For Patriots’ young receivers, pressure is on to step up for Tom Brady
NASHVILLE — “BRAXTON!”
Tom Brady’s exasperated shriek rang out over the practice field. Above the chatter of players shuttling on and off the field for the next play. Above the instructions of coaches from both sidelines. Above the hum of the fans in the stands, and above 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” which thumped from two giant speakers at the edge of each end zone at the Tennessee Titans’ practice facility.
The quarterback stomped down the field, stopping second-year wide receiver Braxton Berrios and proceeding to emphatically break down what should have happened on the previous play, what did happen and what had to happen next time around.
From the pocket, Brady had spotted the 5-9, 190-pound Berrios running a route down the center of the field. Berrios shimmied, and Brady tossed the ball downfield, intending to drop it over the receiver’s right shoulder. But Berrios had cut in to the left instead of out to his right. The would-be touchdown pass fell incomplete, and that’s when Brady erupted.
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Midway through his lecture, the three-time MVP had quieted down, but he still pointed this way and that to help his teammate – 19 years his junior – understand. The two continued to talk as they made their way back to the huddle, and two plays later, Brady went back to Berrios, who hauled in a 30-yard catch in the end zone. A holding penalty negated the play, but Brady didn’t care. He sprinted downfield and celebrated in the end zone, smacking the receiver on the helmet and shoulder pads.
Berrios had gotten it right this time around. That’s all that mattered in Brady’s mind.
“I think that's the learning curve for a lot of players and being on the same page,” Brady explained after Thursday’s joint practice with the Titans. “Really, I think so much is him expecting the ball to be a certain place and me expecting him to be a certain place.
"I think the chemistry between a quarterback and receiver, a quarterback and a tight end, is so important because it's all anticipation. If you're waiting for things to happen in the NFL, you're too late. You've got to just anticipate and expect them to be a certain way, and that's the way they turn out. … That's why we work hard at it, that's why you spend the time with those guys and you put all of the work in.”
This is where Brady finds himself as he enters Year 20 embarking on a quest for a seventh Super Bowl ring.
Trusty tight end Rob Gronkowski has retired. Go-to slot receiver Julian Edelman is sidelined with a broken thumb. Offseason signing Demaryius Thomas is still recovering from last season’s torn Achilles.
And so, Brady is surrounded largely by inexperience at wideout. The 10 other receivers on the roster have on average just 2.5 years of experience, and that’s counting special teams mainstay Matthew Slater’s 11 seasons with Brady. Four rookies, two second-year players, and third-, fourth- and fifth-year pros round out the bunch.
Brady and his coaches are looking for someone – or multiple players – to distinguish themselves as reliable weapons.
New England Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers runs patterns during the 2019 season opening Training Camp at Gillette Stadium. (Photo: Ed Wolfstein, USA TODAY Sports)
Thus far, undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers has shined the brightest with six catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason opener. But Berrios and free-agent addition Maurice Harris have shown flashes in camp, while first-round pick N'Keal Harry and others continue to try to find their way with three preseason games still on tap before roster finalization and the regular-season opener.
So, the lessons continue.
“It’s just control the things that you can control,” Slater said relaying the advice he has given the young receivers jockeying for position. “You can always control the way that you work. You can always control the attitude that you come out here and compete with. Control those things, live in the moment, treat each day as its own and try to get better. Other than that, don’t worry about everything else. Whatever happen is going to happen.”
There’s a sense of urgency in Patriots camp. That’s evident based on Brady’s body language and tone. It’s also reflected in the tempo and effort the receivers display in each position drill and the corrections their position coaches (or quarterback) hand out following any miscue.
“Every play, for the most part, is a learning moment, and we all have to be on the same page,” said Berrios, a 2018 sixth-round pick with no game experience. “This game, there are a lot of moving pieces and there’s a lot of learning for sure. You have to learn on the fly and the next time out, you correct it and that’s what these days of practice are. Big learning moments.”
But there’s not a feeling of panic. Brady and his coaches have been here before. For years, the Patriots have plugged journeymen in at roles that other teams usually stock with star power, and the machine purrs on. That’s the benefit of having a quarterback who knows his own system and those of opposing defenses so well that he can adjust, anticipate and execute with acute deftness. He sees windows opening even before his receivers do. He throws targets open, and the chains keep moving. That’s why there’s such an emphasis on precision, tempo and effort.
Without these lessons, the receivers know they’re at risk of falling out of favor both with coaches and their quarterback, and that means the forfeiture of a potentially career-defining opportunity.
“I have,” Brady began with a smile, “obviously, a lot of experience, so I know where guys should be, so I'm trying to tell them, ‘If you want the ball, this is where you've got to be,’ which is hopefully good learning for those guys, and it's good teaching for me. I always say the quarterback can't do anything without the receivers, and the receiver can't do anything without the quarterback, which makes it a really great relationship.”
For now, though, those relationships are only just budding. Class remains in session.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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