FOXBORO, Mass. — At certain points last year, Jerod Mayo sat right to my left on the set of a sports show when the Patriots were getting ready to play. And once the game started, he was digging through the free food at Toby Keith’s in Patriot Place just like the rest of us.
So seeing what I did on Wednesday at minicamp here was pretty jarring. There was Mayo—the former All-Pro linebacker who played eight seasons for the Patriots, from 2008 to ’15—with a walkie-talkie in his left hand and a play sheet in his right. If you walked off the street and didn’t know who was who, you’d probably guess this 33-year-old was … the defensive coordinator.
Even crazier? Mayo actually might wind up being just that, in his first year as a coach.
“You know, it’s impressive,” said Kyle Van Noy, a sixth-year NFL linebacker who joined New England in 2016. “I didn’t get to play with him [as a Patriot]. I missed him by a little bit. But since he’s gotten back in the building, I’ve come to admire how hard he works and the energy he brings each and every day. He’s consistent and his leadership is contagious. He does a really good job.”
On one hand, it is impressive. Few former players make the jump to position coach in their first year on the sideline like Mayo has—he’s officially the team’s inside linebackers coach. Most have to serve as an intern or a quality-control coach first. So the fact that, just four months in, Mayo is being entrusted by the greatest coach of this, and maybe any, era to run the defense, even in practice, is indeed eye-opening.
On the other hand, this is just where the Patriots are right now. Because they won the Super Bowl, the turnover on the coaching staff hasn’t gotten a ton of attention, but just a year after they nearly lost of the game’s best offensive minds, Josh McDaniels, it feels as if they did lose just about everyone else.
In all, five veteran coaches left, taking with them 63 years of combined NFL coaching experience, and 49 working under Belichick. In their places are questions. Answers are coming in creative ways.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t different,” said eight-time special captain Matt Slater. “In our room in particular, we had a coach that was there for 10 seasons. Certainly the dynamic has changed in that room. As leaders, there’s going to be a time and a place for us to be a little more vocal. And I think there’s going to be a time and a place for us to step back and make sure we develop a trust with the coaches that are there.
“So we’re moving full speed ahead with the guys that are here, the leaders are going to try to facilitate that as much as we can. Bill ultimately is going to make sure that he steers this ship in the right direction. But right now, it’s about work.”
Banking on regression in Foxboro has long proven to be a fool’s bet. But as Slater said, there’s a lot of work to be done. And a guy who spent Sundays last fall on NBC Sports Boston, with the likes of me, is front and center.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to get to your questions on …
And, of course, and as always, plenty more. But we’re starting with Belichick’s reshuffled coaching staff, and the challenge that’s in front of them.
The first thing to know here is that, while some change is always anticipated, this much wasn’t in the plan. Losing Brian Flores (linebackers, defensive play-calling), Chad O’Shea (wide receivers), Jerry Schuplinski (assistant QBs) and Josh Boyer (cornerbacks) to Miami, and Brendan Daly (defensive line) to Kansas City was always going to leave a mark. It also wasn’t totally unexpected. Flores interviewed well in Arizona in 2018, and was going to get have a good shot at being a head coach this year. The rest were letting their contracts lapse.
The real game-changer came at the end of March.
That’s when Greg Schiano abruptly resigned from his not-yet-announced defensive coordinator post—largely because he didn’t want to have to move his family from Columbus, Ohio, back east. Special teams coach Joe Judge splitting his time to help replace O’Shea with the receivers was manageable. And McDaniels coaches the quarterbacks, mitigating the loss of Schuplinski to an extent.
But on defense, the staff was gutted, with three of four position coaches, including the de facto coordinator, Flores, gone. Schiano, a longtime Belichick confidant, was going to be the steadying force. Then, he wasn’t. Remaining were ex-Arkansas coach Bret Bielema as D-line coach and four guys under 35—Mayo and DeMarcus Covington on outside and inside linebackers, Mike Pelligrino on corners, and Steve Belichick on safeties.
