FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1.JuJu’s perspective: Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster offers one of the unique perspectives in the NFL based on the last three years. To play for Mike Tomlin, then Andy Reid, and now Bill Belichick, he’s had a seat in the meeting room under the three active NFL head coaches with the most career regular-season victories.
Ask him about it, and he flashes a huge smile.
“Bro! All three coaches speak the same language when it comes to championship mindset,” he said in a quiet moment after a recent Patriots training camp practice.
“They may say it in different ways, but it’s all the same message. And you can feel that winning mindset throughout each organization.”
Smith-Schuster’s integration into the Patriots’ organization – and his projected key role in Bill O’Brien’s offense – has been one of the notable storylines of the offseason and training camp.
The 26-year-old didn’t practice during the spring as he recovered from a prior knee injury, but he reported to training camp early, passed his physical, and has been a full participant in all nine practices – usually aligning with DeVante Parker when the team breaks the huddle to start a drill.
Smith-Schuster had red-zone touchdown catches from quarterback Mac Jones in back-to-back full-pads practices last week, which reflects part of what has him excited after signing a three-year, $25.5 million contract in New England that could be worth up to $33 million. After playing with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, he now feels a personal stake in Jones’ success.
“I love that he is growing,” Smith-Schuster said. “That’s one thing – he’s a sponge. He works with all of us, in terms of getting us better, so it’s really cool to see that, to play with a quarterback where we both can grow in that same area.”
Jones said last week that one of his goals is to get back to enjoying the game, and having more fun, and Smith-Schuster’s outgoing personality has helped him do so in camp. They danced together after a touchdown connection, sparking a loud cheer from fans, which Smith-Schuster said reflects their aim to always bring energy to the field.
He also said those are the type of plays that are important to show that he’s “a reliable guy that in tough times, tough situations, they can go to me.”
Behind the scenes, Jones has leaned on Smith-Schuster’s six seasons of NFL experience, saying: “I think JuJu has done a great job being a great leader. I like to talk about the older guys a lot because they’ve seen a lot of football, so they know how [it’s] supposed to look.”
Showing JuJu Smith-Schuster the love. pic.twitter.com/HLi3kLceqP— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) July 26, 2023
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Smith-Schuster said he’s quickly become comfortable around the Patriots’ facility and has been surprised by Belichick’s sense of humor. He sees similarities between the fanbases of the Steelers, Chiefs and Patriots in terms of their passion, and the connection between players in the locker room.
“The guys make you feel comfortable just to be around,” he said. “I think that’s been the biggest thing – adapting to new people, to the new facility. But everyone’s been welcoming and that’s such a good feeling.”
2. Judon’s contract: As part of outside linebacker Matthew Judon’s adjusted contract, he will receive a $7 million signing bonus and also have his $7 million base salary for 2023 fully guaranteed. There is a void year in 2025 which helps the team from a salary-cap standpoint, and it will also help Judon because the contract will expire 23 days before the start of 2025 free agency, which takes the possibility of the team placing the franchise tag on him off the table.
3. See you in a year: One trickle-down effect of Judon’s adjusted contract is that some of his $9.5 million salary in 2024 was moved into 2023, similar to what the Patriots did with cornerback Stephon Gilmore in 2020 by advancing him some of his 2021 salary. That helps get Judon closer to market value in the third year of the contract he initially signed with the Patriots. But then Judon is scheduled to earn a total of just $7.5 million in 2024 between base salary and roster bonuses, which means the sides will likely be back at the negotiating table again next offseason if he continues to play at a high level.
4. Cheers for the OC: It’s possible that the Patriots are the only training camp in the NFL where the offensive coordinator, Bill O’Brien, received a rousing cheer from the crowd upon his arrival to one of the first practices of summer. The feeling was mutual for O’Brien. “This is where I grew up, where I’m from,” he said. “So I really enjoy being back here and I take a lot of pride in my position here and working for Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft, and this organization. It’s been great to be back.”
5. O’Brien impact: One residual benefit of O’Brien’s return – other than the obvious that the offense has looked improved from last summer – is what that’s meant for the defense. The unit that dominated 2022 training has had its humbling moments at times, with veteran safety Adrian Phillips saying of O’Brien: “We never see the same thing twice. It’s a lot of variety, a lot of different guys in different spots. He just dials it up. You can also tell that obviously he’s watching film on the defense too. When he sees us making a check on defense, the next day he might throw a little wrinkle out there.”
6. Parker vs. Gonzalez: First-round pick Christian Gonzalez (6-2, 205) has been a mainstay at cornerback opposite veteran Jonathan Jones in practice, which has meant regular matchups with veteran receiver DeVante Parker (6-3, 215). Some scouts noted that Gonzalez’ physicality was an area for him to improve coming out of Oregon, and it doesn’t get much more physical than Parker. They’ve both had their moments. “Like two heavyweight fighters,” receivers coach Ross Douglas said.
7. Rookie roommates: Kicker Chad Ryland (fourth round) and punter Bryce Baringer (sixth round) are the first kicker/punter tandem to be selected by the same team in a draft since the Raiders tabbed Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler in 2000, and thus, it makes sense that they’ve been paired as roommates at the team hotel. “When you have someone you have known for a while going through the same kind of process, it’s nice to have a shoulder to lean on,” Baringer said, before adding: “We try to get to bed pretty early.”
8. BB’s history: Bill Belichick spoke to the Patriots last week about how this is his 49th training camp and there are often reminders of his deep history at each practice in the form of visitors. One example from last week was a visit from Chuck Bresnahan, his former linebackers coach with the Browns (1994-95) who is currently coaching with the Vegas Vipers of the XFL.
9. Last call for camp: Those hoping to see the Patriots at training camp best hurry. The team has practices Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Thursday’s preseason opener, and that could be it. The plan is to practice on the road with the Packers next week before Saturday’s preseason game, and then travel directly to Nashville for practices with the Titans before the Friday Aug. 25 preseason road finale.
10. Did You Know: The Patriots host rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and the Texans on Thursday in the preseason opener, which marks just the second time the teams will face each other in the preseason. After having rookies in temporary jersey numbers throughout the spring, Bill Belichick will be assigning them traditional numbers by kickoff.