Patriots Put the League on Alert with Huge Win

The start to the 2021 season for the New England Patriots was filled with optimism, but limited results. After falling to 2-4 following an OT loss to the Dallas Cowboys, it felt like Mac Jones and company were competing, but falling just short. Of their first 4 losses, only the Saints game was a 2 possession loss, the others were by 1pt, 2pts, and 6pts in OT. They were close, but couldn’t finish the job. Their only two wins were against far inferior opponents in the putrid New York Jets and Houston Texans, leading everyone to ask the question: Can the Patriots beat a decent, playoff-level team? Now, just 4 games later, the tides have turned and the Patriots look to be hitting their stride.

Of the Patriots 6 wins thus far in 2021, 4 were against far inferior opponents (Jets 2x, Texans, and the pre-Cam Newton Carolina Panthers). Those games make it difficult to judge a team, but 2 of the Patriots most recent wins were eye-openers. On Halloween, the Patriots went out to Los Angeles and pulled out a huge victory against the 4-3 (at the time) Chargers. At that point, it was the most complete game by the Pats, with a balance rush/pass attack and a defense that put pressure on the opponent and made just enough plays down the stretch. It was both a close win and a win over a high-quality opponent on the road. Then after their 3-score win over the Panthers, the Patriots had another chance to prove themselves against the Browns.

Both teams entered the game at 5-4 and were looking to make a statement. After 60 minutes of play, the Patriots made a massive statement of their strength with a 38pt victory and it didn’t even feel that close. The entire team played exceptionally well and made the Browns look like more like a 1-win team rather than a playoff contender. The Browns were without their star RB Nick Chubb due to testing positive for COVID, but even if they had a massive day from him in the lineup, the Browns would have still lost big. The Pats defense continued their trend of forcing turnovers with an INT (2nd in the NFL) and got plenty of pressure on the QB with 5 sacks on the day. As good as the defense was, the offense was the star of the game. Mac Jones had his best professional game throwing 19/23 for 198 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs. His 82.6% completion percentage and QB rating of 142.1 were by far the best of his young career against a team with the most sacks in football.

The upcoming schedule for the Pats is the continuation of a tough stretch. After a tricky mid-level game on the road in Atlanta against the 4-5 Falcons, the Pats have to play the very tough 8-2 Tennessee Titans, and then have two games against the division-leading Buffalo Bills with a game against the Indianapolis Colts sandwiched between. How the Pats perform over the next 5 games will determine whether they are playoff contenders this year or just an improving team that has future promise. The latter outcome is not a bad one given their youth at QB, but expectations in New England are always very high and a playoff game or two in Jones’ rookie season would be tremendous.

I anticipate a solid 3-2 record over the next 5 games for the Pats, putting themselves in solid playoff contention on the other side at 9-6 with games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins to close out the year. Anything better than 3-2 will escalate the conversation around whether this team can make a deep run this year. The games against the Bills will be critical for the Pats to potentially win the AFC East and avoid playing on wild card weekend. The fact that I can even write about the playoffs after their 2-4 start with a rookie QB is a credit to the entire organization and their continued improvement.

Buckle your seat belt, because the remainder of the season should be wild.

Outside of Mac Jones, Rookie QBs are Struggling

Heading into the draft this year there was a lot of attention on the top 5 QBs to come off the board. All 5 QBs came off the board in the top 15 picks, including the top 3 picks, and they were all considered to be potential franchise changers. Just 7 weeks into the season (6 games for the Jets and Jaguars), there have been some surprise performances from this group, mostly on the negative end of the spectrum. Of those 5 QBs, #1 Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), #2 Zach Wilson (BYU), #3 Trey Lance (North Dakota State), #11 Justin Fields (Ohio State), and #15 Mac Jones (Alabama), only Jones has over 1,500 yards passing and a completion percentage above 60%. It’s been a struggle for the other 4 higher-drafted QBs thus far in 2021.

Of the 5 QBs, 3 were handed the starting job in week 1 – Wilson, Lawrence and Jones. Fields has now been given the starting job in Chicago and has 5 starts, but appeared in all 7 games, while Lance has started just one game due to a Jimmy Garoppolo injury and appeared in 4 games. I’m putting Lance aside for this next bit because he hasn’t had enough time on the field to really be analyzed yet, although his 1 start and 3 other appearances left a lot to be desired.

Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are a combined 4-13 when starting with 1 win each for Wilson and Lawrence and 2 for Fields, while Jones has led the Patriots to a 3-4 record on the young season. On the QB performance side, Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields all have more interceptions than TDs (combined 13 TDs compared to 23 INTs) with just 4 TDs for Wilson and 9 INTs, which is tied for the worst in the NFL. On the flip side of that group, Jones has a positive TD to INT ratio with 9 TDs and 6 INTs. While 6 INTs is still high, mistakes are expected with younger QBs, ideally they are outweighed by the positives.

