Well, it seems this is the offseason of AFC East teams pushing their quarterbacks.
First came the reports that the Miami Dolphins want to push quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Now, Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report says the Buffalo Bills want to to "push" second-year signal-caller EJ Manuel by signing a veteran free agent.
It would be understandable if the Bills were looking for a backup quarterback as an insurance policy. The Bills spent the 16th pick on Manuel in the first round of the 2013 draft, when it seemed like Manuel would be available much later. If the Bills already think they need someone to push him, that would show an error in judgment on their part.
Manuel, 23, dealt with three knee injuries in 2013, and missed six games and parts of two others. His end-of-season injury was the only one that required surgery (albeit minor), but he will wear a knee brace on his left knee in 2014. His backups, Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis, failed to deliver in his stead and went a combined 2-4.
The Bills shouldn't worry about letting their quarterback grow "free of threats and backstabbing," as Freeman says. The New York Jets followed that course of action with quarterback Mark Sanchez, and stirred up a lot of controversy as a result. There were some anonymous quotes from within the locker room, but defensive tackle Kris Jenkins publicly said that the Jets "coddled" Sanchez.
Couple Manuel's injury concerns with his dubious designation as a first-round pick and the top quarterback selected in 2013, and the Bills are wise to cover their bases. The quarterback is the singular most important position on the roster. If the Bills have doubts about Manuel, they'd be foolish not to cover their bases.
Freeman mentions Eagles quarterback Michael Vick as an option. Other veteran options include Bears quarterback Josh McCown and Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel. The Bills were also reported to be interested in acquiring Josh Freeman when he was released by the Buccaneers, but he signed with the Vikings instead. Perhaps the Bills will rekindle their interest in Freeman when he is a free man again on March 11.
The Patriots at least another couple years left with Tom Brady behind center. It's going to be awhile before they have to worry about "pushing" any of their quarterbacks unless we're talking about backups pushing each other for the No. 2 job, and the possibility of being Brady's heir.
Patriots fans in particular should not be letting their imaginations run wild. The Patriots are close up against the salary cap this year, and haven't made some of the cap clearing moves that were expected.
They also have some important in-house free agents to sign. They reportedly began talking to Aqib Talib and his representation in Indianapolis at the scouting combine. On Thursday night, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the Patriots had reached out to Julian Edelman to begin talking about a contract.
There's still time for those transactions to cross the waiver wire, but March 8 marks the opening of the window for other teams to begin talking to other free agents the "legal tampering" period.
So far, neither player has signed a deal, and the Patriots could enter free agency facing the possibility of losing both key players. That being said, is it possible that the Patriots could still be buyers in the free agent market? Let's take a look at some of the players on the minds of Patriots fans headed into the new league year.
@ErikFrenz Do you think the Pats will target Lamarr Houston?— Alec (@tehurn21) March 6, 2014
Houston is considered one of the top defensive ends on the market, so his price tag could be out of the Patriots' range.
He was a two-down player for the first two years of his NFL career. He played 64.8 percent of the Raiders' defensive snaps in that time, according to stats and analytics website Pro Football Focus. Since then, he's played 89 percent of the snaps, and a whopping 94.9 percent in 2013. He earned more playing time as the Raiders lost several key defensive linemen, including Desmond Bryant, Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly.
He was primarily a left defensive end in the Raiders' 4-3 scheme from 2010-2012, but he moved to the right side in 2013. He's listed at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, but Christopher Hansen of Bleacher Report says Houston is closer to 280 right now. He played defensive end and even "LEO" linebacker in the Raiders' multiple defense, but could probably play defensive tackle as well.
At 26 years old and with his level of scheme versatility, Houston will be a hot commodity as a free agent. There are too many teams with too much money and too desperate for help up front. Houston will get a bigger offer than the Patriots could give him, even if they are interested.
Aqib Talib may be seeking top dollar, and there could be a team willing to overpay for his services. There aren't many big, fast cornerbacks readily available to sign, so there would be a market for his services.
For the number of "dings" on his resumι, though, it's fair to wonder whether that market will be up to the standard he hopes.
He has missed four games to injury since joining the Patriots, and parts of five others. He has also missed 19 games in his career for injuries and suspensions. Speaking of suspensions, he had quite a checkered off-field record before he was traded to the Patriots. Those issues as they usually do in New England magically disappeared.
Talib only has to wait a few more days to find out whether there's a team that's willing to make him one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the league. At this point, there's little benefit to signing with the Patriots now, before he gets that chance.
@ErikFrenz Am I the only one worried about the LB situation? There's 3 good starters but no real depth, especially with Fletcher/Spikes FA— Gordon Bear Lafferty (@Tuilalcaron) March 6, 2014
Good question, Gordon. Dane Fletcher seems like an obvious re-sign. He has had a few injuries, but he's been dependable when on the field and he's a core special teams contributor. He has four years of experience in the defense, as well.
Brandon Spikes is probably on his way out. The Patriots placed him on injured reserve (knee) before the playoffs, but ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that his late arrival to Friday's bye week practice "was the last straw for [Bill] Belichick." He has played 66.3 percent of the snaps in the games he's participated in over the past two years.
If they were to move on from either Fletcher, Spikes or both, Steve Beauharnais would be in line for an increased snap count. He was in and out of the active lineup this season, but with a full year in the system, the Patriots could be looking for more in Year 2.
They already started making moves. The release of Steve Gregory cleared up roughly $2.85 million in cap space. Aside from re-signing Edelman and Talib, there aren't many moves they can make.
Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly have been floated on this blog and elsewhere as names to consider among potential cap casualties. Each is entering the last year of his deal, so there are only three options on the table:
- an extension to push the money forward,
- a pay cut, and
- a release.
For now, I expect the status quo. The Patriots could wait on extensions for Wilfork and Kelly until the Patriots get a better idea of whether those two will be playing for another couple years. Otherwise, pushing the money forward does no good. I still expect the Patriots to release Isaac Sopoaga at some point and immediately gain $2.5 million in cap space.
They could still extend Wilfork if things look good, or ask him to take a pay cut if things don't look good, but not in time for it to aid the Patriots' ability to spend this offseason.
@ErikFrenz should we expect the Patriots to try to remain as zone/mam flexible as they showed this year, or was that a product of injury.— Michael Talarski (@MikeET86) March 6, 2014
As long as Belichick is the head coach, the Patriots will always want to be as scheme versatile as possible.
We've heard it a hundred times the Patriots are a game plan style defense. They will adjust what they do based on the opponent they will face. Some weeks, we'll see straight man coverage, like we saw against the Broncos in the regular season; other weeks, they'll run zone blitzes like they did against the Dolphins.
Talib is their best cornerback when it comes to man coverage, and losing him would be a big blow to the defense as a whole. Alfonzo Dennard is still a talented young corner, and Logan Ryan has some upside, but the Broncos game served as a reminder of what losing Talib would mean to the secondary.
@ErikFrenz - Do you think we'll see more creativity from Josh McDaniels next season with the young WRs having more experience of the system— Luke Tansley (@LukeTansley2) March 6, 2014
The offense should look a lot more efficient with Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce all in their second year in the NFL and working with Tom Brady. Whether that's a result of creativity or simply better chemistry within the offense
Dobson looks to be in line for a second-year jump, but as I noted in my breakdown of Dobson's season, there's still work to be done. He has to get better separation on deep routes, and Brady has to do better hitting him when he's open. Those things should improve with more time together.
@ErikFrenz Every mock draft has Jets taking WR/TE, guaranteeing they go in another direction. What non WR/TE do you see as fits at 18?— Spider 2 Y Banana (@gambit1154) March 6, 2014
The first one that comes to mind is Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, he could give Rex Ryan the dominant pass-rushing edge presence he hasn't had since taking over.
They need to get younger at the position, if nothing else. Calvin Pace is 33 years old, and is nearing the end of his career. He had 10 sacks in 2013, but most of them were in cleanup duty for defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison. Antwan Barnes is 29 years old and has missed 20 games with injuries in the past four years, including 11 games last year.
Alabama safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix is another option. The Jets seem impatient with the development of Antonio Allen at the safety spot, after bringing in Ed Reed to compete for the starting spot. Clinton-Dix and Dee Milliner already have some experience working together, so the familiarity could be beneficial for each.
Incidentally, safety and outside linebacker are two spots the Jets have not yet used a first-round pick in the Ryan era.
@ErikFrenz Do you see a scenario in which the Patriots could land Donte Whitner and keep Talib too?— NFL Spin Zone (@NFLSpinZone) March 6, 2014
As mentioned, the Patriots have a new hole to fill at strong safety with the departure of Gregory. Something tells me they want to develop that position from within. They have spent a second- and third-round pick at the safety position in the past two years. Safeties Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon may not be top-notch strong safeties in the NFL yet, but they'll never get there if they're not given a chance.
The Patriots could add some veteran depth at strong safety in free agency, particularly if they want to create a competition at the position. There's also the possibility that they hold pat, and let Wilson and Harmon duke it out for the starting job in training camp.
@ErikFrenz Do you see Finnegan as an option on a prove it deal?— Kyle Burlingame (@kyleburlinLAME) March 6, 2014
Cortland Finnegan announced on Wednesday that he's been released by the Rams, and this has been a long time coming. He was sidelined with a thigh injury early in the season before being placed on injured reserve (fractured orbital bone) after Week 10.
He was primarily a slot cornerback for the Rams, though, playing 142 of his 210 coverage snaps from the slot. Slot cornerbacks can be valuable, and the Patriots will certainly exhaust all options if they lose Talib, but Finnegan doesn't seem like a viable alternative.
Buy a ton of Cape Cod chips, ginger ale and pale ale to get through the free agency frenzy. Get some oxygen while you can.
Oh, wait, that's my weekend.
Oh, wait, you live in Arizona. I got nothing. Maybe catch a movie? I hear "Gravity" is good. Check it out and let me know.
If you find yourself questioning a decision Belichick has made in the draft, it's probably because he defines value differently than those in the media portray value.
Former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage served as a scout and a defensive assistant under Belichick in the mid-'90s. As a result of his working relationship with Belichick, Savage has some rare first-hand insight on how Belichick grades the prospects in the draft.
