Patriots-Saints joint practice notes and observations

837873.jpg

Patriots-Saints joint practice notes and observations

FOXBORO -- The Patriots and Saints went at it during Monday's practice, the first of two joint sessions that will be held before their exhibition game Thursday. Here are all the little nuggets of information we gathered throughout the course of the day:

No Brandon Spikes or Kyle Hix for the second consecutive day of camp. In addition to PUP list absences (Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Markus Zusevics, Daniel Fells, Myron Pryor, Jake Ballard), Visanthe Shiancoe, Tracy White, Alfonzo Dennard, Spencer Larsen, Matt Kopa, Ron Brace, Jonathan Fanene, and Darrion Weems did not participate.
With No. 55 unavailable, Bobby Carpenter found himself back working with the 1s.

Kyle Love had a shield affixed to his helmet. Considering the way he left practice Sunday, leaving the field with a towel over his head after spending several minutes on the sideline covering his face with his hands, he might have suffered an eye injury.
Patriots receivers versus Saints defensive backs: Donte' Stallworth got one on CB Johnny Patrick; Wes Welker destroyed CB Marquis Johnson; Brandon Lloyd shook rookie CB Corey White with a nice cutback; Rob Gronkowski was just too big for S Roman Harper; Julian Edelman had no trouble with CB Kamaal McIlwain; Jabar Gaffney beat White; S Malcolm Jenkins was flagged for pass interference (the refs were back again today) on Aaron Hernandez; Johnson tipped a ball targeted for Jeremy Ebert, but Ebert got a handle on it after another bobble.
More: Gronkowski used a quick burst to get by S Isa Abdul-Quddus; Welker had a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch on S Jerico Nelson; Lloyd just plan outran White; Matt Slater caught an absolute bomb over Patrick.
Of Brady's three touchdown passes, Gaffney looked nice gaining five solid yards of separation before the catch -- he streaked in for the score with no problem.
The offensive line had several different looks today. First team with Brady: Nate Solder at LT, Donald Thomas at LG, Ryan Wendell at C, Dan Connolly at RG and Marcus Cannon at RT. Dan Koppen rotated in at C to get some reps with the 1s.
New England misses Vollmer, Waters and Mankins; some of Brady's struggle and frustration had to do with blown assignments. During 11-on-11 the QB had to spike a ball into the dirt because one of those screens the Patriots have been practicing so much got blown up. Badly.
Ryan Mallett didn't get as many reps as Brady and Brian Hoyer. His very first snap? Bungled; the drill was reset. He also threw one ball in the dirt before getting a reception from a laid-out Ebert. He connected with Ebert again and twice with Britt Davis (one ball in the end zone). The QB practiced a lot of handoffs to Brandon Bolden.
Hoyer had a very, very well placed ball to Edelman deep down the sideline over Saints CB Elbert Mack. Just perfectly thrown.
The Patriots ran a good third-down pick play during 11-on-11. Two receivers crossed, brushing off pursuit from the secondary with the collision, and Lloyd brought down a ball in the end zone. A lot of special teams work was spent on punt return. Edelman, Pat Chung, Hernandez, and Ebert all took turns deep to receive.
Tempers were largely kept in check. The only blip on the radar was when Sergio Brown and WR Courtney Roby got a little hot during punt return, hanging onto each other after the whistle.
Dont'a Hightower and Saints linebacker Will Herring got into a good little shoving match during a drill that pitted the Patriots punt team against the Saints return team. Herring almost dropped Hightower as Hightower got off the ground to pursue the returner. The Pats rookie quickly shot back with a shove that lifted Herring off his feet for a moment. Herring went to Auburn and Hightower went to 'Bama, so perhaps it was just a little SEC love rekindled.

No breaks for Kyle Arrington today. After facing Wes Welker all camp, he had his work cut out for him in the slot against New Orleans' Lance Moore. When healthy, Moore is one of the better slot receivers in the league, and he beat Arrington for catches on several opportunities throughout the day.

Yes, Jon Bon Jovi was there in all his feathered-hair glory. He signed a bunch of autographs as he made his way from talking to Robert Kraft, to watching practice on the sideline. Kraft and Bon Jovi made their way up next to the media tent area where Saints owner Tom Benson had his own private shady spot. All three shared a word before practice really got going.

After practice Tom Brady sat on the field with his dog, his pregnant wife and Drew Brees among others.

Purdue boys Drew Brees and Patriots linebacker Niko Koutovides chatted in between drills. Boston College products Tim Bulman and Saints offensive lineman Matt Tennant also sought each other out to talk.

