By Tom E. CurranFOXBORO - Brandon Spikes, Stevan Ridley and Patrick Chung were among not taking part in early practice Monday as the Patriots worked out in shells prior to Wednesday's preseason finale against the Giants. Ridley and Chung watched from the sidelines while Spikes and running back Shane Vereen were not seen on the field during the small window afforded to media observation. Others not seen include tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, linebacker Tracy White, safety Will Allen, linebacker Tracy White, offensive lineman Matt Kopa and offensive lineman Nick McDonald. Jabar Gaffney, Markus Zusevics and Myron Pryor were also on the sidelines. Bill Belichick said there were "a lot ofballs in the air" on Monday with the looming cut to 75, the Patriots Kickoff Gala on Monday night, preparations for the preseason finale and the first regular season game. Asked for an update on erstwhile offensive lineman Brian Waters, Belichick said, "I don't have one. I'm happy to discuss the players that are here." Speaking for a few minutes with Tom Brady in the locker room, the quarterback assured that, "We'll be fine" when asked about the offensive line. "We'll be good." Meanwhile, at the other end of the locker room, I caught up with Rob Ninkovich who sighed when asked about the defense and said there's a "ways to go" in terms of mastering fits and timing. On Aaron Hernandez, Belichick said, "Aaron has improved a lot. Hes worked hard, hes improved a lot in all phases of the game: passing game, running game, protection and his overall versatility. Hes done a good job for us."As for his feelings on getting an extension done with Hernandez, "Any contract that we agree to is one that were in support of. If we agree to a contract on a player, then were in support of that player, the length of the contract, the amount that were paying him, all the other things that go with the contract. We wouldnt do it if we werent in support of it, as an organization, me personally, all of the above." Belichick seems to be enjoying the competition at running back, saying, "Each guy kind of brings a little bit of a different dimension to the position, although they all have the basic same requirements of the position, but they all do it a little differently because of their style or makeup or physical abilities or what have you. Its been interesting to watch that group work and theyve all been productive. Well continue to evaluate that and Im sure that in some way theyll all be able to contribute for us depending on what were doing."
David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl.
What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass-rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.
But in a roundabout way he might.
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There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.
If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders.
Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.
Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).
For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich.
We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track.
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