Savage revealed that Belichick was hesitant to allow his scouts to place such ambiguous grades on a player when they did not have the full context of all the prospects available:
Under Bill Belichick in early 90's, he did not feel an area scout could know the entire country enough to say, "he's a 2nd rounder". #guess— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) March 6, 2014
Instead of leaving too much to the imagination, Belichick wanted an individual projection on each player, and how far they'd be in their development at certain stages of their career:
In the simplest terms, BB wanted to categorize the prospect as a "starter", "potential starter", "backup" or "camp body", no Round grades.— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) March 6, 2014
This helps give us an idea of why they may have passed on certain players in the past, or why they've "reached" on others. Perhaps where some people saw a first-round grade, the Patriots saw a future backup. Maybe where some people placed a fifth-round grade on a player, the Patriots viewed him as a second-year starter.
Savage clarifies that the perception of value, and how it is labeled, is differentiated between the scouts and the front office:
The scout's job is to assess the prospect's NFL potential for his organization, upper management's job is to determine the round "value".— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) March 6, 2014
Savage said that these grades are not reflective of need, and that the evaluations are made as if the team is an expansion club.
Spinning forward to this year, it becomes even harder to believe the Patriots will spend a first-round pick on a player who projects as anything but a three-down contributor. Those are usually the players that earn the top spot on the Patriots' depth chart.
Even if we all somehow manage to get our heads fully wrapped around Belichick's perception of value in the draft, the Patriots will probably still find a way to do something that surprises us.
A brief break in AFC East names and notes to bring you an interesting nugget from Broncos general manager John Elway.
The Hall of Fame quarterback was asked at the combine whether the Broncos want to be stronger in the middle of their defense, and he offered an answer that I think can serve as a short lesson in team-building:
"You want to be strong everywhere. There is always a philosophy some people say you build from the inside-out and others say you build from the outside-in. ...The thing is you have to make a decision one way or the other. It's hard to get everyone and that's why we have to be good in the draft."
Free agency is not the only time to build a team, and unlike in other sports, it's not even the most important time. Successful teams rarely rely on free agency to build their roster. Still, finding good fits in free agency can help a team get over the hump. The Seahawks had a strong foundation in place, but adding defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril gave their defense a big boost.
What are some of the signings the Patriots could make to help them get back to the Super Bowl? Precluding any re-signings, here's a dream scenario for the Patriots in free agency.
A lot of folks are pushing for the Patriots to find more weapons for Tom Brady preferably of the big-bodied, physical X receiver variety. They can't afford a top-dollar signing at the position after ponying up big money for Danny Amendola last year, and potentially more money going to Julian Edelman this year.
Enter Hakeem Nicks, who should be relatively cheap after a down year in which he didn't have a single touchdown catch. He also missed a game with an abdominal injury, and dealt with nagging abdominal and groin injuries in the final six weeks of the season.
If the Patriots want to take out an insurance policy on the development of Aaron Dobson, or simply to add another weapon to their offensive arsenal, Nicks would be a good direction to look.
There are questions about his remaining talent level and his effort, but no questions about his potential. We've seen it on the field, and if Nicks can get back to that level with Brady throwing him the ball, he could be a great value addition for the Patriots. Eric Decker could be another option if the Patriots don't mind ponying up a little extra cash for their guy.
Tight end Garrett Graham
Ideally, the Patriots can find a Gronkowski backup on the cheap in free agency or through the draft. One position they still need to fill, however, is the versatile H-back role left vacant by Aaron Hernandez.
Graham is not as athletic as Hernandez, but his role is similar. He is not well-suited for a big role as an in-line blocker, but he can be moved all over the field and maximized for his abilities in the receiving game. He finished the 2013 season with 49 receptions for 545 yards and five touchdowns. The Texans scored just 19 touchdowns through the air, so Graham accounted for over 25 percent of their scoring production in the passing game.
He hasn't come on strong, but has developed steadily, and he may be a smart economy addition to the offense. If the Patriots want to sign a true Gronkowski backup that can serve as a two-way tight end, the Bills' Scott Chandler would be worth a look.
The Patriots need to make serious considerations about life after Vince Wilfork, and signing Randy Starks would be a step in that direction.
Starks is not a true nose tackle, like Wilfork, but the Patriots don't run a traditional 3-4 anymore. In many ways, he is exactly what they are building toward a defensive line that can hold its own against the run when in the sub package. Although Starks isn't a stout gap-plugging presence like Wilfork, he can hold his own and occasionally get into the backfield and can make some tackles for loss.
He would also provide an instant boost to the Patriots' interior pass-rush, where their 3-technique defensive tackles (outside shade vs. guard) have struggled to get pressure. He tied with Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus as the 10th-most most productive pass-rushing defensive tackle in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
His abilities in that role may drive his price tag up a bit, but at 30 years old, he may not get the big-money, long-term contract he's hoping for. He could earn a contract between $7 to $7.5 million per year, putting him right outside the top five highest-paid defensive tackles in the league. That may be outside the Patriots' price range, especially if they're unable to restructure Wilfork's deal.
Red Bryant may be the more logical signing, but in a perfect world, the Patriots could find a way to nab Starks.
Safety T.J. Ward
The Patriots have been searching for the solution at strong safety for years, trying their luck on free agents and draft picks, but no one has stepped forward to claim the job.
T.J. Ward is known for big hits, but he is one of the rare safeties that can hold his own in deep coverage, come down in the box against the run and even play man coverage on occasion. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, he has both the size and speed to carry out any role.
Ward is likely to get one of the bigger contracts of any safety this year, in the neighborhood of $7.5 million or more to make him one of the top five highest-paid safeties in the NFL. If the Patriots don't mind an investment, they could solve one of their biggest roster dilemmas over the past three years.
Defensive end Robert Ayers
The Patriots need to come out of free agency with someone that can rotate with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, who played the highest percentage of their team's snaps of any defensive lineman in 2013. Ayers isn't a sack master (career-high 5.5 sacks in 2013), but at 6-foot-3 and 274 pounds, with 32.5-inch long arms, he has the size the Patriots typically like out of their defensive ends.
He was primarily used as a rotational pass-rusher in 2013, but has always been a two-down player. He has played anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the Broncos' defensive snaps in a season throughout his career. Over the years, the Broncos have switched from 3-4 to 4-3 and back and forth; Ayers has been through it all, and as a result, he has gained scheme versatility to fill roles in both fronts.
Ayers' lack of production could make him cheap, but he has a ton of athletic potential, and could be valuable in a rotational role.
The Buffalo Bills elected not to place the franchise tag on soon-to-be free agent safety Jairus Byrd ahead of Monday's 4 p.m. deadline, the team announced on Monday. Unless the two sides can come to an agreement on Byrd's value in the next eight days, Byrd will hit the open market.
According to recent reports, the chances of a long-term deal being signed ahead of free agency are slim. Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 Buffalo reported on Sunday that the Bills had made a "substantial" offer to Byrd, and presumably, he didn't sign it.
Later Sunday afternoon, CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora came in with this:
The Bills offer to Byrd woulve made him 1 of highest paid safeties in the NFL in 1st 2 yrs of deal. They'll continue to work on a new deal— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) March 2, 2014
"It's a negotiation," Whaley said, via BuffaloBills.com. "We still have some time to get it done so we're not closing the door on it. We're hopeful. We're optimistic, but we'll see where it goes from here."
Byrd was hit with the franchise tag last offseason, and he held out of training camp until August 20, when he finally signed the deal. He then missed the first five games of the season with plantar fasciitis, and the Bills were open to trading him while he was out, but he came back and played well in the final 10 games, tying for the team-high with four interceptions and allowed a passer rating of 35 on throws in his direction.
He has expressed his desire to be the top paid free safety in the NFL since last year's failed negotiations, and that hasn't changed. Negotiations were off to a good start this time around, according to reports, but it's not how you start, it's how you finish.
The Bills do not feel the safety position is worth top dollar.
"It's important. I think depending on scheme, in this scheme talking to [defensive coordinator Jim] Schwartz, safety is going to be important a lot because of the communication and how he sets the back end of the defense and gets all the checks and balances from the sidelines," said Whaley. "It's an important part, but would it be the top rated piece I would start the defense? No, but it's in the mix. I think you'd have to go defensive end and corner before you go safety."
The Bills have around $25 million in cap space to work with right now, and although Byrd could be the highest-paid safety multiple years in a row, he apparently wants more, and he can probably get it. Byrd would be arguably the best free-agent safety available this year, along with Browns safety T.J. Ward, 49ers safety Donte Whitner and Colts safety Antoine Bethea.
Plenty of teams need a top-flight free safety this offseason, including the Jets, Dolphins, Colts and Raiders, and all have the cap space to sign Byrd if they want.
There are some alternatives available in free agency, including the Dolphins' Chris Clemons, or they could turn over the keys to Duke Williams, a fourth-round pick in 2013, or to Aaron Williams, who converted to safety from cornerback last offseason.
Safeties like Byrd don't become available too often, and Byrd is one of the rare safeties with the coverage ability, sideline-to-sideline speed and ball skills to be deployed as the single high safety in Cover 1. He can also hold his own in man coverage.
Losing him would be a big blow to a defense in transition. Head coach Doug Marrone has expressed concern over the consistency in the secondary, and the Bills could be dealing with a retooled group along with a brand new scheme.
They could sure use the help of one of the most scheme-versatile safeties in the NFL, but that doesn't seem to be enough of a concern for the Bills to change their stance on his value. Unless that happens soon, it looks like Byrd could be finished in Buffalo.
This tool from FanSpeak.com allows you to pick a team and play GM in a mock draft. Using this, the 31 other blanks automatically get filled in.
Yes, mock drafts are sometimes the object of scorn in media, but NFL front offices conduct hundreds of mock drafts leading up to the big event, to act as practice runs.
Here are the full results of my first Patriots mock draft. Keeping in mind that the results of free agency could dramatically alter the Patriots' needs one way or another, let's take a look at an early mock draft.
Note: throughout the column, I've embedded links to clips that show some of the traits I'm discussing.
Round 1, Pick 29 Ra'Shede Hageman (DT, Minnesota)
When Hageman said he likes to emulate J.J. Watt and Ndamukong Suh in his game, he pretty much pegged himself as the kind of player the Patriots have been missing. Hageman's frame is similar at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds with 34 1⁄4-inch long arms, and like Watt, he has shown the ability to use those long arms to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage.
