, we have to try and win ball games without him."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at sblakely@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Patriots LB Ellis 'all in' on football before giving medical school a shot

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Patriots LB Ellis 'all in' on football before giving medical school a shot

FOXBORO -- When a new player arrives to the Patriots, there's a familiar refrain that's recited from behind the podium at Gillette Stadium: "Football is important to him."

Whether the subject is a rookie or an established veteran, those five words can serve as Bill Belichick's stamp of approval. It means the player cares. It means the player is willing to put in time.

Belichick hasn't gone on the record on any of the members of this year's class of undrafted free agents just yet, but linebacker Brooks Ellis seems to fall into that category of players to whom football is important.

If it wasn't, he would probably be putting all of his energy into getting accepted into medical school right now.  

Ellis was a two-year captain at Arkansas and one of 12 finalists for the Campbell Trophy, also known as the "Academic Heisman." He maintained a 3.82 grade point average as a pre-professional exercise science major with a minor in biology, he was the first two-time Academic All-American in program history, and he was the SEC's Scholar-Athlete of the year for 2016.

All that is to say, Ellis had options upon graduation.

Football won out. He agreed to a deal with the Patriots soon after the draft, and he's spent the better part of the last month trying to learn defensive terminology and special-teams techniques. 

But eventually Ellis hopes to be an orthopedic surgeon, and later this summer he'll submit his applications to medical schools in order to kick-start that process for whenever it's time to pursue his next plan full-throttle.

"I'm putting my all into this right now," Ellis said, wearing Patriots gear while standing on the Gillette Stadium turf last week. "But when I get some spare time, I'm finishing applications, and then when I get back in July I'm sending those in.

"If I get accepted somewhere, I'm going to tell them I need to defer until I know for sure what the football situation is going to be. So I'm all in on football, and just in case, I'm going to have that ready to go when I get out of it."

If all goes well for Ellis this spring and summer, it could be a while before he's taking the Hippocratic Oath. The Patriots have a long history of giving worthy undrafted players a shot at the 53-man roster, and Ellis plays one of the few positions on New England's loaded roster that might have room for a newcomer or two.

On paper, he certainly looks like their type.

The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder was his team's leading tackler for two seasons. He played all three linebacker positions in Arkansas' defense -- strong-side, middle and weak-side -- and he started 31 consecutive games to finish his career. Ellis also has extensive special teams experience, and he recorded one of the quickest three-cone drills among linebackers at this year's NFL Scouting Combine.

That he learned under Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema can't hurt his chances, either.

Bielema began his coaching career at Iowa under former Belichick assistant Kirk Ferentz, and Belichick has dipped into Bielema's programs at Wisconsin and Arkansas several times over the course of the last few seasons. Running back James White, defensive end Trey Flowers and former tight end AJ Derby all played for Bielema, and Ellis joins fellow Arkansas rookies Deatrich Wise (fourth-round pick) and Cody Hollister (undrafted) on this year's squad.  

"He came in, started about halfway through his true freshman year -- we weren't a really good football team, we were 3-9 -- threw him in the middle of it, didn't bat an eye, and he got better every game," Bielema said of Ellis on Quick Slants the Podcast. "Sophomore year, [he] really began to mature, develop. He's another guy that the potential -- because we never redshirted him -- to grow in this year is going to be huge . . .

"He's just truly very, very intelligent, compassionate. And the value that he brings is he could be an unbelievable role player. I'm not saying he's going to be a four-time All-Pro or anything like that, but he'll be reliable, dependable, in every phase of the game."

Robb Smith, Arkansas defensive coordinator from 2014-16, believes Ellis landed in the perfect spot. Prior to his time at Arkansas, he worked under Greg Schiano at Rutgers, where he coached Patriots safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, former Patriots corner Logan Ryan, Patriots linebacker Jonathan Freeny and safeties coach Steve Belichick.

"He's one of those guys that's not only going to know his job, but what the other 10 guys around him are supposed to do," Smith said of Ellis. "He'll be able to be a leader from that standpoint in terms of helping guys with the system and the scheme. He's very good instinctively . . ."

