FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When the second day of the 2021 NFL draft began a few weeks ago, ESPN’s Draft Predictor assessed that there was a less than 1% chance that Oklahoma outside linebacker Ronnie Perkins would be available at pick 96 late in the third round.
The Draft Predictor factors in player grades, mock drafts and team needs to estimate the chance a player is chosen at a specific spot, and while that is often hard to pin down, the “Patriots Predictor” seemed to reflect something similar. The team pounced on Perkins, and afterward, coach Bill Belichick referred to him as a “disruptive, physical, versatile player.”
ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller had rated Perkins as his 40th overall prospect, further highlighting the unexpected development of him being on the board at No. 96.
That 1% projection, which might have been partially a result of Perkins serving a five-game suspension last season for a failed drug test, is timely to revisit this week as Perkins and his fellow rookies took part in the Patriots’ three-day rookie minicamp last weekend. The camp is essentially a 1% entry into the team’s way of doing things — a.k.a. an introductory course in Patriots 101.
In a reflection of this, the Patriots posted pictures on their website that included Perkins — aligned in a two-point stance at right outside linebacker — working with assistants Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo. There were no offensive linemen opposite of Perkins, just trash barrels to indicate where those blockers would be in a traditional practice.
It doesn’t get more basic than that.
With more coaches on the field than players, it also created an intimate teaching environment for Perkins, who along with his fellow rookies will continue this week as part of a development program that includes lessons on financial literacy, real-estate guidance as they transition to a new part of the country and media training, among other things.
On the field, the goal is to provide rookies a foundation in the team’s system, with a teaching approach, so they have a chance to compete come training camp.
“Ronnie’s a versatile player — he’s played on both ends of the line, left and right, strong side, weak side, he’s also reduced down and played some 3-technique,” Bill Belichick said after selecting him. “So if you watch him play, you get a number of opportunities to evaluate his playing strengths, especially against bigger people.”
Belichick cited Perkins’ “toughness, effort and instinctiveness” as assets.
Perkins, who said he admired watching Patriots Hall of Famer Willie McGinest, joins a suddenly stacked position headlined by big-money free agent Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy, who returns after one season in Miami.
Recent Day 2 draft picks Chase Winovich (2019 third round) and Anfernee Jennings (2020 third round) are also on the depth chart, along with developmental options Tashawn Bower and Rashod Berry and recently re-signed Harvey Langi.
It’s also possible that 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche, who displayed some dynamic rush skills off the edge in limited playing time last season, factors into the mix in some form.
Former Patriots scout and current Reese’s Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy is impressed with what is coming together in New England: “They’ve drafted some really cool pieces. … You can do a lot with those guys. They’re really building a defense with a lot of movable parts.”
While sacks don’t necessarily translate to success, the Patriots’ total of 24 last season were the fewest for any team with Belichick on the coaching staff in his 46 years in the NFL.
Perkins could help address that, with his initial on-field steps as a Patriot underway.
Minnesota Vikings add depth to wide receiver corps, sign veteran Dede Westbrook, agency says
EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings made an addition to their receiving corps three days ahead of the start of training camp.
Former Jacksonville receiver Dede Westbrook signed with the Vikings on Sunday, his agency Young Money APAA Sports announced. The length of Westbrook’s contract is for one year, a source told ESPN.
A former fourth-round selection by the Jaguars in 2017, Westbrook will reunite with Vikings wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell for a fifth consecutive season. McCardell coached wide outs in Jacksonville from 2017-20.
Westbrook was brought in to Minnesota for a workout on Saturday. The 27-year-old receiver was inactive for five of the first seven games in 2020 while recovering from injuries that limited him dating back to training camp and sustained a season-ending ACL tear in Week 7. He finished the 2020 season having appeared in two games (Weeks 5 and 7) and finished with one catch for four yards.
During the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Westbrook totaled 66 catches each year for at least 660 yards and three touchdowns.
Seeking depth behind Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, the Vikings will now have Westbrook compete for the No. 3 receiver role along with veterans Chad Beebe, Bisi Johnson and a handful of rookie receivers signed this spring. Westbrook could also potentially be in the mix as a returner given his experience on punt return (42 returns for 398 yards and a touchdown in 2018-19) and limited experience on kickoff return in 2018 and 2020.
Pittsburgh offensive lineman Trai Turner ready for ‘new era’ on Steelers’ rebuilt offensive line
PITTSBURGH — Signed just a day after the Pittsburgh Steelers released longtime right guard David DeCastro, Pro Bowl lineman Trai Turner isn’t viewing himself as a direct replacement of DeCastro. Instead, he sees himself as one part of Pittsburgh’s rebuilt offensive line.
