Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. When Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez wasn’t present for an open-to-the-media organized team activity on June 7, it wasn’t because of injury. Hernandez had shown up late at Gillette Stadium and was told he wouldn’t be practicing, according to sources. This was a reminder that although OTAs are voluntary, coaches still put a detailed agenda together and, with the Patriots at least, players still need to show up on time. Hernandez was back on the practice field for mandatory minicamp the next week.

2. Patriots first-round draft choice Dont’a Hightower is the team’s lone unsigned draft choice, but it would be a surprise if the deal is not completed by when it truly counts – the start of training camp. Hightower (25th overall) is part of a four-player cluster from picks 22-25 yet to sign, and the likely holdup is how much of the final year of the contract is guaranteed. At this point, 16 of the league’s 32 first-round picks have signed contracts, so nothing out of the ordinary with Hightower’s situation.

3. The theme of the Patriots’ organized team activities and mandatory minicamp was communication. With all the new faces on the roster, coupled with expanded rosters from 80 to 90, Bill Belichick had players practicing without jersey numbers over the last four weeks (link here). Linebacker Jerod Mayo, in an interview on sports radio WEEI, said: “It was difficult at first, but that comes back to communication, knowing who you are on the field with and stuff like that.”

4. Bill Belichick wasn’t the only coach in the division to use practice jerseys as a coaching tool. In the Jets’ final minicamp practice, Rex Ryan replaced the green jerseys with white numbers usually worn by the defense and had defenders wearing black jerseys instead. Ryan said black jerseys will be awarded throughout the season to position groups that perform the best in the prior practice. This is similar to what the Patriots have done with their practice players of the week.

5. After writing on Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson in 2009 (link here, subscription required), and remembering him say that his aspirations were to move up the coaching ladder, I couldn’t help but think he has to be disappointed about being surpassed by Matt Patricia as the team’s defensive coordinator. Johnson, who joined the Patriots staff before Patricia, said otherwise in remarks to the press last week. But it wasn’t convincing.

6. Between Tim Tebow’s presence with the Jets, and receiver Brad Smith spending the majority of his offseason work at quarterback with the Bills (they should have a Wildcat package for him), that’s four games in which the Patriots will likely be spending game-planning time on unconventional offenses in 2012. Specific to Tebow, that’s why I liked the move for the Jets. It creates another dimension for teams like the Patriots to devote time and resources.

7. Did you Know, Part 1: Patriots seventh-round draft choice Jeremy Ebert went to the same high school as 2010 Patriots third-round draft choice Taylor Price – Hilliard Darby in Hilliard, Ohio. Patriots sixth-round draft choice Nate Ebner went to high school right down the road at Hilliard Davidson. As for Ebert, he showed some early professionalism by working overtime to complete all his academic requirements before Northwestern's graduation ceremonies this weekend, which allowed him to practice early with the Patriots.

8. Did you Know, Part 2: The presence of NFL Players Association DeMaurice Smith and assistant executive director of external affairs George Atallah at Gillette Stadium last week was essentially a spot check. NFLPA executives visit up to five offseason camps to ensure that offseason practice rules aren’t being violated.

9. Whether tight end Jake Ballard makes a significant contribution to the Patriots remains to be seen, but the team’s waiver claim highlights how Bill Belichick is often looking ahead and uses the physically unable to perform list and/or non-football injury as much as anyone in the NFL. Four Patriots opened training camp on it in 2011 – a group including fifth-round draft choice Marcus Cannon -- which is basically like having an extra roster spot for teams that are willing to foot the bill (reasonable $540,000 for Ballard) and possibly have a mid-season/next year addition out of the group. I’m surprised more teams don’t do it.

10. As for Ballard, from a pure football perspective, I think the big question is how serious knee surgery affects a player who already wasn’t considered fleet of foot. For all the hubbub and analysis on the move, Ballard still projects as a No. 3 tight end here, a role expected to be filled by free-agent signee Daniel Fells in 2012.

11. All the best to longtime Patriots assistant equipment manager John Hillebrand, whose last day on the job was Thursday. There are many people around the NFL who we don’t hear about on a day to day basis that perform unsung tasks behind the scenes, and Hillebrand falls into that category. Best of luck, John.