To me, the most glaring difference amongst the group is in completion percentage and what that says about the QBs, their teams, and their maturity. Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields all have completion percentages between 57.3% and 59.7% which are well below the league average of 65.9% thus far, while Jones has the 4th highest completion percentage in the NFL this season at 70.4%, only behind Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson. Jones has shown veteran maturity when making decisions about when and where to throw and that’s reflected in his percentage, while the others have struggled a bit more with consistent decision making.

Because Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are being asked to do more on the field than Jones, you would expect to see them throwing down field more often and completing fewer low-percentage passes than Jones, but the stats don’t bear that out. Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are ranked #27, #29, and #31 in yards per attempt this season, while Jones is 8 spots ahead of the group at #19. Both Jones and Lawrence are averaging around 36 pass attempts per game, while the other 2 are at 30 or below. Jones is completing the shallow-to-mid passes at an incredibly high rate, while the others are not.

The other area I anticipated a bigger advantage for the other QBs over Jones is in the run game. Fields and Wilson especially showed off their athleticism in college and proved to be dual-threat QBs when needed. Thus far, no one in this group has earned a dual-threat crown despite being super athletic. Lawrence and Fields are averaging about 20 yards on the ground per game, while Jones has just over 6 yards per game and Wilson has just under 4 yards per game. None of them are exactly lighting it up on the ground just yet and I’d say it’s mostly a wash.

There are certainly other factors involved in the success of a young QB including offensive line protection, receivers to throw to, quality of the running game, etc, but it’s interesting to see that outside of Mac Jones, none of the rookie QBs are really matching expectations at this point. Jones came into the league the most polished and game ready, but the intangibles and athleticism of the other QBs in the class were expected to make them significantly better. Over time that may be the case, but through 7 weeks that narrative has failed to come to fruition.

To be fair to Wilson and Lawrence, their teams are terrible, which certainly doesn’t help them settle in and learn the NFL game, but most everyone expected more from them regardless. It is an extra long NFL season and it’ll be interesting to revisit the QB conversation when each of these players has had more experience under center. It will also be interesting to see if the 12-game college season vs a 17-game NFL season causes some deeper struggles in the last few games of the season.

Not All is Lost in 2-4 Start for the Patriots

On late Sunday afternoon the Dallas Cowboys came to town and the matchup was filled with big plays, interesting and quick momentun turns, and extra football. The Cowboys came into Foxborough at 4-1 with a high-powered offense that was averaging 34 pts per game and 40.3 in their past 3 contests, tied for the best in the NFL. The Pats defense had their hands full and they needed a lot from Mac Jones and the offense and they got a solid performance from the rookie. Ultimately, after overtime the Cowboys are flying home happy and the Patriots are sitting 2-games below .500, but it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom in New England.

One of my takeaways from Sunday was the Patriots run-defense and their ability to limit running backs Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard. In his last 3 games, Zeke was averaging 116 yards per game on just over 19 carries per game. On Sunday, the Pats held Zeke to 69 yards on 17 carries, just 4.1 yards per carry which is nearly 2 yards per carry below his average the last 3 games. The more limited run game forced a much larger pass game which was absolutely electric, but it’s nice to see the big front line for the Patriots limiting the run game.

The other main takeaway: Dak Prescott is at the top of his game and the Pats secondary is, well, not. Dak was able to put the ball in tight windows and make some huge throws on big 3rd and 4th downs to keep the Cowboys driving. He was able to read the defense and make the right decisions throughout the game, especially in crunch time in the 4th quarter and overtime. He finished the game with an incredible 445 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT, the most passing yards against a Bill Belichick coached team. It was his 2nd 400+ yard passing game this season and his 5th game with a passer rating above 101. In 6 games, he now has over 1,800 passing yards, 16 TDs and 4 INTs. His 74% completion percentage coming into the game was 2nd best in the NFL amongst regular starters and that will stay high after this 70.5% performance against the Patriots.

While Dak was impressive, it does raise a glaring flag in the Pats secondary which is now officially without Stephen Gilmore going forward after his trade to the Carolina Panthers. Jalen Mills was beat repeatedly throughout the game, including badly on the game-winning TD to CeeDee Lamb, who had 149 yards on 9 catches on the day. The secondary is coming off a terrible performance against rookie David Mills and the Houston Texans where they allowed 312 yards, 3 TDs and couldn’t grab an interception and they didn’t look much better against the elite QB. Beyond Mills, JC Jackson didn’t have his best game and committed a really costly pass interference penalty in the end zone that led to a Dallas TD in the 2nd half. It was a rough day all around.

