1. The NFL’s only special-teams coordinator/receivers coach: One moment from The Patriots’ first practice of training camp highlighted how unique it is that head coach Bill Belichick has named Joe Judge the team’s special-teams coordinator/wide receivers coach — a job title unlike any other in the NFL.
As Judge worked on individual drills with receivers, harping on the finer points of route-running, some of The Patriots’ core special-teams players worked on the opposite field on setting up blocks on kickoff returns. Judge obviously couldn’t be in two places at once, so special-teams assistant Cameron Achord, and first-year Patriots coaching assistant Bob Fraser, led the special-teams work.
Judge, 37, has quickly made his presence felt in the receivers room.
“Really, really, really, really detail-oriented,” fifth-year veteran Phillip Dorsett said. “I think that’s good for us, because he breaks down everything for us. Obviously, he’s learning on the fly, but he’s doing a really good job as it comes to detailing everything. I think it’s helping us because we have a lot of younger guys who need the detail.”
Dorsett has never been part of a team with a special-teams coordinator/receivers coach. When The Patriots focus on a full-team special-teams drill in practice, Judge has still been the leading voice in those situations.
“He’s handling it pretty well right now,” Dorsett said. “The good thing about it is that he has a lot of help.”
Additional assistance has come in the form of Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown, who is chipping in through the early part of training camp with the receivers. Whether Brown’s role becomes permanent remains to be seen.
“It’s been great — a guy that knows the in’s and out’s of this offense and knows everything about The Patriots’ way,” Dorsett said.
2. Belichick’s development of coaches: Judge’s unusual title also is an example of how Belichick aids in the development of young coaches, as it helps Judge branch out and potentially open up greater opportunities for him. After working under Nick Saban at Alabama, Judge joined The Patriots in 2012 as an assistant special-teams coach under Scott O’Brien, before taking over for O’Brien in 2015. Special-teams coaches can become pigeonholed in the NFL, as John Harbaugh (Ravens, 2008) is the last special-teams coach to be hired as a head coach (he moved to defensive backs his final season as an assistant). But Belichick has long talked about how his experience as a special-teams coach early in his career best prepared him to be a head coach because he was managing players from the entire roster in that role.
3. Offensive line depth gets early test: The Patriots had ideal continuity on their O-line during their 2018 Super Bowl championship season, and while that could ultimately be the case this year, the group has taken some tough, early hits. Veteran center/guard Brian Schwenke’s retirement on the eve of training camp is more than a passing note, as Schwenke was taking some first-unit reps at left guard in spring practices. Meanwhile, third-round offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste remains on the non-football injury list, and veteran offensive tackle Jared Veldheer — projected as the swing tackle — retired in May. Line coach Dante Scarnecchia always seems to find a way to make it work, and that has meant tapping starting left guard Joe Thuney at left tackle at times, but building more quality depth up front Bears watching.
4. A word on Brady’s contract: One of the hot-button topics on local sports talk radio has been quarterback Tom Brady entering the final year of his contract. The rarity of the situation — Brady usually has his deal extended with multiple years remaining — makes it a notable topic. And while I would have thought the sides would have reached an agreement at this point, there was a similar situation from last year with the Saints and Drew Brees entering the last year of his deal, which ultimately resulted in a two-year extension. Brady said in June that these type of situations usually work themselves out, and as owner Robert Kraft said at the Super Bowl, “I would be quite surprised if he didn’t continue for quite a while as our quarterback.”
5. Berrios gets Gronk’s locker: While Rob Gronkowski could always decide to come out of retirement, there are signs The Patriots aren’t counting on it; specifically, in the team’s locker room, where second-year receiver Braxton Berrios has been given Gronkowski’s old spot.
6. Jones an early top performer: Fourth-year cornerback Jonathan Jones, whose speed and reactive athleticism made him the choice to help shadow Tyreek Hill at times in last season’s AFC Championship Game, looks like he’s picked up where he left off. Jones had an interception of Brady, and a pass breakup in the end zone, on the first day of practice. Because Jones is a quiet, unassuming presence, his role can be easy to overlook. Looking back, his broken foot in the 2017 playoffs, which took him out of Super Bowl LII against the Eagles, was probably undersold as to how it affected the team in that crushing loss.
7. Did You Know: Only two head coaches have led teams to back-to-back championships two times — the Steelers’ Chuck Noll (1974-75, 1978-79) and the Packers’ Vince Lombardi (1961-62, 1966-67). Belichick (2003-04) would become the third if The Patriots win Super Bowl LIV.
8. McDaniels the dad/coordinator. One of the nicest things I saw in Patriots’ training camp came on Saturday, when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had his teenage son, Jack, on the field with him during drills. Coaches spend a lot of hours away from their families in training camp, and it had to be pretty special for McDaniels, a father of four, to have that experience.
9a. Unsung trainer moving on: Every team has many behind-the-scenes staffers whose work is vital even though it’s behind the scenes, and longtime Patriots assistant athletic trainer and director of rehabilitation Joe Van Allen falls into that category. Van Allen, who first joined the organization in 2001, is in the process of moving on from his role. Many Patriots players who have rehabbed from injuries have noted the critical role Van Allen has played in their recovery.
9b. Two scouts earn promotions: For scouts who spend a good portion of the year on the road, elevating from covering a region to the entire country is a notable promotion. Along those lines, The Patriots promoted Matt Groh and Brandon Yeargan from area scouts to national scouts this year. Groh, the son of former Patriots assistant coach Al Groh, played quarterback at Princeton and has worked his way up the ranks since joining New England as a scouting assistant in 2011. Yeargan, who played linebacker at Davidson College, has been a quick riser after joining The Patriots as a scouting assistant in 2013.
10. McCrary’s presence and a special bond: The Patriots will induct Rodney Harrison into their Hall of Fame on Monday (4:30 p.m. ET, free, open to public), and fullback Fred McCrary will be among the many former Patriots players in attendance. Patriots fans might not remember McCrary well — he played in just six games in the 2003 season — but his presence means a lot to Harrison because they became close friends with the Chargers (1999-2002) and then came across the country to New England for a new beginning together. There are many great things about football, with the bonds formed in the locker room that endure decades later near the top of the list.