NASHVILLE — When Malcolm Butler found out the New England Patriots were coming to town for joint practice, he no doubt relished the opportunity to go one on one with his old teammate Julian Edelman again.
Edelman, of course, hasn’t practiced all preseason thanks to a broken thumb. Neither has suspended receiver Josh Gordon and newly acquired receivers Demaryius Thomas and Cam Meredith.
Last week rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry tweaked a hamstring, keeping him off the field at practice as the team takes it slow, and Wednesday the team’s other two primary receivers, Phillip Dorsett and Maurice Harris, both left practice with injuries.
So when the Patriots’ starting offense lined up against Butler, Logan Ryan and the formidable Titans defense on Thursday, the only receiver on the field with a realistic chance of sticking with the 53-man roster was undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers.
The rest of the lineup? Guys like Braxton Berrios, Dontrelle Inman, Gunner Olszewski, Ryan Davis and Damoun Patterson.
Did Butler feel let down by the lack of big-name receivers?
“It’s next man up,” Butler said. “No. 9 is Julian, I guess.”
Butler was referring to Olszewski, whose name he didn’t know but who he’d previously said stood out during practice along with Meyers.
Frankly, Olszewski looked like Edelman at times on Thursday, and so did most of the other no-names lining up against Butler, ex-Patriot Logan Ryan et al. That’s the kind of effect Tom Brady can have, and Thursday’s practice was a testament of his ability to elevate the players around him.
Brady enjoyed one of his most impressive showings of the summer, going 10 for 17 in live 11-on-11 drills despite the huge mismatch in personnel.
His best throws included a deep touchdown to a wide-open Ben Watson, along with a pair of deep strikes to Berrios on his final series of practice.
How did he do it? A moment in between Berrios’ two big catches illustrated why Brady has been able to thrive no matter who he’s throwing to.
Following Berrios’ 70-yard catch and run down the sideline, the second-year receiver ran the wrong route and got chewed out by the quarterback. Moments later, Berrios responded with a huge play, drawing a holding penalty while getting loose up the seam for a 40-yard touchdown.
Brady said sequences like that are great for the team, regardless of who the receiver in question might be.
“The chemistry between a quarterback and receiver and a quarterback and tight end is so important because it’s all anticipation,” Brady said. “If you’re waiting for things to happen in the NFL, you’re too late, you’ve got to anticipate and expect them to be a certain way, and that’s the way it turns out.
“I have obviously a lot of experience so I know where guys should be, so I’m trying to tell them if you want the ball this is where you’ve got to be, which is hopefully good learning for them and it’s good teaching for me.”
Brady acknowledged that having such a revolving door of receivers this summer has been different. But he said there’s value in putting in work on making good reads and facing tough defenses like the Titans.
Even though the team could have its presumed starters back soon, the fact that the 42-year-old Brady is still capable of elevating less renowned players is an incredibly positive sign.
Butler laughs off Super Bowl questions
Malcolm Butler spoke to a group of New England reporters after practice, and when asked about his mysterious benching in Super Bowl LII, he laughed it off and joked that he graded out at 99% on his one punt return rep against the Eagles.
He added that he enjoyed his time in New England and has no regrets, and that if people want to know why he was benched, they would have to ask Bill Belichick.
“Where the hoodie at? You’ve got to go ask him,” Butler said. “It’s the past, man. I’m past that.”
Vrabel’s participation trophy
Before practice began, Tom Brady had a funny moment with Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, presenting his former teammate with a trophy adorned with the score of last year’s regular-season game, which the Titans won 34-10.
The Patriots, of course, went on to win the Super Bowl.
Low on bodies
Tight ends Matt LaCosse and Stephen Anderson and receivers Maurice Harris, N’Keal Harry and Phillip Dorsett did not participate in Thursday’s practice. Linebacker Jamie Collins returned after sitting out Wednesday and injured receivers Julian Edelman and Demaryius Thomas both took part in some conditioning work.
Isaiah Wynn had his busiest day of practice of the preseason on Thursday, seeing an increase in his first-team reps during competitive 11-on-11 drills. Dan Skipper continued to sub in at left tackle, and Cole Croston got in some work, too.
Tensions boil over
Midway through practice a scuffle broke out after Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Titans rookie receiver A.J. Brown got into it after a play, resulting in players from both teams having it out in the end zone. Titans coach Mike Vrabel quickly restored order after he rushed into the pile, tossed some players out of the fray and then ordered everyone to get back to their sideline.
Practice continued without incident moments later.