FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was discussing the challenge ahead against tight end Hunter Henry and the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET), he surprised by referencing Henry’s high school career at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas under coach Kevin Kelley.
It wasn’t a coincidence, with Belichick referring to Kelley as “probably the top high school coach in the country.”
“Certainly one of the great coaches in Arkansas high school football history,” Belichick added. “I’ve followed him. He’s a little unconventional, but he’s had great success.”
Kelley, 51, has been recognized as an innovative coach — in addition to a consistent winner — because he seldom punts and usually does onside kicks instead of kickoffs. He’s an outside-the-box thinker who also travels the country as a motivational speaker.
As it turns out, it was on a 2015 trip that Kelley first met Belichick. Kelley was speaking at Notre Dame on Sunday morning, and with the Patriots visiting the Indianapolis Colts that night, he reached out to someone he knew had a connection with Belichick. Maybe I could get some tickets for the game?
The request was granted.
“Got to chit-chat with coach after that game and he was super nice to me and my son, [Zack],” Kelley told ESPN on Wednesday following Belichick’s remarks. “He said, ‘Hey, if you’re ever in the area, just reach out to me’ and the relationship kind of started there.”
They have kept in touch, with Belichick, as one would expect, taking interest in Kelley’s unique approach to coaching, in addition to Zack’s quick recovery from an ACL tear.
But Kelley said he has been the true beneficiary of the connection — just two top football coaches talking ball.
“Words don’t begin to describe how much I love talking to him about it. It’s two reasons. One, I think he has an extremely intellectual approach to the game that you don’t usually see. Two, I pride myself on the reward of winning. I coach high school kids and it’s a year-round deal now, everywhere at every level. If they’re going to put in all that time and commitment, and do the things I ask them to do, I want them to have the reward of winning.
“In the NFL, your reward is to make money, and hopefully winning. But in high school, it’s the reward of winning. These are life lessons we teach, and being a part of something, those are rewards, too. But they need to feel that Friday night win to keep them coming back really hard on Saturday and Sunday and Monday.
“So if you believe in that, you find people that win. I’m a big believer in ‘winners win’ and ‘find a way to win.’ So to be able to be in a situation with a guy like Coach Belichick, who is the best who has ever coached the game of football, it’s an honor. And it’s really ‘what can I learn from this guy?’
“Every time we talk any football, I learn something new. What he does is constantly remind me there’s always new ways, and better ways to do things.”
Buffalo Bills looking for Dawson Knox, tight ends to ‘elevate’ in 2021 – Buffalo Bills Blog
BUFFALO, N.Y. — While there was some room for debate about which position group deserved the most blame when GM Brandon Beane said the Buffalo Bills needed to run the ball better following the 2020 season, he didn’t mince words when it came to critiquing the tight ends.
The group struggled to make much of an impact statistically in 2020, combining for 442 yards and eight touchdowns on 40 catches between 2019 third-round pick Dawson Knox, Lee Smith and Tyler Kroft. Smith and Kroft are no longer on the team, and improved play from that position is a focal point for the 2021 season.
“I thought it was up and down, to be honest with you,” Beane said in January about the play of the tight ends. “At the end of the year, I thought we did a little bit, Dawson started to get his groove, but it was never where the opposing defense was like, ‘Man, we’ve got to stop their tight ends from going off.’ … We’d love to have a guy like what we just faced in Kansas City [All-Pro Travis Kelce] — they don’t come very often. But that’s what we want.
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“We’ve got some guys here we want to continue to develop and see what happens.”
Presumably replacing Smith and Kroft are 2019 seventh-round pick Tommy Sweeney, who missed the entire 2020 season with a foot injury and myocarditis stemming from COVID-19, and former Seattle Seahawks reserve Jacob Hollister.
Sweeney and Hollister are expected to contribute, but it’s Knox for whom the team has big expectations this coming season. After a promising rookie year, the Mississippi product had an underwhelming sophomore campaign while dealing with a handful of injuries and COVID-19 after the coronavirus pandemic thwarted his first full NFL offseason. With restrictions loosening, Knox has made the most of this offseason, notably spending time with Bills quarterback Josh Allen in California.