Chandler Jones seemed a little jumpy during pass-rush drills against Saints offensive linemen.

Jimmy Graham is a very large, athletic man. He beat Nate Ebner down the seam for a touchdown during one drill and finger-rolled the ball over the uprights. Moments later, Brees put a pass just over Hightower's head and into Graham's hands for another score that Graham -- a former hoops player at Miami -- dunked through the uprights with authority.

Patriots linebackers and members of the secondary had a solid practice. Brees often seemed to go through two or three options before throwing short dump-offs. Not a ton of long-distance hookups for the Saints.

Steven Ridley got some work with the punt return unit -- but not as a returner. He was on the line, rushing in, trying to get his hands on the ball off of New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead's foot.

Trevor Scott got a "sack" in 11-on-11 work, getting his arms extended on his blocker and wrapping up Chase Daniel as he stepped up in the pocket.

Has to be noted that randomly, while other guys were engaged in drills, Saints punter Thomas Morstead (formerly of Southern Methodist) dropped a ball 50 yards dead on the 3-yard line. The thing just laid flat. Whatta boom.

Some interesting looks from the Patriots defense during 11-on-11 time, especially as the Saints ran their hurry-up offense. At one point they used just one linebacker. They had Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones and Jerod Mayo on the line. Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington were in the secondary, and safety Tavon Wilson was dropped down as a 'backer. In a two-minute situation against a pass-happy team like the Saints maybe the Patriots feel like that's one package they can use successfully.

Jones worked out of two-point and three-point stances. On one play it appeared as though he wanted to show that he would start the play standing up, then he put his hand on the turf at the last minute and rushed the quarterback.

Jones had an active day. He jumped to bat down one pass attempt by Brees. He also got called over to the field goal block unit by Patriots coaches and was placed just off of the center. He would seem to be a perfect candidate for that job with his athleticism and long arms.

Steve Gregory picked off Brees near the end of practice in 11-on-11. Dane Fletcher was given a pick when Chase Daniel put a pass in Fletcher's belly down in the red zone.

Matthew Slater and Saints kicker John Kasay seemed to give short speeches to both teams as they huddled around one another at the end of practice.

Military members got a lengthy standing ovation by the 14,830 at Gillette as they walked around the edge of the practice field. Patriots and Saints players shook hands with the uniformed servicemen and women at the end of practice.

Mary Paoletti and Phil Perry contributed to this report.

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Rex Burkhead knew he was staring at a rare opportunity.

Going into Cincinnati's 2016 season finale, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back was averaging just three carries per game. But with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard injured, the fourth-year player out of Nebraska understood he had a chance to put something on tape that would help him land a job in the offseason. 

MORE FILM REVIEW:


"Can't lie," Burkhead told his college teammate Adam Carriker. "Going into free agency, I knew that game was huge. It was a good opportunity for me to show what I could do. I guess it kind of helped me out."

It certainly didn't hurt. 

Burkhead ran 27 times for 119 yards and two scores against the Ravens, showing off an intriguing blend of toughness and elusiveness in the process. 

Burkead was already an accomplished special-teamer -- he led the Bengals in special-teams tackles last season -- but his performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense made it clear that he could be leaned upon for more than just a few carries every week.

The Patriots must have taken notice. 

They signed Burkhead earlier this month to a one-year deal that will pay him $1.8 million in base salary and carry what some considered a relatively surprising maximum value of $3.15 million. That's more than the $1 million LeGarrette Blount was offered on his one-year deal last year, and it's enough to make Burkhead the highest-paid running back on the roster. 

What did the Patriots see from Burkhead that made him worth that kind of money? Let's take a closer look at his film -- particularly what he did in Week 17 last season -- to get a sense of what he might be able to do in New England. 

SEEKS OUT CONTACT
The Patriots have long had a "big back" on their roster. Most recently, that's been Blount, who has been complemented by sub back James White and all-purpose runner Dion Lewis. 

Before Blount it was Stevan Ridley. Before Ridley, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You can go all the way back to Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Belichick likes runners who can get what's blocked, protect the football, then create their own yards in the secondary by punishing defensive backs.

Burkhead doesn't quite tip the scales as those players listed above -- though he comes close to Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) -- yet he's currently the biggest back on the Patriots roster, and he seems to run with a bruiser's mentality. 

On his very first carry against the Ravens, when he got through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he saw that safety Matt Elam had him lined up. Instead of trying to spin away from Elam or hurdle him, Burkhead lowered his shoulder and became the aggressor. 