On top of that, the Pats offensive line has more holes than swiss cheese. Between injuries and COVID-list stints, they were more intact than last week, but still thin. They got T Isaiah Wynn back this week, but he allowed a few really bad pressures/sacks and was benched at one point and moved around on the line. They did an OK job in the run game, but were incompetent at times in pass protection allowing a few awful hits on Mac Jones, which is not how you want to take care of the face of your franchise. Jones blamed himself for not getting the ball out quickly on those plays, but he can’t be expected to have 1 second of protection on every pass play. In spite of the line, Mac had a solid game.

The good news for the Pats is that they get the 1-4 New York Jets coming off a bye week at home next week, before taking a tough trip out west to play the Chargers on the road. Following the Chargers, they have a string of winnable games against the Panthers, Browns, Falcons, and Titans. They have a real chance to finish that 6-game stretch 4-2, which would return them to .500 heading into 2 games against the powerful division leading Buffalo Bills in 3 weeks.

For now, it’s time to get back to work and improve before next Sunday. I’m not sure how the Pats fix the secondary and offensive line, but if they can tweak and improve a little each week, then the team can get back to winning on the regular. It’s not great right now, but there is a long way to go in this season.

Will the Patriots Run-Game Get on Track Against the Dallas Cowboys?

One of the biggest frustrations of the 2021 season thus far for the New England Patriots has been the complete lack of a run game. In the pre-season, there was an embarrassment of riches at the RB position with 6 guys having a legitimate chance to make the roster and contribute. It was clear that Damien Harris was the lead back and James White would definitely have a roster spot as a receiving back, but after them there was rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden, and Sony Michel who were all solid RBs. The once deep and exciting group, has turned into a thin and disappointing one really quickly.

Seeing that there was not room on the roster for 6 RBs, Bill Belichick sent Sony Michel out west to the Los Angeles Rams the day prior to their 3rd and final pre-season game. It became clear that Bill wanted to give an opportunity for the others in the group to take some snaps and Stevenson and Taylor had both had some nice runs in the pre-season, so he hedged and traded Michel which at the time made sense. The season started off solidly on the ground for the Patriots, with a 23-carry, 100-yard performance from Harris in the 1-pt loss to the Miami Dolphins (30 carries as a team – White 4, Jonnu Smith 1, Bolden 1, and Stevenson 1). There was an unfortunate late-game fumble from Harris that clouded his performance, but overall it was solid.

Facing the Jets in week 2, the Patriots had a decent game on the ground with Harris rushing 16 times for 62-yards and White picking up 20-yards on 5 carries. The workload was lighter, only 24 carries as a team, but the balance was still as expected with Harris leading the group. Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints is where things went bad and in a hurry. Against the 4th best run-defense in football, the Patriots weren’t able to get the much going on the ground, partially because they were trailing the entire game. The leading rusher in the game was Mac Jones, with 28-yards on 6 carries and Harris only had 14-yards on 6 carries (2.3 yards per carry). Bolden had 3 rushes for -1-yard and Taylor and White had 1 rush each. Unfortunately for the Pats, James White was carted off the field and his season was over with a hip injury.

Coming off the White injury, the Patriots had the most anticipated regular season game in history against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs and the run game was absolutely atrocious. As a team, the Pats had -1-yard for the game, with the only positive rush coming from WR Nelson Agholor for 4-yards. They only attempted 8 rushes and were absolutely crushed on 7 of the 8. When your team has 6 rushes from 3 RBs that amount to -4-yards, you’ve had a miserable day. Good thing for the Pats, their opponent in week 5, the Houston Texans, would be easier to run on.

The Pats began to right the run-game ship this past Sunday against a mediocre Texans defense. J.J Taylor was inactive, but the Pats rushed 30 times for 136 yards, 25 attempts from Harris and Stevenson. While they still didn’t look great and Harris had another fumble, they took advantage of the Texans who have allowed the 7th most rushing yards to opponents on the season. In a bizarrely close and uncomfortable game, the Pats snuck out of Texas with a 3pt victory on a walk-off Nick Folk field goal, but no one felt good about the performance. During the game, Harris sustained a rib injury and has barely practiced (as of Thursday).