As a result, you can rationally argue that the players on the Patriots defense might bring more institutional know-how than their coaches do. Here’s how the playing experience of the 11 projected starters stacks up with the coaching experience of those five defensive assistants.
Average NFL seasons: 2.8
Average Patriot seasons: 2.8
Average NFL seasons: 7
Average Patriot seasons: 3.5
“There’s a learning curve for everybody,” said Van Noy. “But the standard is set. Those guys have Bill as the standard, and the group before them. As players, we can lean on them and they can lean on us. We’re in it together, and we want to win at the end of the day. So we’re going to take coaching from them, and I hope they take coaching from us.”
It’s not often that you hear a player, even a veteran like Vany Noy, say that the coaches could wind up being coached by the players. But New England’s long been an uncommon place, this is an uncommon situation, and it sure looks like the Patriots might have an uncommon guy stepping into that void.
What should be made of Mayo calling the defense at minicamp?
In my opinion, Belichick is at least considering having Mayo be the de facto Flores a year after Flores was de facto coordinator. But remember, it took Flores himself a decade-and-a-half in New England—he started in 2004 as a scouting assistant—to get to that spot. And even ex-Patriot Mike Vrabel, a model for former players rising fast in coaching, spent two years as a position coach at Ohio State, then another three on position duty in Houston, before he got to call a defense.
So if Mayo is elevated to Flores’s former role, it would be an outlier. The good thing is, Mayo always has been.
“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve been around,” said Slater “I’m not even talking about football, I’m talking about life, general knowledge, the way he’s able to communicate with people, the way he grasps concepts. He has a high capacity for learning. He’s the best leader I’ve ever been around, bar none. And I say that with full confidence—the best leader I’ve ever been around. So I’m not surprised.”
In this minicamp setting, it’s sometimes difficiult to tell what particular job a coach is doing. Different parts of practices are intended to accomplish different things, and without intimate knowledge of the goals, giving context to what’s being achieved is tough.
And while the Patriots didn’t hide that Mayo was calling defensive plays, it wasn’t exactly accentuated in any way either. It was just Mayo, with his play sheet and his walkie-talkie, stationed on the sideline furthest from the media. It should be said that there were also points—and one came during run-game walkthroughs—where Belichick came over and stood behind the defense, barking out directions.
“Bill’s a little more hands on, and I’ll leave it at that,” Van Noy said. “He’s always been hands on, but it’s just a little bit more.”
But when Dont’a Hightower gets calls in his helmet, it’s Mayo’s voice he hears. And when defensive guys look to the sideline for signals, it’s Mayo who’s giving them. Which says a lot about how quickly Mayo has taken to his new job.
“That shows the amount of responsibility [they’re giving him],” said Hightower, who was his teammate from 2012 to ’15. “Honestly, I feel like he could’ve done it when he was playing. He’s knowledgeable, he knows a lot about the game, he knows how things need to be done. It’s dope hearing him through the helmet.”
It’s not as if there’s not a fail-safe or 10. You have Belichick there to call the defense if Mayo isn’t quite ready. You also have three veterans—Hightower, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty—with a combined 25 seasons in the system, playing right down the middle of the field.
So if Belichick were to take the plunge in giving this weighty responsibility to a first-time coach, rest assured he’d also be giving himself, Mayo and the team a safety net.
“We all know that we’re going to be held accountable,” Hightower said. “I’m not going say it runs itself, but guys know how things need to be done. And the younger [players] that come in, the guys from other teams, they fall in line and do whatever everybody else is doing. It works for us. We’re gonna keep that going.”
In other words, just as a 24-year-old Mayo had to be accountable when a 35-year-old Matt Patricia was learning to be his defensive coordinator in 2010, the players on the field now are going to have to be as responsible for what happens out there as the coaches are.
