Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Ten days into Patriots training camp, we can already declare one Patriots-based prediction to be correct: While Tim Tebow came to town, the circus didn’t come with him. Without overstating things, it remains impressive to me that the Patriots have created an environment where the buzz surrounding Tebow has been managed to a point where it is a secondary issue to the football itself. That’s the way it should be. At the same time, it seems like every year it becomes tougher and tougher for franchises to accomplish that goal, in part because of a growing media culture, among other things. When Tebow was looking for work, this was one of the main things we heard: One of the reasons teams weren’t interested was because of everything else that came with him. We’ll see what Tebow ultimately contributes to the Patriots this season, if anything, but we’ve already seen improvement on the practice field. Tebow is getting top-notch instruction (often times 1-on-1 with Brian Daboll) and the Patriots seem to be playing to his strengths. The final conclusion: If it doesn’t work out for him here, it won’t be because of the circus. It will strictly be about football. However you feel about Tebow, and he sure is a lightning rod, there is something refreshing about that.
2. It makes sense to think that Patriots director of pro scouting Bob Quinn and assistant director of pro scouting Dave Ziegler are on the lookout for offensive line help in the weeks ahead. Of all areas on the Patriots’ roster, that looks thinnest right now, specifically on the interior, in part because the Patriots haven’t selected a lineman in each of the last two drafts. No major reason for concern, as we saw first-hand how quickly those types of voids can be filled in 2011 when the Patriots signed veteran Brian Waters one week before the season opener, but still something to monitor. And also, looking ahead to 2013, hard to imagine the Patriots would go through another draft without focusing on the line at some point.
3. Given their shortage on the offensive line, the Patriots’ decision to waive offensive lineman Nick McDonald last week came as a mild surprise. McDonald had been a valuable reserve for the team over the last two seasons, starting two games at center in 2011 when the club had a run of injuries at the position. Word is that McDonald has been battling a shoulder injury and isn’t expected to be ready, at the earliest, for a few weeks. Perhaps the Patriots consider bringing him back upon his return to health, but still a bit puzzled as to why the club wouldn’t keep him on the roster until that point. Maybe there is something more than meets the eye there.
4. My favorite part of Bill Parcells’ Hall of Fame speech Saturday night was how he took us all inside the locker room and relayed the dynamic of what it’s like to bring a group of men with varied backgrounds together, and what really happens in the room. It almost felt like he was giving a motivational speech, telling his former assistants that he was counting on a few more championships, and his high school coach, now 92, that he needed him to keep going for at least another 10-plus years. "Let's go!" he said. Parcells spoke for about 20 minutes; I was hoping for 20 more.
5. Patriots tight end Jake Ballard was refreshingly honest when asked early in training camp if he ever thought he’d get back to feeling as good as he did before serious knee surgery. He expressed doubt that he would. Still, the hope has been that he’d advance to a point where he was comfortable and could still be a difference-maker. The breakthrough hasn’t seemed to happen yet as Ballard, who has taken extra time to physically prepare himself for practice because of the knee, made it through the team’s first seven training camp sessions before missing Saturday (not full pads). Since he had been removed from the PUP, the assumption had been that Ballard was a full-go but it hasn’t seemed as if he’s truly cut it loose.
6. One line of thinking was that Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes stayed away from the team’s voluntary offseason program to give himself the best chance to become a three-down linebacker in the team’s system. But through eight training camp practices, it doesn’t seem like that is where things are decisively headed. More often than not, Spikes has been coming off the field in sub packages, and in some cases, top draft pick Jamie Collins (second round, 52nd overall) is coming on to add more speed and athleticism. It’s still early, but if anything, it looks like second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower, not Spikes, might be primed to stay on the field more in passing situations.
7. The Patriots will travel to Philadelphia after practice on Monday, and they’ll be practicing with the Eagles on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Eagles have a handful of players on their roster with ties to the region, and here’s a quick snapshot:
Patrick Chung: Former Patriot considered the leading candidate to start at strong safety.
Ifeanyi Momah: Tall former Boston College wideout faces longer odds for spot.
David Ball: Former Worcester Academy and UNH receiver reunited with Chip Kelly; a longshot.
Matt Kopa: Spent time on Patriots practice squad; vying for a backup spot at offensive tackle.
Emil Igwenagu: Former UMass standout will have to make it as a tight end more so than fullback because Kelly’s offense doesn’t feature a fullback. Eagles are deep at tight end.
Greg Salas: Patriots traded a 2015 seventh-round draft pick to acquire him but the Eagles scooped him up on waivers; fighting for a back-end spot on the receiver depth chart.
8. With former Patriots running back Danny Woodhead one of their notable free-agent signings this offseason, the Chargers could be leaning to more of a multi-back approach with Woodhead joining Ryan Mathews and Ronnie Brown. Reporter Chris Jenkins of the Union-Tribune wrote that Woodhead is already showing signs of becoming a go-to target for quarterback Philip Rivers. “He’s the kind of back we haven’t had here in quite a while,” safety Eric Weddle told the Union-Tribune. “Guys like that, who create mismatches, will really kill you. You don’t really have a game-plan for guys like that.” Here in New England, the Patriots are relying on Shane Vereen and Leon Washington to fill that void.
9. Interesting to hear Colts owner Jim Irsay point to the 2004 Patriots team as the model he envisioned for his franchise when he implemented a new regime which now enters its second season (Ryan Grigson as GM, Chuck Pagano as head coach). “Some of the goals I set [were] based on wanting to win multiple championships. I look back, for instance, at that Patriots 2004 team. It was one of the most complete teams there was, such a well-balanced team in all areas,” Irsay said, according to the team’s official website. “That’s what we’re looking for.” Irsay explained how the vision of the ’04 Patriots drove the team’s decision-making process this offseason, which included an aggressive free-agent spending spree. “[It’s] not always the big-name player that makes the big splash,” he said. “You don’t want weak links.”
10. In terminating the contract of receiver Lavelle Hawkins last week, the Patriots ate a $150,000 signing bonus. Hawkins also had a $25,000 workout bonus as part of the deal, which had been signed in May. Not the best example of sound financial management, but when one considers that the Patriots were building some type of insurance into their plans if their rookies struggled early, it makes a little more sense. If the rookies weren’t answering the bell, Hawkins would probably still be here.