“I just look at it like it’s a new era, a different time, different place,” Turner said Sunday. “Everything has an expiration date at some point. DeCastro is a great player, and I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m replacing him, I’m just the new right guard.
“I’m going to be the best Trai Turner I can be. I’ve been that since I was born June 14, 1993. That’s never changed. I’m not trying to emulate or be somebody else. I’m not taking place of nobody else, I’m not replacing anything. I’m coming in, and I’m setting the tone for who I am and for what I do.”
Though he’s only been a Steeler for a month, Turner, who signed a one-year, $3 million contract in June, is the most veteran of the projected starting offensive linemen, with seven seasons under his belt. The four other projected starters on the line — Chukwuma Okorafor, Kendrick Green, Kevin Dotson and Zach Banner — have just 24 combined NFL starts. Only one of those starts was at the position where the player is projected to line up this season.
Even after observing just a handful of camp practices, offensive coordinator Matt Canada saw the immediate benefit of bringing in a veteran offensive lineman like Turner.
“He had a mistake today that I didn’t see on the side. As we worked he came up and knew what it was and said it right away,” Canada said Saturday. “Obviously a veteran like him who’s played as well as he has, I think we’re very fortunate to have him and really like where he’s at. And he’s worked very hard to not have those mistakes, and to be as efficient as he has been in three days is really a real positive for us and him. Big fan of him.”
In the four days of training camp, Turner’s linemates have shifted frequently. Both Okorafor and Dotson have only done individual work, while Banner is slowly working into the rotation as he continues recovering from torn ACL in last year’s season-opener.
Even Green missed a full day of practice, excused Saturday by coach Mike Tomlin for personal reasons. But Turner, who feels healthy after an injury-riddled 2020 season, sees the benefits in the constant turnover this early in camp.
“It’s camp so you’ve got to embrace it,” Turner said. “Not only do I have to get used to new guys, they have to get used to me. I think it’s more of a positive than a negative that more people are in than not because you don’t know who’s available at all times.
“Sometimes you just have to make sure you have continuity with everyone and I think that’s what we’re getting. Just embracing it and hope everyone gets healthy soon and be back to full strength.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Leonard Fournette says he will consider COVID-19 vaccine despite tweet to contrary
TAMPA, Fla. — In a tweet that was put out Thursday and later deleted, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette indicated he didn’t want to get vaccinated for COVID-19. But on Sunday he said his decision wasn’t set in stone and he is open to the idea.
“I just don’t know too much about it,” Fournette said after the team’s first training camp practice.
Coach Bruce Arians said that rather than bringing in a specialist to address the team’s concerns about the vaccine as a whole — which Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera did — the team would make doctors available to address individual players’ concerns. Fournette plans to take him up on that.
“I’m going to talk to them, and just see what’s the best decision, for myself and for the team,” Fournette said, adding that if he doesn’t get the vaccine, he’s prepared to undergo the far more restrictive COVID-19 unvaccinated player protocols that significantly impact team and social activities away from football.
“We went over the rules yesterday,” Fournette said. “I know what’s going on, I know what to do and what not to do.”
He said he does not believe that he will be impacted in any way from a football standpoint, despite restrictions like not being able to gather with teammates outside the facility, no access to the sauna or steam room and only cold tub usage when social distancing can be followed. Failure to abide by those rules can result in a fine of $14,650 for each infraction.
“I know a lot of people who got the shot and still got the corona,” Fournette. “Just taking it day-by-day, week-by-week, talking to the doctors, trying to figure out what’s best for myself and the team.”
Fournette said he has felt the support of teammates and coaches.
“Coach [Arians] respects our decision,” Fournette said. “We’re men. He said he’s 100% with us, whatever we want to do. Just don’t get the team sick. That’s about it.”
The Bucs were one of the few teams last year that did not see a significant COVID-19 outbreak, with Arians emphasizing throughout the season that they “needed to beat the virus” and not just their weekly opponents. The start of 2021 training camp had a similar feel, even as restrictions have loosened and fans have been welcomed back to practice.
“It’s always on your mind,” Arians said. “Florida’s a hot spot in the nation. Hillsborough [County] and Pinellas [County] were No. 1 for a while. … Guys still have to be smart. We talked a lot about the delta variant and what it means, what rules you are following if your wristband’s red and your wristband’s yellow.”
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