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Exploring some hot topics around the New England Patriots in mailbag form:

Ed, I wouldn’t narrow it down to solely pass rush. As the Super Bowl showed, the Patriots have several needs on defense and the best approach is to maximize opportunities to fill them, which come in different forms: free agency, draft, trades, waiver wire. So it doesn’t have to come in any specific order. I think Bill Belichick would agree that the Patriots need to be better in maximizing those opportunities than they were last year, as several of their moves didn’t produce the desired results (e.g. David Harris, Dwayne Allen, Cassius Marsh, Kony Ealy, etc.). If I had to pick one spot to put atop the list in 2018, I’d go with an off-the-line linebacker who can run well and play on all three downs, like an early-career Jerod Mayo. The biggest problem with that is those players are hard to find; it’s especially not easy when you’re picking No. 31 to find that type of talent (Mayo was No. 10 overall in 2008). While some might point out that the Patriots had one in Jamie Collins, I believe the reason he was traded was because he was no longer buying into the program. That highlights a whole different issue: Identifying and securing the talent is one thing, but those players also need to be program fits.

Andy, most coaches were in the office in the days upon their return from Minnesota and my understanding is that they broke down the game as they usually would. That’s an important part of their personnel/scheme/self-scouting analysis as they move forward. It’s different for players, as there is not the standard meeting the morning after a game like there normally would be during the season because there isn’t the same urgency to make those corrections without another game coming up. Coaches are currently off until later next week, although some have been in and out of Gillette Stadium because they are coaches who live the game and there’s no such thing as going cold turkey for them.

That’s a fair point Obina, as it easily could have been Johnson Bademosi over Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII if either Stephon Gilmore (excellent performance) or Eric Rowe (settled down after a rocky start) had sustained an injury. But when I went through film review and matched it up with notes I took during the game, it’s important to note that the insertion of Bademosi into the game in the third quarter was in place of safety Jordan Richards in the dime package. That was a halftime adjustment in which the Patriots altered their dime to go from a 2-corner/4-safety grouping to a 3-corner/3-safety grouping. Why Butler wouldn’t be part of that 3-corner grouping — when he was dressed for the game and part of the special-teams plan — remains a puzzler and something that is still being pursued from a reporting standpoint for more clarity. Bademosi’s first defensive play in the game came when he was aligned across from receiver Nelson Agholor in the slot and could have tackled him short of the first down but didn’t wrap up. Does Butler make that tackle? I like the odds that he does.

While that is always possible, I’m of the belief that Josh McDaniels’ return to the Patriots — which was a result of the team making a last-minute push to retain him with an offer that wasn’t previously on the table for him — will actually prolong Belichick’s stay on the sideline. This would have been a challenging year for Belichick had McDaniels departed, as there was no obvious successor for McDaniels, and it likely would have led to a trickle-down effect of several other departures. So this eases the burden on Belichick, which I could see extending his coaching window to at least 20 years with the club (this year will be No. 19).

Joseph, I’d be surprised if they pick up Martellus Bennett‘s $2 million roster bonus on the first day of the 2018 league year, which would mean they would be prepared to pay his base salary of $3.6 million in 2018, as well as $2.6 million in roster bonuses. While those numbers aren’t off the charts, given where Bennett is at this stage of his career and his prior talk of retirement, I don’t see the team going there.

Kip, there are no crazy thoughts in free agency, as it’s worth exploring any avenue that could improve the team. The one question the Patriots would want to answer is whether Murray’s declining numbers (he averaged a career low 3.6 yards per carry in 15 games) are a sign that he is slowing down. He just turned 30 this week. One other thought: When the Patriots entered 2017, Belichick noted the versatility of the backs (Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, James White) and how he liked how it created flexibility on a play-by-play basis so the team didn’t telegraph its intentions as much as in 2016 with the LeGarrette Blount-led approach. I see bringing in Murray as more of a return to the 2016 approach.



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Houston Texans QB Tyrod Taylor says Deshaun Watson ‘absolutely’ a resource, not a distraction at training camp

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HOUSTON — For the third straight day of training camp, Deshaun Watson did not take part in team drills. Although the Houston Texans’ quarterback stood off to the side for most of practice, newly acquired QB Tyrod Taylor said Watson’s presence has not been a distraction.

Taylor said Watson has “absolutely” been a resource for him as he learns this new team and offense in Houston.

“Me and Deshaun are friends,” Taylor said. “We’ve known each other for a number of years now. We’ve had conversations on the field, off the field. Non-football, about life. Everything has been positive conversations and they’ll continue to be that way.”

Watson reported to training camp Sunday after requesting a trade from the Texans in January. Less than two months later, the first of 23 lawsuits was filed accusing Watson of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior. He faces 22 active lawsuits after one was dropped.

Taylor, who signed with the Texans just hours before the first lawsuit was filed against Watson in March, said his mindset hasn’t changed from when he signed in Houston to the start of training camp.