“It was great being with Josh … It was good hanging out off the field, but on the field was great, too,” Knox said. “We just did a bunch of routes and it was during our first phase of Zoom meetings. So if there was a new play or route concept Dabes [offensive coordinator Brian Daboll] was installing, we were able to take it straight to the field. [Allen] kind of would work through some of the points where he would tell me what he was looking for. When to give him eyes on certain routes and real little details that we were able to hammer down on some of the new stuff, which was nice.”
Knox, who dropped 10 passes (20% of his targets) as a rookie in 2019 and four (9.1%) in 2020, also worked with what he described as a “hand-eye trainer,” Ryan Anderson, to address the issue.
He said Anderson works with several professional athletes, using things like touchpad challenges and a machine that shoots pingpong balls, making them curve (and more difficult to catch).
“I was with him every day for about six weeks or so,” Knox said. “Some of the stuff was crazy. It would work your eyes in a way where you’d feel like you’re almost hypnotized. I felt like my progress from my first day with him to my last day was pretty great.”
Knox’s offseason work ethic was, in part, inspired by Beane’s desire to have a tight end like Kelce, who caught 18 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns in two games against the Bills last season. Knox said he spoke with Kelce after Buffalo’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game and participated in the “Tight End University” summit hosted by Kelce, George Kittle (San Francisco 49ers) and retired former Pro Bowler Greg Olsen in Nashville this month.
His development goes beyond rubbing elbows with the best tight ends in the league. Knox has taken a more cerebral approach to the position he is still learning to play; he converted from a high school quarterback to fullback at Mississippi, and eventually to tight end.
“I want to get to the point where I am that weapon for our team and Travis is the best in the league right now at what he does,” Knox said. “But it just comes from watching film and getting on the field and starting to feel out some of the stuff that he can see pretty quickly. It’s really not just running your route and being in the right spot. It’s how well can you adjust on the fly? How well can you read coverages when the ball is snapped? Because defenses are so good at disguising coverages and safeties are moving around and linebackers are showing blitz and then they’re dropping out.
“So it’s just being able to catch on to some of those things, which I felt like I was able to do more and more as the year went on. … I definitely feel confident that I’ll be able to do that this year.”
Behind Knox, Bills coach Sean McDermott said Sweeney is “off to a good start” after fully recovering from the heart condition that ended his 2020 season. Sweeney has been in the Bills’ facility all offseason to train. Allen lauded the team’s decision to sign Hollister, whom he played with in college at Wyoming. Hollister ended spring practices doing mainly side work during the two-day minicamp, but he, Sweeney and Knox each turned in solid performances throughout OTAs and minicamp.
Still, with the Bills’ Super Bowl window as open as it has been since the early 1990s, there remains plenty of speculation as to whether the tight end position is up to a championship standard. If the Bills come to the conclusion it’s not, they could trade for Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, whom the Eagles have received multiple offers for over the past few months.
Ertz, 30, is a three-time Pro Bowler and was a first-team All-Pro in 2018; he would give the Bills a former Super Bowl champion and someone who was a top-three player at the position before injuries derailed his 2020 season.
Knox was asked about the possibility of adding Ertz, because the Bills have been linked to him more than once this offseason. Knox likened it to his experience at Mississippi, where he earned a starting job despite his background as a walk-on.
“[At Ole Miss] I was learning behind Evan [Engram], who was an All-American,” Knox said of the current New York Giants starter. “He graduated and they brought in three four-star recruits that same year, and I feel like that elevated my level of play.
“Then I was able to come in as a rookie [with the Bills] and earn the starting spot. No matter who they bring in, whether it’s a rookie or All-Pro like Zach, I think it’ll be great just to elevate the competition. Iron sharpens iron and that’s a big philosophy that I have. It’s great having [Hollister] here, too, and we’re learning things from each other. We’re competing, but also building some good team chemistry to use multiple-tight end sets and stuff like that. It’s really not what can I do to be better than the guy next to me. It’s what can I do to make myself the best player I can.”
