“Dude works hard. Great teammate. I really think he can be a really big piece of us,” Edelman said after the team’s walkthrough practice in preparation for Sunday night’s home game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“It’s exciting to be around him. He loves football, you can tell. He knows his stuff. It’s getting more and more fun the more he knows.”
Gordon caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady in last week’s win over the Indianapolis Colts, but he has only played on a part-time basis over two games (18 snaps apiece), in part because he’s still limited by a hamstring injury.
Brady previously said his touchdown throw to Gordon, a deep ball into double coverage in the end zone, was reflective of the trust he has built with Gordon in a short period of time. The Patriots acquired Gordon — who has four catches for 82 yards — from the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 17 for a fifth-round draft choice.
The inclusion of Gordon in the attack, along with Edelman’s return last week from a four-game NFL suspension to open the season, has added a spark to the Patriots’ passing game. Edelman had seven catches for 57 yards in his return against the Colts.
“It’s getting better each day,” Edelman said of his transition back to football, adding that returning to practice has allowed him to build his confidence in competitive situations. “I feel like my conditioning is pretty good. You’re always working to get it better.”
Of Sunday night’s game against the Chiefs, he said, “We’re playing an undefeated team that looks unbelievable. We’ve got a battle. If you love football, this is why you play — games like this. Two tough teams. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Having missed all of the 2017 season with a torn ACL, and then sitting out due to suspension, Edelman’s appreciation for the game has grown that much greater.
“You definitely appreciate it once you’ve been away, and I was away for a year and some change,” he said. “It’s good to be out with the fellas. Meetings can get on you a little bit here and there, but you realize you need it. It’s good to be back.”
When the Minnesota Vikings decided to prioritize the 3-technique tackle position this offseason, they sought to find a player who can torment the quarterback following that trajectory as efficaciously as their superstar defensive ends.
What Minnesota got with Sheldon Richardson came in the form of a 295-pound wrecking ball capable of knocking the passer off his spot and providing the defensive line with the interior push needed to constantly disrupt the QB’s rhythm.
Richardson’s signing flew under the radar in free agency because of the record-setting contract Kirk Cousins inked in Minnesota just 24 hours before the former Jets and Seahawks defensive tackle became a Viking. They got a high-end upgrade at a critical position on the NFL’s No. 1 defense at a steal of a deal — one year, $8 million. It’s a prove-it contract as he attempts to reset his market value and get back to his 2014 Pro Bowl form.
The Vikings saw the beginnings of their return on investment against San Francisco in Week 1. Richardson’s stat line from his Minnesota debut read: 0.5 sacks, three QB hits, two run stops and a total of seven pressures, which was the most among all defensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
After a quiet preseason, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year showed the Vikings why they went out to get him in the first place; that he’s exactly what they needed at the 3-technique position on a defense primed to lead Minnesota to the Super Bowl
“I told him I hadn’t seen that guy before,” Mike Zimmer joked the Monday after opening the season 1-0. “He came on.”
Fortunately for Minnesota, Richardson looks to just be getting started.
An immediate impact
Sitting outside on a concrete ledge adjacent to the Vikings practice fields, Richardson thinks back on the makings of his explosive debut. He hasn’t taken over a game like that in awhile.
Not since, he recalls, he played the Vikings during his second season in 2014, when he racked up three sacks, four quarterback hits and three tackles for loss in the Jets’ 30-24 overtime loss.
Whether knifing his way into the backfield to stuff the run or chasing down Jimmy Garoppolo to inhibit an open-field scramble, Richardson is a big man who can move like a defensive end with loose hips, explosive power and quick twitch. A crown jewel on a star-studded defensive line, Richardson’s skill set makes him every bit the unicorn coaches are in search of year after year.
“You’re lucky if there’s one in the whole draft (like Richardson),” Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. “Usually if you get one, you try to hold on to him as long as you can.”
Against the 49ers, Richardson and nose tackle Linval Joseph created a nightmare scenario for Garappolo, who was forced to throw often from a collapsing pocket as the two tackles forced offensive linemen within inches of the quarterback. The tag team of Joseph and Richardson forces opponents to choose the lesser of two evils — who would they rather double?