“Going from Devin McCourty to Hightower to Chung, the standard’s already set,” Van Noy said. “They’ve had that standard since they’ve been here, from the regime before them. So it’s pretty easy when you’re a young guy or a new guy coming in—the winning culture’s already set. You know what the standard is. And you better hold up to it, because we’re not stopping for anybody.”
It sounds weird to say that the same goes for coaches. And especially when it’s the Patriots we’re talking about.
But that’s where we are in June 2019. We’ll see about January 2020. Usually these guys have it figured out by then.
On to your mail …
From Louie (@Louie_Rock): Will the Jets GM hire come down to contract terms ($) or something else?
Louie, I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that it won’t come down to money—I believe everyone has a number where, regardless of the circumstances, it would become very hard to say no. That said, I don’t think the Jets are going to up and pay their next GM $4 million to $5 million per year, the top of the GM market.
I think this is really going to boil down to trust. Does Joe Douglas or whoever gets offered the job trust that he can get aligned with Adam Gase, and remain so? Does that candidate trust that Christopher Johnson will be steady in the owner’s role? Does that person trust a structure that will have three people involved in football ops (the GM, Gase and general counsel Hymie Elhai) reporting to the owner? Most of all, does that exec trust his plan will remain on track after Woody Johnson returns from his ambassadorship to the U.K.?
These are all fair questions, and I believe the answers are likely to dictate whether the Jets get their first choice or not.
From Stephen G (@Stephen26497576): Without considering current salaries of players, give me your take on the top 10 picks of a league-wide fantasy draft where all players are available. Interested to see % are QBs.
Fun question, Stephen. Instead of doing a top 10, let’s give you four categories.
The no-doubters: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs; Carson Wentz, Eagles; Andrew Luck, Colts; Aaron Rodgers, Packers; Russell Wilson, Seahawks.
If-it’s-for-one-year no-doubters: Tom Brady, Patriots; Drew Brees, Saints; Philip Rivers, Chargers; Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers.
In the discussion: Sam Darnold, Jets; Matt Ryan, Falcons; Cam Newton, Panthers; Jared Goff, Rams.
Non-QBs to consider: Khalil Mack, Bears; Aaron Donald, Rams.
So if you’re an NFL GM, do you take Mack over Darnold? Donald over a former MVP QB like Ryan or Newton? Remember, Mack and Donald are both 28, which means they’ll fairly soon face questions on their age and football mortality. Newton or Ryan, on the other hand, could play for another seven or eight years.
Add all that up, and I think, if you had this “fantasy” draft and did it on the level, you’d get through a healthy number of quarterbacks before seeing a player at another position drafted.
From Jesse Reed (@JesseReed78): What’s really going on between Trent Williams and Washington?
By now, Jesse, you’ve seen that Williams’s absence isn’t just contract-related but also can be connected to the team’s handling of his medical situation this spring. And I respect that he feels so strongly about it—there’s nothing more important than your health, so if Williams’s trust in the Redskins to treat him in that regard is broken, he should be upset.
For his part, Jay Gruden came off as understanding in his comments on Williams’s situation. And what fellow tackle Morgan Moses said was interesting too—“It's about time someone like that stands up. It’s not just a situation here; it happens throughout the league. To have one of our peers like Trent to stand up like that means a lot. His scare is one you never want to have, but you've got to take care of yourself.”
That said, I don’t believe the contract is a total non-factor, either. Williams is making $13.6 million per year on a deal he signed in 2015. New Raiders tackle Trent Brown just signed a deal worth $16.5 million per. And Brown is not really close to Williams’s level as a player. So there are a couple moving pieces here.
From KC (@kc42661): As teams try to emulate Sean McVay, do you think we will see a stronger return to QBs under center and an emphasis on the run game?
I’d expect we see that in Green Bay and Cincinnati (Andy Dalton, who’s now under former McVay assistant Zac Taylor, told me as much in this week’s MMQB) in the short term, and maybe elsewhere in the long-term. And I think one reason is that football evolution really is a giant cat-and-mouse game.