Elam, who was thought to be one of the biggest hitters to enter the league four years ago, had to give himself a moment before popping back up to his feet after the collision. 

Statement made. 

Burkhead's strength, it seems, is his strength. Just ask Eric Weddle and the rest of the Ravens how he turned this play into a nine-yard gain to help the Bengals bleed the clock late in the fourth quarter. 



Burkhead consistently fought through first contact and fell forward to pick up maximum yardage snap after snap versus Baltimore's stingy run defense. On his first touchdown of the game, he was tripped up near the line of scrimmage but showed good balance by stumbling into the end zone from five yards away. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Burkhead's performance against the Ravens was his ability to keep the Bengals out of negative plays. On multiple occasions, he was hit at the line of scrimmage or behind it and consistently made his way back to the line or beyond it. 

Early in the fourth quarter, he was hit for what looked like it would be a three or four-yard loss yet somehow he was able to twist and dive back for no gain. Midway through the second, he was hit at the line and turned it into a four-yard pickup. 



One of the reasons Lewis has been so valuable to the Patriots when healthy the last two seasons is that when things break down up front, and when it looks like Tom Brady is about to be looking at second-and-11, he cuts and knifes forward for a yard or two or more. 

Those aren't big plays in the box score, but they're critical when it comes to extending drives. It seems like Burkhead has the ability to submit the same kinds of small-but-important gains with a hard-charging style all his own.

VISION, QUICKNESS TO FIND RUNNING ROOM
For someone who seems to enjoy imposing his will on would-be tacklers, Burkhead has a good amount of wiggle to his game. His vision and lateral quickness helped him make Ravens defenders look silly at times. 

As opposed to burrowing into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, his jump cut to the right helped him find space in the open field for an eye-opening eight-yard run. 



On the very next down, he was stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage but was able to pick up three thanks to another jump cut that allowed him to stretch the run out wide.

In the fourth, Burkhead showed good patience by stalling behind the block of receiver Brandon LaFell, picking a path, and running decisively once he did. 



Burkhead may not be Lewis when it comes to his elusiveness, but he has the ability to mix in some off-speed stuff in between snaps spent trying to bowl over tacklers. 

Asked by Carriker if he preferred powering through defenders or bouncing around them, Burkhead said he'd actually go with the latter. 

"I think making a guy miss just because I feel like they don't expect that from me a lot of times," Burkhead explained. "But growing up I always took good pride in that. Just my quickness, my ability to make my guy miss."

MR. VERSATILITY
Part of what makes Burkhead's signing so interesting is that he doesn't fit tightly into the definition of either "big back" or "sub back." He seems somewhat like a larger version of Lewis -- an all-purpose runner who he can be used in a variety of packages and deployed in a variety of positions.

Burkhead has run out of the I-formation and the shotgun. He's caught the ball out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver, where he spent most of Cinci's 2014 Divisional Round game against the Colts. He caught three passes that day for 34 yards and ran a reverse for a gain of 23. 

"He has tremendous short-area quickness," then-Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said during training camp two years ago. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented [as a receiver]."

However Burkhead is used, he'll very likely continue to see time as a contributor in the kicking game. Not only does he have a wealth of experience when it comes to covering kicks, but he's served as a kick-returner in the past as well. 

So to recap: Running back...receiver...special-teamer.

Sure sounds like someone Belichick would be willing to invest in.

Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

patriots_bill_belichick_112016.jpg

Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

Even for some of the nation's top athletes, confident 20-somethings with the rest of their (perhaps very lucrative) lives ahead of them, there's a feeling you just can't shake when Bill Belichick walks into the room. 

"When you first meet him, you're scared," said Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, per WBZ. "He's quizzing you. It's like a little test. But after you get done with the test, the quiz or whatever, drawing up the defense, it's pretty cool. They're real down to earth people. Really cool."

Belichick was spotted at Ohio State's pro day getting a closer look at McMillan and his teammates on Thursday. He then headed off to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the Wolverines showcase Friday.

During various scouting trips across the country, the Patriots appear to be showing significant interest in the incoming class of linebackers. Belichick spent some extra time with Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham -- who's projected to be a first-rounder -- at his pro day. The team reportedly scheduled a meeting with a speedy linebacker from Cincinnati. And Matt Patricia caught up with Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu once his workouts finished up on Thursday. 

As for McMillan, the 6-2, 240-pounder was a second-team All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten choice. He's instinctive, but there's some question as to whether or not he has the strength to hold up inside at the next level.