Martellus Bennett laughs as he speaks to media at his locker January 11, 2017, in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (AP Images)
The jester was holding court.
Standing in front of his locker last week, Martellus Bennett, 29, beamed as he dropped one-liners with a comic's sense of timing to a group of reporters. He discussed his relationship with Gronkowski. "I try not to bother him with my shit, and he tries to not to bother me with his shit," he said. "We just leave each other's shit in their own toilets."
This season, Bennett—who has written a children's book and produced an animated film—has been the freest spirit in what has traditionally been a buttoned-up Patriots locker room. He penned an open letter to his three-year-old daughter, Jett, after the presidential election: "We will continue to teach you how to love, accept others for who they are, think for yourself, help others in need." He often wears sweatshirts that he's personally designed. His comfort in New England is apparent, and it underscores a larger truth for him and the Pats: For the first time in a long time, Bennett is happy in his workplace.
Playing for the Bears two years ago, Bennett led all NFL tight ends in receptions with 90. He was voted to his first Pro Bowl. But Chicago went 5-11, and in the offseason John Fox replaced Marc Trestman as head coach.
"Individual goals aren't important to me anymore. Winning is a lot more fun than any of that."
— MARTELLUS BENNETT
Bennett wanted a new contract—even though he had two years remaining on his deal. He didn't attend Fox's first voluntary offseason program. Bennett finished the 2015 season with 53 catches in 11 games while voicing his displeasure with his lack of targets in the passing game. Word flew around the league that Bennett was locker room poison, a loose cannon who nearly ripped the head off teammate Kyle Fuller in a training-camp fight in 2014.
The Patriots were undeterred. In March the team sent a fourth-round pick to Chicago for Bennett and a sixth-rounder—pennies on the dollar for a tight end 14 months removed from the Pro Bowl. Upon his arrival in Foxborough, Bennett was confronted by a stark reality: the relentless peer pressure to be completely prepared that flows from Tom Brady to the last man on the practice squad—another aspect of the Patriot Way.
"Individual goals aren't important to me anymore," Bennett says. "Winning is a lot more fun than any of that."
Bennett, who will be a free agent at season's end, wants to remain a Patriot. Belichick usually asks his pending free agents to give the team a hometown discount—better to play for less money and win in New England, the coach's logic goes, than earn more and lose somewhere else—and Bennett may be inclined to go for such an offer. His voice can be heard on radio commercials in the area, and he has big dreams of little kids throughout New England reading his book. "Each step is like, Mah-ty: They put an H in my name; I don't have an H in my name," he says. "But that was pretty cool. I've never really experienced that at this level." Bennett says his wife and young daughter enjoy Massachusetts.
"I can guarantee that every person in that locker room loves Marty," says linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a team captain. "The emotion and excitement that he brings in here is definitely much needed on a day-to-day basis because working here isn't always the easiest thing."
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Kyle Van Noy talks to the media after practice at Gillette Stadium on October 27, 2016. (Getty Images)
He was at the doctor’s office in Detroit when his cellphone rang on October 25. "You've been traded," Lions general manager Bob Quinn told Kyle Van Noy.
"Where?" Van Noy asked.
"You're going to the Patriots," Quinn replied.
Van Noy—a third-year linebacker who was sent to New England along with a seventh-round draft pick in return for a sixth-rounder—nearly dropped the phone in shock. Within hours, he was on a plane heading to Foxborough, unsure of his football future. But then, as he walked into the Gillette Stadium locker room, he immediately sensed that the Patriots organization had little in common with the one he just left.
"It's totally different here," Van Noy says. "The head coach is established and the expectations of everyone here—from coaches and players—are incredibly high. You don't want to be the one who messes up."
At the time, this transaction appeared to be nothing but a ho-hum deal. For four days Van Noy, a former second-round pick out of BYU, backed up starter Jamie Collins, who made the Pro Bowl in 2015. But less than a week after Van Noy was acquired, Collins was sent packing to the 0-8 Browns for a third-round compensatory pick. ESPN's Adam Schefter then reported that Collins, a free agent after the season, was seeking "Von Miller money," a reference to the six-year, $114.5 million contract Miller signed with Denver last summer.
What did this episode tell us? For starters, Belichick didn't care for Collins' stance on his future contract—history has shown what this means in the Patriot Way—and the New England brass smartly secured his replacement at a bargain-basement price before booting Collins to the NFL hinterlands. We also learned there is no such thing as an inconsequential trade under the Belichick regime.
"The expectations of everyone here—from coaches and players—are incredibly high. You don't want to be the one who messes up."
— KYLE VAN NOY
The Van Noy deal looks even better now. In college, the 6'3", 243-pound Van Noy was a pass-rushing specialist, compiling 26 sacks and 62 tackles for losses as a three-year starter in Provo, Utah. But in Detroit he was used as an off-the-line linebacker who rarely rushed the quarterback.
Belichick has turned him loose. In Van Noy's first action as a Patriot on November 20 against the San Francisco 49ers, he rushed the passer on 12 of the first 29 snaps he played. The results were impressive: He had one sack and five quarterback pressures in New England's 30-17 win. Van Noy is now an every-down linebacker, manning the spot Collins once filled.
"I'm still getting more comfortable each week," Van Noy says. "But I'll tell you this: I'm working my tail off for this team. This place is just different than anywhere else. It's win or go home."
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