Bill Belichick is most known for his old-school authoritarian style of head coaching. But the New England Patriots head coach is also an enigma. Because he’s completely willing to think outside of the box and experiment with new ideas.
I’ve long been obsessed with Belichick’s willingness to simply toggle a player’s position if it’s what’s best for the team, and it opens up all sorts of possibilities when the Patriots have a large roster leading up to an unprecedented season. NFL practice squads will be expanded from 10 to 16 players this season. Add those to the 53-man active roster, and Belichick will have 69 players to maneuver.
Belichick has moved Troy Brown and Julian Edelman from wide receiver to cornerback, Matthew Slater to safety, Gunner Olszewski from cornerback to wide receiver, Jake Bequette from defensive end to tight end, Danny Etling from quarterback to wide receiver, Elandon Roberts from linebacker to fullback and there are probably some experiments we never even found out about. They’ve had varying degrees of success, but Belichick is open to see if something crazy might just work.
After losing 10 starters from the 2019 season and having eight players opt-out since training camp reopened, Belichick might have to get creative just to put together a starting lineup for some weeks this upcoming season. And if players start testing positive during the season, then Belichick might really need to scramble and switch around some players’ positions.
Someone like Olszewski might actually have some added value in 2020 compared to most seasons. Olszewski is a wide receiver with the Patriots. But he can also return punts, and he played cornerback throughout his four-year career at Bemidji State. He even played some defense last preseason.
Obviously we’re hoping this is not the case, but if coronavirus happened to sweep through the Patriots’ secondary, one option would be to move Olszewski in the interim. And entire position groups could get affected if one player does test positive because of the way meetings likely will be structured. Position groups are typically in the closest quarters.
Belichick also could move some pieces around to compensate for the losses of Marcus Cannon and Patrick Chung. Joe Thuney and Jonathan Jones both sounded open to changing positions Wednesday on video conference calls with the media. Thuney could move from left guard to right tackle, where his franchise tag figure would be a better value, and Jones could switch from slot cornerback to safety.
If Belichick is trying to put the best 22 players on the field regardless of position, then some toggling might be in order.
The Patriots also have limited options for replacing opted-out linebacker Dont’a Hightower, so we could see an outside linebacker playing inside or safeties like Adrian Phillips or Kyle Dugger aligning closer to the line of scrimmage.
One reason Belichick’s position-switching experiments seem to work is that players are prepared for them. Thuney was forced to switch from left guard to right tackle in Week 1 of last season. It wasn’t a stretch to ask him to make such a move because he’d done similar things before in practice. Belichick will regularly have offensive players on the defensive scout team or vice versa during the season. They might not be extensive reps, but any comfortability can go a long way on game day.
No team has seen more players opt-out than the Patriots this offseason. But if any team is prepared to adjust on the fly, it’s the Patriots.