On both of Danielle Hunter’s sacks, including the one that got called back because of defensive holding on Xavier Rhodes, Richardson drew the one-on-one matchup and forced his way so deep into the backfield that Garappolo couldn’t step up into the pocket, allowing Hunter to wreak havoc off the edge.
Richardson notes the difference for him as a pass-rusher in Minnesota is being freed up to have more one-on-one battles with guards. How the Vikings rush the passer is also a new style for him.
“If I’m getting pressure in his face, I’m definitely going to have somebody up top to come back and get the sack,” Richardson said. “The biggest thing I can say we do best from where I had came from [is] that we rush the quarterback as a unit.”
Richardson’s body of work provides tangible achievements, like the sack he shared with Everson Griffen because he overpowered Niners right guard Mike Person to put the first hit on Garappolo before Griffen finished him off. And there are contributions that help others make big plays. On Harrison Smith’s game-sealing interception, Richardson started out rushing the guard’s outside shoulder and transitioned so quickly across his body that the guard didn’t have time to react, thus allowing Richarsson to bear down on Garappolo and force him into an ill-advised pass.
But it’s the things that don’t result in statistics that paint the broadest scope of the Vikings’ elite talent at the 3-technique.
“There’s one where he explodes off the ball and he hits the guard with so much quick force that to the naked eye it didn’t really look like he hit him that hard,” Patterson said. “But he hits him with such quick force and explosion and quick twitch that it knocks him off-balance. So by the time his second hand gets on him, really, Sheldon kind of held him up. But then as he was falling away, he was able to get his foot on the ground and explode back out and go make the tackle. Whereas most guys would end up falling on the ground with that guy and that he knocked over to the side. You can’t coach that.”
‘He’s here trying to prove a point’
During his introductory press conference, Richardson offered a vague response when asked why he signed a short-term deal.
“It’s better this way,” Richardson said in March.
What did he mean by that?
“The elite status of my name has been diminished a little bit,” Richardson said. “Arguably I feel like I’m probably one of the top-five defensive players in the league — me personally. But other than that, just the statistics, it doesn’t show. I had to get my game back to that level of showing on paper as well as on film because that’s just how I look at it. I feel like I make my teammates around me better.”
Richardson is referring to the one sack he had in Seattle during the 2017 season. He affected the game in a handful of other ways, notching 36 pressures in a year in which he had 44 tackles (3 TFL), one interception and one forced fumble, but those numbers weren’t up to Richardson’s standards.
Patterson feels the same. Where he wants to see Richardson’s game improve is turning his pressures into sacks. What may lead to that is refining what Richardson calls his “unorthodox” rushing style of moving side to side while being engaged with a lineman.
“The biggest thing is having him concentrate on keeping his hips downhill on the quarterback,” Patterson said. “A lot of guys come into this league and they’re taught to rip through and flip their hips. If I keep my hips on my target … I can beat (the offensive lineman) outside, I can beat him inside and I can go through him.”
Perfecting his pass-rushing abilities is only part of the equation. Richardson’s mindset is focused on a clear objective: turn the clock back to the best years of his career and get the stats — sack numbers included — needed to land his next big deal, whether that’s in Minnesota or elsewhere in 2019.
“He’s here trying to prove a point and trying to say, ‘OK, I belong. I am one of those guys that people need to game plan around and worry about,’” defensive end Tashawn Bower said.
His motor is the highest it’s ever been all while still being the “slick-talking dude from St. Louis” who can joke around and keep it light in meetings, as teammate David Parry points out.
If Week 1 is any indication, Richardson is on his way to reinventing himself six years into his career, and he’s in a prime spot to continue doing so.
“I get a lot of help from my teammates,” Richardson said. “If I’m great, that means everyone else is able to be great, too.”
Unfortunately, it’s not one the defensive coordinator can actually employ against the New England Patriots tight end Sunday in the Texans’ regular-season opener.
“I could put about 12 or 13 people on the field, but that won’t work because they won’t allow me to do that,” Crennel said with a smile.
But the next best thing? Make sure you “try to disrupt him as best you can.”
“You’ve just got to be sticky in coverage,” said Kareem Jackson, who will make his first career start at safety Sunday after spending the first eight seasons of his career at cornerback. “You’ve got to know where he is at all times. That’s a guy we try to have multiple guys around him.”
