Warren and Patriots: A perfect fit

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Warren and Patriots: A perfect fit

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO -- Ask fans who the I-beams of the Patriots are right now and the answers will be predictable: Tom Brady, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Wes Welker. Maybe even rookie corner Devin McCourty.

But ask the team about Gerard Warren.

The praise he gets from the guys who know him best speaks volumes. They'll tell you that the defensive lineman is invaluable to the 12-2 Patriots.

"He's brought a lot of experience,'' Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "He's a smart guy and a versatile player. He can play inside and outside. He can play it on the nose, both ends. He's a smart guy. He sees things. Very professional. Ready to work every day. Tough. He's banged up like a lot of guys are but he stays out there and fights through it. He's been a very dependable player for us.''

It has taken him a while to get here.

Gerard Warren was the third overall pick in 2001. The 6-foot-4, 330-pounder was convinced the Patriots would draft him but he went earlier, selected by the Browns three picks before Richard Seymour.

For most of his first nine seasons in the NFL he was trapped in dysfunctional and unsuccessful franchises, bouncing from Cleveland to Denver to Oakland.

Finally, last March, a chance to sign with a new team surfaced. It was Seymour who recommended the Patriots. Warren was signed in April as a role player.

"I think when you sign a player like that, I don't know if you know what their role's going to be,'' Belichick said. "When you haven't had him before, and even if you have, you wait to see how their performance relates to everybody else that you have, put it all together and see how it works out. Kind of go back to that Roman Phifer situation."

The coach picked an apt comparison. Phifer was signed by the Patriots in 2001 after 11 seasons in the league. He'd played for Belichick in New York in 1999.

New England handed Phifer a veteran minimum contract and an unspecified role. By the end of the 2001 regular season, the outside linebacker had 93 tackles. By the end of the playoffs, he had a Super Bowl ring. He won two more rings in '03 and '04.

"I told Phifer that I thought he would have a limited role,'' Belichick said. "We had a role for him, I wasn't sure what it was. That role ended up being that he played 98 percent of the plays.

"You just don't know how it's all going to work out with your team from year to year. Some of that's a function of that player. Some of it's a function of what's going on around them. Some of it's a function of who you're playing."

The injury to Ty Warren forced Gerard Warren into more minutes. Despite a knee injury, he has played in all 14 games (9 starts) in New England's stunning 2010 season. He has racked up 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

What he wants is the hardware that Roman Phifer got his hands on.

"Wish I woulda had a lot more Super Bowl rings on my fingers,'' Warren said. "That's what I judge it on winning and losing. I been in the league for 10 years, so I'm blessed for that."

He has believed for a while now that playing for the Patriots is the solution. In May, Warren said he was tremendously impressed with New England's attitude.

"It's all business,'' he said. "Come in. Play winning football. Have fun. Family environment. When you walk in through the doors, its all business. Very appealing."

Six months later Warren cites his time in New England as "one of the most beautiful journeys" in his life. The defensive stats are nice, but the reason this is a great year is because he's playing for an organization "thats got a mission and a plan and a purpose." Because he's finally got a chance to make a difference with a Super Bowl contender.

"That's one guy that came here with all the intentions of helping this ball club win,'' Vince Wilfork said Wednesday. "Great player. Great person. What he's done for us has been great. From his leadership standpoint, playing skills, you name it. However he can help he's helped."

Wilfork's especially high on his new teammate. Though Warren is listed as a defensive lineman, his ability to play over the center or at tackle has allowed the Patriots to be more exotic with how they use Wilfork.

So how come the folks buying Patriots jerseys aren't scrambling for Number 92? Without a Pro Bowl nod or Super Bowl ring, some might call him a bust. But Warren's been more a victim of circumstance.

Even now with the Patriots, the 3-4 defense isn't built to make stars of defensive lineman. Doesn't matter much if the fans don't notice him though. The players do.

"Sometimes I find myself asking him questions," Wilfork smiled. "He'll kind of look at me crazy like, 'Man, I just got here.' It's just a respect factor. He's been around the game for a long time. That's a guy that I've seen a lot of film on, if he was out in Denver, Cleveland or Oakland. I've watched a lot of film on him because there's something about his game I like."

Just another underrated acquisition for Bill Belichick.

"I never try to tell a player exactly what his situation's going to be because it's always subject to change," Belichick said. "This is where we're going to start. Where it ends up? Sometimes it's where you start and sometimes it isn't.''

Gerard Warren is seeing a hell of a lot more of the gridiron than anyone expected last spring. For both the player and the Patriots, this is a really good thing.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

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. 

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"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. 

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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'

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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.