His ability to split gaps through the line, bull-rush his way into the backfield, and contain multiple gaps at a time, help make him one of the more scheme-versatile linemen in the draft. There are some questions about his consistency, though, as he is raw and sometimes lacks sound technique. If the Patriots want to groom an athletic lineman with a lot of upside, and get a little younger on the inside, Hageman would be a solid addition to the rotation.
Round 2, Pick 62 Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame)
If the Patriots want to grab a tight end with a similar skill set to Rob Gronkowski, Niklas would be a good selection. At 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds with 34 1⁄4-inch long arms, he has the size of today's matchup nightmare at tight end, and he knows how to use his size to his advantage to catch the ball in traffic and in the red zone.
He may also be the most NFL-ready in terms of his ability to block in both the running and passing game. He doesn't have elite speed, but he knows how to get open downfield, and he's tough to bring down with the ball in his hands. The Patriots could get back to their two tight end offense, and this time, they'd have two two-way tight ends that can both block and catch.
Round 3, Pick 93 Marcus Smith (DE, Louisville)
At 6-foot-3 and 251 pounds, Smith may be a little smaller than the Patriots prefer in their defensive ends, but Smith's primary role would be as a pass-rushing presence in sub packages. CBS Sports' Rob Rang compares him to Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, who entered the league with similar questions about his NFL fit.
Smith has the burst to beat blocks off the snap, and although he has 34-inch long arms to help keep blockers away, he doesn't have the strength to shed when an offensive linemen gets into his pads. Still, the Patriots need someone who can take the every-down burden off Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and Smith could provide them that rotational edge presence.
Round 4, Pick 126 A.J. McCarron (QB, Alabama)
The Patriots have to make a decision on quarterback Ryan Mallett in the near future. They may elect to trade him, or he could walk in free agency in 2015; either way, they will have to find a new backup quarterback soon, and maybe an heir to Tom Brady.
McCarron's experience in a pro system will help him greatly if he's called upon to start as a rookie, and he's already drawn comparisons between Alabama and the Patriots as well as himself and Brady. With time to develop in the Patriots' system, those comparisons to Brady could grow.
Round 6, Pick 182 Phillip Gaines (CB, Rice)
The small school product popped at the combine, running the 40 in 4.38 seconds and the three-cone drill in 6.62 seconds for the second-fastest time among defensive backs in each drill. We know how much Belichick loves three-cone drill stars. He's an effective zone corner, with quick reaction time and closing speed to make a play on the ball.
The concern with Gaines, however, is that he's not physically equipped to hold his own in man coverage on a consistent basis. The Patriots run more man coverage on the back end now than in years past, but a player with this much athletic upside doesn't come available in the sixth round all that often.
Round 6, Pick 190 Russell Bodine (C, North Carolina)
Bodine has the versatility to play both guard and center. Center Ryan Wendell is a free agent this offseason and guard Dan Connolly could be a cap casualty this year or a free agent next year. The Patriots would be wise to start loading up their depth on the inside, although Dante Scarnecchia will not be around to coach up the offensive line.
Bodine may have short arms at 32.5 inches long, and CBS Sports' scouting report indicates he overextends at times to compensate, but he isn't lacking in strength (42 225-pound bench press reps at the combine) and will blow defenders off the ball when he gets his hands on them. A tough-nosed interior lineman in the sixth round would add valuable depth to a position of need.
Round 7, Pick 221 Zach Fulton (G, Tennessee)
Fulton doesn't have the versatility the Patriots look for, having played exclusively right guard at Tennessee, but in starting 40 games in the SEC, he earned plenty of experience against top competition. In fact, one of his best games of the 2013 season came against Alabama, where he showed sound technique in pass protection and creating lanes for his back to gain tough yards. He needs some polish blocking in space, but he has a lot of physical potential in that 6-foot-5, 316-pound frame.
This draft focuses on building the team through the trenches, with two picks each on the defensive and offensive lines. The offense dropped off considerably without Gronkowski, so the Patriots need to prioritize finding a serviceable No. 2 tight end. McCarron could be considered a luxury pick or a necessary one, depending on how you look at it, but the long-term outlook does not have Mallett in the picture.
This mock draft addresses almost all of the Patriots' biggest needs, although those beating the "Brady needs weapons" drum would probably walk away disappointed. After investing second- and fourth-round picks in receivers last year, as well as a big contract and a potential second big contract this offseason, it seems unlikely the Patriots would invest in more wide-outs. If they're going to do so, in my opinion, it wouldn't be until a much later round on a prospect who had unexpectedly fallen.
Any of you draftniks that want to get involved and make your own mock draft, go to the link here and post your results in the comments.
Danny Amendola went from replacing Wes Welker to possibly being replaced in the span of under 12 months.
According to Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report, NFL teams say Amendola's name "has been floated in trade talks," and Pompei adds that there has been "speculation" that the Patriots could release him if he's not dealt. Whether the Patriots are the team floating his name, or whether other teams are inquiring about his trade value, remains unclear.
The Patriots signed Amendola to a five-year, $28.5 million deal last offseason, but Amendola suffered a groin injury in Week 1 and a concussion in Week 6, and was never able to get on track. Injuries have plagued Amendola at every turn, and the 28-year-old veteran has played just 24 games in the past three seasons, including just one game in 2011.
He caught 54 passes for 633 yards and two touchdowns last year lower totals than those he put up with Rams quarterback Sam Bradford in the 2010 and 2012 seasons. He still finished second on the Patriots in 2013 in both receptions and yards.
According to Miguel Benzan of PatsCap.com, the Patriots could free up $2.88 million in salary cap room by cutting him prior to March 11 at 4:00 p.m. and making him a June 2 designation. They would lose $645,000 in cap space by trading him.
The questions lie not just in Amendola's ability to stay healthy and be productive, and the ramifications extend beyond his salary cap hit if cut or traded. After another injury-plagued season, and with his cap hit, it seems hard to believe that the Patriots could get what they would think is reasonable value for Amendola.
The Patriots may have to bite the bullet on one more year of Amendola, but he could become much easier to trade after the 2014 season if he is productive and if not, his cap numbers make him easier to release. Amendola will count for $5.575 million against the cap in 2015, but the Patriots could save roughly $1.975 million of that by cutting him, according to sports contracts and salary database Spotrac.
This could potentially be good news for Julian Edelman, who is just 10 days away from hitting the open market as a free agent. The Patriots may be more likely to fork over the necessary cash to keep Edelman, especially if they feel the end is in sight with Amendola. Perhaps the Patriots would even be willing to invest in both Amendola and Edelman despite their similar styles as a player for one year to bridge them over to a point where they can more comfortably move on from Amendola.
Only time will tell.
It's a busy Friday in the AFC East, as the Jets announced they have placed the franchise tag on kicker Nick Folk.
This makes them the first NFL team to use its franchise tag in 2014.
The franchise tag is a one-year fully guaranteed deal that pays a player the average of the top five yearly salaries at his position; for kickers, the franchise tag is $3.556 million this season, according to Albert Breer of NFL Network. Folk made $795,000 last year, so that's a pretty substantial pay increase.
However, Folk is likely getting tired of one-year deals he has had four of them since joining the Jets in 2010.
"Of course I'd love [a long-term deal], and I'd think that they'd like a reliable guy at that position for awhile," Folk said after the season, according to Metro New York. "It is up to them to see what they want to go, what they want to do with things."
For now, he'll have to wait. Of course, it's possible that the tag is just a bridge to a long-term deal, but the Jets have the cap space to justify using the tag, with an estimated $26 million in cap space according to sports contracts and salary cap database Spotrac.
Either way, Folk can probably stop looking over his shoulder. For three straight years, the Jets have brought in a kicker to compete with Folk for the starting job: last year it was Dan Carpenter, in 2012 it was Josh Brown, and in 2011 it was Nick Novak.
The 2013 season was the best of Folk's career; he made 91.7 percent of his field goal tries, tied for the 10th-highest percentage in the NFL. He was also one of only four kickers to hit 100 percent of his attempts from 50 yards or more (minimum three attempts), and he also made three game-winning field goals (vs. Buccaneers, Falcons, Patriots).
The next deadline is July 15; the Jets must sign Folk to a long-term deal by that date, or else be stuck with the one-year, $3.4 million franchise tag for 2014.
The team released safety Steve Gregory on Friday, according to his agent David Canter.
Patriots will be releasing starting #TeamDEC client Safety Steve Gregory today.— David Canter (@davidcanter) February 28, 2014
The move was first reported by Field Yates of ESPN, and was later confirmed in a press release from the team.
Gregory, 31, started 23 games for the Patriots over the past two years, but with a tight budget against the salary cap, the Patriots had to make some moves. Releasing Gregory gives the Patriots roughly $2.85 million more in cap space, according to Spotrac.
Gregory's football intelligence will be missed; he was considered one of the smartest players on the team by his teammates, who lauded his film study and veteran experience as his sharpest mental weapons in helping him recognize plays and get himself and his teammates in position to make a play.
The move paves the way for a competition between second-year safety Duron Harmon< and third-year safety Tavon Wilson, to earn the starting spot at strong safety. Wilson started four games in 2012 when Gregory was injured, and Harmon filled in for three games when Gregory was out with a thumb injury during the 2013 season.
The Patriots could also be considered a possible landing spot for a strong safety in the draft or free agency, if they want to have an insurance policy on the two young safeties.
The Buffalo Bills lost one of their most important pieces on defense when coordinator Mike Pettine became head coach of the Cleveland Browns, but they could be making strides to signing their most important free agent.
According to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News, the preliminary talks between the Bills front office and free agent safety Jairus Byrd have been "pleasant so far."
Compared to last year's cold war between Bills senior vice president of football administration Jim Overdorf and Eugene Parker, Byrd's agent, this should be viewed as an encouraging start. Byrd wants a long-term contract extension that pays him fair market value. When the Bills used their franchise tag on him last year, he was denied the opportunity to find out what the NFL thought he was worth. With Byrd frustrated and both sides playing hardball, they rarely spoke and failed to reach a multiyear deal.
There's still the possibility that the Bills could use the franchise tag on Byrd as a bridge to a long-term deal but after using it on him in 2013, the Bills would have to pay him 120 percent of the salary cap if they want to do so for a second consecutive year, as per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Based on early estimates for the franchise tag, that number could be around $9.7 million for Byrd this year.
