NFL Notes: The secret behind the Patriots’ No. 1 defense against No. 1 WRs

For most Patriots practices, all Jalen Reagor needs is a standard uniform.

He grabs a helmet, shoulder pads, cleats, the same faded jersey, and a couple other pieces of equipment common to every NFL player.

But last week, in order to properly prepare for Buffalo, he needed more.

Reagor requested four sweatbands from the team’s equipment staff, two for each forearm. He slid one under each elbow, then tugged the leftovers above each wrist. Because in those practices, he would no longer be Jalen Reagor.

He was the second-most targeted receiver in the league, a three-time Pro Bowler and armband enthusiast: Bills star Stefon Diggs. The coaching staff tasked Reagor with simulating Diggs on the scout-team offense, his home for most of the season as a practice-squad player (the Patriots signed Reagor to their active roster Thursday). Each week, the Patriots’ scout-team offense practices against their starting defense, running plays the coaches expect to see from their next opponent.

Prior to last weekend, Diggs had made a habit of torturing the Patriots. He averaged seven catches for 95 yards and a touchdown in their last six regular-season games. Theoretically, the closer Reagor could act, look and play like Diggs, the better the Patriots could defend him on game day.

And that’s exactly what they did, holding Diggs to season lows in catches (six) and receiving yards (58).

New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) defends Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

As for Reagor’s practice performance, teammates universally glowed days later. He crushed it.

“He’s helped us tremendously,” said Patriots cornerback/safety Myles Bryant. “I mean, you look at the receivers we’ve gone against so far this season, I don’t think there’s been a week where we can kind of relax. And every week he’s gone out there and gotten us better.”

The proof is in the numbers.

The Patriots defense ranks best in the league against opposing No. 1 receivers by DVOA. They’ve allowed 44.5 yards per game to that group, which includes the AFC’s leading receiver (Miami’s Tyreek Hill), the NFC leader (A.J. Brown), future Hall of Famer Davante Adams, and rising stars CeeDee Lamb, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Combined, these No. 1 receivers have 20 Pro Bowl honors, but just four touchdowns versus the Patriots this year.

Since signing to the team’s practice squad in August, Reagor has helped simulate most of those receivers. To the 24-year-old, no detail is insignificant to his preparation; not Diggs’ arm bands and mouthpiece nor Adams’ mannerisms at the line of scrimmage.

On Adams, Reagor said: “He never runs his routes full-speed. If you notice, he runs the release at in-between (speed), then goes full. So, you just study that and then implement that into your game.”

New England Patriots wide receiver Jalen Reagor (83) lines up against Buffalo Bills cornerback Dane Jackson during the first half of last Sunday’s AFC East clash in Foxboro. (AP Photo/Greg M. Cooper)

Reagor admitted he’d study players like Diggs and Adams anyway. He devours wide receiver highlights at home, in the facility, anywhere he can. A first-round pick from the 2020 draft class, many believed Reagor would one day join the ranks of the league’s elite.

Instead, the the 24-year-old got traded after two disappointing seasons in Philadelphia, and failed to make a significant impact last year with the Vikings, who cut him this summer. He’s enjoyed a rapid rise in New England, thanks partly to an underperforming group around him. Only one Patriots wideout owns more than 200 yards this season.

There’s a case Reagor may be the most naturally gifted receiver in their meeting room.

“When you talk about talent, (Reagor) can do everything,” said Pats safety Jalen Mills. “He can run short routes, he can run intermediate routes, he can run the deep ball because he’s fast. He’s got a strong enough build to go across the middle.”

“You see it out there on the practice field,” said Patriots safety Adrian Phillips. “He is legit.”

As a prospect, the 5-foot-11 Reagor clocked a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and tested as one of the most explosive players in his entire draft class. He ranks among the Patriots’ strongest receivers, something he should soon be able to showcase on Sundays with the starting offense. Though Reagor said he intends to continue contributing on scout team.

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“Scout team is fun for me,” he said. “I can also work on my craft, but those types of receivers have a lot of freedom in the offenses. So being on scout team is just having fun.”

Ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Miami, Reagor declined to divulge much about simulating Hill. There was one unavoidable fact, however: extra running.

As one of the NFL’s fastest players, Hill ranks among the league’s leaders in pre-snap motion and deep routes.

“Before and during the play, you do everything he does. It’s a bunch of stuff, it’s crazy,” Reagor said. “And I can see why they throw him the ball a lot.”