"This guy's going to be replacing my knee someday. I'm serious. He's going to be an orthopedic surgeon that's outstanding. I know that's what his goals are. But hopefully he gets to play a lot of football between now and then."

There's one more Patriots link connecting Ellis to New England. His agent, Neil Cornrich, has counted Belichick as a client and also represents Bielema, Ferentz, Flowers, Derby, undrafted Patriots rookies Cole Croston and LeShun Daniels (both of whom played under Ferentz at Iowa) and Patriots running back Rex Burkhead. 

It may come as no surprise then that when Ellis signed with the Patriots, no one knew. He didn't announce it on Twitter, as is the norm for undrafted players when they come to an agreement with a team. And the news wasn't leaked. Instead, he waited for the team to announce it, which his new employers probably appreciated.

Ellis, who according to the Boston Globe received the fifth-most guaranteed money of the 19 undrafted rookies the Patriots signed, said he received some simplie advice from Cornrich before making his way to New England.

"He just said that you'll fit in well there," Ellis said. "You're the type of guy they like, and you're the type of guy that succeeds in that organization. Don't do anything special. Just go out there and work like you do every day, and it'll turn out for the best."

Even if it doesn't, Ellis will have medical school. But he acknowledges there's some unpredictability with that path, just as there is being an undrafted player in the NFL. He still has to be accepted. His application, including personal statements, interviews and MCAT results -- "It was horrible, I don't want to take that ever again," Ellis said -- still has to be deemed up-to-snuff.  

Whenever Ellis starts, it will be the beginning of almost a decade of training between schooling and residency. It will be a challenge, he knows, and it's one that he looks forward to. But he's hoping it can wait because football is important to him. 

"It just makes you work harder," he said of his uncertain future. "It makes you really focus on right now, and make sure that you're doing all you can in this area because even the next area might not be there.

"That's what I've done. I'm just working as hard as I can on this, and if that doesn't work out, then I've got the next thing, and I'm going to work as hard as I can in that area."

NFLPA tells rookies to be like Rob Gronkowski

NFLPA tells rookies to be like Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski is a model citizen in the NFL. In fact, the NFL Players Association is advising rookies to be more like Gronk, according to The Boston Globe

The New England Patriots tight end has developed a name for himself on and off the football field. With that attention comes branding. And at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere from May 18 to 20, the NFLPA encouraged rookies to develop their own brand -- much like Gronkowski.

“Some people think he’s just this extension of a frat boy, and that it’s sort of accidental,” Ahmad Nassar said, via The Globe. Nassar is the president of NFL Players Inc., the for-profit subsidiary of the NFLPA. “And that’s wrong. It’s not accidental, it’s very purposeful. So the message there is, really good branding is where you don’t even feel it. You think, ‘Oh, that’s just Gronk being Gronk.’ Actually, that’s his brand, but it’s so good and so ingrained and so authentic, you don’t even know it’s a brand or think it.”

Gronkowski's "Summer of Gronk" has indirectly become one of his streams of income. The tight end makes appearances for magazines and sponsors. Because of his earnings from branding and endorsements, he didn't touch his NFL salary during the early years of his career.

Gronk was one of three players who were the topics of discussion during the symposium. Dak Prescott and Odell Beckham were also used as examples of players who have been able to generate additional income from endorsements. Beckham, in particular, has been in the spotlight off the football field. He's appeared on the cover of Madden, and just signed a deal with NIke which is reportedly worth $25 million over five years with upwards of $48 million over eight years. His deal, which is a record for an NFL player, will pay him more than his contract with the Giants.

“A lot of people talk to the players about, ‘You should be careful with your money and you should treat your family this way and you should treat your girlfriend or your wife.’ Which is fine. I think that’s valuable,” Nassar said, via The Globe. “But we don’t often give them a chance to answer the question: How do you see yourself as a brand? Because Gronk, Odell, none of those guys accidentally ended up where they are from a branding and marketing standpoint.”