The Texans will need to try something to have a better outcome against the four-time All-Pro tight end than they did when these teams played almost a year ago. In Week 3 against Houston last season, Gronkowski caught eight passes for 89 yards and a touchdown in a Patriots victory.
“He’s got excellent athletic ability, he can run like a wide receiver, he’s got great flexibility [and] he’s tough,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said. “Everybody talks about his range, his ability to catch any ball that’s thrown to him. He’s a really hard guy to match up against. He’s a consistent performer.
“He’s probably one of the best tight ends, obviously in the game right now, maybe in the history of the game.”
Gronkowski will provide an early test for the Texans’ new-look secondary, which struggled last season against tight ends. Houston ranked 26th in the NFL in completion percentage against tight ends (69 percent) and 27th in yards allowed (922) and yards per attempt (7.9), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The defense was also tied for 27th with nine touchdowns allowed to tight ends.
The Texans’ secondary will feature a few new faces after the group’s poor performance in 2017. Houston added safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Aaron Colvin in free agency, drafted safety Justin Reid in the third round and transitioned Jackson to safety. The unit was 24th in passing yards allowed last season, a year after finishing second in that category.
Even with the improvements, Crennel said the Texans will have a lot of work to do against the “big, strong, physical” Gronkowski.
“It’s hard to cover him because he uses all of his skill sets to get open and to catch the ball,” Crennel said. “You can try to take him away and you can double him or triple him and try to do that, but they have other people on the team and you can’t double everybody.
“So, you have to pick and choose your moments and times and hope that you pick the right ones.”
Lamar Jackson delivered his most impressive performance of the preseason, showing his arm can be as dangerous as his legs.
In the Baltimore Ravens‘ 27-10 win over the Miami Dolphins, Jackson was on-target consistently Saturday night, going 7-of-10 for 98 yards and a touchdown. The rookie first-round pick then delivered a pinpoint shot at critics.
“I hope people know I can throw now, even though I had a low percentage,” Jackson told WBAL-TV walking off the field. “But it’s all good. We had fun and came out with a win.”
In his first three preseason games, Jackson had completed 41.9 percent of his passes (18-of-43), which was the lowest among all qualifying quarterbacks. During training camp, Jackson has had trouble throwing outside the numbers and had some passes wobble.
On Saturday night, he took what the defense gave him instead of trying to force passes. After running for a 19-yard touchdown, Jackson capped the next drive by hitting DeVier Posey in stride for a 21-yard touchdown. In five drives, Jackson finished with 137 yards of total offense and a 134.6 passer rating (out of 158.3).
“I think today was his breaking out in a game,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve seen it in practice, where he’s done some really good things. We hadn’t really seen it in a game yet. Today just kind of fell in place for him a little bit.”
Jackson’s best decision came three plays before his touchdown pass. Rolling to his right, Jackson had a clear lane ahead of him but instead threw to Tim White for a 33-yard completion.
“A lot of people doubt me on that,” Jackson said. “They always say I’m quick to run when I’m outside the pocket. As you can see, that [pass] can happen sometimes.”
This was a homecoming game for Jackson. He grew up in Pompano Beach, Florida, which is 24 miles from Hard Rock Stadium.
Leading up to this game, quarterbacks coach James Urban was in Jackson’s ear about completing more passes. He also wanted to warm up better than he did before his last preseason game, in which he failed to complete his first four passes.
On Saturday night, Jackson had a different routine before entering the game at the start of the second half. He was told to complete 10 passes before going into halftime and 10 passes after halftime.
After his first pass fell incomplete against the Dolphins, Jackson said he thought to himself, “I can’t have the same results.”
“That was the key thing coming into this week, was completing passes and getting my percentage up,” he said.
The Ravens will have one more preseason game before they have to determine whether they’re carrying three quarterbacks for the first time since 2009.
Robert Griffin III, who received the start after Baltimore didn’t play Joe Flacco, was solid in Miami behind a banged-up offensive line. He was 9-of-15 for 66 yards and ran for 41 yards on five scrambles.
Griffin now will try to get off the roster bubble Thursday, when he faces the Washington Redskins at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. The Redskins drafted Griffin No. 2 overall in 2012.
“There will probably be a storyline around that,” Griffin said of the Redskins. “But, aside from that, it’s just continue to do what we’ve been doing and let the coaches make the decision at the end of the day.”