If Harris is inactive or limited, the Patriots enter the game against Dallas extremely thin at RB. Stevenson would presumably pick up the slack for Harris, but then it’s really only Brandon Bolden left on the depth chart. J.J. Taylor was played very little and it’s unclear why (besides his fumble), but could be an option just in case. The once 6-deep running back core is down to 3 or maybe 4 and isn’t going to have an easy time running on the Cowboys who have allowed the 5th fewest rushing yards against this year. Oh yeah, and the Patriots are still without 3 of their 5 offensive linemen due to injuries and COVID-related absences.

If I were a betting man, I’m not taking the Patriots run game to turn it around this week. They have struggled mightily against strong run-defenses and at best, their lead RB will not be 100% with a rib injury that I imagine will hurt every time he gets hit and at worst, he won’t play. Harris and Stevenson have 3 combined fumbles in 5 games, which is not what the Patriots, or any team, want to see. This game could be a big opportunity for Stevenson to show he can be a lead back going forward, but it will not be easy. I’m predicting fewer than 70 yards on the ground this week, so Mac Jones has to be ready to throw 40+ times if the Pats want to have a chance to topple the 4-1 Cowboys.

Biggest Winner on Sunday was Mac Jones

I don’t think there has ever been a regular season NFL game hyped as much as Sunday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The storylines were abundant in Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro following 20 years in a Patriots uniforms and 6 Super Bowl titles. It seemed on paper that this could be a 1-sided match-up with Brady showing his former fanbase and team that he is still atop the mountain, but instead, it was one of the best football games of the year.

Lost somewhat in the Tom Brady hype this week was his “replacement” Mac Jones. One has to imagine that Tom Brady was feeling a ton of emotion returning to Gillette as a visitor and with the ovations and chants he heard as he came on the field for warmups and then for pregame, but what about Jones? A rookie in just his 4th NFL game who had been compared by some to a Brady and has been anointed the successor to lead this storied franchise. What were his emotions leading up to kickoff and into the first quarter on Sunday?

While there are certainly comparisons between Tom and Mac, I always find it unfair to compare players, especially when one is the GOAT. That being said, once Mac settled in after the first drive or two, he showed a massive national TV audience why he is being compared to Tom and just what he can do in a high-pressure environment (literally). He faced a lot of pressure from the Bucs defense, but was able to make smart decisions. When he sensed pressure coming, he was often able to step up in the pocket to gain an extra half-second to make a better throw (very Brady-esque).

Mac’s quick decision-making is what sets him apart from all other rookies, and many veterans. I’ve been talking about this ad nauseum, but it’s critically important and a big reason he won the starting job this year. He takes the 3-5 step drop, does a quick scan, and and lets the ball go. It keeps the ball moving and doesn’t allow the defense to adjust or get set in coverage. Will the quick decisions lead to mistakes at times? Absolutely, but it’s a recipe for success. When it isn’t a quick read, Mac is able to scan through his receiving options and make the smart, right choice, all while being aware of defensive pressure.

Other than the interception, Mac mostly made the right decisions around when to take a sack vs. risk a turnover with a bad throw. Taking a sack is a negative play and obviously should be avoided, but may also be the most unappreciated successful result of a play. There were at least 2 times on Sunday night that Mac took a sack, because pressure got to him quickly, he couldn’t get out of the pocket, and there was no passing lane to put the ball in. In that case, a sack is the smart decision because you live to play another down, you don’t risk intentional grounding, and you don’t risk a turnover that could shift the momentum of the game and lead to opponent points. Of the reasonable outcomes in that instance, a sack is the best result.

I’ve already said this a ton and I’m guessing it’s going to keep coming up, but Mac is poised and confident well beyond his years. He’s able to put the last play behind him, learn from it, and move forward very quickly and it appears that very little can phase him. It already seems like Mac has been in the league for a few years and has a high floor for performance, but the questions were around his ceiling coming out of college. If he continues to learn and grow, his ceiling is as high, or higher, than any other rookie QB in the league.

While Tom Brady and the Bucs won the football game on Sunday, the real winner for me is Mac Jones. I know they aren’t on the field at the same time and that’s not how wins and losses work, but in the first head-to-head match-up between the GOAT and the rookie, the rookie came out on top. If only the scoreboard reflected the W.

5 Things to Watch for in Tom Brady’s Return to Foxboro

If you don’t know that Tom Brady is returning to Gillette Stadium with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to face the Patriots this weekend then you must be living in a bunker somewhere. Since the moment the Patriots vs Saints game ended on Sunday (and frankly before), there have been flurries of articles and posts about one of, if not the most, anticipated regular season matchup in NFL history. Ticket prices are absolutely insane and there are as many opinions this homecoming as there are Dunkin Donuts in the greater Boston area. I’m taking simple approach and just looking at the top 5 things to watch for on Sunday night.

