FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Harrison coming to town as Patriots open camp: The Patriots are holding their first public training camp practice Thursday, which is also the day former safety Rodney Harrison is scheduled to arrive in town as part of the lead-up to his Patriots Hall of Fame induction July 29 (along with the late Leon Gray). Harrison will be a visitor on the fields of Foxborough, where his excellence, passion and intensity as a player (2003-2008) won over fans.
Here are some Harrison-based nuggets from our chat this week:
2. Wisdom of Troy a benefit for Harry, others: Troy Brown is expected to continue lending a helping hand to the Patriots’ coaching staff through the early part of training camp — just as he did in the spring. Whether that leads to an official role in the future is to be determined, but the bottom line is that having the humble Patriots Hall of Famer on hand to share his wisdom with first-round pick N’Keal Harry and others is a coup for Belichick — however long it lasts. Another benefit is that it creates a buffer of sorts as the staff navigates an interesting situation with special teams coach Joe Judge also picking up the role of receivers coach, which of course, was also Brown’s primary position.
3. Belichick’s method for rookie jersey numbers: All rookies are expected to continue wearing nontraditional jersey numbers through the opening stretch of training camp, so those looking for first-round pick Harry shouldn’t have a problem picking out No. 50 in the wide receiver drills. Harry, the physical, big-bodied wide receiver from Arizona State, has filled out the No. 50 well. Belichick has explained in the past that it is a reminder to all rookies, in part, of what should be truly important (not jersey numbers, what color gloves they wear, etc.). There is another benefit to the approach.
“It’s all about communication. The No. 1 thing in football is communication,” explained Michael Lombardi, who spent the 2014-2015 seasons in New England as an assistant to Belichick, when the club had rookies in numberless jerseys (which the NFL no longer allows). “How do you improve communication? Everyone talks to one another. When you don’t know the number of the guy playing next to you, or you don’t understand it, you’re forced to talk. You’re forced to know who he is.
“It was nearly impossible to watch tape when the players didn’t have jersey numbers on them, because you had to figure out who each guy was. So it was really more of a hindrance on the coaches, but in the long run it proved to be worthwhile because it forced communication, which is ultimately what you have to do to be successful in football.”
4. Crossen pick from ’18 highlights jersey-number challenge for players: One of the stories that best showed how the nontraditional numbers challenge players came in 2018, when quarterback Brian Hoyer threw a wheel route to a running back down the right sideline, making the decision to throw in part because No. 59 — traditionally worn by a linebacker — was in coverage. But as the ball arrived, No. 59 rose high into the air with an explosive vertical leap and high-pointed the ball for an interception — a stellar play by seventh-round cornerback Keion Crossen. It was the type of play a linebacker wearing No. 59 probably couldn’t have made, and a throw Hoyer probably wouldn’t have delivered with a cornerback in coverage.
5. Key checkpoint for third-rounder Yodny Cajuste: With Patriots rookies reporting to training camp Sunday, it should provide more clarity on where things stand with the team’s offensive tackle depth. Specifically, is third-round pick Yodny Cajuste cleared for on-field work after being held out of all spring practices? Cajuste, who in an ideal Patriots world would be a legitimate option as a top backup/swing tackle following veteran Jared Veldheer‘s surprise retirement in May, had surgery on his left quad before the draft. If healthy, Cajuste would add more insurance as projected starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn attempts to return from a torn Achilles from last August. As Belichick often says, the train starts moving fast in training camp, and thus any rookie who isn’t on the field for the opening stretch of workouts can quickly fall behind and find it hard to make up ground. Offensive tackle Tony Garcia, the 2017 third-round pick from Troy, is a notable recent example of a rookie falling into that category.
6. Did you know: Since 2001, the Patriots have had the fewest weeks during a regular season with a record under .500 — just 12. The Steelers are next (56).
7. A Gronkowski thought tied to Seau’s return in ’08: There has already been plenty of speculation about Gronkowski’s future, and if he would ever consider coming out of retirement. All of which sparked a question recently on local sports talk radio: If Gronkowski decided to come back at some point, how would that be received by Belichick? The first thing I thought of was 2008, when veteran linebacker Junior Seau came out of retirement to rejoin the club in December. That is one example of Belichick welcoming a retired player back if he deems it in the best interest of the team.
8. Etling’s best hope might be as a Taysom Hill-type weapon: With Tom Brady at quarterback, veteran Hoyer the top backup and 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham probably assured a roster spot, it could put the squeeze on 2018 seventh-round pick Danny Etling as he attempts to stick around. That’s one reason it might behoove Etling to consider pitching an outside-the-box thought to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: Maybe Etling could be the Patriots’ version of the Saints’ Hill, the quarterback/running threat who contributed to New Orleans’ running a league-high 175 snaps with two quarterbacks on the field in 2018, often creating headaches for defenses. Perhaps it’s a far-fetched thought, but when considering Etling is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, and Hill is 6-2 and 221 pounds, they at least have a similar physical makeup to make it worthy of a conversation. Etling’s 86-yard touchdown run in the fourth preseason game last year highlighted his athleticism.
9. Roberts feels the support from Kraft: When fourth-year linebacker Elandon Roberts went public with his feelings of being harassed during a March traffic stop in Texas, he said in a statement to USA Today that he had no interest in financial gain from his remarks; his goal was to shine a spotlight on what he views as biased traffic stops targeting African Americans. Behind the scenes, Roberts gained something else: the support of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who reached out to Roberts when first learning of the story, and the two had a nice chat.
10. Patriots keeping training camp practices open to public: More NFL teams are limiting the number of open/free training camp practices to fans — the Raiders have completely closed their camp and the Eagles’ one public practice open to all fans comes with a $10 charge — but the Patriots aren’t moving in that direction. Unlike others, the club doesn’t send out a complete schedule, but the expectation is that there will be no fewer than 10 open/free training camp practices this year. And it would be a few more if not for the team hitting the road for multiple days of joint practices with the Lions, and then the Titans. The opening stretch looks like this:
Saturday is scheduled to feature a live ESPN SportsCenter broadcast from the practice field.