ASHBURN, Virginia — The indoctrination period included unscripted moments that tested Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith’s grasp on yet another new offense. It didn’t faze Smith; it certainly pleased his coach.
And it’s a lot of what the Redskins needed to see from Smith this spring. Now that he’s with his third team — and played with seven offensive coordinators and three head coaches during his first eight seasons — adapting isn’t new.
“He’s the smartest person I’ve been around, without a doubt,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.
Which means expectations will be high.
“He has to get it down by the first game,” Gruden said. “He’s already close to having it down … This isn’t a two- or three-year process. This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away.”
The Redskins feel good about what they accomplished in the offseason — if teams don’t feel good this time of year, something’s wrong. They wanted to improve their run defense and drafted lineman Daron Payne. They wanted to get better running the ball so they drafted Derrius Guice. Health will remain a big question mark entering training camp next month.
But their good feelings started when they traded for Smith with Kansas City. Though Kirk Cousins threw for more than 4,000 yards three straight seasons, the inability to strike a long-term deal became an issue for both sides. Smith now has five years left on his contract.
Now he must produce. But the first steps occurred this spring.
“The biggest thing is just the volume of reps I’ve gotten,” Smith said. “I loved how Jay packed every practice; the [starters] got a ton of reps. That’s the best part. There’s only so much you can do in a classroom setting. I feel I’ve gotten to know my teammates very well. That’s also crucial this time of year, spending time with each other.”
To expedite that learning curve, Smith will sit next to a different teammate during team meetings, wanting to get to know the defensive players, too. On the field, Gruden will test his knowledge by using unscripted two-minute and red zone situations.
“I love that part of it is unscripted with Jay,” Smith said, “and I have to handle it as it comes at me. Two minutes, third-down situations, where he’s just firing them at me and I have to know it. It may be something I haven’t repped before or only seen on paper, but it’s comfortable handling it out there. That’s part of being comfortable as you learn a new system … That speeds up the learning curve.”
Especially in the red zone.
“A lot of times you get to camp and you’re like, ‘I haven’t spent a lot of time in the red zone,’” Smith said. “I feel we’ve had a ton of red zone work. The timing has to be better, the anticipation has to be better — spacing is at a premium. All those things have been great work for me.”
Gruden said, “I kind of go crazy with different formations and stuff like that. I just have got to make sure I don’t get ahead of myself, but it’s never an issue. I spit out the plays and he does a great job repeating them and executing them, so he’s somebody that can handle a lot of things.”
There will be plenty more to learn in camp. Smith hasn’t yet worked with tight end Jordan Reed (toe surgery) or running back Chris Thompson (leg). Smith also never has thrown a pass during a game to anyone on the roster aside from former San Francisco teammate tight end Vernon Davis.
But those who have worked with him like that Smith, 34, has been through a lot.
“You can tell he’s a guy that’s been around a lot and has seen different coverages,” Redskins receiver Jamison Crowder said. “He gives receivers a chance to make plays on the ball. He makes throws that sometimes you would think the throw isn’t there and he still puts it in there and gives guys a chance to let their skill set show. He’s seen it all.”
Indeed, Smith was adept at giving the outside receivers such as Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson chances in practice. Oftentimes he’d put the ball where only the wideouts had a chance, reducing the risk. He nearly threw a pick Wednesday but linebacker Mason Foster dropped a pass to Docston in heavy coverage. During the practices open to the media, Smith rarely — if ever — was intercepted or close to turning it over.
“We have to get to know each other more than the X’s and O’s,” Smith said, “and then the little intricacies … Those guys have to find out what I can do and I have to find out what they can do. Building that chemistry.”
This will be a big season for the organization as Gruden enters the fifth year of his contract — the last two of which ended without a playoff appearance. After losing a three-year starter, the Redskins have a new quarterback but one who can handle the transition.
“That’s why we wanted to get a veteran quarterback here that can adjust to different schemes and alert on the fly,” Gruden said. “We are not in here to build the team around him; the team is built and he has to lead it like right now.”
Hi Mike — Great piece. I read yesterday that the market for Burkhead could be competitive. Do you see both he and Lewis in other uniforms next year? And if so, will BB target a RB in the draft or will he scour free agency to find their replacements?
