Three longtime New England Patriots captains addressed the media Tuesday, with David Andrews, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater fielding questions virtually one day before the team’s first training camp practice.
Here are some assorted notes and nuggets from those conversations:
— Co-offensive line coach Cole Popovich left the Patriots’ staff before the start of camp, reportedly over a COVID-19 vaccine dispute. (The NFL requires all coaches and non-player football staffers to be vaccinated.)
“I appreciate Cole and always will love Cole, and he was a great coach,” said Andrews, New England’s starting center. “I know Bill (Belichick) kind of addressed the situation, and it kind of is what it is. I’m just focusing on what we can do in training camp here and the hand we’re dealt right now.”
Belichick confirmed Tuesday morning that Carmen Bricillo will handle O-line coaching duties this season. Bricillo and Popovich shared that role in 2020.
Andrews called the 45-year-old Bricillo “a great coach” and “a good guy.”
“Look, I feel comfortable,” he said. “Doesn’t matter who it is. I’ve had three O-line coaches, now four, in my career. We’ve got a great group. We’re going to come to work no matter who’s in the room. That’s just part of it. We’re all professionals. We’re all here to work, and at the end of the day like I said, we’re all here to accomplish the same goal that 31 other teams are trying to go after right now.”
O-line is expected to be one of the Patriots’ strongest position groups this season, with returning ex-Pats Trent Brown and Ted Karras joining 2020 holdovers Andrews, Shaq Mason, Isaiah Wynn and Mike Onwenu.
— Last December, Slater said he was unsure whether he wanted to return for a 14th NFL season. So, why did he?
“For me, thankfully the good Lord blessed me with the opportunity,” said Slater, who turns 36 in September. “They’ve got to want you here. Coach wanted me back, and I felt good. I still love this game. I love to compete, I love the process of preparing to play a season, I love the relationships that exist within the locker room. There’s nothing like this.
“And when it’s done, it’s done. You can’t go back five, six years from now and pick it back up. I spent some time praying about it, and I felt like it was the right thing to do for myself and my family to continue to play, and I’m thankful for the opportunity that has been presented to me. But now I’ve got to earn my keep. I’ve got to go out here and make this team and contribute at a high level and earn my spot.”
Slater is one of the best special teams players in NFL history, earning Pro Bowl selections in nine of the last 10 seasons. A career Patriot, he said he takes it upon himself to stress the importance of the kicking game to his younger teammates, some of whom might have played only on offense or defense in college.
“I think that’s a big part of my role on this team now — to try to get the buy-in from the younger players to help them understand that, hey, this can be a bridge to maybe more playing time in the future or just an opportunity for you to have a career,” Slater said.
“The reality is you’re not going to have seven starting receivers on game day. Somebody’s going to have to go out there and play in the kicking game if they’re going to be active. Same goes for the linebackers, same goes for the defensive backs and so on and so forth. Helping those guys understand that and see the big picture, I think, is part of my job as a leader on this team, especially when it comes to the kicking game.”
The Patriots return their top 10 leaders in special teams snaps played from a year ago, including their kick/punt coverage Big Three of Slater, Justin Bethel and Cody Davis.
— McCourty was happy to see Stephon Gilmore back in the halls of Gillette Stadium.
The star cornerback skipped the entire spring practice schedule as part of a contract dispute but reported to training camp last week. Gilmore, who’s set to make just $7 million in salary this season, still wants a new deal, but McCourty expressed confidence the sides will ultimately reach an agreement.
“All that stuff usually gets resolved,” the veteran safety said. “And whenever a player’s contract comes up, it’s between the player and the team, so that all will be figured out. It was good seeing my guy again.”
Gilmore has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. He’s currently on the active/physically unable to perform list as he rehabs the season-ending quad injury he suffered last December.
“He’s one of the best corners in this league,” McCourty said. “He’s been the best guy for the last couple of years, obviously defensive MVP, and he’s really made this defense operate at a different level when he’s out there. So anytime I get an opportunity to be out there on the field with him gives us a better chance to win, makes us a better defense. So it is great having you here in the locker room and on this team.”
— Former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is back with the Patriots in a nebulous new role that has included draft preparation and contract work for free agents, among other duties. He was present on the practice field throughout the spring, typically in close proximity to head coach Bill Belichick.
McCourty, who had Patricia as a position coach in 2011 and as a DC from 2012 through 2017, said he’s been a valuable addition to Belichick’s staff.
“Matty P has been great,” McCourty said. “For me, I spent a lot of years with him, and getting to talk to him outside of the meeting room about life, about football and about being a head coach in Detroit has been great. He’s kind of been involved in everything. It’s a unique advantage and understanding, kind of similar to Josh McDaniels, who was also a head coach. To be able to talk to those guys about anything (is great).
“Matty’s been able to be part of a bunch of different things because he has a unique viewpoint, and me as an older player who’s been with him, what he meant to the defense and now to have him back I think will overall help the whole building. Players, coaches, staff members just to be able to have open dialogue with him and let him use his experience and knowledge (is valuable).”
Patricia served as head coach of the Detroit Lions from 2018 until his firing last November.
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