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Patriots rookies get a different type of film session: 'Deadpool 2'

Keion Crossen (59), Jason McCourty (30) and Devin McCourty (32) stand together during last Tuesday's OTA practice. The Patriots return for their next OTA on Wednesday. Steven Senne/AP Photo

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the NFL and New England Patriots:

1. While learning the playbook and new concepts are an important part of the voluntary offseason program, not to be overlooked is how this is a time for players to build a connection, especially rookies who are coming together for the first time. Along those lines, picture this scene that unfolded last week at Gillette Stadium: With their football-specific work completed for the day, the Patriots’ rookie class took the short walk from the team facility to the movie theater at Patriot Place to watch "Deadpool 2" as a group. It was a different type of film session, one that reflects the early stages of the NFL offseason calendar and how the team’s newcomers are making the effort to come together in different ways.

2. Former Arkansas and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is now assisting Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s staff after helping the team through the pre-draft process, although he isn’t listed on the official roster at this time. Belichick deflected a question on what Bielema brings to the staff, instead answering about his entire group of assistants as a whole. From the looks of it last week, Bielema is spending a majority of his time with the team’s defensive linemen; at one point I watched him simulate snaps for them as they worked on pass-rushing technique and field-goal protection. Bielema, who was a defensive lineman himself at Iowa (1989-92), knows two of the Patriots’ defensive linemen well from Arkansas: Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr..

3. With two 2017 captains not taking part in the voluntary offseason program to this point -- Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski -- my ears perked up when Bill Belichick said the following in his opening remarks on Tuesday: “It’s been a good group and we have a lot of good leadership, a lot of young guys taking more active roles as well as having some other guys that -- Julian [Edelman], [Dont’a] Hightower -- guys like that didn’t play last year that are obviously involved in things now.” The Patriots miss a high level of leadership without Brady, but Belichick’s point is well-taken: There’s still a lot of leadership across the roster, and there seems to be a positive vibe among players to this point. That camaraderie was something long-snapper Joe Cardona mentioned to me Friday when I caught up with him at a Memorial Day singalong event at a local elementary school. He likes the way he has seen the team come together through six weeks of voluntary workouts.

Meaningful message in New England: Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona, who is on active duty in the Navy, speaks to students at a Memorial Day singalong at Hanlon Elementary School in Westwood, Mass. He talked about remembering those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice.

Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer ago

4. Rookie cornerback Keion Crossen (Western Carolina, seventh round), who made one of the best plays of the Patriots’ opening week of organized team activities when he leaped high in the end zone to intercept a Brian Hoyer pass intended for running back James White, worked out with 11-year NFL cornerback Dwayne Harper leading up to the draft. Harper, who played in college at South Carolina State, was an 11th-round draft pick in 1988 who played for the Seahawks (1988-1993), Chargers (1994-1998) and Lions (1999), so it was a good match for Crossen, the 5-foot-9, 178-pound sparkplug who is likewise trying to overcome long odds to earn a roster spot. Crossen, wearing the unusual No. 59, seems to be off to a good start.

5. A few soundbites from Bill Belichick from his participation in the “Championship Chat” event on Thursday night in Boston, along with Paul Rabil (hosted by Paul Carcaterra):

  • Non-negotiable attributes of championship teams. “Great work ethic and mental and physical toughness. We play such a long season; it’s a grind. You’re seeing it in the NBA now – it’s a long, tough season and players have to be physically and mentally tough. There are always challenges, guys get banged up, we play short weeks, long weeks, the weather, the circumstances of the game. You just have to mentally be able to be consistent day after day, week after week, game after game. Those are the best teams, and really, that’s true in all pro sports. The seasons are so long, there’s a lot of mental and physical stamina. A lot of times the physical stamina wears down because the mental stamina wears down. Those teams all had that.”

  • A key part of building a team. “The strength of the team, between the players and the player and the coach, is built through interpersonal relationships, through face-to-face conversations, through interactions – not SnapFace, YourFace, MyFace, InstantFace or any other face. That chemistry is built through interactions, and the ups and downs, and suffering defeats, and having victories, and successes and failures, and learning from those and communicating those with each other. That is 100 percent the way I believe it’s built.”

