Tom Brady is headed back to campus for the weekend.
The Michigan alum is going back to the state he referred to as “a little pit stop” in his life for the Patriots’ third preseason game vs. the Detroit Lions on Friday night. It will be the seventh time Brady has played in Detroit between both the pre and regular season.
“It’s almost 18 years here in Boston; that’s as long as I spent in California growing up, with a little pit stop in Michigan,” Brady said. “Any one of those three places, I feel pretty comfortable.”
Brady completed the first pass of his career in Detroit in relief of Drew Bledsoe on Nov. 23, 2000, a 34-9 loss for the Patriots.
It’s roughly 45 miles from Detroit to Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan is located. Brady said he hoped to get over to campus, where his Wolverines are in preseason themselves; Jim Harbaugh, now in his fourth season as head coach at Michigan, has the Wolverines ranked No. 11 in the AP Preseason Top 25 poll.
“I think they’ve got things on the right track,” Brady said of his alma mater. “Coach Harbaugh is doing a great job and I think they’re supposed to have a pretty good year.”
Brady recalled the summers he spent in Michigan, where he worked an array of odd jobs during the off-season as a student-athlete. He punched the clock as a construction worker, worked at a golf course – “to play free golf, because that’s what I like to do,” Brady said – and worked at a festival.
Unlike his current job as quarterback for the Patriots, they were for the most part tasks Brady did not enjoy.
“It was good experiences because it really is hard work,” he said. “I’ve been so fortunate to do something that I love to do. Working out and training and being on the practice field never feels like work to me, but that definitely felt like work when you’re cleaning up industrial parks and cleaning up roofs.”
Dwayne Allen Getting Up to Speed
One of Brady’s many new targets added over the off-season is tight end Dwayne Allen, who spent the first five years of his career with the Indianapolis Colts.
Allen joined the Patriots via trade this off-season, signaling yet another changing of the guard on New England’s depth chart at tight end behind Rob Gronkowski.
Many players have flowed in and out of the Patriots system since the Aaron Hernandez situation unfolded in 2013, with mixed results. Zach Sudfeld, Michael Hoomanawanui, Tim Wright and Scott Chandler all had little success playing as a compliment to Gronk, none truly giving the Patriots what they needed in two-tight end sets in the passing game.
Allen’s predecessor, Martellus Bennett, had the best single-season numbers out of anyone, coming off a 2016 season with 55 receptions for 701 yards and seven touchdowns. But Bennett is now in Green Bay, set to catch passes from Aaron Rodgers.
Can Allen provide stability alongside Gronk, and – if the worst-case scenario arises yet again – serve as the No. 1 tight end for the Patriots?
Brady has been impressed with Allen’s work ethic thus far, acknowledging the difficulty of adjusting to a new organization after so many years on a different team. He said that Allen hasn’t made any excuses and has done everything the coaches asked of him.
It isn’t easy to work your way into Brady’s circle of trust, but Allen appears to be trending in that direction.
“I’ve certainly gained more trust in him,” Brady said. “He’s done a lot of good things, we’re going to keep working on those things and get better at them, because we’re going to need him. That position has been really critical for us over the years.
“Tight ends that play opposite Rob get a lot of opportunity. He’s going to need to take advantage of them, and it’s going to be great for our team if he does.”
For his part, Allen seems ready to run with the opportunity in front of him. He’s under contract through the 2019 season, although this is the last year of his deal with guaranteed money.
Allen’s career highs in receptions (45) and receiving yards (521) both came in his rookie season of 2012. Last year was the closest he’s come to approaching these numbers since, posting a 35-catch, 406 yard season for the Colts in 14 games.
He’s not quite sure where exactly he fits into the New England scheme offensively yet, but believes game-like situations – such as Friday night’s third preseason game – will provide some clarity.
“I have no idea where I stand in the offense,” Allen said. “It’s been developed over 17, 18 years. I hope that I’m getting somewhere towards the top in terms of understanding it in its totality, but right now I’m not sure.”
Allen didn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of getting up to speed with everything in a system which demands perfection, but also described the process as stimulating and exciting.
He’s taken a keen eye to the methods of Gronkowski, whom Allen said was “one of the hardest working men in the organization.” Watching Gronk communicate with Brady – both verbally and non-verbally – has helped Allen make progress in the Patriots offense.
Allen is also a more-than-capable blocker, which is just one of the many parts of being a tight end he enjoys. In order to stick with New England, he’ll need to master all of them.
“I take pride in every facet of the game,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to play the tight end position, which encompasses a guy that’s able to block, receive, move in the backfield, split out, do different things…the more you can do, the different ways you can put stress on the defense and the better it’s going to be for your offensive unit. I just want to continue to progress and really hone in my skills to be that type of versatile player.”
Dont’a Hightower Off the PUP List
It remains unclear if Dont’a Hightower will play in Friday’s game vs. the Lions – all signs point to no, seeing as how he just returned from the PUP list.
He said that he never had a set time-frame to return from his undisclosed injury, but it’s an encouraging sign that he’s off the PUP list now with a little more than two weeks to go before New England’s regular season opener on Sept. 7 vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.
Hightower re-signed with the Patriots this off-season for four years, $35.5 million ($19 million guaranteed), a deal which he’s glad he signed, not wanting to leave the type of system he’s known his whole career – including his college days at Alabama under Nick Saban.
“I’ve been here my whole career,” Hightower said. “It wasn’t a hard change from what I had in college, so I’m definitely used to it. I feel like I’ve had a lot of success in programs like this, in Alabama and New England. The culture around here, the teammates, the coaches, everything around here is second to none. When it came down to making my decision it wasn’t too hard a choice.”
Hightower, the 25th overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, said that testing free agency was not only stressful, but there was a point where he was unsure if he’d be returning to the only professional team he’s known.
“It’s free agency,” Hightower said. “It is what it is; it’s over and done with now. I’m here.”
Can Trevor Bates Crack the 53-Man Roster?
Second-year linebacker Trevor Bates has been coming on in recent days, perhaps playing his way into a spot on the Patriots roster after cut down day. He’s been seen sporting a green dot on his helmet during practice, indicating his signal calling duties on the defense.
Bill Belichick said that all linebackers have worn the green dot at some point to see how they’d handle it, to give them experience so that if it ever came up, the first time wouldn’t be in a regular season game.
“We’re allowed to have more in preseason, so I think we’ve hit most of the guys that would have any outside chance of having it hopefully,” Belichick said.
Bates was a seventh-round pick of the Colts in 2016 but was released in the middle of the season, ultimately signing with the Patriots practice squad. Relative to other positions, New England is a tad thin at linebacker. The University of Maine graduate can return to the practice squad again this year, though Belichick seems pleased with Bates’ progress over the off-season.