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Patriots News 03-26, Two Greats From The 2nd Dynasty Retire

Steve Balestrieri
Steve Balestrieri on Twitter
March 26, 2023 at 5:00 am ET

Patriots News 03-26, Two Greats From The 2nd Dynasty Retire(PHOTO: Stew Milne - USA TODAY Sports)

🕑 Read Time: 9 minutes

Good morning, and here are our Sunday Patriots news and notes. As we all know, Father Time is undefeated, but it was bittersweet to watch two of the great parts of the Patriots’ defense during the second part of the team’s dynasty.

Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower were each outstanding leaders on and off the field and were key parts of the three Super Bowl-winning teams from 2014-2018. They will be missed. They are two of the last veterans from those teams; Matthew Slater now stands as the lone link. More below.

While not Patriots-related, Gillette Stadium is going to be a busy place this spring and summer, with ten concerts scheduled. From a press release by the Patriots, here is the list of the upcoming shows.
Taylor Swift: | The Eras Tour (May 19, 20 & 21)
Ed Sheeran: + – = ÷ x Tour (June 30 & July 1)
Luke Combs: 2023 World Tour (July 22)
Beyoncé: Renaissance World Tour (Aug. 1)
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: 2023 Tour (Aug. 24 & 26)
Billy Joel & Stevie Nicks: (Sept. 23)

Quick Hitters For the Patriots and NFL News: 

Steve Belichick: The Patriots’ de facto defensive coordinator, has come up from the bottom and learned on the job, putting in the hard work (and not by nepotism) and earning the respect of the players he’s coached. 

He had been a coaching assistant, breaking down film and doing unheralded jobs for four years before he was assigned as a positional coach in 2016. The elder Belichick made him the safeties coach just before the 2016 OTAs were to begin. Devin McCourty relays that Steve didn’t mince words about his inexperience to the veterans.

On Chris Long’s “Green Light” podcast, McCourty said his honesty and the ability to work with the veterans was a major factor in his success. 

“I remember Steve takes over (after) Pat Graham left, (safeties coach Brian Flores) is moving to linebackers coach, and Steve said Bill tells him two weeks before the offseason program starts that he’s going to be the safeties coach.

“Now he’s walking in the room, and it’s me, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner. We’ve got all these veterans — I’m older than Steve, Pat’s older than Steve, he played with Duron (at Rutgers), and he’s probably the same age as Nate — and he walks in and goes, ‘Yo, I’m going to be honest with y’all. I don’t know what the F*** I’m doing right now. My dad told me two weeks ago that I was even going to have this job.’ And now I’m just sitting here like, ‘I don’t know, what’s next?’ And that first year, we all just worked together.”

McCourty added that his ability to address his inexperience was the major factor in earning the respect of the veterans. And his background growing up in a coaching family certainly didn’t hurt. The 2016 Patriots won the Super Bowl and allowed the fewest points in the NFL.

McCourty added that he believes Steve will be a head coach one day. 

Dante Scarnecchia: The long-time Patriots OL coach has been selected as a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Awards of Excellence. Scarnecchia’s career spanned 49 years, and was a coach of all six Patriots’ Super Bowl victories.

The Awards of Excellence program was launched by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022 to honor those who made a positive impact on individual teams and the sport of professional football. Coach Scar will receive his award on June 28th and should one day be inducted in Canton as one of the best positional coaches ever in the NFL.

Nelson Agholor: The former Patriot WR signed a one-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens this week. Coming off an impressive campaign with the Raiders in 2020 (48 receptions, 896 yards, and 8 TDs), the Patriots signed him to a 2-year deal for 22 million. But he couldn’t replicate that success in New England. 

In two years with the Patriots, Agholor had 69 catches for 853 yards and five touchdowns. After a decent start to 2022, he was hurt in Week 5 and was replaced by rookie Tyquan Thornton.  

Jerry Jeudy/DeAndre Hopkins: The Patriots have been rumored to be in the mix for each of the wide receivers, but without the Cardinals and/or Broncos lowering their asking prices, it seems like the Patriots are out on both of them.

There were reports from national media that Buffalo was now the favorite to land Hopkins. And the asking price for Jeudy reportedly has Denver asking for a 1st round draft pick. So, unless things change, it seems like Denver would be OK with keeping the former 1st round draft pick.  The draft would be the likely spot for adding a WR,

Corliss Waitman: The free-agent punter from the Broncos has joined the Patriots again (he was on the team’s practice squad briefly in late 2021) after the Broncos rescinded the ERFA tender they placed on him. 

