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.

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

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.”