HOUSTON -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Running back Rex Burkhead had an impressive Patriots preseason debut Saturday night, giving fans their first on-field look at the former Cincinnati Bengal who will be a big part of the team's plans. Thus, it's also timely to highlight a poignant personal connection that has continued to be a big part of Burkhead's life.
In 2011, when Burkhead was a junior at the University of Nebraska, he was a personal favorite of Jack Hoffman, a 5-year-old who had brain cancer. Burkhead hosted Hoffman for lunch that year, gave him a tour of Memorial Stadium, and it was the start of a beautiful connection that is still growing today.
"I think in the meeting, they kind of hoped I would impact Jack and give him some strength. Hopefully I did. But I felt like he impacted my life as well," Burkhead said last week. "He gave me a new perspective on things I was going through, especially my senior year when I hurt my knee. Just realizing it was nothing compared to what Jack is going through."
In 2013, Hoffman’s 69-yard touchdown run at Nebraska’s spring scrimmage went viral, earning him an ESPY.
Burkhead, 27, is on the board of directors of a foundation in Hoffman’s name, and he hosted a fundraiser this offseason for the first time at his high school alma mater in Plano, Texas, that he said raised about $45,000.
Meanwhile, in his short time with the Patriots, Burkhead and his wife, Danielle, have become close friends with offensive tackle Nate Solder and his wife, Lexi. Their son Hudson was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2015.
“He was the first teammate that reached out to me, him and Matt Slater. Nate invited me over, and we spent an afternoon after their house -- I brought my dog over so our dogs played. We were over there Easter Sunday, too,” Burkhead said, noting that they haven’t talked much about their experiences with children and cancer. “They’re great people, been through a lot. He’s great to have as a teammate.”
2. Tom Brady has one of the shortest walks from the players' parking lot to the front door at Gillette Stadium, as the quarterback has once again been awarded a front-row parking spot. Those are generally reserved for offseason award-winners, which is another reflection of the 40-year-old’s continued commitment to his craft.
3. Three leftovers from Patriots-Texans joint practices:
At the end of Wednesday's session, I watched Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson -- in a lighthearted competition in which quarterbacks attempted to hit the crossbar from about the 25-yard line -- plunk it on his first attempt. Nice accuracy.
Coaches from both sides felt as though they might have been two of the best practices they were ever part of. That’s a credit to both staffs for having similar football values and, of course, the players themselves for carrying them out.
Neat nugget from Peter King of TheMMQB about how Texans coach Bill O’Brien changed up his music playlist at practice as a tribute of sorts to Bill Belichick. That meant more Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen and U2. At one point, Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt expressed his playful (we think) displeasure with the change.
4. When Patriots receiver Julian Edelman praised former teammate and current Texans assistant coach Wes Welker as a “revolutionary player who basically created a position” last week, it was a nice compliment but one that overlooked how Welker really was passed the slot receiver torch by Troy Brown. That position had been well established in the New England offense by the time Welker arrived in 2007. Welker took it to a higher level, though.
5. Former Patriots assistant to the coaching staff Michael Lombardi wrote about the keys to beating the Patriots on The Ringer, and he highlighted something many might overlook. During an interview on "The Rich Eisen Show," Lombardi elaborated on how special teams are the key. “If you want to beat the Patriots, institutionally, you have to be committed to the kicking game,” he said, adding that is a reason John Harbaugh and the Ravens have had some success against New England, and that was also a key in the New York Giants' Super Bowl victories over the Patriots. That made me think of one example of how Lions general manager Bob Quinn, the former Patriots director of pro personnel, adopted this mindset in making Johnson Bademosi one of his priority free-agent signings last year. Bademosi had led the Browns in special-teams tackles each season from 2012-2015 and was given a two-year, $4.5 million contract by Quinn in Detroit, which is a significant investment in the Slater-type category.
6. With just 18 days until the regular-season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, here are a few key things to know about K.C., learned over the past week:
First-round pick Patrick Mahomes II has shown enough to already be bumped up to the No. 2 quarterback spot.
The club held its training camp at Missouri Western University, finishing on Wednesday, and now will train back home in Kansas City.
Starting quarterback Alex Smith called it the team’s best camp in his five years with the franchise.
Coach Andy Reid believes that the players’ focus was partially a result of having the Patriots first on the schedule, in addition to playing five games in prime time over the first eight weeks of the season.
Chiefs pro scout Jim Noel was on hand to watch Saturday night’s Patriots-Texans game, while Patriots pro scout Steve Cargile was in Cincinnati to monitor the Chiefs-Bengals game.
7. Something to file away: When Patriots captain Devin McCourty was asked on sports radio WEEI-FM which defensive rookies have stood out to him to this point, he began his answer with undrafted linebacker/defensive end Harvey Langi. Specifically, McCourty noted the increased repetitions Langi has received of late. The 6-foot-2, 252-pound Langi, whose $115,000 in guaranteed money was the most of any undrafted player across the NFL, has a dual skill set that includes some pass-rush skills off the edge. He seemed to struggle a bit after getting a starting assignment Saturday night, but he's a rookie to watch nonetheless.
8. It’s been a tough stretch on the health front for Patriots draft picks, as defensive end Derek Rivers (third round, No. 83) tore his ACL, left tackle Tony Garcia (third round, No. 85) has remained out of practice for a second consecutive week with an undisclosed injury and defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. (fourth round, No. 131) sustained a concussion in the preseason opener and has yet to be cleared. While Wise is expected to return soon, this is crucial developmental time for Rivers and Garcia to miss. Conor McDermott, the sixth-round offensive tackle from UCLA, is currently the last member of the Patriots’ four-player draft class standing.
9. Tony La Russa was a guest of Belichick at Wednesday’s joint practice with the Texans in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and he relayed how spending time around Belichick had caught some of his Arizona Diamondbacks players by surprise. “He came to spring training and our players said, ‘He’s not like he is at the press conferences. He has a lot of personality, a sense of humor, a big heart,’” said La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager who is now Arizona's chief baseball officer. “His players see it. I’m very fortunate to call him a friend.” In addition to La Russa, former Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean was on hand as Belichick’s guest. He said he first met Belichick at a Florida coaching clinic in 2009, and their connection grew with the help of Lombardi, the former assistant to the Patriots coaching staff. When I shook Crean’s hand, I relayed how much I enjoyed reading this piece from late March.
10. Did You Know: Don Shula holds the record for head coaches making the playoffs for the most times in a career: 19. Belichick isn't far behind at 15.