  • The value of experience in a big game. “It doesn’t make any difference who’s been there before. It doesn’t matter what any team has done, or hasn’t done. The only thing that matters is what happens on [game day] when they perform. We’ve seen many players – from Tom Brady to Malcolm Butler, to whoever that nobody has heard of that haven’t been in big games before, that went out and had big ones. Last year in Philadelphia, [Nick] Foles. Just because you haven’t been in a big game doesn’t mean you can’t have a big impact in the game. It’s about performance, it’s not about past reputation. It’s about performance for that day. Sometimes guys who haven’t been in it light up and have the performance of a lifetime, and sometimes guys that have a lot of experience fall short. I don’t think there is necessarily a correlation. It depends on the individual player and how he prepares and plays that week. Certainly experience is an advantage to have, I’m not saying that, but I tell the team that. Look, nobody has more experience than I do, I’ve been in more of those games than anybody has, but it doesn’t mean anything. The next one will be different, the next one will have its own challenges, and I’ll have to do my best job in that game. It doesn’t matter what happened in the other [games].”

6. The amount of guaranteed money paid to undrafted rookies often reflects the level of competition the Patriots had to sign those players, and along those lines, here are the players with the highest total: Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb ($70,000), Georgia defensive tackle John Atkins ($62,500), Maryland cornerback J.C. Jackson ($60,000) and Miami defensive lineman Trent Harris ($35,000). While those financial figures reflect their standing as “priority” free-agent signings, center David Andrews is the most significant recent example of how the Patriots don’t let money dictate their decision-making process for roster spots: When Andrews signed as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia in 2015, he had just $15,000 guaranteed money. Now he’s a team captain.

7. When I watched the Patriots’ defense line up early in the first OTA open to reporters, the linebackers were Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers, which was a continuation of Super Bowl LII, a game in which that position group struggled. Hightower will naturally fill one of those spots as he returns from a torn pectoral muscle that landed him on injured reserve last November (he wasn’t there Tuesday), but the snapshot last week was a reminder that the team could ultimately be banking on improvement from last year’s personnel -- more so than any front-line additions -- at linebacker.

8. Strong work behind the scenes in the Patriots' personnel department by national scout James Liipfert and area scout Patrick Stewart earned both of them promotions with other organizations, as Liipfert moved on after nine seasons to become the Texans’ director of college scouting and Stewart departed after 11 seasons in New England to become a national scout with the Eagles. One of the things Bill Belichick sometimes says is that if there isn’t an opportunity for advancement internally, he’s pleased that those who do good work for him have a chance to elevate elsewhere. With the Patriots having a strong staff at the director/national level -- Monti Ossenfort, Brian Smith, DuJuan Daniels and Dave Ziegler are all viewed as rising talents -- there wasn’t as much opportunity for advancement for Liipfert and Stewart.

9. A small thing, but one I’m sure Patriots players and coaches appreciated: The team’s voluntary organized team activities this week will be Wednesday, Thursday (open to media) and Friday. That gave players and coaches who traveled home for Memorial Day weekend the opportunity to have the full weekend wherever they choose to spend it. Yes, Belichick can be tough on players and coaches. But little things like that can help ease the strain of the whip.

10. Monday marks the 11-year anniversary of the death of reserve Patriots defensive lineman Marquise Hill, a 2004 second-round pick of the club out of LSU. Hill fell off a jet ski in Lake Pontchartrain and wasn’t wearing a personal flotation device. He hasn’t been forgotten inside Gillette Stadium. Among the many things Belichick and the developmental staff does to help players behind the scenes has been a boating safety program, and that message was again reinforced this past week, according to one player. For those looking back on pictures of the Patriots’ 2007 undefeated regular season, the “91” insignia on players’ helmets was a tribute to Hill, as that was his jersey number with the team.