Pats come back down to Earth

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Pats come back down to Earth

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Last week was a crazy one for Pats fans, and I'm not even talking about the speculation over a potential Randy Moss reunion, the overhyping of BelichickMangini: Round Whatever, or the absurdity of Logan Mankins' mustache.

No, what made last week so especially strange was that for probably the first time since Bernard Pollard wrecked Tom Brady's knee, the New England Patriots were the consensus best team in football.

They were the only one-loss team in the league. They'd played one of the most challenging schedules in the league. They were building chemistry on offense, discovering themselves on defense and undergoing an attitude overhaul behind the scenes.

They'd won five straight games. They had momentum.

Leading into Sunday's game against the Browns, New England sat atop nearly every "expert's" power rankings. They were once again the darlings of the national media. Even Tom Jackson was forced to say a few nice things about them, and that happens about as often as you hear Rex Ryan say, "Nah, that's OK. The small order of onion rings is fine."

The Pats were back. Or at least that's what it felt like.

And it was kind of shocking.

Why? Because we never saw it coming.

Not even the most optimistic, silver-and-blue-colored-glasses-wearing, "In Belichick We Trust"-pledging, "Man, why is Fred Smerlas so negative?"-asking super fan could have realistically believed that the Pats would start this season 6-1.

Part of that was a result of New England's schedule over the first eight weeks, which included trips to New York, Miami and San Diego, as well as home games against the Ravens and Vikings. And even though the Bengals don't look like much now, let's not forget they came into this season as the defending AFC North champs. That should have been a major challenge, too.

Even a great team, we thought, would hit a few potholes on such a treacherous early season road, and this is the other reason why 6-1 seemed so distant we knew that the Pats weren't great.

Yeah, there was reason for positivity, but we'd all seen enough great teams around here to understand that this current one had some serious issues. Our expectations were high, but they weren't unrealistic. We expected the season to be successful, yet at the same time exceedingly difficult.

And we just werent ready for what happened.

Which is that through a bizarre stretch of on-and-off the field mayhem, the Patriots won five straight games.

This isn't to say any of the wins were undeserved. A win's a win in this league. But individually, there was something about each victory that left us wanting more, or at least, left us not entirely convinced that this team was for real.

After the Buffalo game we said, "Yeah, but it was Buffalo."

After the Miami game we said, "Yeah, but when are they ever going to get three defensivespecial teams touchdowns again?"

After the Ravens game we said, "Yeah, but they only really played one good quarter."

After the San Diego game we said, "Yeah, but the Chargers gave it to them!"

And after the Minnesota game we said, "Yeah, but didn't they still look kind of sloppy?"

Each week there was something different, but the result was always the same. Meanwhile, the Colts, Saints, Packers and Steelers began to lose, and the national media needed another "team of the moment." They saw the 6-1 record, the five-game win streak and the "They dropped Moss and never looked back!" storyline and just ran with it.

We'd spent most of the first few months of the season wondering if the Patriots were even the best team in their division. We thought we knew who they were that is, a good but not great team with loads of potential and a lot of room to grow but now everyone in the football world was telling us differently.

And despite the irrelevancy of power rankings in general, and the insignificance of guys like Tom Jackson, it was hard not to join the fun. Life's a lot better when the Pats are atop the NFL. It's been a while since we could really say that.

So we rolled with it. We talked about the Pats like they were the team of old; like the team that marched into Cleveland six years ago and blew them off the field before halftime. We played along.

But deep down, this didn't feel like a 6-1 team. The offense still wasn't clicking. The defense was playing at an unrealistic level. They looked like a good team, but just not the best team in the NFL. No matter what anyone said.

And after watching the way the Pats played in Cleveland, its now obvious that theyre not.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm not saying we should overreact to Sunday's loss, call it a season, hope the Raiders lose a bunch more games and start looking to next year. I'm just saying that maybe the overreaction had taken place before Sunday's game even started.

That for now, maybe it's healthier and more realistic to consider the plight and potential of the 6-2 Patriots a team with legitimate, but not necessarily fatal flaws (experience, depth, offensive fire, big-game pedigree) than to go along ignoring the issues of the 7-1 team under the assumption that they'll just always find a way to win.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

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.”