Fresh off another Super Bowl win, the New England Patriots made the trip to West Virginia this week for joint practices with the Houston Texans.
At first, this whole thing felt a bit odd. These are two prominent AFC squads who have met in some heated playoff battles in recent history. Clearly the Patriots have emerged as the victors most of the time — but don't get it twisted — there's a palpable sense of optimism surrounding the Texans.
Bill O'Brien is heading into 2017 with the NFL's top-ranked defense from a season ago and capable starting QB in Tom Savage, with an electric rookie named Deshaun Watson ready to lead the franchise at any moment. DeAndre Hopkins heads up a young wide receievers' corps. Lamar Miller in the backfield. J.J. Watt, Jadeaveon Clowney and a defense loaded with playmakers.
The pieces are in place.
The Patriots don't need any explanation. They are returning nearly every weapon from last year's Super Bowl team and as we all know — Tom Brady isn't slowing down anytime soon.
I felt like I was getting a glimpse into the AFC playoffs — but it's only August.
Here are the 5 biggest takeaways from joint practices between the Texans and Patriots:
5. Texans' WR Jaelen Strong Ready to step up
[credit] Houston Texans third-year WR Jaelen Strong hauls in a tough catch in a practice against the Patriots. (Houston Texans media relations)[/credit]
The Houston brass had high hopes for former Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong after drafting him in the third round in 2015 — but Strong hasn't lived up to the expectations. He arrived overweight his rookie season and put together an underwhelming season. Last year, he suffered an ankle injury in the middle of the year and was eventually placed on IR.
This season, though? Strong is expected to take on a much bigger role — with second-year WR Will Fuller sidelined for 2-3 months with a broken collarbone. From everything I saw, he's ready for the challenge. Strong hauled in pass after pass against the Patriots' starting corners — and many weren't just routine grabs.
If Strong can produce — this is a terrifying WR corps once Fuller returns from injury. A speedy threat who can take the top off a defense, a big red-zone guy and then Hopkins who can do it all? Come on.
4. Jimmy Garoppolo Struggles in practice
There's been plenty of hype surrounding Patriots' backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo and his future as Brady's backup or as a starter for another NFL team. I wasn't familiar with this narrative heading in — but Garoppolo really struggles in practice situations, and it was no different when I was there. He was missing routine passes and what appeared to be fairly easy plays. Bizarre.
"It's not on purpose," Garoppolo said after Tuesday's practice. "I don't know, I try to go out there every day and practice well with the guys. I mean, you're trying different things in practice sometimes, working with different guys."
Two things are for certain. Garoppolo appears to be just fine in games (22-for-28, 235 yards, two touchdowons in the preseason opener against Jacksonville) and yes, he's ridiculously handsome in person.
3. Watson and Savage both looked like starters
— Houston Sports Focus (@HouSportsFocus) August 4, 2017
At some point in the near future, Bill O'Brien and the Texans coaching staff are going to have to make a tough decision. The plan was to move forward with Tom Savage as starting QB — but Deshaun Watson continues to impress with dazzling play after dazzling play.
When it's all said and done — O'Brien will need to go with the guy he thinks can win the most games. I don't know who that is and they are both very different, but it's a good problem to have right now.
2. Brandin Cooks Will Change Patriots' Offense
— Joe Giza (@JoeGiza) August 15, 2017
Until I arrived at practice on the first day, I genuinely forgot New England inked former Saints' speedster Brandin Cooks in the offseason.
He's a game changer — and there was already an obvious hemistry between the 4th-year WR and Brady. Just think about this for a moment. A healthy Gronk drawing attention in the middle while Julian Edleman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan continue to do what they've always done. Now, there's a deep threat to take the top off the defense? Good lord, this Pats' offense might actually be even better.
1. Tom Brady Exudes Greatness
Maybe you read that header and say something like "well of course he does," and it's almost hard to put it into words.
I studied Brady as much as I could — and I wasn't the only one. Former Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean was there getting notes from Brady and Belichick. Same with West Virginia football coach Dana Holgorsen and even Maryland lacrosse coach John Tillman. All of these coaches from various sports were there to pick the brain of two people — two of the greatest to ever do it.
I guess I sort of assumed Brady would be casual and relaxed in practice — but that was far from true. He was visibily angry every time he missed a throw or botched a play (which was rare). After practice, he spoke about constantly improving and said he still has a long way to go. It was baffling to me. Here was the four-time Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP and arguably the greatest QB of all time, at 40-years-old, saying he needs to improve.
It was greatness and everyone there sensed it.