“My mindset has been the same since I was drafted back in 2011,” Taylor said. “To walk in every day with your best attitude, compete, prepare like a starter and go out and make plays.

Taylor was named the starting quarterback for the Los Angeles Chargers last season, but started only one game before a team doctor accidentally punctured his lung with a pain-killing shot while attempting to treat a rib injury. He was replaced in that game by quarterback Justin Herbert, who kept the starting job and went on to be named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.

Coach David Culley praised Taylor for being “first guy in this building every morning” and often being “the last guy to leave.”

“And that’s every day,” Culley said. “And that’s just who he is. You won’t ever hear him a whole bunch talking about this or talking about that. He just goes about his business.”

Culley announced that the Texans’ first padded practice will be on Tuesday, but declined to say whether Watson would be in pads for that practice.

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New England Patriots QB Cam Newton says Mac Jones makes good first impression

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Cam Newton said he is still getting to know rookie Mac Jones as they compete for the New England Patriots starting quarterback job, but in sharing his first impression, he cited a phrase made famous by late ESPN SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott.

“Cool, like the other side of the pillow,” Newton said Friday. “You never know when he’s really down on himself. You don’t really necessarily know when he’s up, either. He’s real cool.”

Newton, 32, said that Jones has even surprised him with his knowledge of hip-hop.

All of which had Jones, 22, laughing after practice.

“That’s a nice compliment. I’d say the same about Cam,” said Jones, the Patriots’ first-round draft pick from the University of Alabama (15th overall). “Obviously, with any relationship and meeting someone new, you have to form the bond and trust. He’s helped me and made it a lot of fun. Your first couple practices as a rookie are going to be hard, so he just tries to stay positive with me. That’s just who Cam is.”

A notable example of that came in Thursday’s practice after Jones had finished a series that didn’t produce the desired results. Newton approached him on the sideline and the two talked it over.

“Hopefully, I can learn from him and try to be like him in some ways and have fun with it,” Jones said. “We’re going to grow together, and we’re going to help each other win games, hopefully.”

At the same time, they’re also in a competition for the top spot on the depth chart, with coach Bill Belichick previously saying that Newton is No. 1 while leaving open the possibility that Jones could make a charge for the job in time.

That’s how Newton has approached things this year, and even before that.

“Ever since I’ve been here, there’s been a quarterback competition,” he said. “I think in essence, that’s the underlying Patriot Way. Every position has a competition there, and the quarterback position is no different.”

Newton said one thing that has helped him this year is that he didn’t have any surgeries in the offseason, which allowed him to spend more time with his family and also on his physical and mental well-being. The result, he said, is that “you feel a little different. More confident.”

Along those lines, Newton said he plans to be judicious when he takes off and runs, in hopes of protecting his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame.

“I’m getting older. You know, you just have to move a little differently,” he said. “It’s not about proving certain things. We all know what I can do running the football. And if it needs to come to those things, I’m willing to risk it all.

“But yet, if it doesn’t require that, then of course you have to be a little more mental. Because a nick and a bruise where I’m at, it sticks a little longer than just a day and then going about your business.”

Jones has taken off to run a couple of times in practice, but he’s more of a traditional pocket passer. The ball is often out of his hands quickly.

As for what he has learned about Newton, he kept his response lighthearted.

“I like his outfits, for sure,” he said. “I can’t pull off his swag.”

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NFL allowing some unvaccinated players to unmask at outdoor practices

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The NFL is updating its COVID-19 protocols and no longer requiring participating unvaccinated players to wear masks during outdoor practice sessions.

In a memo to the 32 teams sent by the NFL Management Council and obtained by The Associated Press, the league said that beginning with the stretching portion of the workout through the end of practice, such players now can work unmasked. Once the practice concludes, they must put on a mask.

The same will be true for practices in a team’s “bubble,” the indoor practice facility.

Players who are not practicing still must wear masks if they haven’t been vaccinated against the coronavirus. They also must wear face coverings for weight sessions, all outdoor meetings, and the post-practice periods even when family – which the league is terming “cohabitants” – is allowed on the field.

The league also loosened restrictions on what those cohabitants can do after practices. They now are allowed to join players and all Tier 1 and Tier 2 personnel – those who deal directly with players – on the field. Outdoor social events are permitted at the facility, with some restrictions.

For teams with fewer than 90% vaccinated players, the visitors must produce proof of vaccination that teams must verify. Children under 12 will be allowed on the field or for such social events. However, unvaccinated players, staff and children under 12 must wear masks and practice social distancing.

But for teams with more than 90% vaccinated players, there will be no requirements for proof of vaccination. The same restrictions apply to those who are not vaccinated.

Unvaccinated players will be allowed to remove their masks for outdoor media interviews provided physical distance is maintained.

Finally, the league and the NFL Players Association agreed that players experiencing side effects “or an adverse event with the onset of such (COVID-19) symptoms” within the 48 hours after being vaccinated would be treated as a football-related injury. The team physician must “reasonably determine they are causally related to receiving” the vaccine.

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