1. All-Time Passing Record

This is one of the biggest stories of the Tom Brady return to Foxboro. Brady is just 68 yards away from breaking Drew Brees‘ all-time passing yards record for a career with 80,258 and it will happen on Sunday night at the stadium where he threw the majority of those passes. Could you script a storyline any better than the reality? I don’t think so. The biggest question is how the Patriots and NFL will recognize this accomplishment that likely will never be broken again the way the game has evolved. When Peyton Manning broke the record in 2015 they game was halted to allow for players to congratulate him, there was a tribute played on the video board, and the ball was removed from play to head to the Hall of Fame in Canton. The biggest difference is that Manning was at home in Denver, but I’m still wondering what the moment will be like in front of fans who supported and loved Tom Brady for 2 decades.

Will everyone put aside the differences and give Brady the proper congratulations? Will the Pats allow for a video board tribute or some type of acknowledgment of the incredible accomplishment? If you are as interested as I am, it’s likely the record gets broken in the 1st half, probably the 1st quarter, so don’t grab a snack or take a bathroom break when the Bucs are on offense early in the game.

2. Defensive Struggles for Both Teams

For both teams, their defenses, and specifically their secondarys, have struggled at times early in the 2021 season. For the Bucs, they have allowed the 7th most 1st downs to opponents (71), the most passes completed to opponents by a lot (104), and the most yards (1,015). While part of that can be explained by their opponents, if they want to have a deep run in the postseason like last year and defend their title, the defense needs to improve. It was announced on Wednesday morning that CB Richard Sherman would sign with the Bucs which will help their weak secondary, but he won’t solve all of their problems. QB Mac Jones should be able to find some windows to throw into on Sunday and hopefully he can take advantage of the weaker secondary of the Bucs and show off in front of his predecessor.

The Pats on the other hand have to face the greatest QB of all-time in his homecoming on the night in which he will break the all-time passing yards record, which is a brutally difficult task for any defense. While the Pats stats on defense don’t look terrible on paper, that’s primarily because they have faced QBs Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson, and Jameis Winston in their 3 match-ups thus far and sit at just 1-2 against them. Their opponents relied heavier on the run and the Pats weren’t always up for the task. Sunday night’s game will be an entirely different test for the secondary and there is a real risk of an absolute blowout with Brady throwing for 400+ yards. Can Bill Belichick disguise coverages and actually do anything to trick his former QB? He must in order to have a chance at winning this game.

3. Rob Gronkowski‘s Usage

One of the more interesting early-season NFL stories in 2021 is the return of Rob Gronkowski to an incredible form we haven’t seen in a long time. In just 3 games, he has 4 TDs, has caught 80% of passes thrown to him (16/20) and is averaging 9.2 yards per reception. He racked up a lot of those numbers in the first 2 games of the season (12/13) and is likely coming into Sunday night’s game looking to prove himself against his former employer. In 2020, his first year in Tampa, Gronk only caught 58.4% of balls thrown to him, which was a career low and while he played 16 games for the first time since 2011, his numbers were not particularly impressive. He clearly came into 2021 trying to prove he still has more to give the NFL.

When you pair Gronk’s early season success with a defense that occasionally has trouble covering TEs, especially when the WRs are as strong as the Bucs, and it could be tough to watch (unless you are a big Gronk fan). While Gronk is only 32, his track record makes me doubt he will be healthy for the entire season and will be able to sustain his blistering start, especially with a 17-game schedule, but you know he’s going to leave it all on the field this week and then probably take it easy through the middle of the schedule to be ready down the stretch and in the postseason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 2 Gronk TD spikes this week at Gillette.

4. Post-Game Handshake

In no other area of the country does the post-game handshake get this much attention, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are both infamous for ignoring the typical handshake protocol post-game. Depending on how this game unfolds could determine what the post-game interaction looks like between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, if there is any. If Tom Brady absolutely smokes the Pats, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Belichick go straight to the locker room and the same might be true if Brady were to somehow lose. Belichick has been clear in his press conferences this week (as clear as BB ever is) about his desire to keep Brady with the Patriots before his departure, but according to his words “we weren’t as good an option as Tampa”.

With all the chirping from Tom Brady Sr. this week and the competitiveness of both player and coach, you just never know how they really feel about each other and if either will take the high-road and have a nice post-game interaction regardless of the game’s outcome. Despite it being a late Sunday night game, I’ll be glued to my TV for post-game.