A deep threat himself, Reagor said the last two months in New England have helped round out his game. In college at TCU, he ran the same handful of routes playing within a simple scheme that prioritized tempo and deep passing. But now, he’s comfortable tracing every branch of the NFL route tree.

Reagor also believes he’s grown personally, having endured all the pain and criticism that accompanies failing to meet first-round expectations in a market like Philadelphia. He’s left social media behind, and divorced his self-worth from the opinions of strangers. He’s found purpose in practice, and the reps that elevated him and a defense dominating the best in the game.

“It might be a blessing in disguise. Maybe I needed to be in a place like this, where hard work is the sole purpose. Who knows?” Reagor said. “I’m just optimistic because at the end of the day, it can’t get worse.”

Pats’ trade candidates facing finale?

FOXBORO, MA – November 6: Josh Uche #55 of the New England Patriots celebrates sacking Sam Ehlinger #4 of the Indianapolis Colts during the first half of the NFL game at Gillette Stadium on November 6, 2022 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Is this goodbye?

Whether the Patriots win or lose in Miami, several key players will face the possibility they’ve played their final game in New England.

The Pats will be a sub-.500 team when the NFL’s trade deadline arrives Tuesday at 4 p.m.. The front office has received several calls about their impending free agents, a source told the Herald’s Doug Kyed. One front-office source expects at least one trade to be “definitely possible.”

Among the Patriots’ top trade candidates are wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, pass rusher Josh Uche, safety Kyle Dugger and offensive lineman Mike Onwenu. All of them are on expiring contracts. Veteran tight end Hunter Henry and starting left tackle Trent Brown have also been rumored to  be potential trade targets, though their standings on the depth chart and in the locker room should keep them in Foxboro.

This week, Uche, who is currently dealing with a foot injury, addressed the possibility of an extension and trade with the Patriots.

“My agent’s been in communication with the team. I’ve had some communications. I’m not gonna really disclose with whom or what it was about,” he told the Herald. “So I just know I want to play football, I would love to be in New England, and at the end of the day it comes down to me doing everything I can.

“And that starts with playing football, so that’s where my priority is right now.”

Meanwhile, Dugger insisted he knew little about any trade rumors.

What’s the likelihood Patriots make a deal at next week’s NFL trade deadline?

“Honestly I haven’t heard too much about that,” he said. “I just keep trying to focus on the field.”

As for communication with his agents, Dugger added: “If something happens, obviously I have to know about it, but (my agents) just let me focus on playing football, trying to get better and be better.”

Onwenu is taking a similar mindset ahead of the deadline. His value could rise around the league if he continues to play at right tackle, a position that pays higher than right guard.

“No, I haven’t thought about it,” he said of a possible trade. “I mean, whatever happens, happens. I can’t control it.”

Last week, Bourne admitted the trade deadline will weigh on his mind. This is the second straight season the Patriots have taken calls from outside front offices about his availability.

“Definitely will be on my mind, but just being ready for whatever man,” Bourne said. “I want to be here, I would love to be here. But if there are other plans, then it is what it is.”

Dugger disappointed in his play

New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) agrees with an official’s during the second half an NFL football game against the New York Jets on Sunday Sept. 24, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Through seven games, one of the Patriots’ five best players is playing anything like it.

Safety Kyle Dugger has more pressures as a pass rusher than pass breakups in coverage. He’s yet to force a turnover. He’s whiffing on more than 10% of his tackle attempts and tracking for one of the worst Pro Football Focus grades of his career.

“Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve played even close to my best ball,” he said. “So I’m just trying to build and get into that. Fundamentally, things like that, just get myself playing better ball … get the simple things back in alignment.”

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What does Dugger believe he’s lacking?

“Just missed opportunities when I watch the film,” he said. “It might not be something that’s super obvious to anybody outside, but just things that I know personally, you know, I should have done better you know, go offense, things I didn’t take advantage of whatever reason.”

Dugger said playing more free safety in Devin McCourty’s absence hasn’t contributed to his struggles. The Patriots suffered from communication issues in their secondary during a recent three-game losing streak against Dallas, New Orleans and Las Vegas.

“No, I’m not gonna let that — that’s something that I think the defense needs somebody needs to do, and I feel like I have to do that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an excuses. I just have to be better fundamentally.”

Quote of the Week

“I’m not a big space guy.” — Patriots center David Andrews explaining why he’s never seen Star Wars.

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