Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Jack-of-all-trades approach: Patriots coach Bill Belichick has often said that it isn't bad if a player does only one thing, especially if he does it exceptionally. At the same time, Belichick has said a player can increase his value through versatility.
That is a good jumping-off point to delve into what might be different this season for 2019 second-round draft pick Joejuan Williams.
After playing 82 defensive snaps as a rookie, in part thanks to a well-stocked cornerback depth chart headlined by Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, a challenge has been presented to Williams this offseason. Essentially, according to those close to the situation, it can be boiled down to this: Can you be the jack-of-all-trades in the secondary?
It might be cornerback. It might be safety. Depending on the game plan and injury situation that week, it might be a little bit of both.
When the Patriots traded up to select Williams at No. 45, his potential as a matchup option against bigger receivers and tight ends was part of what appealed to the club. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, the Vanderbilt alum is taller and heavier than the traditional cornerback.
But with Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson locked in at cornerback, Williams essentially served as an insurance policy. And with everyone returning in 2020, Williams is working to expand his versatility, where he could also fill some safety-type responsibilities alongside Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, 2020 second-round pick Kyle Dugger and free-agent signee Adrian Phillips, among others.
The Patriots played Williams at safety in the 2019 preseason finale because they didn't have any other options, as it was a game in which most top players were rested.
Now they'll take an even closer look, as Williams aims to carve out a larger role.
2a. Yet another contract adjustment: If the contract extension that safety Patrick Chung finalized with the Patriots on Wednesday felt like déjà vu, there is a good reason. It marked the seventh consecutive year, starting in 2014, that the team revised and/or extended his deal, highlighting one of the more unusual contractual situations in the NFL. So, while Chung's deal now carries through the 2023 season, expect the sides back at the negotiating table again next spring -- assuming Chung, 32, plans to continue his career.
2b. Financial protection vs. suspension: While the primary purpose of the extension was to provide the Patriots much-needed salary-cap relief, it also could help Chung in the event the NFL suspends him based on drug charges from 2019. Chung receives a $3 million signing bonus in the new deal -- which wouldn't be affected by a suspension -- while his base pay was reduced from $2.9 million to $1.1 million. So any game checks he would miss as part of a suspension are less than they would have been in his old deal.
3. Keene could become Develin's replacement: One of the interesting things new Patriots fullback Danny Vitale said last week was that he takes pride in pushing and helping lesser-experienced players at the position, mentioning International Player Pathway program blocker Jakob Johnson, third-round pick Dalton Keene and undrafted Jake Burt. The inclusion of Keene stood out because it highlights how although he is listed on the roster as a tight end, he doesn't fit into the traditional box at that spot. It wouldn't be shocking if it's ultimately Keene who primarily fills the void created by fullback James Develin's retirement. Develin was more of the pure, old-school smashmouth fullback, and while Keene can do that (his nickname is "Rambo"), he also offers more from a movement and catch-and-run standpoint. How he is integrated into the offense and its trickle-down effect on how many fullbacks and tight ends make the roster will be intriguing as Belichick pieces things together.
4. Limits on remote meetings: Players have discussed the benefits of virtual meetings this offseason, and how it mentally helps them learn the playbook. But one theme that has resonated is that the impact is incomplete until they can show how they are applying what they're learning on the field. That is true for coaches, as well. That's why, to me, what quarterback Tom Brady has been pulling off in Tampa, Florida with some of his new Buccaneers teammates is more than a passing note. There's no substitute for being on the field, especially when others around the league simply can't do it because of local restrictions.
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5. Rohrwasser the new giant among NFL kickers: One of the things that appealed to the Patriots in making Marshall's Justin Rohrwasser the first kicker selected in the 2020 NFL draft (fifth round, No. 159) was his strong leg and experience in adverse conditions. Kicking at Gillette Stadium, particularly to the open/lighthouse side, is one of the greater challenges in the NFL because of the wind. The club pinpointed Rohrwasser as the most capable among this year's crop of rookies and didn't want to lose him to the small handful of other clubs that planned to add a rookie kicker. One physical measurable that amplifies Rohrwasser's leg strength is his size: 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. That makes him among the biggest kickers in the NFL. For context, Bills rookie kicker Tyler Bass -- a sixth-round pick out of Georgia Southern -- is 5-10, 185 pounds. Rams seventh-round pick Sam Sloman, out of Miami (Ohio), is 5-8, 205.
6. Gunner grinding away: The Patriots' facility remains closed per Massachusetts regulations, but as has been the case throughout the coronavirus pandemic, players who are rehabbing are allowed to show up. Second-year receiver/punt returner Gunner Olszewski falls into that category after having his rookie season cut short after eight games by hamstring and ankle injuries; he's been a regular. Olszewski was an overlooked prospect out of Division II Bemidji State last year, and it's easy to overlook him now when projecting the Patriots' receiving corps with Julian Edelman, N'Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu Sr. and free-agent signing Damiere Byrd atop the depth chart, as well as Jakobi Meyers and free-agent signing Marqise Lee. Will there be a spot for Olszewski in 2020?
7. McCourtys and Ali: The exemplary work that Patriots defensive backs Devin McCourty and Jason McCourty do in the community is well documented, as they have successfully used their football platform to help many in need whose voices wouldn't be otherwise heard. So their nomination as a finalist for the 2020 Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award is more than fitting, and not to be overlooked is that those selected are viewed to have embraced the core principles of Ali -- confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and respect. That is among the highest compliments one could receive.
8. Mitchell's second book, and first child, on way: Former Patriots receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who played a key role in the Super Bowl LI comeback victory against the Falcons, continues to spread the importance of reading through his Read With Malcolm foundation. He is offering a free virtual "training camp," which kicks off Monday, and it was recently announced that his second children’s book -- "My Very Favorite Book In The Whole Wide World" -- will be published next spring. Mitchell, who has acknowledged the mental and physical toll of having his career cut short by a knee injury, is also on the cusp of experiencing one of life's greatest gifts: His first child is due in June. All the best to Malcolm.
9. Did You Know: Former Patriots cornerback Ras-I Dowling (second round, 2011) and former Patriots linebacker Vincent Brown (second round, 1988) are members of the William & Mary coaching staff. Dowling works with defensive backs and Brown -- who was nicknamed "The Undertaker" while playing in New England (1988-95) -- is the associate head coach/defensive coordinator/linebackers coach. The link between them: Former Patriots linebackers coach Al Groh, who coached Brown in New England and Dowling at the University of Virginia, and is one of William & Mary head coach Mike London's mentors.
10. Remembering Hill: Memorial Day Weekend reminds us that it has been 13 years since Patriots defensive lineman Marquise Hill died in a drowning accident on Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. Hill was a Louisiana State alum and a second-round draft choice of the team in 2004. The Patriots wore a No. 91 sticker on their helmets throughout the 2007 season in his memory. The team also erected a tribute to Hill in its facility -- including his shoulder pads and pictures, among other things -- that remains today.