Look at the Patriots—they won with a fullback on the roster and ‘22’ personnel (two backs, two tight ends) in the game for the difference-making drive in the Super Bowl. The Jaguars used a similar formula to reach the AFC title game the year before, with Blake Bortles at quarterback.
The reason these things worked is simple: Defenses have gotten smaller and faster to combat wide-open offenses. So what do you do against a small defense? You run right at it, or you force bigger people on the field that the other team doesn’t want to put out there.
And by the way, it’s easier to diversify your running game from under center. Which would be a good reason for teams to go under center. The McVay tree-offense just so happens to be very equipped to do just that.
From Americano Lineup (@americanolineup): Patriots TE plan?
The minicamp this week hasn’t painted the prettiest picture. Matt LaCosse was probably the most impressive tight end I saw out there on Wednesday, and it’s hard to bank on production from a guy who bounced on and off the Jets’ and Giants’ practice squads for most of his first three NFL seasons, then caught on in Denver, only to have the Broncos decline to make a nominal tender offer in March to keep him.
So I don’t think the Patriots are done at the position. Maybe that means trying to talk Rob Gronkowski into coming back. Maybe it’s making a push to pry Kyle Rudolph from Minnesota. Maybe there’s someone else out there we aren’t talking about. However it happens, I’d be very surprised if there isn’t more churning to come at the position.
And another thing that seems certain is that the Patriots will lean more on backs and receivers in the passing game than they have over the past few years. Considering that, Julian Edelman should have a pretty good shot to reach his contractual incentives.
From _Billyfrmdet_ (@Billyfrmdet): Lions to the Super Bowl?
No—but I do think they’ve got a really good shot at being more competitive than you might think, and it’s because of one element I’ve leaned on in making predictions the last few years. And that’s investment in the line of scrimmage. It served me well with the Eagles two years ago and the Saints last year, and I should’ve stayed with it before taking the Vikings to win the Super Bowl last summer.
Lions GM Bob Quinn has spent two first-round picks on offensive lineman (Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow), signed big-money free-agents on each side (Ricky Wagner, Trey Flowers), and even traded for a well-compensated defensive lineman (Snacks Harrison). So he’s put resources into the big guys.
In my experience, teams built that way are usually in most games they play. I think the Lions will be that kind of team this year. Whether it means 7-9 or 11-5, I don’t know. But I think they’ll be pretty competitive in a very competitive division.
From Rob Fitz (@TheRobFitz): Will this be Jameis Winston’s breakout year?
I love Jameis’s circumstances. The Bucs have paid his linemen, from Donovan Smith to Ali Marpet to Ryan Jensen. They’ve spent high picks on his weapons, from Mike Evans (whom they then paid) to O.J. Howard. And now, they’ve given him the perfect coach for his skill set—bombs-away Bruce Arians, who’ll know just what to do with a quarterback who’s always been a little too much of a gunslinger.
So the good news, Bucs fans, that is in seven months you should have a very clear picture of who Winston is as a quarterback, just as a decision will come due on whether or not to keep him in place. The bad news is there’s no guarantee now on what that picture will look like by then.
From BNJ (@BNJopinion): Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Mileage adding up.
Tough one, BNJ. One of the reasons the Joneses felt comfortable drafting Elliott fourth overall is because they felt like they’d get the prime of his career on his rookie contract—and he has performed. Zeke’s won two rushing titles in three years, and has skills as a ball-catcher that he has yet to fully showcase because of the structure of the Dallas offense.
So with that in mind, do they reward him? If they plan to, they should do it now. Yes, it’ll cost them. But if you’re going to pay, you want the best price (which you’ll get now, more so than after Year 4 or 5), and you want flexibility when Elliott’s aging. If you do a big-time extension now, you’ll probably have some leeway to move on during sixth year, and a lot when you get to Year 7.
Not being the decision-maker, I’d probably bite the bullet and take care of him now. Even if it made a little nervous to do that.
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