FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Middle Tennessee visit creates a buzz: Four pictures of Patriots coach Bill Belichick working out Middle Tennessee defensive end/outside linebacker Tyshun Render on Monday spread quickly on social media. A rain-soaked Belichick putting a projected late-round draft pick through drills served up a reminder of his passion and attention to detail for the nitty-gritty parts of the job at age 67.
Rick Stockstill, who just completed his 15th season as MTSU coach, said Belichick’s visit benefited all involved.
“We didn’t make a big deal out of it, didn’t promote it, didn’t tell other players he was coming. I didn’t want it to turn into a circus, everyone coming out to see Coach Belichick. So it was kind of under the radar a little bit,” Stockstill said in a phone interview. “He was very gracious, talking to us, and with how he treated Tyshun, how he asked him questions, how he communicated with him.
67 years old. Entering his 46th NFL season. Chasing Don Shula for the all-time wins mark.
Bill Belichick, in the rain at Middle Tennessee State, grinding it out on the scouting trail. https://t.co/C72f9Wvu5g
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) February 26, 2020
“When you think about, here’s arguably the best football coach ever in the NFL, and he’s on our campus, working out one of our players in the cold, pouring-down rain. It was a great experience just being able to shake his hand, talk to him a little bit, and watch how he evaluates players, and what he puts them through from a drill standpoint, and how he asked him questions watching film. It was a good learning experience for all of us.”
The workout came together quickly.
Belichick has a connection with MTSU quarterbacks coach Tony Franklin, and Stockstill said Belichick reached out to Franklin over the weekend about the possibility. Render was in Georgia at the time and hustled to make it back to campus in Murfreesboro, which is about 30 miles from where Belichick and his partner, Linda Holliday, have a residence in Franklin, Tennessee.
“To me, that day was a great symbolization of why Coach Belichick has been so successful,” said Stockstill, who in 23 seasons as an assistant worked on staffs under Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier, Danny Ford, Tommy Bowden, Ken Hatfield, Larry Little and Tommy West. “He spent a little more than three hours here, between working him out and watching film. Here he is on a rainy, dreary, cold day [but] this is what you have to do — you have to work. He’s very meticulous, very detail-oriented.”
Stockstill also highlighted part of the projection that NFL teams will be making with Render, a non-combine invitee who graduated prior to his senior season.
“I think he has great growth potential. We don’t have a training table like the SEC schools or the Big Ten or the ACC, so our guys, it’s harder for us to gain weight compared to schools from bigger conferences,” he explained. “So, once he gets on a team, in a camp, and he’s eating four to five meals a day like they feed NFL players, I think he has a great frame to put on weight and improve his strength. He’s a guy that I think the NFL will evaluate in a couple different positions, whether he’s a defensive end with his hand on the ground, or a drop-outside linebacker playing on two feet. He’s a smart, intelligent football player.”
2. Film work with Belichick stands out to Render: When I reached out to Render about his experience with Belichick, he expressed initial reluctance to answer because he didn’t want to create a perception he was using the workout to generate publicity. He also is locked in on his upcoming pro day.
But he allowed that his time with Belichick was special to him.
“I would describe Monday as a day of reassurance. Being granted the opportunity to perform in front of arguably the best coach to ever stand on an NFL sideline was just a reminder to run my own race,” he said.
Asked what stood out to him, he said, “Our time in the film room. It was the questions [Belichick] asked while we were in there about my opponents.”
3. Two key unanswered questions remain with Brady, Patriots: There is a lot of smoke around free-agent-to-be Tom Brady, but from a pure bottom-line perspective, my viewpoint is that nothing has definitively changed on the two key questions regarding the quarterback’s future: How far financially is Belichick willing to go to retain him? And how motivated is Brady to return? While uncertainty with the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement might explain why there has been a delay in having pure contract talks, that shouldn’t stop the two from having a dialogue on factors that would help provide clarity on the second question. Belichick referred to Brady as an “iconic figure in the organization” on Jan. 5, and because of all Brady has given to the franchise, my opinion is that the football is in Belichick’s hands to approach Brady to spark that conversation in advance of the March 16 legal negotiating period with other teams. Brady, 42, deserves that respect. And I believe that will happen.
4. Nuggets from the combine: I did not attend this year’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, but from colleagues on the ground and observation, here were a few Patriots-specific things that stood out to me:
Networking and connecting with others from around the NFL, and those tied to the history of the game, is part of the proceedings. That can be in Belichick’s wheelhouse. Along those lines, picture this scene: Belichick, at the bar at the downtown Indianapolis J.W. Marriott on Thursday night, talking to the legendary Archie Manning and appearing to exchange phone numbers.
Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown seemingly taking his role on the coaching staff to a higher level, as part of meetings with prospects, specifically receivers.
Retiring offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia making the trip to help evaluate linemen, a reflection that he will still be involved from a consulting-type standpoint.
5. Did You Know: Middle Tennessee had three players on Super Bowl rosters this past season — 49ers receiver Richie James (2018 seventh round), Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward (undrafted, 2018) and Chiefs linebacker Darius Harris (undrafted, 2019). Belichick had also been on campus in 2018 for a workout with James.
Stephen A. Smith sparks a heated debate on whether Tom Brady can surround himself with enough talent to defeat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
6. Comments that resonated tied to Brady: The combine can put coaches and executives in a challenging spot mediawise because tampering rules don’t allow them to comment on players under contract with other teams, even those who are set to be free agents. So they have to choose their words carefully, and here are three sound bites from those with teams who could be interested in Brady:
Titans coach Mike Vrabel (when asked by Suzy Kolber on NFL Live about rumors linking the Titans to Brady): “I would say it’s just a unique situation, having played with Tom and having a relationship with Tom and his family. [My son] Carter texted me [about social media rumors] and said, ‘Is Gisele at MBA [Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville]’ and I’m like, ‘No, Gisele is not at MBA.’ She wasn’t. I just think it’s unique that a head coach played with a quarterback that has an expiring contract that’s been in New England for 20 years.”
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians: “Quarterback is the premier position, so you never thought you’d see a Brady and a [Drew] Brees, and all those guys names to be out there [as possible free agents]. And Drew’s not really out there. So what is door No. 2? You never know.” Arians reportedly later said Brady is the type of free agent, along with Philip Rivers, that he’d pick up the phone to speak with.
Raiders general manager Mike Mayock: “I’m surprised it took two questions to get to Derek [Carr], but thank you. I think everybody needs to understand at what level Derek Carr played last year — completed 70% of his passes, had almost a 3-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, I think we were No. 11 in total yards, seventh in third-down conversions. We did a lot of really good things on offense. The disconnect was that we didn’t score a lot of points; you’re 11th in yards but 24th in points, there’s an issue. It’s defense. Special teams. It’s not scoring in the red zone. And it’s not scoring in goal-to-go. Derek Carr played at a high level. I’m very happy with Derek Carr. What I’ve told everybody I’ve been in touch with, from the day I took this job, we’re going to evaluate every position every year. And if we can get better, we will. Guys get tired of me saying that, but that’s really what I told [owner] Mark Davis before I took the job. That’s my mantra.”
7. Super Bowl hero Butler’s future in Tennessee: Could Malcolm Butler be a cut candidate after two seasons with the Titans? The possibility was broached by Albert Breer of SI.com, and ESPN.com Titans reporter Turron Davenport has noted why the organization might consider it: Butler is on the books with a $13.3 million cap charge in 2020, which could be too rich for his projected role, especially if the club attempts to re-sign Logan Ryan. If the Titans do move on, they would absorb a $6 million cap hit.
8. Top special-teamer Bethel recovering from shoulder surgery: In a reminder of the physical toll that football can take on players, Patriots core special-teamer Justin Bethel has had the course of his offseason altered by shoulder surgery, according to a source. Bethel recently made the point that he finds rehab workouts more challenging than regular workouts. With Bethel and perennial Pro Bowler Matthew Slater playing together for the second half of last season, the Patriots had arguably the most potent 1-2 gunner combination in the NFL.
9. Stidham checks in at Gillette: Last year at this time, quarterback Jarrett Stidham was working out in Indianapolis, impressing the Patriots to the point where they later selected him in the fourth round (No. 133). This year, Stidham took a break from his training regimen in California to return to town for the week, working out at Gillette Stadium. A related thought: One of the trickle-down effects of the Patriots hiring assistant coach Jedd Fisch to their offensive staff is the link with Stidham; one of the assets Fisch brings to New England is an extensive background working with young quarterbacks.
10. Bruschi’s entertaining tales from the past: I could listen to Patriots Hall of Fame linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who in his 11th season as an ESPN football analyst, talk football all day. So it was a treat to hear him reminisce on the “Pats from the Past” podcast on Patriots.com, such as telling the story of how then-Patriots coach Bill Parcells told him to hop into his Cadillac Eldorado after he had a good practice. Bruschi, who was a rookie that year in 1996, told the story of how Parcells informed him about the importance of managing his money (“I’ve seen more guys go down to the IRS; make sure things are in order”), which had him calling his agent that night to make sure he had an accountant. Bruschi also talked about how he thought Belichick would be the team’s head coach in 1997 based on the plane ride home from Super Bowl XXI and conversations he was having with players about the future. Fun stuff, as usual, from the Patriots great.