Thanks, Brian. I would say it’s too early to know if both players are going to be elsewhere. While there might be a projection that there could be a strong free-agent market for both Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead, there is a difference between talking about it on March 3 and teams acting on it come March 12. What most teams are doing now is trying to gain credible information on where the market could be heading, and gauging a team’s true intentions/genuine interest in a player can sometimes be difficult. As for the draft, this is considered a strong class at running back. If Lewis and Burkhead eventually do sign elsewhere, the idea that the Patriots would turn to the draft (in which I believe they like Alvin Kamara in 2017) makes the most sense to me.
@MikeReiss Is there any possibility that the Patriots would consider franchise tagging Malcolm Butler and then trading him away (similar to what they did in 2009 with Matt Cassel)?
Philip, that option is off the table in my opinion, because the Patriots wouldn’t want to put themselves in a position of putting the tag on cornerback Malcolm Butler, seeing him sign it immediately, and then not being able to trade him and thus having to keep him at the franchise-tag figure. It would also hurt them on the salary cap.
@MikeReiss What are your thoughts about the Pats potentially singing a free agent QB like Teddy Bridgewater or Mike Glennon instead of drafting one?
Nick, I wouldn’t rule anything out at this early stage in the process. Teddy Bridgewater‘s health would obviously be one thing the Patriots would need to get more comfortable with, and measuring Mike Glennon‘s upside versus a potential draft pick would likely be the key dynamic in play with that scenario. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock made an interesting point early in the week when saying there are about 11-12 quarterbacks drafted on average, and there are 10 who could go within the first four rounds this year, which highlights a higher volume than the norm.
Mark, the 2018 Patriots’ coaching staff, including defensive coordinator, has not yet been formally announced by the team. Linebackers coach Brian Flores, who interviewed with the Cardinals for their head-coaching job this offseason, is expected to take on expanded responsibilities and leadership of the defensive unit in 2018.
brother reiss its me again. any chance the patriots go after michael bennett?
Michael, while anything is technically possible, I’d be surprised if the Patriots go in that direction at this time. In 2017, the Patriots were a team that had more veteran players from other clubs compared to draft picks. There is a risk of taking that same approach two years in a row when looking at the yearly challenge of building a team and continuing to replenish young talent. With that in mind, my sense is 2018 will be more about youth/draft picks than free-agent signings such as the 32-year-old Michael Bennett.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the majority of Patriots coaches stayed behind from the NFL combine, so it wasn’t just McDaniels. I believe around just two or three coaches on the Patriots’ staff attended the combine this year, and none of those coaches were on the offensive side of the ball. So it has nothing to do with anything about being scared or the like; it’s about trying to be as efficient as possible in a shorter offseason because of playing in Super Bowl LII.
PITTSBURGH — Ryan Shazier received widespread support from around the NFL after suffering a severe spine injury in December. Opposing players prayed for him. The Pittsburgh Steelers honored him with Shazier-inspired shirts and cleats and pregame salutes.
Meanwhile, the Ohio State football team has been paying its own tributes to Shazier, who developed into a first-round pick as a Buckeyes linebacker from 2011-13.
Coach Urban Meyer has remained in steady communication with Shazier, who got a personal visit from team strength coach Mickey Marotti.
As part of Ohio State’s workouts during the 2017 season, players wore a black “Buckeye Tough” T-shirt with a number on each sleeve — Shazier’s NFL No. 50 on the left and his Ohio State No. 10 on the right.
“I think they were great,” said Shazier via text about the shirts. “And thankful that they are thinking of me.”
This week, Shazier delivered a surprise video message to fans aboard the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer. “[I want to get] back out there on the field and be able to run around with my family,” said Shazier, via Buckeye Sports. “Right now that’s my main goal. I just want to say thank you for everything you’ve done and everything you’re doing and all the support you’re doing.”
Shazier, 25, underwent spinal stabilization surgery Dec. 6 after a tackling attempt on Monday Night Football in Cincinnati left him clutching his lower back. He was rushed to a local hospital and eventually transported to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Shazier has used a wheelchair but is making progress in his rehab. He was cleared for outpatient care Feb. 1.
Shazier’s positive outlook aligns well with the “Buckeye Tough” theme.
“I really feel I’m the best linebacker ever,” Shazier told teammate Roosevelt Nix in a podcast last week. “I just have to be back out there so everybody can see it. You know what I’m saying?”