5. Danger of a 1-3 Start

The Patriots come into Sunday’s match-up with a tough 1-2 record. Beyond all the Brady headlines and talk of the reunion, a 1-3 start for the Pats could put serious doubts in their ability to make the postseason. Since 1990, just 14.2% of teams beginning the season with a 1-3 record have made the postseason and the average finishing record for those teams is 6-10 with just 1 of the 218 teams winning the super bowl: the 2001 New England Patriots. This year will be a little different with the addition of a 17th game which could have an impact on those numbers, but it’s still not the place you want to be if you have aspirations of playing into mid-to-late January and early February.

A win would obviously be a tremendous accomplishment for this young QB, but I expect 1-3 is in their future. I don’t think this team is a super bowl contender regardless of a 1-3 or 2-2 start, but in the best of circumstances, a run into the postseason is always on the table in New England and the deeper the hole the team digs early on, the harder that will become.

Understanding the NFL Practice Squad

The other day my father-in-law asked me a question about the practice squad and how it works in the NFL. I had a general idea, but long after our conversation my head kept spinning with questions. Did I really understand how they work in 2021 or was my knowledge antiquated? While it’s not the most exciting topic for everyone, I’m guessing my father-in-law and I are not the only people with questions. The further I dug into the research, the more interested I became in the evolution of the practice squad.

Before jumping in too far, I want to note that thanks to the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and other negotiations, a lot has changed over the past few decades with practice squads. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, but protections for players and teams have increased dramatically over the years in a myriad of ways. Several of those changes are noted in the sections below. While being a practice squad player isn’t the ideal path for most, it can be a way for players to make a little money while being just one step away from an NFL roster.

History and Expansion

Let’s start with the basics. Every NFL team has a practice squad (sometimes historically referred to as a taxi squad). The concept for the squad began in the 1940s, but wasn’t adopted until the mid-1960s and had a brief disappearance in the 1970s. The squad was more formally adopted with the 1993 CBA that established the practice squad as a 5-player group. That number has expanded several times including a few planned expansions in the 2020 CBA that brought the squad to 12 in 2020 with another expansion planned in 2022 to bring the number to 14, however the practice squad has temporarily expanded to 16 for the 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Promotion and Eligibility

Each team is allowed to activate 2 players from their practice squad before a game without officially promoting them to the main roster (prior to 90 minutes before kickoff before inactives are submitted). Recent rule changes allow these players to go directly back to the practice squad (do not pass go and do not pass through waivers) following the game without having to pass through waivers and potentially get signed by another team. A player is only able to be elevated in this capacity twice per season and if they are promoted a third time, the team must sign the player 53-man roster.

Players are eligible for the practice squad if they have played less than 9 games on an active NFL roster during one season or have spent fewer than 3 seasons on a practice squad already (a season is considered at least 6 games on the practice squad) with an exception that was added over the past few CBAs. Each team is allowed to have up to 6 veteran players on their practice squad (an increase from past years). A veteran player can now be a player with any amount of experience in the NFL. The Patriots used this new rule recently when they put veteran K Nick Folk on the practice squad earlier this year.

Salaries

Players aren’t guaranteed anything except that week’s salary when on a practice squad, they are week-to-week hoping for a call-up. The 2021 minimum salary for a non-veteran practice squad player is $9,200 per week ($165,600 for 18 weeks) and a veteran player is $14,000 per week ($252,000 for 18 weeks). That is the minimum however, players have been paid more depending on circumstances to keep players with the team or honor contracts. Unlike a guaranteed active roster contract, if a practice squad player gets released, they get nothing assuming the haven’t been elevated to the active roster.

One additional protection for practice squad players is if a player is signed to the active roster, they receive at least three weeks worth of pay regardless of whether the player spends three weeks on the roster or not, usually the league minimum. This protects the player from being signed for one game, then cut and having to pass through waivers without any future path and no salary. The practice squad life can be a journeyman experience for some.

Signing and Protection

This is the piece of the practice squad that has evolved a lot over the years. Players on practice squads are free to sign with other NFL teams at any point as long as they are being signed to the active 53-man roster, with a few newer exceptions. Every week, each team can designate 4 players on their practice squad to protect. They are not able to be signed by another team during that week. Additionally, a practice squad player is not allowed to sign with their team’s upcoming opponent within 6 days of the game or 10 days if the team is on a bye week. This essentially protects against a team stealing an opponents game plan the week of the game and is something that Bill Belichick would occasionally employ in the past.


Overall the world of navigating practice squads is an absolutely fascinating business, at least to me. Over the years, Bill Belichick has been a master at manipulating this group as evidenced by a few of his moves earlier this year to open roster spots and move players around (i.e. Nick Folk) which is why some of these rules could come into play more often for the New England Patriots than some other teams. There is no doubt that some of the evolution in rules has come because of Belichick, as with other NFL rules changes over the years, which makes his mastery of it even more enjoyable to watch. Keep on eye out for future practice squad movement and feel more confident in understanding the implications of each move.

