FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Bill Belichick’s “no days off” chant from the Patriots' Super Bowl championship parade is catching on. How else to explain what happened last weekend when Belichick played in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and was greeted by raucous "no days off" cheers?
“As he walked up to tee boxes and approached greens, it was a full-blown chant,” relayed Rob Oppenheim, the Andover, Mass., native who was part of a foursome with Belichick, fellow golf pro Ricky Barnes and Bill Perocchi (CEO of Pebble Beach Co.).
That was especially the case at Club 15, also known as the 15th tee. Oppenheim said Belichick was prepared for the unique scene at 15, putting on a Club 15 hat he had received from the gallery in the past and then throwing autographed Super Bowl LI footballs into the crowd, as well as some autographed golf balls.
When asked if he wanted it quiet or loud at the unique Club 15, Belichick chose the latter as he embraced the experience.
“The crowds felt similar to the US Open at Oakmont [in 2013], mostly because of him,” said Oppenheim, who credited Belichick’s presence and the crowd support for producing his top-10 finish, which earned him a spot in this weekend’s Genesis Open (he missed the cut). “It was as rowdy of a crowd, as close to football rowdiness, as I’ve ever seen. He was the show.”
As Oppenheim told Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, the foursome had actor Bill Murray playing behind them, and actor Mark Wahlberg and Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald in front of them, but “nobody was more popular” than Belichick.
“He couldn’t have been nicer and more engaging in conversations. Obviously, it helped after the Super Bowl,” said Oppenheim, a longtime Patriots fan himself who had attended the game in Houston before traveling to Pebble Beach. “You could tell his passion for football and how much he loves it.”
2. If the Patriots place a tag on soon-to-be-free-agent linebacker Dont’a Hightower, the only option I see the team considering is the transition tag. That would be around $11 million on a one-year term, and give the Patriots (who paid Hightower $7.751 million in 2016) the right of first refusal on any offer Hightower receives in free agency. Because the franchise tag is so rich (at anywhere between $14.5 million-$15 million on a one-year deal), a strong case could be made that it actually creates more leverage for Hightower than the team, as he could shut things down in negotiations and position himself for free agency again next year. That’s why I don’t see the team going in that direction, and it’s the seldom-used transition tag or no tag at all.
3. The NFL combine falls a bit later on the calendar this year -- Feb. 28-March 6 -- and then there will be a quick turn to the start of free agency on March 9 at 4 p.m. ET. The Patriots, as is the norm, will use their time at the combine to meet face-to-face with agents for several of their own free agents-to-be, with some of those meetings having already been informally set up. The Patriots have a significant free-agent crop, which technically should also include receiver Danny Amendola, who won’t be back on his current contract, which calls for a base salary of $6 million. The combine could also be a good time to better assess the potential trade market for backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The bottom line: That’s a lot of work to be done in a short period of time.
4. There has been plenty of media-driven talk on whether the Patriots will trade Garoppolo, and my take is that Belichick doesn’t know one way or the other because it’s unclear how far a team will be willing to extend to acquire him. I don’t sense major urgency from the Patriots to trade Garoppolo -- he has significant value to them for 2017 and perhaps beyond -- so it will take a strong offer (e.g. at least a first-round pick) to entice the Patriots to make any deal. Thus, I’m curious to see what market, if any, develops for Garoppolo. I think Belichick is at this point, too.
5. Some follow-up thoughts on Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll leaving to become Alabama’s offensive coordinator: 1) When Rob Gronkowski was lost to a season-ending back injury in late November, Belichick credited Daboll for fine work with fullback James Develin as Develin’s playing time spiked after the injury; 2) while the Patriots won’t benefit from Daboll’s presence on a daily basis, having an extra set of eyes in the college ranks with a keen understanding of what the Patriots look for in prospects will absolutely help the club from a scouting perspective; 3) Daboll will make considerably more at Alabama than with the Patriots, as he easily more than doubles his salary; and 4) the odds are highest that the Patriots will promote from within to fill the void.
6. Patriots rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones sounded especially hard on himself in an interview with Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun, saying he felt so cursed that he “reached a point where I didn’t even want to play.” While it’s easy to pile on Jones, and he was the ESPN.com pick by default in a recent feature on players who could benefit from a fresh start, by no means should anyone write him off, not with his physical traits and athleticism. Offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, who went from much-maligned in 2015 to receiving All-Pro votes in 2016, is a great example of how fast things can turn around in the NFL.
7. Tony Romo’s future is one of the NFL’s hottest offseason story lines, and I enjoyed this ESPN.com feature tracking every possible landing spot. If Romo is released, I like Houston as the choice. He’s the piece Bill O’Brien needs if the Texans are to get over the hump as he enters the fourth year of his tenure as head coach.
8. When I stopped in the Patriots Pro Shop on Thursday, Super Bowl LI hats had been sold out and word was that they wouldn’t be back in stock until March. That is reflective of overwhelming demand, as there seems to be something about this championship that resonates more with fans. Sales have been hot, which includes online. According to Fanatics, the Patriots sold more championship gear in the first five days after the victory than they did in the first 30 days following their Super Bowl XLIX win over the Seahawks.
9. The Patriots made bombshell-level trades involving defensive end Chandler Jones (2016) and guard Logan Mankins (2014), and in addition to the salary-cap space and future financial flexibility they gained in those deals, they turned the draft picks they acquired into defensive end Trey Flowers (team-high seven sacks in 2016 and an up-and-coming star), guard Joe Thuney (played every snap but four in his rookie 2016 season) and receiver Malcolm Mitchell (clutch second half in Super Bowl LI). There is still time for things to turn in a different direction, but at this point, that falls into the “extremely impressive” category.
10. With a slower pace over the last week, there was some time to watch film on veteran tight end Rob Housler, whom the Patriots signed to a futures contract for 2017. Housler was a once-promising prospect with the Arizona Cardinals (high third-round pick, 2011) who never emerged like some thought he would. Specifically, I watched the Patriots-Bears 2016 preseason game, in which Housler played 20 snaps for Chicago, often matched up against safety Jordan Richards. Housler’s 52-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter showed that he still runs well, which was one of his top assets coming out of Florida Atlantic. At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, he has good size, and while he isn’t known as an in-line blocker, he shows effort to be considered more than a wide receiver playing tight end. Housler didn’t play in 2016 after he was cut by Chicago, and the Patriots -- similar to when they signed running back Dion Lewis to a futures deal after the 2014 season -- will see if their system helps him reach his potential. Housler had a handful of workouts for teams during the 2016 season, but wasn’t signed.