FOXBORO, Mass. — Back in March, the New England Patriots waded carefully into the waters of NFL free agency at the start of the new league year. As other teams made splash signings, the Patriots added five mostly unknown free agents. Just two remain on the team.
Only safety Terrence Brooks and tight end Matt LaCosse remain on the roster out of a group that included wide receivers Maurice Harris and Bruce Ellington as well as defensive tackle Mike Pennell.
Around the same time as those acquisitions, the Patriots traded for defensive end Michael Bennett, who was supposed to emerge as a defensive centerpiece in New England. In an upset, Brooks is playing nearly as many defensive snaps as Bennett. Including special teams reps, Brooks has played 64 more snaps than Bennett.
Brooks was expected to be a core special teams player and little else in New England. Outside of 234 defensive snaps as a rookie in 2014, Brooks played just 229 reps as a safety in his next four seasons split among the Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets. His 109 defensive snaps this season for the Patriots already are the second-most of his career.
“I think that’s one of the things that I talked about with him when we visited him and signed him,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “That we use a lot of defensive packages and our players play. All the players play, and as you said, that’s something that he hasn’t really had a lot of chance to do in his career. So, he’s really embraced it. He’s taken on a number of different roles and he’s worked very hard to understand those.
“We have different multiples in our defense, and between the multiples of the defense and different positions, the wheel can start spinning there a little bit, especially for somebody that hasn’t been in the system for multiple years like Devin (McCourty) and Pat (Chung) and Duron (Harmon) have. But, he’s done very well with it and has given us a lot of solid play there as a part of different packages and rotations, but also for Pat. So, he does a nice job for us and continues to contribute in the kicking game, so he’s been a very valuable addition for us this year.”
Brooks entered the NFL with high defensive hopes as a third-round draft pick in 2014 out of Florida State. As he says, the NFL is a “crazy business,” but this season is how he expected his entire NFL career to go after Brooks got the hint during a free-agent visit that opportunities could arise in his new digs.
“I got to talk to quite a few of the staff, the coaches, talked to Bill, and he had a lot of great things to say,” Brooks said. “But other than that, pretty much he just said the opportunity would be there. That’s pretty much all I’ve been waiting on since my rookie year in the NFL. I got drafted, and after I got hurt, I kind of got pushed behind on the depth chart, not really given a chance back on defense again. It’s taken six years just to get that chance again, and it couldn’t be for a better team. I get to go against some old teams, so that’s pretty sweet. I’m more so just grateful for the opportunity and pretty much just the fact that Bill and the rest of the staff, they actually believe in me to come in here and be a contributor to this defense.”
Brooks has allowed just three catches on six targets for 23 yards in six games this season. Despite his lack of extensive defensive experience, the Patriots’ elite defensive play hasn’t dipped with Brooks on the field.
“It’s been good,” he said Friday. “Just going through what I’ve been through for the past few years that I’ve been in the league. It’s refreshing just to get back there on defense and especially to be trusted by the coaches to come out here and play on this great defense. It’s been awesome.”
Brooks credits his teammates, especially Patrick Chung, for getting him acclimated so quickly. Brooks looked up to Chung throughout his NFL career because of the positions they play, and now Brooks essentially serves as Chung’s backup at free safety.
“Every practice, film, I’m always looking at Patrick, what he’s doing,” Brooks said. “Just trying to — if he’s ever down at some point, I want to go out there and have the standard not change at all. That’s just been my biggest thing, but Patrick’s been a tremendous help for me. I feel like he’s a better friend than he is a teammate too. He’s been there for me since I got here. He gives me tips here and there. He’s hard on me when I do mess up. But he sees something in me, so it’s been pretty cool to be pretty much mentored by him.”
The Patriots’ defensive depth is a huge reason for the unit’s success this season. There has been little to no dropoff when players miss time with injuries, and players like Brooks can also spell teammates to keep them fresh throughout a game.
“Terrence comes to work every day with his hard hat on ready to go, ready to work,” safeties coach Stephen Belichick said last week. “He’s always excited for whatever role you give him. We’ve put a lot on his plate defensively and special teams. We keep giving him more to do and he keeps coming through for us. So yeah, been pleased with everything that Terrence has done. Can’t say enough good things about him — hard worker, tough kid, loves football, loves to compete. He’s fit in really well with the veteran group that we have.”
That he has. Brooks has even become something of a resident prankster in the Patriots secondary room. One day in the locker room, Harmon’s phone had gone missing, and eyes immediately turned to Brooks.
“I get them every once in a while just because they like to mess with me a lot,” Brooks said. “Being a new guy, they want to joke on me a lot from Jason and Devin (McCourty), they’ve always got jokes to throw out. So, I’ve got to get them every once in a while, bring some youth back into the room.”
Thumbnail photo via Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports Images