The Bills would be foolish to let him hit the open market.
Byrd is considered one of the best free safeties in the NFL. His skills make him a rare commodity, as one of the few safeties that has the sideline-to-sideline range to sit back in Cover 1 as the lone deep safety. He also has exceptional ball skills, with 22 career interceptions and 33 passes defensed.
Based on contracts given to some of the other top safeties over the past few years, sports contracts website Spotrac projects Byrd to be paid an average of roughly $8 million per year for five years, with $18 million guaranteed.
If the Bills roll over all of their cap money, they should have around $25 million to spend this offseason. That should give them plenty of room to get a deal done for Byrd.
With a few key free agents to take care of in cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Julian Edelman, most Patriots fans are quickly coming to terms with the likelihood that the Patriots will not be very active in free agency this year. The focus of the team building has been centered on May's NFL draft.
The Patriots hold the 29th overall selection and all seven of their original picks. As always, we'll never know whether the Patriots will move up or down until they actually do so, but are there any clues that we can gather to help give us an idea? Are there any prospects at the top of the draft that are worth moving up for? Is this draft deep enough to justify moving down? Are the needs bigger on offense or defense?
Let's get to all those questions and more.
To me, it looks like the defense is the side that needs the most attention. They could use a backup defensive end to rotate with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich; they also have to start seriously considering life after Vince Wilfork. The Patriots may need two defensive tackles if Tommy Kelly doesn't come back at 100 percent of his old self, or if they don't see improvement from the likes of Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, and who knows what to expect from Armond Armstead at this point.
The Patriots must adequately address their Rob Gronkowski backup plan this offseason. The contrast between the offense with and without their top tight end is too stark to ignore.
I'm not so sure the weapons are the big focus on offense this offseason overall, though. Center Ryan Wendell is set to hit the open market, and guard Dan Connolly has to be considered a potential salary cap casualty; the Patriots can get back $3 million of Connolly's $4.08 million cap hit if they cut him, or they could try to restructure his contract to a more reasonable number.
If it's a choice between a top defensive lineman or a top target for Tom Brady, this offseason, I'd lean to the former.
I would temper the expectations that the Patriots are going to invest heavily on a wide receiver in this year's draft, after spending a second-round pick on Aaron Dobson last year. It's not the end of the world I expect Dobson to make a second-year leap.
That being said, it wouldn't be the first time the Patriots have invested heavily in one position by throwing as many darts at the board as possible in an effort to fill those gaps in the roster I call it the volume approach.
This year's draft is not loaded with big-bodied receivers bursting with long-speed and short-area quickness. It's a deep class of receivers, but they all have their warts. Clemson's Martavis Bryant doesn't have the short-area quickness the Patriots usually look for in a receiver, but he has great long speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash, 22.2 yards per catch in college) and could be a target with their second-round pick. He is a savvy deep-ball receiver, who tracks the ball well and knows how to use his 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame to win matchups.
It seems to never fail that the Patriots draft a player who excelled in the three-cone drill, and this year, Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood jumped off the page. He finished fourth among receivers with a 6.68-second finish, and had a respectable 4.48-second 40-yard dash. His long speed doesn't pop off the screen on tape, but he is a savvy route-runner and the positives of his scouting report on NFL.com read like a detailed description of what the Patriots look for in a receiver:
Solid build. Good hands and concentration extends outside his frame and makes the difficult catch. Fine route savvy sells his routes with stems and nods. Understands how to get open. Good sideline awareness dots the "i." Established rapport with the quarterback is noticeable (is the first receiver sought on broken plays) and keeps working to come free. Very solid personal and football character. Trustworthy, accountable and dependable.
One player to watch could be Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, who has drawn comparisons to former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch. He is not the biggest (5-foot-10, 189 pounds) but he has plenty of speed (4.33-second 40-yard dash) and quickness (6.76-second three-cone drill) and is another savvy route-runner. The Patriots would likely have to target Cooks at the end of the first round, but he makes sense as a replacement for Edelman if the Patriots are unable to re-sign him.
This is considered a deep class at wide receiver, so there could be better value options available later on in the draft.
It won't be easy, Linnea.
The Patriots could be spending a lot of money on Talib and/or Edelman, and given their current salary cap situation, they may be on a tight budget. There are some moves they could make that would help them retain both players, but even at that point, they'll still have to make more room if they want to sign anyone else, including their own draft picks.
Last year, the Patriots let Edelman hit the open market to see his value. They will probably do the same thing again, only this time, it's hard to imagine there only being one suitor as was the case last year when the Giants were the only team that showed any interested in Edelman.
It must be draft season because groupthink is starting to set in. Early mock drafts had the Patriots taking one of two tight ends: Texas Tech's Jace Amaro or Washington's Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. Both tight ends are considered H-back/"move"/"Joker" tight ends that are less of a true tight end and more of a big-bodied receiver.
The problem, however, is this: when was the last time the Patriots spent a first-round pick on someone who wasn't a three- or four-down player? With questions around the blocking abilities of both Amaro and Sefarian-Jenkins, the Patriots may look elsewhere with their top pick.
However, if they want an athletic and versatile H-back tight end who might be available in a later round, they could target Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla. He comes with some baggage, and has been deemed undraftable by at least one scout, but one scout tells me that at least one team is bound to overlook those questions. If the Patriots can rein him in, they could replenish the post left vacant by Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots would have to be willing to look past one major incident: in March 2013, Lyerla took to Twitter to show support for the idea that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was a governmental conspiracy.
If they're looking for a Gronkowski backup, they could target Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz in the second round. Fiedorowicz has a very similar build to Gronkowski, at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds with 33-inch long arms and hands measuring over 10 inches. Like Gronkowski, Fiedorowicz has the big body to contribute as a pass-catcher in the red zone and seal off defenders in the running game. He has been coached by Hernandez's brother, D.J., and Bill Belichick's old friend Kirk Ferentz.
Another intriguing prospect in that regard is Notre Dame's Troy Niklas. He also has the Gronkowski-an frame at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds with 34-inch arms. He sometimes lacks sound technique as a blocker, and he doesn't have elite long speed for his position, but he has the potential to develop into a solid blocker and he knows how to use that big body to get open and make catches.
This year's tight end group is considered fairly thin, though, so the Patriots will likely have to strike early on a "Y" tight end that can serve as both a pass-catcher and in-line blocker.
It's tough to say right now, because it's unclear who would fall and why, and it's also unclear exactly where these players will all stack up in the middle of May.
I really don't see this as a trade-up kind of draft, though. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock called this the deepest draft he's seen in 10 years, and Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said it's the deepest he's seen ever in his 30 years scouting the draft. If anything, this is a prime scenario for the Patriots to do what they've done twice in the past five years trade out of the first round entirely.
You and the rest of the draft community. There are only three things that are certain in life: death, taxes, and Belichick will do something that surprises you on draft weekend.
But if you have a little (read: a lot of) time to spare and a cup (read: a few cups) of coffee, go give a look at this big board by Bleacher Report's Sterling Xie. A heck of an in-depth look.
The Patriots have two major decisions coming up with both cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Julian Edelman both set to become free agents on March 11.
A tight salary cap situation might force them to pick one or the other, but if they want to get creative and if they think both are important enough to retain, there's a way they could keep both in a Patriots uniform for the 2014 season and beyond.
For starters, neither player is a top-of-the-market value. Both have significant injury histories, and Talib in particular was hobbled this past season with a hip injury. The 2013 season marked the first fully healthy, 16-game season of Edelman's career.
The copycat nature of the NFL may lead to Talib's value increasing a little bit, as teams search for that big-bodied cover corner to bring them one step closer to the Seattle Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" secondary which is loaded with size. Talib's 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame is comparable to Richard Sherman's 6-foot-3, 195-pound stature, although Sherman is quicker and has longer arms to lock up receivers in press coverage.
Based on Talib's talent alone, he could make a case to be one of the top five highest-paid cornerbacks in the league; add the injury history, and the off-field track record prior to his arrival in New England, and his stock goes down a bit. Overall, given where Talib stacks up compared to the other high-paid cornerbacks, he should make in the neighborhood of $8 to $9 million per year on his next deal, putting him right outside the top five highest average salaries for a cornerback.
Edelman, on the other hand, is arguably more valuable to the Patriots than any other NFL team for his chemistry with Tom Brady, who often locked in on Edelman toward the end of the season as the chemistry built and as the Patriots' options over the middle thinned out. In 2013, Edelman became just the third receiver in Patriots history to log over 100 receptions and the 10th to log over 1,000 receiving yards.
From this perspective, Edelman is worth no more than $6.5 million per year; slot receivers like Danny Amendola and Wes Welker made $5.7 and $6 million per year, respectively, last offseason.
Add Talib and Edelman's yearly averages together, and you're looking at somewhere between $14 and $16 million per year to keep both of them keeping in mind that this is somewhat of an oversimplification of how contracts work, as the year-to-year cap charge for each player will most certainly change. In that sense, perhaps the Patriots could modify the numbers for each to make them more manageable in 2014, pushing the charges ahead to future years.
They may not have a choice, with only around $9.3 million in cap space to work with, according to Spotrac, a sports contracts and salary information website.
There are some moves the Patriots could make to free up some money in the meantime.
- Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is set to count for $2,656,250 against the cap, but the Patriots could get back $2,156,250 of that by cutting him.
- Defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga is on the books for $3.5 million next year, of which the Patriots could recoup $2.5 million by cutting him.
- Guard Dan Connolly has a cap hit of $4,083,333 next year, but the Patriots could add nearly $3 million to the salary cap next year if they release him.
- Safety Adrian Wilson will count $1,833,333 against the cap next year, but the Patriots could get back $1,166,666 of that by cutting him.
There's the possibility of restructuring any of those deals, which would also put some money in the Patriots' pocket, if they want to keep those players around but it takes two sides to agree to a restructured contract. That being said, by cutting all four, the Patriots would save a total of $9,322,915 on the salary cap, putting them at roughly $18.6 million.
That would be just enough to sign both players, but that would leave them next to nothing for other free agents like running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Brandon Spikes and center Ryan Wendell although the latter two might have left the fold, regardless. The Patriots also must keep about $5 million to sign their draft picks, and they like to keep another $5 to $10 million in pocket change to spend during the season in case of an emergency.
