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How Patriots turn other teams' trash into treasure

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PHOENIX -- Add Brandon LaFell to the growing list of players who found their rebirth in Foxborough.

In four underwhelming campaigns with the Carolina Panthers, the wideout never piled up more than 50 catches or 700 yards in a season. In New England, though, LaFell has bloomed into a playmaking pass-catcher who has drawn the praise of both coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

"I love coaching him," Belichick said this month, after Brady went out of his way to call LaFell "one of the toughest guys I've ever played with."

After drawing scant attention in free agency last offseason, LaFell finished third in catches for the Patriots with a career-high 953 yards off 74 grabs. So did the entire league fall asleep on this guy, or does New England just do things differently?

"They give you the opportunity to succeed up here," LaFell told Around The NFL on Wednesday. "Not saying the other teams don't, but they gave me the opportunity to catch more balls and play different positions in the offense. They put me on special teams here, so they just gave me a better opportunity."

New England's Super Bowl roster is dotted with players who came to town with underwhelming resumes, only to blossom under Belichick's watch. Linebacker Akeem Ayers has played a key role on defense after being traded away in October by the Titans, while Alan Branch has operated as a solid run-stuffer after stops with three previous teams. The Patriots have even brought back their own castoffs, getting 857 snaps out of safety Patrick Chung and a dominant AFC title game performance from LeGarrette Blount, the hard-charging running back who was briefly teamless in November after being cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"The Patriots just seem to find the best in everyone, no matter where you were drafted, or where you came from," said tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. "The reason they brought you here is to help the team, so whatever they see, no matter how many plays you're going to play, they're going to get the best out of you. I think that's why they've been successful for so many years."

LaFell pointed to a deep-flowing sense of accountability inside the locker room, especially from the veterans.

"Brady. Vince (Wilfork), (Darrelle) Revis, Devin McCourty. Guys you see that are nicked up all year, but they're not complaining. They're going out there playing through injuries and they practice at a high level every day," LaFell said. "So you look at those guys, you're like, 'Man, they're not complaining about anything.' They're nicked up just as bad as you. These guys are older than you. And then they go out there and compete at a high level, so that makes you do the same thing. Elevate your game."

It's more than just gathering physical talent. Every team has its flock of athletic freaks, but the Patriots obsessively seek out players who deliver from the neck up.

"It's totally mental, and Bill preaches that every day: Mentally tough," LaFell said. "If you're playing at this level, everybody knows you've got the physical tools, but are you mentally tough? Are you going to be able to learn that whole playbook? Are you going to be able to play this position, that position, are we going to be able to move you around? Are you going to be able to go out there and play in this cold weather? Are you going to be complaining when we have these terrible footballs at practice? It's being mentally tough, that's what Bill preaches."

LaFell averaged just one catch and 15 yards in his first three games with the team, but that rose to 5.4 receptions and 69 yards per tilt the rest of the way. He admitted last summer that his head was "spinning" as a new Patriot, noting, "It's not like we didn't work hard in Carolina, but we work a little harder here."

Hoomanawanui, meanwhile, has started 28 games for New England over three seasons after being waived in 2012 by the Rams, who drafted him. He spoke repeatedly about the challenge of keeping up with an offense that changes weekly and demands players to do the same or hit the road.

"The first day I was there, I was only there for a couple hours and did a full practice that day without knowing much," Hoomanawanui said. "So they want to throw you in there and see what you can retain in a short amount of time. And usually those guys who can retain the information are guys that stick around. ... You don't want to miss time, because it's always evolving, there's always new things."

Reserve offensive lineman Jordan Devey isn't a household name, but he's seen enough over the past two seasons to know why some players make it and others don't.

"I think it just speaks highly of the organization and the coaches and players that surround it, to have guys come in here and do well like that," Devey said. "It's just the New England Patriots' way."

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