So far, so good: A healthy Jadeveon Clowney is key to Browns’ defensive success – Cleveland Browns Blog
BEREA, Ohio – On the first day of Browns minicamp last week, Jadeveon Clowney lined up with the other linemen for a series of sprinting conditioning drills.
Clowney, just six months removed from knee surgery, exploded off the line before nearly tracking down the pair of teammates in front of him who’d taken off several seconds earlier.
“I’ve been training extremely hard this offseason, so I kind of already have a feel of where I was coming here,” Clowney said following the second day of minicamp. “I felt great coming in, and I feel great now.”
— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) June 15, 2021
Of the many moves the Browns made this offseason, signing Clowney to a one-year deal worth up to $10 million could prove to be the one that elevates Cleveland’s ceiling the most in 2021.
Due in large part to injuries, Clowney, 28, has yet to live up to the billing of being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. But the talent and potential for Clowney to be a difference-maker off the edge remains. Especially considering that he’ll now be lining up opposite Myles Garrett, one of the preeminent pass-rushers in the league and a former No. 1 overall pick himself.
“Very athletic and very fast,” Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods said of Clowney. “Offenses, they are going to have to make a choice of who they are going to chip and where they are going to slide the protection to. [Clowney] will be a great complement [to Garrett], and we’ll also be able to move those guys around just to try to create some favorable matchups.”
Coming off their first playoff appearance since 2002, the Browns prioritized upgrading the defense around Garrett and Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward. Cleveland’s offense surged down the stretch last season, fueling the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years. The defense, however, lagged at times, and in the playoff loss in Kansas City, it was unable to come up with the game-changing play or stop even after quarterback Patrick Mahomes exited the game.
To counter, the Browns signed John Johnson III, arguably the top safety on the free-agent market this offseason. They also utilized their first two draft picks for cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, bolstering their budding young core. Cleveland also landed several other veteran free agents, including defensive tackle Malik Jackson, nickelback Troy Hill and linebacker Anthony Walker, all of whom are projected to start.
The addition of Clowney, however, is what potentially gives this Browns defense the upside to become a top-five unit in the league after finishing just 19th in defensive efficiency last season.
Garrett, who was leading the league in sacks and forced fumbles in 2020 before contracting COVID-19 in late November, is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year contender and will continue to see double-teams. As a result, Clowney — doubled-teamed more than any defender other than Michael Bennett and Za’Darius Smith since 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Information — should face the fewest double-teams of his career. And, as a tandem wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks, they could have the domino effect of making life easier on the rest of Cleveland’s revamped defense as well.
“I wouldn’t say it would be very fun to go up against them,” said quarterback Baker Mayfield. “That duo creates a lot of stuff for a lot of other people on the back end. Obviously, we have a lot of guys who are very talented, so it is not just those two, but they do add a special dynamic when it comes down to offensive scheming, that you have to worry about those two guys.”
Of course, for that to come to fruition, Clowney will have to stay healthy. His NFL career began with a microfracture surgery on his right knee. He missed half of last season for Tennessee with a torn meniscus in his left knee. He’s suffered various injuries in between.
But Clowney is already showing that he’s healthy again — and, in turn, that he could be the piece to take the Cleveland defense to another level.
‘More rejuvenated than ever,’ Cameron Jordan key to Saints’ life after Drew Brees – New Orleans Saints Blog
MOBILE, Ala. — New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan took pride in being the only active player inducted into the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame on Wednesday, while crediting the “OGs” he shared the stage with — Reggie Wayne, Patrick Surtain Sr., Joe Staley and Fred Taylor.
But Jordan, who ranks second in Saints history with 94.5 career sacks through 10 seasons, is more focused on unfinished business than being reflective.
“I’m more hungry now than ever,” said Jordan, who pointed out that he and his father, former Minnesota Vikings great tight end Steve Jordan, have a total of 23 seasons and 12 Pro Bowl selections between them with zero Super Bowls.
