September 28, 2016

Inside Gillette

logo828By Christopher Price
[email protected]

During the preseason, the Patriots locker room has two types of lockers. There are the permanent ones made of rich, expensive-looking wood which belong to the returning players. They line the outer edges of the room in numerical order. And then, there are the cheap blue metal ones that stretch from one end of the room to the other — temporary storage facilities thrown together in the middle of the room meant to house the gear of rookies and undrafted free agents.

Rookie linebacker Oscar Lua wants a permanent locker, but he knows that it’ll take another week before he can truly become one of the fortunate 53. As the first series of cuts loom Tuesday afternoon — and the final cutdown on Saturday — it remains an anxious time for Lua and the rest of the rookies, who are going through the most stressful professional period of their young lives.

“It’s pretty tough for some of us,” said Lua, a seventh-round pick out of USC. “All us rookies can do right now is just go out there, do our job and compete within the standards the coaches have set out for us, and follow our game plans.”

The Patriots are one of the most veteran teams in the league, making it harder than most for a rookie to make the cut — it’s unlikely that more than four rookies will make the 53-man roster. But Lua has performed well throughout the first month of his professional career, which bodes well for his chances, at least when it comes to Tuesday’s cutdown. He’s is second on the team with 12 tackles through three preseason games, and came up with an interception in Friday’s win over Carolina. In addition, he has seen plenty of time on special teams.

But what might ultimately put him over the top is his football IQ, according to Head Coach Bill Belichick.

“He’s smart. He understands the defense. He communicates well,” said Belichick. “He’s able to not only do his assignment, but also control the guys in front of him, the front seven, and line calls and adjustments and things like that.

“He gets better out there everyday. He pays attention. I know he’s very attentive to what the veteran players do in the classroom and on the practice field. He’s always alert and trying to pick up more information. I think he’s working hard and he’s getting better.”

In football intelligence, overall approach and physical appearance, more than one veteran believes Lua compares favorably to Tedy Bruschi (both are listed at 6-foot-1, and Lua is 240 pounds while Bruschi is 247). It’s heady praise for a rookie who says he patterned his game after No. 54. Calling his own preseason play “fair,” he knows he’s got a ways to go if he wants to be in Bruschi’s class.

“My assignments — everything, actually — can be improved upon,” said Lua. “I think certain plays that should have been made didn’t get made. And there were certain plays that I made that were good.”

Presuming they survive Tuesday’s cuts, Lua is with a collection of rookie and undrafted free agents who will use Thursday night’s final preseason game against the Giants as their final chance to make the team. Just as long as they follow a simple maxim: just do your job, and everything else will take care of itself. Including that permanent locker space.

“I think if you try and do something out of the ordinary, you might make a mistake, and that would put you in a bad light,” Lua said of his overall approach to Thursday’s preseason finale. “I’m just hoping that myself and the rookies go out there and execute the game plan and do what the coach asks us to do.”

FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THURSDAY

1. The battle for roster spots 48 through 53. While the upper reaches of the roster have all been decided, there are plenty of players — like Lua, Justin Rogers and Mike Richardson — who are looking to make the final 53, and a good performance Thursday against the Giants can make all the difference.

2. The kicking game. Stephen Gostkowski missed two field goals against the Panthers, and struggled the week before against the Titans at Gillette in a driving rainstorm. Belichick seemed to indicate that the two misses against the Panthers were not Gostkowski’s fault, but a perfect night against the Giants would quiet any talk of bringing in someone to challenge the second-year kicker.

3. Heath Evans. Through the first three weeks of the preseason, the veteran fullback has become more involved to the offense on a number of levels. He’s gotten more overall reps than almost anyone on either side of the football — we’ll see if he keeps his iron man status Thursday night.

4. Wide receiver. Most of the spots are already locked up, but a standout effort from one of the wide receivers on the bubble (as well as a final decision on what the Patriots decide to do with Troy Brown and Chad Jackson) could cause New England to go with anywhere between five to seven receivers when the season begins Sept. 9.

5. Overall health. The starters won’t play much, if at all, and that’s not such a bad thing. Many fans can still recall the 1989 preseason finale when Andre Tippett, Ronnie Lippett and Garin Veris were all hurt on the same night. Don’t look for a replay of that Thursday.

STAT OF THE WEEK

0. The number of successful third-down conversions the Carolina offense registered in the first half of Friday’s game.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“If you want to work on your running game, you have to call running plays. I don’t know how else to do it.” — Head Coach Bill Belichick, responding to a question about calling nine straight running plays (and 15 of the first 19 snaps overall) to start the Carolina game.

Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released in October by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at [email protected]

Comments

  1. Box Score says:

    Nice entry, Chris.

    It’s worth noting that the “veteran” who compared Lua to Bruschi was Eric Alexander.

  2. Christopher Price says:

    Thanks for kind words–I did find one other veteran, who, off the record, said the same thing about Lua. The vets do seem to like him. I think he would have gone higher in the draft if he hadn’t gotten hurt.

