FOXBORO, Mass. — New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick went out of his way to praise four players for their versatility in Wednesday morning’s news conference.
Belichick was asked what kind of improvement running back Rex Burkhead has shown in his third year in the Patriots’ offense. Belichick took that question and revealed who he believes are the most versatile players on his roster.
“I’d put him in that category with (Patrick) Chung,” Belichick said. “They can just do stuff on every down. Devin (McCourty) would probably go in that category too, maybe Kyle (Van Noy). But there’s a handful of guys like that who can just play on every down. But those guys are rare. And then play it at a high level like Kyle, Devin, Pat, Rex do, that’s — as a coach — that’s a tremendous luxury to have on your team to have players who are that versatile and that versatile in terms of the variety of things they can do. And be that versatile in terms of being able to do it at a high level in all of those situations.
“You’re lucky to have one of those guys on your team, maybe two of those guys on your team. We have more than that. That’s something that’s really a great help as a coach in terms of game planning and also managing the entire roster. They just give you so much depth even if you never use it, it’s still great because you just know that, ‘OK, that position’s here.’ It might not come up, but even if it doesn’t come up, you don’t have to waste a lot of time trying to get somebody else ready because you know that you have somebody you can be put in there who can handle that.”
Belichick wasn’t done. Later in the news conference, Belichick was asked if he can identify those types of players coming out of college or if it’s something that begins to show itself in the NFL. Belichick took that as an opportunity to highlight depth required on special teams.
There are six separate special teams units: kickoff, kick return, punt, punt return, field goal and field goal block. So, there are 66 different positions to fill — plus 66 backups for those roles — with just 46 players on the roster.
“But you really don’t have that because you have your specialists, you have some offensive linemen, quarterbacks,” Belichick said. “When you get rid of those guys, you get your roster down to about 30 in a hurry. So, now you’re trying to back up 66 players with another 66 players. Forget about offense and defense. That’s a whole other conversation. If you have a guy like Burkhead who can play at least three spots on the kickoff team. Chung, McCourty, they can play at least three spots on the kickoff team. If you can back up the entire kickoff team with two or three guys, that’s a good thing. You might not have to use them, but you don’t have to get 10 other guys ready for all that. You can do it with two or three guys. Same thing on punt return, punt team, things like that.”
Belichick got only slightly hyperbolic when talking about the potential effects of an injury to one of those special-teams starters.
“So, there’s a hidden effect there. Nobody knows, nobody even cares until you get an injury and then you get a punt blocked. I mean, that’s a world crisis,” Belichick said. “It can go in a hurry. Those kinds of players give you tremendous value, versatility, guys like (Dont’a) Hightower and (Jamie) Collins. At the end of the year, they might not have a lot of plays on special teams. But to have them and know that they’re ready to go if we need them and they don’t need to take half of the reps in practice to be ready to go, gives you a tremendous value as a team, and it allows you to use the players who are going to play to give them more reps to go through more things with them and help that prepare them without having to spend time with those backups. Until you’ve been through that, which as a special teams coach, I went through that for many years, I don’t know if you really appreciate how valuable those guys are. I certainly do.”
So, Burkhead, McCourty, Van Noy and Chung are basically superheroes. Who else can say they regularly prevent a world crisis?