“So this is something that I’m chasing,” said Jordan, who turns 32 in July. “Year  is really Year 1 starting back up again. Ten years behind me, ten years ahead of me. … I’m more rejuvenated than ever before.”
Jordan has to lead that charge now. With Drew Brees retiring and the Saints releasing longtime punter Thomas Morstead this offseason, Jordan is now the longest-tenured player in New Orleans.
— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) June 24, 2021
When Jordan arrived as a first-round draft choice out of Cal in 2011, he was joining an established Super Bowl winner loaded with superstar talent. At the time, it felt like a matter of “how soon and how many” titles he would win in New Orleans.
Now, it has become a glaring “if” after so many gut-wrenching playoff exits. And Jordan has to help the Saints shape a new identity without Brees at the helm for the first time in 16 years.
It’s a role he has grown to embrace.
“This has been my same role the last seven years since we had that big excavation back in ’14,” Jordan said, referring to the Saints parting ways with defensive standouts Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, before Jenkins returned in 2020. “Guys were looking up to me, and then I didn’t know how to truly handle it. I was just young enough where I was trying to figure out my own way as well.
“But then the last seven years, it’s been the young bucks coming in … and they’re looking to learn and take everything from you in terms of the knowledge that you have to give. You have to be able to disperse that knowledge and you have to be able to push them.”
First-round draft choice Payton Turner, a fellow defensive end who was on hand for Jordan’s ceremony, said he definitely sees Jordan as a face of the franchise after watching him thrive on TV for years and then seeing how much respect Jordan has from everyone in the building.
“You can tell that he’s got that aura around him, just kind of that leader’s mentality,” Turner said. “I think that’s been really good for me to be around.”
Jordan is well aware that he has to keep delivering at an elite level on the field, too. And he insists that he still has plenty left in the tank despite his disappointing production in 2020 (just 7.5 sacks after a career-high 15.5 in 2019).
Jordan said part of the issue last season was how much he pressed while having zero sacks in the first three weeks. But he said he relaxed, reset and “loved the way I played” during the second half of the season.
Jordan has talked for years about studying the list of great defensive linemen who thrived in their 30s.
“You talk about Calais Campbell [who], after he turned 30, had his best year,” Jordan said. “Brandon Graham having his best years after he turned 30. I’ve talked to Bruce Smith and I’ve looked at Mike Strahan’s careers. These are the years where they really made strides for a push-off of being great. It’s like 30 to that 34, 35 era, that you see not only the combination of that physical talent but … [also] the wisdom play in. And that’s what I’ve really been excited about.”
Led by veterans such as Jordan and linebacker Demario Davis, as well as the emergence of young players such as CB Marshon Lattimore, DT David Onyemata and safeties Marcus Williams and C.J. Gardner-Johnson, New Orleans’ defense has quietly become a huge reason for the team’s success over the past four years (four straight NFC South titles and the league’s best regular-season record over that span).
The Saints rank top five in the NFL in both yards and points allowed since Week 3 of the 2017 season. They rank No. 1 in run defense — which has long been one of Jordan’s underrated specialties.
“I truly believe if we have a couple more turnovers on the defensive side, our offense will be nice — but we hopefully don’t need them,” Jordan said. “We hope we’re able to continue the defensive legacy we’ve been building the last three years.”
Jordan, who spent Tuesday afternoon hosting a pair of youth football camps, has also long embraced his role as a community leader.
Saints DE Cameron Jordan hosting a pair of youth football camps today to support the “18th ward” nonprofit, which was created as a way for kids from across the city to play together. pic.twitter.com/RIP7tAmVp2
— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) June 22, 2021
He has a prolific track record of community appearances on his “days off” during the season and recently joined an initiative focused on anti-racism and community engagement training for New Orleans police officers.
“I love my role here, I love how I’ve been embraced here,” Jordan said. “And I love finding love here — you know, I found my wife here, made kids here, connections. When you think about the community and what I’ve tried to do here for the last decade, it’s been nothing short of God’s work. The way that I’ve been blessed, I try to go out and bless other people.”
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