With Waitman’s signing, Michael Palardy won’t be back, and deservedly so. Albeit kicking in Denver’s thin air, Waitman outkicked Palardy 46.2 – 42.4, had a net punting advantage 41.2 – 36.4, and the average return yardage was nearly double. Waitman’s average return was 8.2 yards, while Palardy’s was 14.2. 

However, for anyone interested (besides me), check out his splits. Waitman actually punted better on the road. And his average was best when the weather turned cold. So take from that what you will. 

However, the feeling here is that the Patriots will still either draft or sign a UDFA punter this spring. 

Patriots 4th & 2 Podcast: If you haven’t checked out our PatsFans.com podcast, “Patriots 4th & 2”, in a bit, please check it out. Derek and I spoke about free agency moves and needs. Our pre-draft series will start this week. 

Russ Francis/Chuck Fairbanks: The former Patriot tight end and head coach both should be in the Patriots team Hall of Fame, and the fact that especially Francis isn’t is an absolute travesty. Francis and the Raiders’ Dave Casper changed the game with how teams used the tight end position…this will be on our Sunday posts until it happens.

Devin McCourty’s Retirement: If you didn’t get a chance to watch D-Mac’s retirement ceremony earlier last week, here it is in its entirety. The Patriots also released a video of the behind-the-scenes look at the ceremony as Robert Kraft recalls saying to D-Mac on the phone after he was drafted that “you’re going to be the perfect Patriot.” And we would totally agree with that. 

Dont’a Hightower Announces Retirement:

The Patriots’ long-time linebacker and the leader of the front seven, while McCourty was the leader of the secondary, has announced his retirement. While not a surprise, as Hightower sat out the 2022 season, it is another loss in the second SB era.

In the Patriots’ last three Super Bowl wins, you can argue that the team wins none without Hightower’s huge plays. In the win over the Seahawks, the play before the interception by Malcolm Butler, Hightower stopped Marshawn Lynch at the one-yard line. In the Atlanta game, his strip sack of Matt Ryan was one of the big turning points of the game. Hightower had two key sacks against Jared Goff, three quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, and one pass breakup en route in the 13-3 SB win over LA.

Hightower was a clutch player who always saved his best for big games and key points of those games. Bill Belichick gave him the title of “Mr. February” to the big, hard-hitting linebacker who could line inside, outside or on the line as an edge rusher. He and Jamie Collins made a ferocious tandem with double A-Gap blitzes. 

Statement from  Patriots owner Robert Kraft:

“Dont’a Hightower is a champion. He won at every level he ever played and always excelled in championship games. He helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls after winning two national championships at Alabama to become just the second player to win multiple championships at each level. He was a versatile linebacker whose game-altering plays in each of our Super Bowls earned him the moniker ‘Mr. February.’ Some of his greatest performances came on our biggest stage, including a crucial goal-line tackle against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, his strip stack against Atlanta two years later that sparked the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, and a two-sack performance that was part of a stifling defense which held the explosive L.A. Rams to just three points in Super Bowl LIII. I congratulate Dont’a on a tremendous career. We are honored to call Dont’a a Patriot and will always celebrate him as a champion.”

Statement from Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick:

“Dont’a’s blend of intelligence, positional versatility, and physicality made him one of the rarest of players that I have ever coached. Very few players were capable of as much as Dont’a, who could win from multiple positions with power, athleticism, and his mind. His skills were most evident in two of the all-time great plays in franchise history, which led directly to two Super Bowl championships, but date back to the start of his decorated college and NFL careers. As a rookie, it was clear that Dont’a was already a mature, highly-competitive player who could make an immediate impact, which he did in his first game and consistently over the course of a decade.”

“Clutch. A great teammate, captain, and champion. Congratulations on an amazing career,” Tom Brady posted to his Instagram account. 

Hightower’s first game that Belichick was referencing was against the Tennessee Titans in his rookie season. Fellow rookie Chandler Jones strip-sacked TN QB Jake Locker, and Hightower scooped it up at the six-yard-line and ran it in for TD. It was a sign of great things to come for the talented rookie who won two national championships at Alabama and three Super Bowls with the Patriots. 

“I can’t think of a better story than the one I wrote in New England,” Hightower said.

“So this is a happy day for me … Today, I’m totally at peace knowing that I gave this franchise every ounce of sweat I had left.”

