Bill Belichick has been canonized as a football deity by millions of fans across New England.
His track record of successful redemption efforts has made him a modern-day NFL version of St. Jude.
Corey Dillon. Rodney Harrison. Randy Moss.
All received absolution, if not salvation, in New England.
And in one of the greatest reclamation projects in NFL history – Belichick took the No. 199 pick of the 2000 NFL draft, Michigan quarterback Tom Brady, and created a Man God of the gridiron.
Belichick has a pair of would-be “lost causes” in offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper and linebacker Barkevious Mingo this season. They were the sixth and seventh overall picks respectively in the 2013 draft. Cooper never fit well with the Arizona Cardinals after breaking his left fibula during his rookie preseason. He was acquired by the Patriots in the Chandler Jones trade in March but subsequently missed a month of training camp due to a foot injury on July 30. He returned to limited practice last week. His status for the season opener remains uncertain.
Mingo was swiped from the Browns on Aug. 25. A 6-foot-4, 241-pound LSU product, Mingo’s career with Cleveland was, like that of so many others, riddled by inconsistency and failed expectations. Those struggles came in part due to the fact the Browns had had three head coaches since the 25-year-old Mingo turned pro.
Mingo was once considered a centerpiece of the Browns defense. However, he hasn’t started since 2014 and recorded just two sacks in his last 31 games. The Browns used him to rush the passer, drop into coverage and gave him a try at inside linebacker. Perhaps had he stayed in Cleveland another season, he would have been used as a free safety, punter and closer for the Indians.
In his Patriots preseason debut against the Giants’ non-starters last week, Mingo leapt into a time capsule and returned to his days at LSU. In Baton Rouge, he played in all 13 games with 10 starts for Les Miles as a junior, logging 38 tackles, 12 quarterback hurries, 8.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 quarterback sacks to earn second-team All-SEC honors.
He tallied six tackles and tormented Giants QB Ryan Nassib up and down the field at MetLife Stadium. After sitting for the first three defensive series of the game, Mingo swaddled running back Orleans Darkwa on his second defensive snap, strip-sacked Nassib on his third – and after a penalty nullified that play – combined with Justin Coleman to force a fumble on the ensuing snap.
In all, Mingo took 56 snaps against the Giants. His full-speed play, primal pursuit and aggressive tackling gave the wary Patriots partisans hope that the departure of Jones and the four-game suspension of Rob Ninkovich won’t be as damaging as once feared.
“It’s a new team, and these guys want to see what I can do. I want to see what I can do in this defense. I just tried to make a play,” Mingo said after the game of his strip-sack (via The Boston Herald’s Patricia Trania). “It was nothing special. It definitely felt good to help your team out and to try to put them in good field position to win.”
One NFL scout who watched Mingo’s display Thursday called him a “Diet Jamie Collins” (per NESN’s Doug Kyed). Mingo is 10 pounds lighter, yet an inch taller than Collins. Yet he was nearly as impressive Thursday as Collins per se on the straight pass rush from the defensive edge. (OK, let’s not get too far ahead of reality.) Mingo should find a consistent home at linebacker in Ninkovich’s absence alongside Collins and Dont’a Hightower.
— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) September 2, 2016
Mingo adopted “The Patriot Way” before the inevitable baptism by Belichick and his various Foxborough acolytes.
The first impact Mingo made upon Belichick did not come on game day against the Giants, or even on practice fields behind Patriot Place. Mingo flew straight to Charlotte to meet the Patriots once he was traded (the Browns were working out in Tampa with the Bucs). He didn’t bother to return to Cleveland to gather his belongings. Still traveling light, he worked with coaches during the players’ off day to do his best to learn the Patriots ways on defense.
“He lived in the facility for the last week,” Belichick said after the 17-9 loss to the Giants (via Patriots.com). “He showed a lot of commitment to trying to pick up the new information, tried to understand what we were doing watching the films and games that we’ve played to understand the techniques of how we’re playing. He worked really hard, took a lot of plays in practice to get somewhat comfortable with what we were doing. He’s smart, he learns well and he works hard. Check all those boxes.”
Mingo’s flexibility and physical traits have also placated the hard-to-please Belichick.
“He’s long, has good length, he’s fast, he picks up things quickly, asks a lot of good questions. You don’t have to keep going over the same information with him. Once you give it to him, he has it and then you go on to something else. He has good retention, good instincts, and I think he understands football,” Belichick told Patriots analyst Scott Zolak on Boston radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub. “He’s played a lot of different positions — linebacker, defensive end, off-the-ball linebacker, on-the-ball linebacker, he’s played a number of spots in the kicking game. I think he’s capable of having some versatility and helping us in different roles. We’ll see how all that turns out, but I’d say I’ve been impressed with him personally — his intelligence, his communication, just being alert on everything.”
It sounds like another one of “St. Jude’s” converts has arrived.
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who grew up in the Bay State and has been following the Patriots since 1970. He writes the Obnoxious Boston Fan column for the Boston Herald. He Tweets @RealOBF and @BillSperos