The Curious Case of Nick Folk’s Resurgence

Over the years, fans of the New England Patriots have been incredibly spoiled in the kicking department, with just 3 kickers signed in total from 1996 through October 2, 2019. The first 10 seasons of that span were Adam Vinatieri, then Stephen Gostkowski from 2006-2019. There was an 8-game stint that required the assistance of Shayne Graham in 2010 when Gostkowski’s season was cut short with a thigh injury, but until October 2, 2019, those 3 were it. The Patriots then signed K Mike Nugent the day following Gostkowski’s injury in 2019 and after 3 weeks, released him to sign current Patriots kicker Nick Folk; just the 5th kicker at the time to sign in New England in 23 seasons.

My reaction to the Nick Folk signing on October 30, 2019 was not a positive one. I watched a fair amount of Folk earlier in his career during his 3-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys and then his 7-year stint with the New York Jets and the results were mixed, to put it generously. In 2009, Folk hit only 64.3% of his field goal attempts, which ultimately led to him landing with the Jets. His career with the Jets was better after the first few years, but there was always a sense that he would miss the big kick in a clutch situation, whether warranted or not. After being released from the Jets in 2017, Folk spent one miserable year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before looking for work in the Alliance of American Football.

Then in October of 2019 the Patriots came calling to give him another shot in the NFL at age 34. Since joining the Patriots, Nick Folk has somehow turned himself into a reliable and consistent place kicker, improving upon all of his previous career numbers. Prior to coming to New England, Folk was an 80.3% field goal kicker who hit 91.7% of tries under 30 yards, 89.9% from 30-39 yards, and just 66.7% from 40+. In his two+ years with the Patriots, Folk has hit 90.4% of all his field goal tries, including an insane 100% from under 40 yards (26 tries) and 80.8% from 40+ yards. For comparison, Adam Vinatieri was only an 81.9% field goal kicker in his 10 seasons with the Pats. To be fair Folk has missed 4 extra points in his 48 attempts with the Pats (91.7%), but overall he’s made up for those 4 points with many more field goals made.

In 2020, Folk ranked as the 8th best kicker in football by field goal percentage (92.9%), well ahead of the Pats former kicker Stephen Gostkowski (69.2%) who ranked 31st out of 33 in football. In 2021, Folk is looking just as strong as last season early on, hitting his first 7 tries in 2 games thus far. In week 1, Folk broke the Patriots consecutive field goal streak (formerly 29) and extended it in the win over the New York Jets on Sunday to 33-straight. To break a kicking record in New England is incredible given the recent history of Vinatieri and Gostkowski at that position.

It’s still hard for me to not cringe when Folk is kicking a field goal in a big spot, but by all accounts he has been great for the Pats. With a rookie QB that is being eased into the NFL, Folk becomes an even more critical piece this season to score points and thus deserves more attention than in the past. Let’s hope this new Nick Folk trend of reliability and consistency is here to stay.

An Appreciation for J.C. Jackson

When I heard that Stephon Gilmore would be out for at least the first 6 weeks of the 2021 season, I had some significant concerns for the New England Patriots secondary. The DB group is solid with Gilmore, but without their CB1 it forces everyone up the depth chart and seriously weakens the matchups across the field. I also questioned whether J.C. Jackson is a true #1 and would continue to be successful without having Gilmore on the other side of the field shutting down the opponent’s WR1. Now just 2 games into the season, my feelings are beginning to shift.

Let me preface by saying that I know the Patriots played the lowly New York Jets on Sunday so the stats will naturally be skewed, but I was still impressed by the play of J.C. Jackson. Looking back at his career, Jackson has 19 interceptions in just 47 games and of those 47 games, he technically only started 24 of them. It’s hard to argue against Jackson being one of the best undrafted rookie signings in recent memory with his ball-hawking nature.

Jackson had a monster year last season with 9 interceptions, but overall he has been near or at the top on the Patriots in interceptions and passes deflected over his 3+ seasons in the NFL. He has worked his way up the snap count every year, playing just 38% of the defensive snaps his rookie year in 2018, 68% in 2019, 84% in 2020, and 100% this year through 2 games. He has become an invaluable member of the secondary which seems to have had an impact on the Patriots’ negotiations with Stephon Gilmore.

“…The ninth pick of the season, I feel like I could have had more than that. But that’s a hell of a season, to have nine picks. I’ve just got to continue to grow and get better for the 2021 season.”

