Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. The Patriots are expected to assign the franchise tag to receiver Wes Welker by Monday’s deadline. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the team is waiting until the last minute. In some ways, I see it as symbolic of the club not wanting to create a “hard ball” type of message with a player who has done everything it has asked of him. They just have a difference of opinion as to the right contract at this point.
2. Curious Bill O’Brien’s thoughts on Welker’s missed connection with Tom Brady in the Super Bowl? You can find it in Jim Donaldson’s solid O’Brien-based read in Sunday’s editions of the Providence Journal. For those looking for the quick answer, here it is: “That was not a drop. It would have been a tremendous catch.” O'Brien also shared one of his Super Bowl regrets with Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe -- the first offensive play.
3. When it comes to the Saints’ bounty story, I think the penalties will be especially harsh because the league gave the Saints a chance to clean it up and it didn’t happen (Saints GM Mickey Loomis, in particular, comes out of this mess looking bad). It was similar with the Patriots with the illegal videotaping, the league having sent out a warning via a memo to all 32 teams. Usually when that happens, the NFL drops the hammer.
4. The other reason I think the Saints are going to get nailed, and wouldn’t be surprised if defensive coordinator Gregg Williams receives a significant suspension, is the payment of players out of his own pocket. That’s a violation of the salary cap and creates an unfair competitive advantage. As for Williams, he has moved on to the Rams, but if you’re St. Louis, what do you do? Do you really want him now? Just a hunch, but I think the league will help the Rams and make the decision for them.
5. The Steelers come across looking harsh by parting ways with respected veterans Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior. I think it’s one of the hardest things to do for teams – balancing a player’s desire to keep playing when the club wants to move on, especially when the player has been so tied to the identity of the franchise. Closer to home, I thought the Patriots were kind to Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk in this area. Some might say too kind, keeping them on for what could be considered an “extra” year.
6. Depending on how rich the market might be, count me in on free-agent running back Michael Bush as the type of impact signing that could help the Patriots’ offense get back to more of a 2004-type Corey Dillon style of play. I like big backs and think adding one could help New England’s attack round itself out more.
7. From the holding-myself-accountable department, this is what I wrote about the Ravens trading for receiver Lee Evans last August: “First impressions of what receiver Lee Evans might mean to the Ravens: A lot. That looks like a gift from the Bills.” In the end, I overrated Evans because of how much attention the Patriots had given to him with a safety over the top in twice-a-year matchups with the Bills.
8. This is the time of year when Bill Belichick morphs from head coach to scout. Expect to hear stories about him popping up at college campuses to work out draft prospects. He’s already committed to speak at the Nebraska spring football coaches clinic on March 9. Belichick has ties with one of Nebraska's assistant coaches who had coached his son at the Rivers School in Weston, Mass.
9. Here’s an under-the-radar player to file away when it comes to free agency – Bengals defensive end Jonathan Fanene. The eight-year veteran had 6.5 sacks last season in a part-time role (approximately 447 snaps) and has some position versatility. Could see him as a value-type pickup for the Patriots as they look to build more quality depth up front.
10. Patriots No. 3 quarterback Ryan Mallett tweeted last week that he threw the ball with former Arkansas teammates Jarius Wright and Joe Adams. For similar reasons the Patriots liked Mallett coming out of a pro-style offense at Arkansas, I like Wright and Adams as post-round 1 options for the Patriots at the receiver spot in the draft.