That's where the Patriots may have to start racking their brain finding a way to restructure key veterans like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork ($11.6 million cap charge in 2014) and left guard Logan Mankins ($10.5 million cap charge).
No matter how they do it, the Patriots will find it tough to keep everyone happy and in a Patriots uniform.
The 2014 scouting combine has come to a close, so let's take this opportunity to catch our breath and catch up on some of the things we may have missed in the frenzy of constant press conferences and bench presses over the past six days.
Here are some leftover notes that caught my attention upon further review.
1. If the Patriots are looking for a hard-hitting safety in a similar mold to Kam Chancellor, one name to watch could be Washington State safety Deone Bucannon. He measured in at 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, giving up two inches and over 20 pounds to Chancellor, but that hasn't stopped Bucannon from emulating his game after Chancellor.
"How he plays the game: with great heart, passion, tenacity," Bucannon said. "You know, those are the things that I want. If I can get just the smallest amount of that, that'd be more than enough for this league. You know, he's a great player, and I love watching him play."
Bucannon ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash, put up 19 reps on the 225-pound bench press, and logged a vertical jump of 36.5 inches and a broad jump of 125 inches, which put him among the top five safeties in each of those four categories. He's a heady player, with the play recognition and quick reaction speed to play as a deep safety in Cover 2, but he's also highly versatile, with the ability to play man coverage on tight ends and to come down in the box to defend the run. As a strong safety, he lacks the ideal top-notch speed to play Cover 1, but he'll rarely be asked to do that at the NFL level.
Bucannon has not yet met with the Patriots, but there's still plenty of time left before the draft for that to change. With a last name that has "cannon" in it, the headlines and ledes would write themselves, so here's (selfishly) hoping.
2. Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman met with the Patriots this weekend, according to Christopher Price of WEEI.com, and there's a lot to like about his fit for the Patriots.
He is built similarly to Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds with 34 1⁄4-inch long arms. His game is also similar to Watt's.
Hageman's workout numbers weren't eye-popping although his 32 reps on the bench press landed him in a three-way tie for third among defensive linemen but the tape doesn't lie. He comes with a great first step, a variety of pass-rush moves, and brute strength to knock offensive linemen off the ball; he can carry out a number of assignments, which allows him to play all over the line.
"I tell coaches I play 0-technique, all the way to a 9-[technique]," he said. "Just the fact that in college, coach had me play 3-technique to everything, so I'm very versatile. I'm comfortable playing anything they want me to play. ... I feel like me getting that comfortability in college, has helped me be able to do that at the next level."
That kind of versatility would certainly serve him well in a Patriots uniform. There's a lot of uncertainty at defensive tackle this offseason: Tommy Kelly ($2,656,250 million cap hit) and Isaac Sopoaga ($3.5 million) have to both be considered candidates for either a restructured contract or an outright release, and we still don't know exactly what a 32-year-old Vince Wilfork will look like coming off a torn Achilles' tendon.
For any of those reasons, the Patriots might be forced to address the defensive tackle position this offseason, and Hageman has the upside to warrant consideration.
3. Wrote about the connection between the Patriots and Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald this weekend, but that was before he lit it up on Monday at the combine. The 288-pound beast ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash and put up 35 reps on the bench press, both among the top five defensive linemen at the combine.
No one ever doubted his athleticism and freakish burst off the line, but his size is a red flag. At 6-foot-1, with arms measuring 32 5⁄8 inches, he may be stonewalled by bigger offensive linemen. That being said, his first step is elite, and makes him very difficult to block; he logged 28.5 tackles for loss, which led the nation in 2013, and his 11 sacks were fourth-most in the ACC.
After posting such impressive numbers during the season and at the combine, it would be a surprise if he fell to the Patriots at No. 29.
4. Bill Belichick didn't say much at the combine, but he did make mention of Tennessee's offensive line.
"Its interesting this morning to see, almost the entire Tennessee offensive line there I guess [Alex] Bullard wasn't there, but he could have been invited. We could have had him too. Then we would have had the whole five offensive linemen from Tennessee. Its pretty unusual to see five guys from one school in that group. But obviously a pretty good looking group of players."
All four of them could find a home on an NFL roster next season. The Patriots could be looking to stockpile some depth on the offensive line this offseason; center Ryan Wendell is a free agent and right guard Dan Connolly is a potential salary cap casualty; the Patriots could recoup nearly $3 million in cap space by cutting him.
Tennessee center James Stone has versatility to play guard as well; Zach Fulton has been a right guard throughout his career at Tennessee. If the Patriots are looking to bolster the interior of the offensive line, those two could be on the radar.
This is smokescreen season, though, so let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, especially with Belichick involved.
Just call it east coast anti-bias.
"There's so many challenges that put a chip on my shoulder. It's not just only that. It's the fact that I want to be better, I want to put BC on the map again, I just want to be successful, go to a Bowl game. and this year, you know, myself, had a big [season], really motivated us and helped Boston College get back to a Bowl game."
The anti-ACC stigma is just one more knock on Edebali, but he picked a good time to start knocking that chip off his shoulder. He led the team with 14 tackles for loss; his 8.5 sacks were the team-high and tied for ninth in the conference.
At 6-foot-2 and 253 pounds, Edebali projects as a 3-4 outside linebacker or a small 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. He was at the combine as a defensive end.
The 24-year-old from Hamburg, Germany spent two years at Kimball Union Academy in N.H. as part of a program that allows international students to learn American football. Growing up in Germany made it hard to keep track of the NFL, but he learned very quickly what team he was going to root for when he arrived.
"I didn't really know a lot about American football like that, but when I came over here and I moved to the Northeast, I knew that if you do like the Patriots, everybody does not like you."
His upbeat personality shone through, and he did not seem overwhelmed by the process.
He has been in touch with Colts defensive end and fellow German Bjoern Werner for some pointers on that process, and he also models his game after Werner.
"You know, even though he didn't run the fastest 40, he said it's all about the get-off," he said. "Get on your get-off. I really took that to heart coming into my senior year, and it's really my trademark."
He could become the first BC player drafted since linebacker Luke Kuechly was taken ninth overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2012.
6. Jets cornerback Dee Milliner has been a busy guy over the past few months, according to several Alabama players at the combine. Both cornerback Deion Belue and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix have reached out to Milliner, their former teammate, for advice on this process.
"[Milliner] gave me a few tips [on the process]," Belue said, "but the main thing he said was to just take it one day at a time. Don't look ahead, just handle the moment, right then.
Clinton-Dix additionally listed Buccaneers safety Mark Barron (Alabama) and Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro (Texas) as players he's spoken to about the pre-draft process and getting ready for the NFL.
7. Speaking of those Alabama defensive backs, the consensus is that their players are the most prepared for the NFL because of their years in what players consider comparable to a professional program.
"No doubt about it," Belue said. "From the playbook, to the system, to the practice schedules, to the way he handles his meetings, it's like a business there, you know. It's like a mini pro team."
Alabama's program under head coach Nick Saban is as close to a professional program as it gets in college, but their opponents have also helped them get prepared for life in the NFL.
"I feel like a lot of [SEC] teams use a pro style offense," he said. "Like I said, playing for coach Saban's defense, we did a lot of things. We played nickel, dime, cover 2, we played a lot of different defenses."
8. You can include Broncos executive vice president John Elway among those in the chorus of the Broncos organization that say Wes Welker "is under contract" for next season. Never mind the fact that he's going to count for $8 million against the cap, and that the Broncos could save $6 million of that by cutting him. Also never mind the ginormous helmet he was wearing at the end of the season after suffering two concussions. Also never mind the fact that Welker will be 33 years old headed into next season.
Forget it all, because Elway even insinuated that the Broncos are eyeing an extension or re-signing Welker after his original two-year, $12 million deal expires.
"I think they have to hit the market, the market sets those," Elway said of wide receiver Eric Decker and the top contract he desires, "especially where you look where we are and what we have coming up. Both Thomases are up next year. And Wes is, too. So all that plays into it."
"Coming from the offense that he was in at [Georgia Tech], we knew that it was going to take some developing and things like that, but certainly he's got the raw, physical tools that you look for I think he might have been the fastest receiver in the draft at the time he came out; he's 6-foot-5, that's some impressive things. His development was hindered this year, we were expecting big things from him, he had an outstanding training camp for us, and then out of the gates, I think he had 13 catches and  yards in the first three weeks of the season ... but then he sustained some injuries, and it got to where we had to place him on injured reserve. But again, he's a guy we're excited about. I know he's rehabbing, doing a tremendous job and he wants it in the worst way to get back and to finally showcase what he can really be when he's healthy and starting to really come into his own, so hopefully he has a big year for us."
As I've written in the past, it would help if they would send him on a wider variety of routes, rather than constantly sending him straight down the field. He hasn't given them a reason to believe that he can run routes effectively yet, and it's perpetuated itself into an ineffective deep ball receiver ultimately being sent on way too many deep routes.
"I don't personally know his work ethic," says a former scout, "but it's not uncommon for a guy to really become a pro in his third year but only Rex and [general manger John] Idzik along with the wide receiver coach [Sanjay Lal] know where Stephen's pro development is right now. So either Rex believes it or is encouraging Stephen, or possibly trying to make him part of a trade on draft day. But I was impressed with what I saw at training camp, and along with his good blocking, that his hands and ability to separate were starting to improve."
It would also help if he had a good quarterback throwing to him, so Geno Smith is going to have to step up his game for the benefit of everyone. The Jets have been eyeing Bears free-agent quarterback Josh McCown, according to the New York Daily News, and they are considered a legitimate possible landing spot for Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, according to NFL Network.
Regardless, Hill may get a fire lit under him sooner than later; Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and USC wide receiver Marqise Lee both announced they met with the Jets this weekend, and both are projected as first-round draft choices.
10. Missouri defensive end Michael Sam delivered a great press conference in the wake of becoming the first openly gay NFL player to enter the NFL draft, and it didn't take long for a reporter to ask how he would handle being in the Miami Dolphins' locker room.
"If the Miami Dolphins drafted me I would be excited to be a part of that organization," he said. "But I'm not afraid of going into that environment. I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates. I know how to communicate with the coaches and other staff I need to communicate with."
The Dolphins don't particularly need a defensive end, with depth at the position in Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan, but if they were to draft Sam, he probably would not have to deal with controversial guard Richie Incognito, who is a free agent this offseason.