J.C. Jackson on his 2020 season

Looking beyond the Patriots and across the league, Jackson is leading the NFL with 2 interceptions in 2021 (through 2 games), finished 2nd in the NFL in interceptions in 2020 (1 behind Miami’s Xavien Howard) and tied for the 2nd most interceptions in 2019 with 5. He’s beginning to get some recognition across football as well, placing #49 in the NFL Network’s list of the Top 100 NFL Players this offseason, just 2 spots behind Stephon Gilmore (the only 2 Patriots players to appear on the list).

Although Jackson isn’t yet the same shutdown CB1 that Gilmore has become, he is proving to be a more than capable of holding his own as the leader of the CB group and he’s only 25 years old. He should continue to get better each year and has forced himself into a position where he is an incredibly important piece to lock-up on a longer-term contract. He will have a tough test in week 4, as will the entire Patriots defense, when they play Tom Brady and his gazillion top tier receivers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I feel like I’m not even at my highest level yet. I’ve still got some room to improve and have some things I need to work on.”

J.C. Jackson in January 2021

Jackson is currently on a 1-year, $3.38 million contract that felt a little like a prove-it deal for this season. So far, in just 2 games (have I said that enough yet?), Jackson is proving to Bill Belichick that he can continue to learn and become the CB1 of the present and future. If that continues, I’m hoping the Patriots ownership will think long and hard about a multi-year deal to keep Jackson with the Patriots as a protection plan for when the 31-year old Gilmore decides to move on (or is not resigned). If Jackson hits free agency this offseason after a strong year, the Pats will probably not be able to pay him what others teams might leaving them in huge trouble in the secondary.

With the likely retirement of Devin McCourty in the next year or two and the likely departure of Stephon Gilmore, the Pats need to be planning for the future in the secondary. They have the next-person-up already on the roster, the time is now to lock him up for the next several years.

Is this the end for Stephon Gilmore in a Pats uniform?

One of the biggest stories in training camp and the preseason for the New England Patriots was the status of CB Stephon Gilmore. He’s an elite defender and and critical piece in the secondary for the Pats, but has yet to step on the field this year and now won’t until at least week 7 because he’s on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. There has been some clear animosity and contract issues with Gilmore this offseason and it feels like the standoff between Bill Belichick and Gilmore will not end well for the Pats.

The 30-year old Gilmore’s 2020 season ended early after a quad injury that led to surgery and lots of offseason rehab. His actual health now remains somewhat of a question since no one has seen him on the field in months. Due to a contract dispute and seemingly a disagreement on a contract extension and contract value, he’s in the last year of his deal, Gilmore was a holdout and missed OTAs and minicamp earlier this year. He reported to Gillette Stadium in July to end the holdout, but was then placed on the PUP list, where he has remained since.

Gilmore is slated to make $7 million this season, after $13 million last year, based on the way his contract was structured when he signed the 5-yr $65 million deal in 2017 with the Pats. It seems that Gilmore assumed that if his performance was still high, they would renegotiate the last year of his deal (this year) and potentially talk about an extension, but it appears the Pats haven’t made a generous-enough offer to satisfy him (or any offer depending on who you believe). From the outside, it appears the relationship has eroded to the point of Bill Belichick trying to prove that he doesn’t need Gilmore to be successful.

The most frustrating piece to me is that Gilmore is a top-tier CB in the league and seems to just be asking to be paid a more reasonable salary. At $7 million, it puts his contract on par with Jonathan Jones as the 27th highest paid CB in the league (strictly by salary, not cap hit). Gilmore is definitely a top-10 CB, if not a top-5 or even top-3 talent and he knows that. Even as he approaches 31 this week, Gilmore is incredibly valuable on a short-term deal if healthy, which is the big question.

“I just want what I’m worth, however is plays out. Every player should be paid what they’re worth. That’s just how it is.”

Stephon Gilmore in July 2021

To me this just screams mismanagement from the Patriots ownership. With Gilmore healthy and back in the lineup, the Pats are a serious contender and can make a big playoff push. Without him, it’s yet to be seen, but it’s a significantly weaker secondary that may struggle against top passing games. It forces the Pats to rely more heavily on CBs like Jalen Mills and Joejuan Williams who are decent as your depth 4th or 5th corners, but get exposed as a 2nd or 3rd behind CB J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones. It also puts more pressure on SS Devin McCourty to help in coverage.

If Gilmore is really injured and there is a deal in place once he’s healthy for him to come back, then great, but as of now things seem to be trending toward a messy separation. I think we have already seen Gilmore’s last game in a Pats uniform, but boy do I hope I’m wrong.