Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. The final phase of the Patriots’ offseason program begins Monday, with organized team activities, and quarterback Tom Brady will be in attendance. Even when Brady hasn’t fully participated in the offseason program in recent years, he’s taken part in the OTAs. The voluntary OTAs help build momentum heading into mandatory full-team minicamp (June 12-14), and the Patriots, in part because of strong locker-room leadership, have generally had excellent participation in recent years.
2. While Brady will be in New England for OTAs, Saints quarterback Drew Brees isn't expected in New Orleans this week. The Patriots' hardball style at the negotiating table is well documented, but as the Saints/Brees contract talks remind us, they’re not alone.
3. Recently caught up with Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty about what position he might play in 2012 – cornerback or safety – and was impressed with his attitude. Cornerback might be a so-called "diva" position, but McCourty is a down-to-earth guy. “I try to study and know as much as I can, so if Coach decides I play corner or safety, I’m going to make sure I’m ready to play either/or,” he responded. “Like Coach said, ‘we don’t have a game tomorrow’ so no decisions need to be made now. We’ll see how it goes.”
4. Studying the Ravens' roster, and comparing it to the Patriots', here is one noticeable link: Both teams have some changes/moving parts along the offensive line that could play a major role in their success in 2012. For all the talk about the Ravens' defense, with the stinging impact of Terrell Suggs' Achilles injury, I'm wondering if their o-line will ultimately be a bigger issue for them.
5. One of the hot-button talk-radio debates on Wes Welker is how much he’s a product of the team’s system. While I think it’s fair to say Welker has more value to the Patriots than any team in the NFL, it’s easy to forget the reason the team traded for him back in 2007 – he was torching them and consistently beating double teams as a member of the Dolphins. As Bill Belichick has said in the past, “We just couldn’t cover him.” So Welker is more than a "system" player.
6. Sounds like some buyer’s remorse in Denver with former Patriots defensive lineman Ty Warren. If you're the Broncos' brass, I think the key question to ask is, "After two years away, how much does Warren really want to play?"
7. Between Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus, the Texans have arguably the most promising trio of young pass rushers in the NFL, which is a reflection of strong drafting in recent years. Mercilus, the 2012 first-round pick out of Illinois, will initially line up behind Barwin at the "Will" in Wade Phillips' defense, while projecting to play extensively in sub packages. The Texans, even after losing Mario Williams in free agency, should be one of the top contenders in the AFC.
8. After a season in which a lack of chemistry played a significant role in a disappointing 8-8 record, the Eagles have run a reverse this year. Instead of big-splash signings on the unrestricted market, they’ve focused within, locking up some of their key contributors with extensions. This underscores a point often made about the Patriots’ approach – the trickle-down effect in the locker room when outsiders receive big-money deals over players already in-house. The '11 Eagles are a good example of how that approach can be destructive.
9. In training camp, Bill Belichick often says it’s his goal to prepare the team for the 16-game regular season as well as the season-opener. With such a heavy focus placed on the first game – this year against Tennessee – the rehab of Titans receiver Kenny Britt figures to be watched closely from a New England perspective. Britt (6-3, 215), a top receiver for Tennessee, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last week. He's expected to be ready for the opener.
10. Also on the medical front, second-year Patriots cornerback Ras-I Dowling figures to be managed carefully as he rehabs from hip surgery, but word is that he’s made solid progress and there have been no setbacks. He’s been a regular at Gillette Stadium all offseason, never leaving town. This week's OTAs should provide a better barometer of how far along Dowling is after the surgery.