Even if Incognito is somehow in a Dolphins uniform next year, and even if he continues to harass his teammates with foul language particularly homophobic language directed at Sam Sam knows how he'd deal with it, and he'd be a lot more forthright with his feelings than Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin was.
"If someone wants to call me a name Ill have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it wont lead to anything else."
His transition to the NFL will be about more than just fitting into the NFL locker room, though he'll also have to fit into an NFL defense. As former Boston Globe football writer Greg Bedard points out in his breakdown of Sam's game over at TheMMQB.com, it may not be that easy for him.
Sam's performance at the combine was unspectacular, with average finishes across the board particularly in the 40 (4.91 seconds) and bench press (17 reps) further solidifying his status as a fourth- to seventh-round pick.
INDIANAPOLIS The pipeline between Alabama head coach Nick Saban and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick could produce another connection in the 2014 NFL draft.
The Patriots have scheduled an informal meeting with Alabama safety Hasean Clinton-Dix in Indianapolis.
Hasean (pronounced "ha-SEEN," nicknamed Ha Ha by his grandmother) is listed at 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds with 32 3/8-inch long arms and 9-inch hands. His size is a plus; the emergence of Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor has created buzz around many of the draft's big-bodied safeties who could carry out similar duties.
"Chance is a big player and big time safety," he said, "but you also need safeties who can cover the slot receivers, and also play the deep middle of the field, and also get in the box, so I think you need more versatile safeties in this league now."
Those hard-hitting safeties will be a sought-after commodity as teams try to pull off their best impression of the Seahawks secondary. Clinton-Dix is listed as a free safety, but he doesn't see himself as solely that kind of player.
He spent most of his sophomore year playing as a traditional deep safety, but moved into the box more to defend the run in his junior year. In that respect, he feels he is more closely defined by the latter of those two roles.
"I would say [the] LSU [game]," he said, when asked to name an individual performance from 2013 that defines him as a player. "They were a run team, power formation team, power backs. I was in the box a lot, you know, being physical."
He feels that playing both spots, however, has better prepared him for life in the NFL.
"At the next level, you've gotta know both [free safety and strong safety]," he said, "you gotta be able to play in the box and play deep. If you know both you'll be fine."
Free safety and strong safety can sometimes be dictated by the offense, not the defense. It depends where the tight end lines up, and what the offense is doing. If an offense is running deep patterns at the strong safety, his abilities to cover will be in focus. If a team is running in that direction, he'll be asked to come downhill and help out against the run.
Being able to do both effectively is a huge plus for any safety, especially in the Patriots' defense.
In addition to Clinton-Dix's versatility, he's made ready for the NFL by his experience playing in the SEC against the best players college football has to offer.
"Most definitely, I feel like a lot of teams use a pro style offense in college," he said. "Playing for coach Saban's defense, we did a lot of things. We played nickel, dime, Cover 2 ... we played a lot of different defenses in that area."
His time in the SEC may have better prepared him for the NFL, but make no mistake, he knows he still has much to learn.
To that end, he has been in touch with some other Alabama alums, Buccaneers safety Mark Barron and Jets cornerback Dee Milliner, who both had some good advice for him.
"They just said to stay humble [and] stay calm," he said. "Like I said, you enjoy this game, you love this game, you play this game for a reason, so l mean, you go out and have fun at the end of the day and enjoy it."
Clinton-Dix is projected to be a first-round pick, but may not even be available by the time the Patriots are on the clock most mock drafts have projected him to be snapped up in the middle of the first round, between picks 14 and 24.
Either way, the Patriots are wise to cover all the bases. The NFL draft is unpredictable, and there's just no telling who will be taken where. The Patriots want to make sure they've done their homework on Clinton-Dix.
INDIANAPOLIS Private meetings are a big part of the draft process, because they shed light on which players a team wants to get to know more about, for one reason or another. Those meetings have already begun for the New England Patriots.
According to WEEI's Christopher Price, the Patriots have had an "informal meeting" with Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald in Indianapolis.
The Patriots are always fond of versatile players, regardless of their position, and Donald has played all over the line in his collegiate career.
"In college, I played different positions. I played nose tackle, I played in a three-man front as a 5-tech, I played 3-tech, so I moved around in college a lot. So being versatile the way I am, I feel like that's a plus for me."
He was constantly moved around, which has led to some people wondering where he would fit best. Despite that versatility, he feels he has a strong suit.
"Defensive line is defensive line, to me," he said, "but I feel like I'm a 3-tech, I feel like I'm an inside guy."
At 6-foot-1 and 288 pounds, there have been a lot of questions about Donald's size, and whether he can continue to be as productive while going against much bigger interior linemen in the NFL. Those talks have not been a problem for Donald.
"It never got to me," he said. "It is what it is. Thinking about it or letting it get me mad ain't gonna make me no taller, so I like to go out there and play the game of football the way I play it hard-nosed and [going] out there trying to make plays."
Because of his combination of small size and big production (11 sacks, led the nation with 28.5 tackles for loss), he has drawn some comparisons to Bengals' All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins (6-foot-1, 303 pounds).
It certainly doesn't seem like Donald minds the comparisons.
"I love the way he plays," Donald said. "I watched him a lot my junior year in college, so I know how he is: explosive, fun to watch and making a ton of plays. Being considered an undersized defensive tackle and doing what he did in the NFL is amazing, and it's an honor just for people to even try to compare me with a guy like that. He's a great football player."
The Patriots figure to be in the market for a defensive tackle this offseason, with several questions at both the top and bottom of the depth chart Vince Wilfork is coming off a torn Achilles' tendon and is set to count for $11.6 million against the cap, and could have his contract restructured as a result; Isaac Sopoaga and Tommy Kelly are both candidates to either restructure their deal or be cut outright to save money on the cap.
The Patriots have lacked a standout gap-penetrating defensive tackle that can be the yin to Wilfork's yang, and that is exactly the style of play Donald brings to the table.
Pete Carroll says Seahawks' blueprint starts with 'eliminating big plays and playing great up front'
INDIANAPOLIS Ever since the confetti rained down on the Seattle Seahawks following their resounding victory in Super Bowl XLVIII, everyone wants to know what it takes to build a defense as dominant as the group that stifled the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning to just eight points that night.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was happy to indulge, saying, "It really starts with an overall philosophy of how the game works, which is eliminating big plays and playing great up front." The Seahawks allowed just 36 pass plays of 20 yards or more in 2013, the league's best total in that category. Their front four generated 44 sacks, tied for eighth in the NFL.
"If you look at our defense and how well we play down the middle with [safety] Earl [Thomas] back there, and for years it's been that way," Carroll said at a press conference in Indianapolis on Friday. "That's one of the building blocks that you are really good up top and you don't let people score fast, and then also scoring fast with the running game is really important, and then as you move to the front we want to be more and more aggressive, always with speed. And so that is kind of the general way of saying it. But if you don't have a really clear vision of what you are creating then one year it is going to be this and one year it is going to be that. And I think we have a very solid mentality for what we are trying to make with our defensive team."
If the Patriots want to build their defense in that mold, they're off to a decent start; they finished fifth in sacks with 48, but allowed 65 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which ranked 20th in the NFL last year.
That mentality fast safeties on the back end and a fierce front four carried the Seahawks through the season, but reached its apex in the Super Bowl. They generated just one sack on the night, but Manning was harassed in the pocket and threw two interceptions while facing pressure, one of which was tipped in the air by an oncoming rush from defensive end Michael Bennett. After averaging 4.8 pass plays of 20 yards or more on the season, the Broncos generated just two such plays against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
"We didn't change anything," Carroll said. "The things that our guys are really good at, we stayed with it in the hopes that in the ultimate challenge that would give us the best opportunity to perform well, and it worked out quite well for us.''
Teams that are hopeful to mimic the blueprint, though, should proceed with caution. Rangy safeties and a suffocating pass-rush are a great place to start, but the Seahawks have a pair of cornerbacks unlike any other the NFL has seen lately, or will see for some time. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner each stand over 6-foot-3 and weigh over 195 pounds.
The Patriots don't run a "true" bump-and-run scheme in the secondary, although their cornerbacks are asked to hold up in man coverage on a consistent basis. Aqib Talib is 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds; Alfonzo Dennard stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 200 pounds.
Thus, Carroll is not worried about teams that may try to target big, physical corners like Sherman and Browner.
"No, because they don't exist," he said. "Big, fast guys are the fewest people around. Everybody would like to get longer, taller guys that run 4.4. But there are just not very many humans like that in the world, you know. So it's rare when you find them and then you have to develop the guys. The perfect guys are not there because there are not tall, exceedingly fast guys other than [Detroit Lions wide receiver] Calvin [Johnson], there are a handful. So you have to make those guys come to life in your coaching and how you adapt your style and your ability to fit it. We've been doing it for a long time and always been looking for longer guys because we have such a commitment to bump-and-run corners. This is nothing new this goes back 20 years. But it's just rare that you can find them. When we had Brandon and Richard playing, you can't get any longer. Those are the two tallest cornerbacks to play together arguably in the history of the league."
The Seahawks hit the jackpot with their corners, but not without some effort of their own. The coaching staff not only identified the right players, but was able to bring out the best of those players' talents.
There's no guarantee that any team buying the proverbial lottery ticket will hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Teams will certainly try their best to get close to Seattle's blueprint, but a copy-paste job appears unlikely.
A.J. McCarron says he has similarities to Tom Brady, calls the Patriots 'the Alabama of pro football'
INDIANAPOLIS If the New England Patriots are going to look to the draft for a new backup to quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick may turn to an old friend. Belichick has a long-standing relationship with Alabama head coach Nick Saban, which has caused for some speculation that the Patriots could target two-time BCS National Champion quarterback A.J. McCarron.
If that happens, he does not feel that the move from Alabama to New England aside from an obvious dramatic shift in climate would be a big change.
"It's almost like New England is the Alabama of pro football," he said. "Coach Saban learned under coach Belichick. It would be almost deja vu in a way."
Alabama is known as one of the more pro-style programs in college football, which could mean McCarron is more well-prepared to handle the expectations and the rigors of life in the NFL.
He may not get a chance to start right away, with Brady still playing at a high level, but that would allow him time to develop and learn the Patriots' offense, which is known for its complexity. Regardless, McCarron is still excited about the possibility of heading to New England and learning from the two-time NFL MVP and three-time Super Bowl champion.