“I appreciate everyone who helped me make this dream come true,” Hightower said. “But I especially want to thank my mom (L’Tanya). None of this happens without her.”

Kendrick Bourne Is Flying Under the Radar (and Shouldn’t) in 2023 

The Patriots have been trying to land DeAndre Hopkins and Jerry Jeudy during free agency, and either would elevate the Patriots’ offense big time in 2023. But now it is looking like it may not happen. But if they do look to add a WR in the draft, is it the end of the world? No, because Kendrick Bourne should find a career resurgence under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. 

Bourne was put in the doghouse in training camp by Matt Patricia and never truly got out of it, even when being brought in for a few plays….and producing. Opening day in Miami, he was targeted just once and caught a 41-yard pass.

After starting just two games in 2022, Bourne was easily the best Patriots receiver against the Bengals in December. He had his first career 100-yard game, scoring a touchdown and making a miraculous grab along the sideline, and had a 29-yard rush. The next week against Miami? Right back in the doghouse with just two targets… Inconceivable. 

Bourne was the Patriots’ best playmaker down the stretch in 2021, catching 55 passes for 800 yards (14.5-yard avg), with 5 TDs, and gained 125 yards rushing. He and Mac Jones were gaining chemistry, it seemed, every week. That was put to a halt by Patricia, but now with O’Brien, he should see a much bigger role. And he should be much more productive. 

The depth chart is far from bare with DeVante Parker, Juju Smith-Schuster, Bourne, and 2nd-year speedster Tyquan Thornton who wasn’t used correctly last year but should see an uptick of use under Bill O’Brien as the speed option outside. Adding TE Mike Gesicki to go along with Hunter Henry will provide the Patriots with a lot of solid targets to attack the middle of the field. 

Do they need another piece at WR? Yes, but this lack could be filled in the draft. 

While many are calling for a receiving back, the Patriots already have two. Ty Montgomery and Pierre Strong, who they drafted last year. Montgomery scored the first TD of the year but got hurt in the Miami game and was lost for the year. Strong played sparingly, but as has been the case with many receiving backs had a red-shirt type of rookie season. James Robinson was signed, and if he is completely healed from his Achilles injury, he is a very good receiving back.

______________

“I think this is a very unique place because when you play sports, they don’t really care as much about the entertainers and the other famous people,” McCourty said. “If they find out you play a sport for Boston sports, then you are one of a kind — they love you. I think one of the coolest things about being an athlete is the fans; they never go away. Now, I get to be a part of the community. I get to come back to games, and being in the stands, and tailgating, and all those things. So I’m excited not to really say goodbye to the fans but to be able to embrace the fans as a fan.

“Now, we’ll be equals. I have a little knowledge from playing, but I’ll get to be like those crazy guys. If Mac throws an interception, I’ll be cursing Mac (Jones) out on the field. If (Ja’Whaun Bentley) misses a tackle, I’ll be cursing Bent out. That’s what it’s going to be because now I’m just a fan. I’m not their teammate anymore. I’m a fan, so that means they have to play a perfect game. Mac has to have four touchdowns every game, 350 yards. That’s your expectation as a fan. I’m looking forward to Bent’s 150 tackles, five interceptions, three sacks and maybe two touchdowns.

“That’s what I need from him, and he’s probably mad that I said it. But I’m a fan now, so I’m excited to be a crazy New England Patriots fan. I’m going to give it all I got.”

Patriots retired captain Devin McCourty on how he’s looking forward to watching games and being a die-hard fan from now on.  

_______________

“So, how was your week?”

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on Stitcher and Streamyard as Russ Goldman, Derek Havens, and myself from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news and game analysis.

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MORSE: Patriots Team Priorities as We Head into the Draft; Stanley Morgan for Hall of Fame

About Steve Balestrieri

A former US Army Special Forces NCO and Officer, Steve has been following the Patriots since their days at Fenway Park. Steve has worked in the film industry and wrote as an Military Editor at SpecialOperations.com, 1945.com as a reporter for the Millbury Daily Voice, Millbury-Sutton Chronicle, and the Grafton News. He's also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)


Tags: Bill Belichick Devante Parker Devin McCourty Dont'a Hightower Hunter Henry JuJu Smith-Schuster Kendrick Bourne Mac Jones Mike Gesicki New England Patriots Patriots Patriots wide receivers Tom Brady Tyquan Thornton

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