  3. Box Score says:

    That’s great to hear. I was admittedly dubious when Alexander was the sole source. Without knowing how it will all shake out, at the very least the Patriots did a good job of creating a spirited camp with their later round picks. I am thinking mostly of Richardson, Rogers, and Lua. It will be impressive if anyone of them make the team and see real time this year.

  4. I don’t quite get the skepticism about Alexander’s comments, actually. He’s played with Tedy Bruschi since 2004. It’s not like the guy just got here 15 minutes ago. I’m guessing after three-plus years he knows the man and his game pretty well.

  5. Box Score says:

    I am not skeptical of the comments themselves. They just mean more coming from a player that’s made more substantial contributions to the team since 2004 (and I actually hadn’t realized Alexander had been on the roster that long – it’s a good point).

  6. John in L.A. says:

    I think this is the most telling passage of the entire piece:

    “He gets better out there everyday. He pays attention. I know he’s very attentive to what the veteran players do in the classroom and on the practice field. He’s always alert and trying to pick up more information. I think he’s working hard and he’s getting better.”

    Beli loves the guys who constantly improve. Add to that the fact that we clearly need youth at LB (particularly inside) and that the vets seem to think he’s not out of place, and I think Lua is a LOCK at this point.

  7. HopkintonPatsFan says:

    I agree he is a lock b/c he can help on specials – it may be a long time before he can have an impact at ILB in based d where experienced NFL vets (Brown, Beisel) have tried and failed…

  8. I actually thought Lua play horrendously the first two games and that group of lower depth chart guys on defense couldn’t get off the field in both those games to save their life. They turned what is supposed to be a gap control defense into a minimum 4-5 yard gain on every play. Virtually every guy looked completely lost. Especially Lua (who played under a completely different type defense for Pete Carroll). He was awful in coverage too. But I did think Lua did better last game and even had that interception. He has some talent. He just isn’t close to ready to contrinute anywhere other than special teams and likely won’t be soon. Do you keep him on the roster while he learns or can you get by with him on the practice squad? I think a lot of it depends on how good he is on special teams, which I don’t really have an opinion on yet.

    Greg

  9. Has BB ever talked up a guy so much before cutting him or sending him to the practice squad? Without looking it up, I’d think he wouldn’t be so effusive if he were about to try to sneak him on to the PS.

  10. HopkintonPatsFan says:

    Unless he is about to trade him to Baltimore for their #1 pick next year :)

  11. Well I dunno, here he is in July of 2005 on David Terrell:

    “David has come in and has worked hard. He has tried to learn the system. I think that what we do offensively is quite a bit different from what he was doing in Chicago. I’m not saying that is good or bad. I’m just saying that is the way it is. It’s just different. So, he was worked hard to adapt to that. He spends extra time with the quarterbacks and with Brian Daboll the receivers coach to make sure that he understands how he wants everything done. He is very professional. He is a very hard worker. He is in good condition and kind of go all day. So far I think he’s certainly made a lot of progress and we’ll see how that continues to develop.”

    I don’t think that is all he said positively that camp on Terrell either.

    Here he is on Jeremy Mincey last year:

    “Yeah. He’s certainly come a ways from where he was in the spring and even at the start of camp. He definitely has a long way to go, but he’s making progress and he is working hard. He is a tough kid. He is in good condition. He has been out there everyday, so he has gotten better everyday. But still the whole pass coverage thing for any player that is making that conversion from down to on their feet, it’s usually a considerable process that they have to go through and really understanding formations and routes and run pass keys and things like that. But he is definitely getting better. He is a big, physical kid. We’ll give him a chance in there and see what he can do in the kicking game and see how that relates to how his development is coming along on special teams. There are a lot of guys who are kind of in that same boat, especially at that position at linebacker and the secondary. A lot of guys kind of fall into that category.”

    Here he is on Michael Jennings in 2004:

    “Well, you just have to look at his improvement and see how quickly he is improving and see how quickly things come to him, similar to Stephen Neal. It’s the same type of situation, and we have gone through that. There’s a long way to go, and we don’t have a lot of time. It is not like you are in a college program where you have a four-year scholarship– that is just not the way it works. So, the improvement has to come relatively quickly, and you have to feel like the player is going to have a chance to get to a point that he will be able to play in the league. And that is obviously a projection because you are not going to see enough of that quickly, enough to be sure, but you just go with what you do see and what he does prove and how much he has improved. And Michael has improved a lot. He was with us in the offseason, and I thought that all of his football skills improved significantly during the offseason and during training camp, which sometimes there is a lull or a backslide when you put all the players out there and the pads come on. But, it really hasn’t for him. He still continues to improve and still has a long way to go, but he is certainly headed in the right direction and continues to show up and make plays for us in his role.”

    These are just three examples. All three were cut by the end of camp. I don’t think he’s been especially effusive in his praise of Lua beyond what he has done for guys who’ve worked hard in the past and have some potential. Its no guarantee they’ll make it though.

    Greg

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