"I love the Patriots organization," McCarron said. If I had the chance to go there and sit behind Brady for however long and learn from one of the best to ever play the game, that would be an awesome experience."
The Patriots would probably not have to use a high pick if they want McCarron, who is projected to be drafted in the middle rounds (third or fourth round, depending on who you ask), and while that may mean less than top dollar for McCarron in his rookie deal, he doesn't sound concerned in the least.
"I don't worry about money," he said. "I was raised without any money. Being broke, I'm used to it. If you're money-hungry, it's not going to come to you. If you're just patient and go with the flow and let the chips fall where they fall and (rely on) God's plan, everything will be fine in the end."
Although McCarron certainly has a long way to go to reach the heights Brady has reached in his career, he already sees some similarities to Brady in their style of play, the questions about their arm strength coming out of college and even in body build for what it's worth, McCarron is listed as 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Brady measured in at 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds at the combine in 2000.
"The last time I made a comment like that I got criticized, but like I said last time, I don't think you can compare anybody to anybody, I don't understand how people do that because everybody's different. When it comes to similarities, I think from body build to how we were talked about coming out of college, I think Tom Brady. I think we play the game the same way. He still moves in the pocket pretty well to get away from blitzes and everybody doubted his arm strength coming out, and he's turned out pretty good so far, I would say."
Under the tutelage of Belichick and Josh McDaniels, McCarron could turn out "pretty good," too.
INDIANAPOLIS It's become a running joke, of sorts. Find the player who runs the fastest time in the three-cone drill, and you've found a player who is likely somewhere on Bill Belichick's radar.
The Patriots head coach has developed a penchant for picking players that excel in the three-cone drill, in which orange construction cones are set up in an L-shape, five yards apart from each other. The players at the scouting combine run around the cones in a drill that is used to measure short-area quickness.
The three-cone drill can be seen in this video, and at his press conference in Indianapolis on Thursday, Belichick was asked what insight the three-cone drill can provide to a player's football ability.
"Well, I mean, I think it gives you some evaluation of his combination of his lateral movement and his vertical movement," he said. "We can see the vertical movements in the 10's, the 40's 10, 20, 40, I mean that's all one drill; the shuttle drill for the skill players, which is a 60-yard test, but it's all vertical; the 20-yard, 5-10-5, change of direction drill is really a lateral drill; the L drill or the three-cone drill combines a vertical and lateral element with it."
Over the years, the Patriots have taken several players that have excelled in the three-cone drill. Devin McCourty ran it in 6.7 seconds, the second-fastest time among cornerbacks at the 2010 combine. The Patriots may have felt justified in Julian Edelman's move to wide receiver based on his 6.62-second three-cone drill.
Just last year, wide receiver Josh Boyce ran it in 6.68 seconds, the third-fastest at his position at the 2013 combine despite running it on a broken foot. The Patriots wound up with three of the top 10 performers in the three-cone drill from last year's combine: Boyce, wide receiver T.J. Moe and cornerback Logan Ryan.
There are some cautionary tales to the three-cone drill as a measuring tool for talent. Former Patriots receiver Chad Jackson clocked a 6.74-second finish in the three-cone drill, one of the best at his position in 2006, but never panned out in a two-year stint with the Patriots.
While we may joke about its value in the Patriots' war room, Belichick cautioned heavily against reading too much into it.
"Once again, I think you always want to keep in mind in those drills, whichever ones of those you're talking about [you have] ideal conditions, ideal start, nobody lining up across from you, nobody hitting you when you try to release and run 'em, nobody hitting you at the finish line, nothing to think about, no play, no snap count, no defense, no offensive adjustments, no anything. It's just a straight time measurement."
INDIANAPOLIS At the beginning of the 2013 offseason, the Denver Broncos made a big splash by dipping into the New England Patriots' pool to sign slot receiver Wes Welker.
The Broncos signed Welker as a complementary piece to an offense that was already loaded with talent. This year, however, Welker could be thrust into a more prominent role with the Broncos' No. 2 wide receiver, Eric Decker, set to hit free agency.
Welker could be their No. 2 receiver, but head coach John Fox doesn't seem too concerned with that possibility.
"I always tell guys, don't let anybody define you, that includes me. Wes, I think, has proven to be a very productive receiver in this league, whether that's as a (No.) 1, 2 or 3, I've never really totally understood that I understand the phrases, but we just let 'em compete, and he's never been short on that."
Welker played 84.4 percent of his snaps in the slot in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus, where Decker played just 32.2 percent of his snaps in that role. That doesn't necessarily mean Welker will play more on the outside this year; the Broncos could also turn to tight end Julius Thomas to play more on the outside rather than in the slot or as a true tight end, which would allow Welker to remain in his more comfortable position.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft pointed out at last year's owner's meeting that there was no guarantee that Welker would make it to the second year of his deal he is scheduled to count for $8 million against the salary cap in 2014, according to Spotrac, but with only $2 million in dead money, the Broncos could cut him with no significant penalty, and earn back $6 million in cap space in the process.
As of right now, however, that doesn't appear to be anywhere near Fox's mind.
"Wes Welker's under contract," he said, "so I don't think it's a tremendous decision."
Welker was one of four Broncos' pass-catchers to haul in 10 touchdown passes, but he finished the season with 73 catches for 778 yards, the lowest totals for him in those categories since 2006. He missed three games due to concussions in 2013, and finished the season wearing an oversized helmet to help protect his head from further damage.
The Broncos will have a decision to make on Welker after next season, but for now, it appears their decision has been made.
The Miami Dolphins can finally begin to move on now that independent investigator Ted Wells has released his report on the Dolphins' workplace conduct most notably between offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin.
Some of this will be easy. Incognito's contract expires at the end of the league year, meaning he'll become a free agent as of March 11, 2014. Martin could be traded, but it's more likely he'll be cut.
It would be easy if that were the extent of the problem, but unfortunately, that's just the beginning. Once you remove those two characters from the equation, center Mike Pouncey and guard John Jerry become the center of attention. The report stated that Incognito, Pouncey and Jerry were "equal-opportunity harassers" and that the bullying was not directed solely at Martin, but another unnamed player ("Player A") and an unnamed assistant trainer.
The Dolphins will have to decide what to do with each. Jerry is a free agent, and is not seen as a fit for the offense, so moving on from him is not a difficult decision.
Pouncey, however, is the Dolphins' best offensive player by many accounts. Would the Dolphins really move on from one of their building blocks so suddenly? Head coach Joe Philbin has jettisoned players for far less, and he has specifically not taken kindly to players who have cast the organization in an unfavorable light with their actions.
This is not the first time Pouncey has done so, either. He was seen out at a club last July wearing a "Free Hernandez" hat along with his brother, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. Maurkice apologized, Mike did not.
Even if the Dolphins keep him in their long-term plans, the NFL could still choose to suspend Pouncey for violations of workplace conduct policies.
That could also hold true for Incognito, Jerry and offensive line coach Jim Turner. In the report, Turner is named repeatedly as a witness to the verbal harassment, yet he did nothing as the terrible trio were allowed to reign free over their victims. He even told Philbin in early November "that there had been no bullying on the offensive line and that none of his players had been called 'vulgar names.'"
The fact that Turner not only turned a blind eye to the harassment from Incognito to Martin, but even participated in the harassment of Player A, could be grounds for the league to step in and suspend him. The Dolphins recently hired John Benton to be an assistant offensive line coach, perhaps in an effort to prepare for moving on from Turner.
There are plenty of decisions to make in the coming months, and the Dolphins need to address four starting spots on the offensive line. Regardless of what the Dolphins choose to do with Pouncey, that group up front will look much different that the unit that allowed a league-high 58 sacks on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, setting a Dolphins record in the process.
Incognito and Jerry have both hit the end of the line with the Dolphins there's no reason to believe that either will return to the team next year. What happens with Martin, Pouncey and Turner, however, will give us some insight on where the Dolphins are headed from here.
According to multiple reports, recently fired Browns general manager Michael Lombardi could be headed for a reunion with former colleague Bill Belichick with the Patriots.
Nothing has been confirmed by the team yet, but where there's smoke, there's usually fire with these reports.
Immediately, several questions come to mind with regard to Lombardi's potential new position in the Patriots' front office which is ambiguously structured to begin with.
What will his role be?
As of yet, Lombardi's role remains unknown, but he would probably be joining the team's front office as a personnel evaluator in some capacity. Right now, the Patriots' personnel department is led by Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio. It's a thin group at the top of the Patriots' personnel department.
We do know some roles he will not be filling.
The Patriots never replaced senior football advisor Floyd Reese when he left the team last year, so the Patriots could be looking for his replacement, but it's likely not Lombardi. Reese acted as a liaison of sorts, representing the Patriots' interests when negotiating contracts with player representatives. That role doesn't look like a fit for Lombardi, who has been a talent evaluator for much of his NFL career.
The Patriots never truly replaced their vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli when he left for Kansas City, though his role is most closely carried out by Caserio. It's unlikely that the Patriots would name Lombardi the general manager if anyone's going to get that job, it would likely be Caserio, who has drawn interest from other NFL teams with GM vacancies. Lombardi could fill a role beneath Caserio, but whether that's as a consultant or in a more defined role remains to be seen.
What sort of dynamic will he bring to the room?
Lombardi has been in the personnel evaluation business for a long time, and his connections to Belichick are well-known (the two worked together from 1991-1995 with the Browns). Lombardi's return to Cleveland marked his first job in the league since 2007.
Without knowing the dynamic of the relationship between Lombardi and Belichick, it's fair to wonder what the room will be like with Lombardi in it. Lombardi's close relationship with Belichick may make him the most qualified to challenge Belichick's opinion, and the Patriots head coach is always looking for ways to break up the groupthink that can often bog an organization down.
It's hard to tell exactly what dynamic he'd bring to the table without knowing what his role will be, but it's clear that Belichick trusts Lombardi's opinion.
What does it mean?
A lot of this depends on the answer to the first question. One thing we know Lombardi's presence means is another voice in the room, regardless of his eventual role with the team.
He served as a writer and analyst in his time away from the game from 2008-2012, but he never got completely away from the game. According to former Boston Globe NFL writer Greg Bedard, it was "one of the worst-kept secrets" around the NFL that Lombardi was acting as a consultant for the Patriots in his five years out of the league.
In that sense, signing Lombardi would just formalize a relationship that existed for years.
However, this move could be seen as an insurance policy in the event that Caserio bolts for a new team after the 2014 season. When your team is as successful as the Patriots, your executives and coaches are going to be sought-after commodities for other teams.
With so much changing in the Patriots' coaching staff and front office these days, it seems nothing is out of the question.
The scandal involving Dolphins offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito is nearing an end, but not without another major development.
Attorney Ted Wells' independent investigation will be released soon, but not soon enough for Incognito, who took to Twitter on Wednesday to air his thoughts on some of the events, with one particularly stirring revelation.
FACT: Jonathan Martin told me he thought about taking his own life in MAY 2013 b/c he wasn't playing well. Told me he felt worthless.— Richie Incognito (@68INCOGNITO) February 12, 2014
That's a dramatic shift from just eight days ago.
Incognito's character was assaulted in the media for months, largely based on fragments of fragments of out-of-context material. There is no contextualization necessary here. At least before, there was some room to wonder whether Incognito was really a bad guy, or if he had just been painted that way.
To give a new twist to an old saying, it's better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you're a bully than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Incognito is frustrated, and in his anger, he proved that he hasn't learned a thing over the past few months.
Make no mistake; he feels justified in his contempt toward Martin. There have been reports over the months that the two were very close friends, and the leaked text messages between the two seems relate a strong friendship.
It will be hard to move on from anything if Incognito keeps perpetuating the idea that he's a bully by doing things like tweeting out his teammate's suicidal thoughts.
He had an opportunity to go out quietly, to let this end with Wells' report. If Incognito is right, he would be exonerated of guilt or at least come out looking like the lesser of two evils.
Dear Jon Martin..... The truth is going to bury you and your entire "camp". You could have told the truth the entire time.— Richie Incognito (@68INCOGNITO) February 12, 2014
But now? Even if allegations of bullying weren't true before, they're definitely true now.
We won't have to wait much longer to learn the whole truth and to find out who is buried under it. Either way, though, Incognito isn't helping his image much with this latest string of tweets, and after months of keeping his mouth shut, he seems to have opened it at just the wrong time.
Big changes are happening for the Miami Dolphins, and if quarterback Ryan Tannehill isn't careful, the Dolphins' starting quarterback job could be one of the next to open up.
CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora reports that Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin wants to "push Tannehill more" and that the third-year head coach could even make a change at quarterback if he doesn't see improvement in the former No. 8 overall pick in the draft.
Philbin's job is riding on Tannehill progressing. I wouldn't doubt a little more pressure from highly paid back-up Matt Moore ($4M salary; $5.5M in cap) in 2014, with Philbin professing his belief in Moore to several of the GM candidates and demanding more from Tannehill.
"He definitely wants to push Tannehill more," said one source who has spoken to Philbin about the quarterbacks, "and if he doesn't see improvement he said he might go to Moore at some point. He definitely has a lot of faith in Moore, and they're paying him a lot of money."
Tannehill improved from his rookie year to his second season in the NFL, and arguably did the best he could with the shoddy offensive line play in front of him. He was sacked 58 times, which was the most in the league and the most in Dolphins history.
Some of his best football came in the final two minutes of each half, where he showed incredible command of the offense by leading his team on a league-leading eight scoring drives (three touchdowns, five field goals) that started with two minutes or less in the half and 13 scoring drives (four touchdowns, nine field goals) on drives that started with four minutes or less in the half.
Some of his worst football, however, came in the final two games of the season, with the Dolphins holding their playoff fate in their own hands. He completed 44.8 percent of his passes in the final two games of the season, and averaged 4.3 yards per pass attempt.
Tannehill will have to improve if the Dolphins are going to take that next step from the verge of playoff contention to a potential push for the Super Bowl, but is the first week of February really the time to be having this discussion? A change at quarterback would indicate the Dolphins season has been a disaster. Matt Moore will be 30 years old entering the 2014 season, and pulling the plug on Tannehill for Moore would get them no closer to long-term answers at quarterback.
At present, the Dolphins are making moves to facilitate Tannehill's growth, not stunt it. By firing offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and replacing him with former Eagles quarterback coach Bill Lazor, the Dolphins committed to helping Tannehill improve his overall game (particularly deep passing) by cutting the proverbial umbilical cord Sherman had been Tannehill's play-caller for the past six straight years, taking the same path from Texas A&M to the NFL in 2012.
This whole offseason should be about building around Tannehill, and it starts with that offensive line.
Click the link here to read my thoughts on how the Dolphins can rebuild their offensive line over at Bleacher Report.
Even with the lull of the offseason beginning to set in, the pace will pick up quickly.
The 2013 scouting combine is in less than two weeks, which means full-speed-ahead on the NFL draft. The combine also marks the beginning of the "legal tampering" period, where teams can negotiate player contracts with the agents, but cannot actually sign the deals.
We just got done with the main course, and dessert is being made.
The New England Patriots have the whole offseason ahead of them, but they don't have much time to waste before they have to come up with the answers to some key questions.
Here are some of the questions on the mind of NFL fans on the eve of free agency.
Sidney, They skipped using the franchise tag last year, and this could be the second year in a row because it doesn't feel like anyone is a viable option for the tag this year.
It would cost around $11 million to put the tag on either Aqib Talib or Julian Edelman. That number is just too high for either one. The Patriots are tight up against the cap, with around $5 million in space for the 2014 offseason at this point (based on a rumored 126.3 million salary cap).
If they're going to use it on one player or the other, it would make more sense for it to be Talib, perhaps as a bridge to a long-term deal if the two sides need more time to reach an agreement.
Matt, the Patriots could justify bringing Ryan Wendell back on a one- or two-year deal. With top-line centers like Cleveland's Alex Mack, Green Bay's Evan Dietrich-Smith and New Orleans' Brian De La Puente all available, the market for Wendell may not be too rich. Wendell wasn't great in 2013, but there's something to be said for continuity on the offensive line.
That being said, the Patriots need to bolster the depth on the interior of the offensive line with an eye toward developing new starting talent. Along with Wendell, guard Dan Connolly is due to count for $4.083 million against the salary cap; If they're unable to restructure his contract and feel they're better off releasing him, the Patriots could be lining up with two new starters on the inside next season.
The only player that showed up in a Pro Football Reference search for my exact birthday (Apr. 3, 1986) was Titans fullback Collin Mooney, who has five career rushes and six receptions to his name.
I'm absolutely the last person you should be asking for relationship advice, but maybe Boston.com's Karen Polewaczyk can be of service.
If the Patriots want to know where they should be spending their money this offseason, a good place to start is by seeing where they've already made big investments. One area they have excelled is in spreading the wealth over the whole team, as opposed to tying up a lot of money in one position.
The Patriots are tight against the salary cap, with $5,619,465 in cap space to work with, but they could clear up space with some cap-clearing moves. Here's a look at the positions where the Patriots could spend, and some other positions where they could find some cap relief.
Where they can save money: Guard
The Patriots have some big dollars tied up in their two guards, and as a result, they have some big questions ahead of them. Logan Mankins' contract counts for $10.5 million against the cap; The team is not likely to cut him, as it would only result in $2 million in cap relief, but they may still try to restructure his contract.
On the other hand, Dan Connolly will count for $4,083,333, and the Patriots could get back nearly $4 million of that by cutting him. He's in the final year of his deal, so they could also look to give him an ultimatum extension that could give the Patriots some breathing room with the cap while keeping Connolly on the roster.
Where they can spend money: Tight end, wide receiver
With their No. 1 tight end injured and their No. 2 tight end in jail, the Patriots' plans on offense were ruined. They have a chance to right that situation this offseason. Rob Gronkowski's $5.4 million cap hit in 2014 is the 11th-highest in the league, and with a potential $7.5 million more in relief coming from Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots could probably afford to invest a little at tight end.
With $9,226,926 invested at the wide receiver spot, it may not look like that's the right spot to make a big splash, but this is the second straight year where the Patriots' No. 1 target from the previous year is set to become a free agent. Julian Edelman should be the Patriots' top offseason priority, but he is not the kind of receiver the Patriots should spend top dollar to keep.
Where they can save money: Defensive tackle, safety
The Patriots roster features three of the top 21 cap hits at defensive tackle: Vince Wilfork ($11.6 million), Isaac Sopoaga ($3.5 million) and Tommy Kelly ($3 million) are all candidates for either a restructured contract or an outright release. It would be drastic to get rid of all three, but with a total of $15,737,945 in cap space tied up at defensive tackle, there's plenty of money to be freed up with a move or two.
At safety, Devin McCourty is a candidate for a contract extension that could provide some relief this year; He is set to count for $5.115 million against the cap in 2014. In terms of cap casualties, Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson could both be considered candidates. Releasing Gregory would free up $2.25 million in cap space, and releasing Wilson would provide the Patriots $1,166,666 million in relief. Of the two, Wilson is the more likely release, as he's coming off a season-ending Achilles injury. Gregory has been consistently praised by Belichick and by his teammates as one of the smartest players on the team.
Where they can spend money: Cornerback, defensive end, inside linebacker
Currently, cornerback doesn't count for much of a cap hit because Aqib Talib is not on the pay sheet. The Patriots gave cornerback Kyle Arrington a four-year, $16 million deal that counts just $3.625 million against the cap in 2014. Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard are still both on rookie contracts.
The Patriots' cap hit at inside linebacker a modest $1,151,898 is due to the fact that they currently only have backups Chris White and Steve Beauharnais under contract for 2014; Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher are both free agents and it would be a shock if Spikes returned to the team.
Fletcher could still be brought back as a backup, but the Patriots may be comfortable with a starting linebacker trio that has Dont'a Hightower taking Spikes' spot at middle linebacker, with Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins playing interchangeably as weakside and strongside linebackers, and acting as the primary duo for nickel packages.
Although the Patriots have $6,297,489 tied up at defensive end, they could still look to supplement starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich with a third defensive end that could take some of the snaps; Jones (1,125) and Ninkovich (1,097) earned more snaps than any other defensive linemen in the NFL last year, according to Football Outsiders. The Patriots were interested in a few defensive ends last offseason, so look for that interest to continue this offseason.